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Painting on Light Grounds

Two very distinct methods come under this heading: the Pre-Raphaelite approach where the white ground acts as a reflective base for jewel-like glazes, and the direct painting approach where paint is applied so as to entirely and opaquely cover the original white ground.



Here a stained-glass effect is achieved by applying many colored glazes over a drawing. Body color is kept to a minimum, just sufficient to capture highlights, and to control the floating effect of glazes.


1. Transfer a precise, delicate pencil drawing onto the white ground.

2. Apply a guide to shading with faint colored glaze.

3. Dry.

4. Apply overlapping colored glazes, working wet into wet where necessary.

5. Dry.

6. Retouch shadows.

7. Dry.

8. Apply stronger-colored glazes, oiling out previous surface if too dry to take new glaze.

9. Dry.

10. Add detail in finishing glazes, including white in thin glazes to areas where highlights have been lost.

Direct Painting on a White Ground

Borisov-MusatovA style popular since the late 19th century where the paint is applied opaquely to completely cover the ground. Painting commonly proceeds by stages, allowing drying between stages, but may be completed in the one session given the right skill and circumstances. White is used throughout, plus thin washes in the lower stages, but glazing is absent.


1. Sketch in charcoal. Brush away surplus and trace sketch in turps-thinned paint.

2. Block in broad areas of color with turps-thinned but opaque washes of color Rework these wet into wet with white or more color as necessary. Dry if necessary.

3. Paint with more subtlety and detail in a fatter medium. Previous stage may or may not show through.

4. Add details in fine soft brush.

Further Reading

These and other oil painting techniques are covered by the following:

1. 'The Artists's Handbook of Materials and Techniques 'by Ralph Mayer. 5th Edition. Viking Press. 1991.

2. 'What Every Artist Needs to Know About' by David Pyle. Krause Publications. 2000.

3. 'Formulas for Painters' by Robert Massey. Watson-Gupthill. 1980.

4. 'The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting' by Max Doerner. Harvest Books. 1984

5. 'The Artist's Methods and Materials'. M. Bazzi. John Murray. 1960.

6. 'Vermeer's Painting Technique'. Essential Vermeer. Vermeer often used light grounds.

7. 'Pre-Raphaelite Painting Techniques' by Joyce Townsend. Tate. 2004.

8. 'The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood wet-white technique'. My French Easel. August 2011.


Women in paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites

Fine Arts - Pre-Raphaelitism Paintings samples


11a. 'Ophelia' by John Everett Millais. 1851-2. The Tate Gallery. London. A once-famous work, built on a red-green complementaries, but with the reds rather muddy.

11b. 'Self-Portrait' 'with the Artist's Sister' by Viktor Borisov-Musatov. 1898. The State Russian Museum. St. Petersburg. Largely a split analogous scheme employing tints of red opposed to blue-greens and greens. Good control of tones and color purities are also essential to the success of this rather scenery-like work.