Color Spree

Color Spree
My favorite color is "all of them." What's yours?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground is a new product, a primer that can turn any surface into a good watercolor surface similar to stretched watercolor paper. I saw the ads for it and thought it was a great idea - not only watercolor but any medium that works well on watercolor paper can be used on surfaces you want to decorate. Wooden plaques, metal trays or mugs, plastic travel mugs, shiny slick art journal covers... there's no limit to what you can use this stuff on and create a good paintable surface.

My first experiment using it was a resounding success. I love this stuff. It didn't take much to cover the small area I painted. The pint jar is a generous size that will cover a lot of surface, just like the Colourfix sanded pastel primers. So this product is a bargain for creating archival watercolor surfaces on anything durable you have at hand.

Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground will also allow mixed media effects using watercolor passages in almost anything and can be used as an opaque correction medium for changing large areas of a watercolor painting on paper. The only surface I would not use it on would be something like an oil pastel painting, where nondrying oils will never dry under it and may slide, or an oil painting that hasn't completely cured.

Below is a photo record and description of my first experiment with Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground.

I decided my first use would be to put a decorative watercolor image on the cover of my small Strathmore Visual Art Journal. The outside glossy printed card cover would protect the art, while the glossy brown inside cover looked plain. I thought it would make a good frame for the design area, so masked it off with ordinary masking tape.

Instructions on my jar of Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground said that I should let it cure for two or three days before painting. Good that they mentioned that. Read the instructions.

I included the sandpaper block in the photo because the instructions also suggested roughing up any smooth or glossy surface so the Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground bonds better to it. That made sense to me, so as soon as I got that photo, I peeled the top layer of sandpaper off and used it to scuff up the picture area.

I used a synthetic 3/4" wide watercolor flat brush that I normally use with Art Spectrum Colourfix sanded pastel primer to apply Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground to the picture area. The first coat seemed mostly opaque but I decided I wanted to give it two or three coats to be sure of good coverage.

It went on heavy with a texture that felt like a cross between thinned plaster and heavy body acrylics. I was very pleased with its opacity and feel. It held brush strokes a bit like heavy body acrylic, but these can be sanded down if you add extra layers to allow for the sanding and prefer a smooth surface. I liked the strokes so I kept them for added texture.

I used three coats, letting each one dry before putting the next. A little bit of it got messed up at one corner and I was able to press it back into place when it was damp using a metal scraping tool on my nailfile. I use that tool for sgraffito and moving paint around all the time and it handled like pushing around wet acrylic.

The primed surface, ready to paint.

I removed my masking tape to find a smooth edged, white, clean painting surface ready to go. I let that cure for three days before starting my painting last night. Don't forget this step unless you want to test what the problems are with using Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground too early. I have a feeling that it might have reactivated and washed off if it wasn't completely cured.

Finished painting "Red Rose Study II" on Strathmore Visual Journal glossy textured brown cover using Daniel Smith watercolors and Stabilo Point 88 fine point watersoluble black pen.

I got out my handy Daniel Smith Watercolor Sticks and mixed a dark color in a porcelain palette using Indanthrone Blue and Burnt Umber with a touch of Permanent Alizarin Crimson. Painting around the shape of the rose, I created random fern and leaf shapes to make a design. The areas I painted first had good crisp edges and the color soaked right in fast.

Handling the paint on it was surprising. I'm used to watercolor blocks and to using watercolor paper with the sizing still on. Rinsing and stretching watercolor paper was too physically difficult for my disabilities, so I got used to heavy sizing as part of my watercolor techniques. This surface is absorbent!

It's like the opposite of Yupo. On Yupo plastic watercolor surface, the color does not sink in at all and will freely flow from one area to the next. It takes a lot of skill to make Yupo paintings work, but they come out vibrant and strong because none of it sinks in. Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground creates a surface that's almost like blotter paper. It's thirsty, it sucks in your paint and it feels touch dry long before it is dry.

I sketched in some shadows with the same dark mixture on the rose itself knowing it went very dark and that I'd glaze over it with Quinacridone Coral and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. The initial marks were crisp, hard edged and delicate. I waited till I thought it was dry and started my glazing with Sap Green on all the foliage and Quinacridone Coral on the rose.

Wow. My hard-edged original marks melted to soft-edged ones immediately. That didn't destroy the painting, it was just an unexpected effect that created some interesting soft-edged hue shifts. After that glaze, I waited much longer for the painting to really dry before adding the second glaze. The color lightened considerably when it was dry, just as watercolor usually does on paper. My second glaze restored the intensity of the colors to what I first intended and I reworked the background, adding areas of the original mix and some of the foliage and flower colors to some areas. I also brought in a little Ultramarine in the background.

My final version of the rose looked great but I decided it could use some pen accents, so tested my black Stabilo Point 88 pen on it. Pen marks came out strong and crisp just as if I was working on a fine-grained watercolor paper. I washed out the pen work to soften it and that behaved exactly the way pen over watercolor does on paper.

After taking the photo, I sprayed my painting with Krylon UV-protective matte fixative as a final protective coat. That eliminated the shine of the brown background but it doesn't look bad. If I had it to do over again I'd have kept the masking tape on till I was done with the painting. The fixative did not change the color or texture of the painted area at all and it did not dissolve the watercolor ground.

Daniel Smith recommends using a Golden archival varnish on finished projects, especially when they're on unlikely surfaces that will not be framed under glass. It stands up fine to Krylon UV Protective though, so brand name on your choice of varnish may not be a problem. I will be trying Blick Gloss Fixative varnish on another piece sometime to see how that handles, but I wanted an archival, non yellowing varnish if it isn't going to be removable.

Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground is a good product. It's well worth the price. Titanium White is the main pigment that makes it opaque so it creates a good bright white surface for any water medium. I have not tried it with thinner based paints or mediums, such as thinning colored pencils passages, but will update if using mineral spirits or other thinners dissolves it. For any water thinned medium, this surface is a joy to use.

It's also extremely cost effective for creating good archival watercolor surfaces from found objects, recycled surfaces, MDF panels or