Comparing Oil Grounds

I took about a year to compare two major brands of oil painting primer.  Find out which oil ground I now like the best.

Making a Difference in Your Oil Painting

Before I painted on an oil-based ground I used to work, like most artists, on a painting surface prepared with gesso. I would occasionally use ready-made canvases and panels pre-primed with gesso or I would more often stretch and prime my own canvases. Either way, I always painted on top of a gessoed surface. Modern day gesso is typically liquid acrylic paint with ground up chalk added. It’s basically a really dry, absorbent titanium white acrylic paint.

Painting on this surface was okay but things always felt better once I had a layer or two of dried paints on the surface. I work in pure oil paints and the super absorbency of the acrylic gesso was always annoying to begin painting on.  In other words, I didn’t like how brushing felt for the first session (painting on gesso), but liked the way brushing felt working on top of previously dried layers of oil paint. After a painting was half finished, I really loved how my paint and brushes glided along the painting’s surface!

At some point I decided to give a oil-based primer a try. It was a pain in the neck to apply the stuff and getting used to the longer drying times and preparation required patience and practice, but once I figured all of that out and learned to live with the excessive preparation I’ve been loving painting on oil grounds. Painting on an oil ground has that “slick” feeling of working on an oil painting that is half complete, only it feels this way right from the start!

Oil Based Primer: A Comparison

I first got introduced to oil priming with Gambin’s Oil-based primer. I primed about 20 canvases with Gambin’s Oil Ground. When the can was near empty I decided to give Winsor & Newton’s brand of oil ground a try. So far I’ve primed over 15 canvases with the Winsor & Newton’s oil-based primer.

Both brands of oil ground provided a bright white ground that was extremely pleasurable to paint on. Each ground created a surface that was much slicker than acrylic-based gesso, but not too slick. I really prefer using these oil-based grounds over acrylic gesso for my serious oil paintings.

The application of each oil ground is where I noticed some small differences between the two major brands. The oil-based ground made by Gamblin seemed to be slightly thicker than the comparable primer made by Winsor & Newton. This was only apparent after preparing dozens of canvases. It was so thick that it was harder to get the paint to lay flat. Gamblin recommends using the ground “as is” out of the can; scraping it on with a squeegee and using a brush dabbed in thinner.  I still found it really difficult to get the ground to lay down flat with no bumps or ridges. On the portrait grade linen I use, once dry there were small bumps and streaking where the ground stayed stubbornly piled up.

I found the Winsor & Newton brand oil ground to be slightly thinner in consistency, although both are incredibly thick and each will prepare many paintings. As a result I was able to achieve a flatter painting surface with Winsor & Newton’s oil based primer.

Another perk of using Winsor & Newton’s oil ground over Gambin’s is the dying time. The Winsor & Newton’s oil ground was always dry after 24 hours, ready to be sanded and another layer added the very next day. Gamblin’s oil primer on the other hand was sometimes wet, or at least tacky the next day. The difference in drying time is somewhat of a deal-breaker for me because it takes a long time to prepare a canvas with oil based primers.  Figure one day for the PVA size, and at least a day for each layer of primer. The longer it takes the primer to dry the longer I have to wait until I begin my painting. I love Gamblin’s painting products but for oil grounds I’m sticking with Winsor & Newton’s Oil Painting Primer.

 

What type of ground do you paint on top of? Leave a comment below

 

 

26 Comments

  1. D. Gervais says:

    very interesting post. Thanks for great useful information.

  2. Katherine says:

    I have had the same experience as you with acrylic gesso & have been experienting with W&N oil primer which is so much better to paint on & really illuminates the oil colours.
    Do you size your canvas first with rabbit skin glue befor applying the oil primer? I do not know what else could be used to size a canvas that is going to be oil primed.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Yes Katherine, I do size otherwise the acidic nature of the oil primer will make the canvas very brittle over time. However I do not use rabbit skin glue. First off, I’m a vegetarian 🙂 Actually conservators recommend against rabbit skin glue because it promotes cracking, especially on stretched canvases when compared to the modern day equivalent: PVA size. Here’s a link to the exact PVA sizing I use: http://helloartsy.com/my/pva

  3. Katherine says:

    Hi John, thanks for your reply 🙂
    I am in the UK so I’ll have a look at the pva size available.
    I have another question that I would value your opinion on.
    I have some stretched canvas’s that have been bought ready to use. They are primed with regular acrylic gesso. Would it be ok to prime these canvas’s with a couple of coats over the top of the gesso with the Winsor & Newton oil primer as it is my preferred ground to paint on? Thank you :))

    1. John Morfis says:

      Katherine, this gets into that area of debate that most painters like to argue about. But most agree that using oil over acrylic is safe to use. So yes you can do this. Actually I have done this for a couple of small paintings, when in a pinch and I’ve never had any problems.

      Some acrylic gessos are very absorbent and like to suck up oil so the only thing you might have to watch out for is the oil of the oil primer getting “sunken in”, that is the oil getting soaked into the pre-primed acrylic gesso surface making your newly oil primed surface drier and more absorbent than that normal slightly slick, oil-primed surface you and I have come to love. (but I haven’t had this problem yet… I’m just thinking of anything that could go wrong just to be thorough)

  4. Katherine says:

    Thanks for your reply John :-)) It is reassuring to know this would be ok, I have quite a few ready made canvas’s lying around that may get this treatment…
    Acrylic gesso is a lot cheaper than the pva size (in the uk anyway), so in doing it this way, the gesso acts a a size/protection of the canvas instead of using the pva size. I am not too worried about the gesso sucking up some oil as I will likely use a couple of coats of the W&N primer which should help prevent this.

  5. hi guys,
    after loads o experimentation I’m nao in the process of grounding pre geasod panels with w&n alkyd oil ground. xant wait to see the results. think it’s what I’ve been lookin for all along. woop woop 🙂

  6. As noted, a size is necessary under an oil ground on canvas. Modern replacements for rabbit-skin glue size for stretched canvases are preferable. The former is very prone to loosening in wet conditions and getting over-tight in dry conditions, causing cracking (very evident in old paintings on stretched canvas.) PVA size is good, but expensive. An expert on painting materials years ago suggested I use an acrylic polymer size of one part acrylic gesso/ one part polymer medium/ one part water–two coats, the second over the first when it is “cold dry.” The water allows the size to bind better with the canvas (I use linen) than full-strength acrylic gesso, thus acting like a size rather than a ground; the medium compensates for diluted adhesion; and the gesso adds whiteness and some adhesion. Then I apply one or two coats of oil ground (I used to use white lead, now I use Gamblin oil ground.) I’ve done this for 30 or so years, seems to be flexible, and very satisfactory.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Interesting ground recipe Art. That reminds me of all of the canvases I used to prime with latex paint some 20 years ago…hopefully they’ll be safe after all!

    2. Alexis Grant says:

      Hi John and Art,

      In the 7 years I have switched from using plain acrylic gesso to using oil ground over the gesso before painting on the canvas with oils. Recently, I have noticed some cracking that must have occurred over the years and I am wondering maybe that is not a good combo even though I love painting on it. I am wondering what this problem could be and if anyone else has experienced cracking later when using oil ground over acrylic gesso?
      Thank you!

      1. John Morfis says:

        Painting is a history full of cracks and such. Oil paint gets brittle with time but a lot has to do with atmospheric conditions and the support it’s painted on. As oil paint hardens over the years if it’s on a canvas that is moving around often that can exasperate the problem. Also worth noting, acrylics (gesso is acrylic) develop cracks in extremely low temperatures. I have some really old paintings 20+ years on acrylic-based primers and they haven’t seen any abnormal deterioration that I can see.

  7. It’s my understanding that if you are applying an oil primer to an acrylic-primed canvas (i.e. gesso), you need to apply a “size” first, either the PVA or polymer. You cannot apply the oil primer directly to the gessoed canvas.

    1. John Morfis says:

      Heather, you can add oil primer over the acrylic gesso without sizing because the acrylic gesso provides a barrier between the oil primer and the canvas. The acrylic gesso is a polymer! But as always it’s totally up to each artist to make paintings as he/she sees fit!

      All artwork will break down to some degree over time and if you ever find yourself frozen over best practices, stop worrying about it and just get to work! Almost no matter what you do there’s always going to be somebody that steps in and tells you you’re doing it wrong.

      1. Alexis Grant says:

        Thank you both; I decided to go for it anyway as I did before, however this time I put just 2 thin coats of oil ground over the gesso as opposed to two thick coats. Hopefully, this will be less prone to cracking…

        1. Alexis Grant, I was wondering about how you painted, etc. Did you paint thick paint swoops, one or light thin layers of color with maybe highlighting but then, did you let the gesso dry well first and was it thick or thin coats, how many, thick or thin. And, where were the paintings? Stored in cool, dark, heat, humid, hanging, lights, etc? …I am in the process of canvassing and have a 6×8 ft pva’ed plus gamblin oil primer on it. Had it for 20 years here. It warped from too tightened a canvas and no mid bar. But, I have oval circles with rings (like a stone in pond water) here and there with micro ridges and cracks in the ridges. All else it flat, toothed/smooth. But why? The only thing I thought of was that the pva pooled a little and or wasn’t dry enough yet, and got a chemical yet physical reaction. I used a magnifying glass to really see this. Here I figured one should ‘really’ make sure to pva perfectly, and possibly do a thin gesso – here I am deciding because I also tested pushing hard with my finger to see what happened. It would crack the oil primer level, and then close flat smooth – naked eye (but oil could leak in) = pressure dents crack. Next, I tried this on some pre gessoes canvas. Same thing happens, but a little extra pressure – till. Next, corners can flake crack pick off where rubbed/worn on the gessoed. I concluded that the rings could be oil primed over and reseal them with a layer before oil colors, etc. And that little extra gessoed layer (then oil prmr) would protect the canvas., because the gessoed only took a little more till it cracked too (repeat). Also, What type of cracking happened? Was it all over the place with lines, splotches, in the colors? I remember seeing in a museum old master paintings with those oval pond water (about 4 rings, small to large in each other) here and there. I just don’t want those. Also figured that gesso won’t do the oil prim crack if bumped but that even if color is there, varnish can make shine a little if I (or someone) wants that look, other than the dull soak in situation/look. Also, with the finger pressure tests, the gessoed the next morning were deeper and lasting, and the oil primed over pva smoothed out better. Yet another one was still slightly there. All in all – don’t bump/pressure paintings…

          1. Also, the gamblin did yellow a little like an off white after 20 years of sitting out in bulb light, dry and humid, shade, moisture (had some cooler styrofoam against it and it darkened to a light an and That went away after a few months on its own). I just dabbed some titanium white with petro thinner on last night to observe and test to see what time will do and pick scrape it after dry. It is very white and may still make it the white color I want. I have wondered if the off white will come through no matter. I am about to try the winsor this time (oil primer) on a new canvas, after pva, light gesso and look forward.

  8. well this is an interesting topic; it comes up in my circle once or twice a decade. yes my circle is very small lol. I have been using Gamblin oil ground for man maybe 20 years it takes 3 months to prep a linen canvas before I can even draw a picture on it. an artist must remember that the blank canvas in its self is a work of art and should be desirable to the onlooker. every step towards the finished painting should be a work of art. the canvas, the under paint, the dead layers, and so on. I could have sold paintings in many different stages. one of the reasons I feel is because I wasn’t looking for an oil ground that could dry over night. when I slow things down I become connected to the subject matter that I’m painting. this in turn allows me to see and feel the vanishing point and to see what an onlooker may see in my work, and I ask myself all the time is this the painting that I want the public to see. if we are rushing around trying to get the paint on the canvas, then ultimately in the end the painting will take presidents over composition and subject matter the most important parts . I have never tried Winsor newton oil ground in my mind we should be slowing down not getting faster. I see a lot paintings at lawn sales and thrift stores for a buck maybe 5 bucks and I cant help but wonder what ground where they using.

  9. I’m interested in the gloss level of the WN ground. I find Gamblin’s to be too shiny. Is WN’s the same?
    Thanks!

    1. John Morfis says:

      Thanks for your comment Ingrid. The Winsor & Newton oil ground dries very much to a similar sheen level as the Gamblin’s ground. I suspect, based on their smell and drying time that they are both made with alkyds, which generally makes things shinier. I think you’ll like Fredrix’s oil ground. I believe it’s just titanium white, calcium carbonate (chalk) and linseed oil. It dries to much more of a matte finish, but takes longer to dry of course.

  10. Hi! Thanks for your comparisons here. Have you tried Williamsburg Titanium Oil Ground? I’ve been researching what to do with the gigantic roll of the unprimed canvas I just purchased and now have received. I was planning to use oil paints but it sounds so complicated between sizing and what grounds to use after sizing. I read this article – https://justpaint.org/preparing-a-canvas-for-oil-painting/ which has a nifty chart and good info. They refer to Williamsburg in the comments section, so I was wondering if you had tried it?

    1. John Morfis says:

      Hi Allannah, I have not used the Williamsburg Oil Ground. It appears to be very much straight up linseed oil with no alkyd additives so it will dry very slowly. It looks very much like a traditional recipe, not that that is bad.

      I’ve always had good luck with Gamblin’s PVA size.

  11. Allannah Del Rei Soliel says:

    Thanks, John. My mind is still researching…lol…not sure which way to turn yet. So, I appreciate the vote for Gamblin’s PVA.

  12. I’ve used gamblin oil ground over two coats of GAC100 … Allowing three weeks of drying time after ground layer . And I’m finding the gamblin will just scratch off ? Is this normal or have I messed up somewhere here? Thanks for any answers.
    Nick

    1. John Morfis says:

      I have no experience with GAC100 as a painting size or ground Nick, sorry. If paint scratches off it is usually an adhesion issue or a not-fully-dry issue.

      1. Nick Buttfield says:

        Thanks John… Human error I believe.

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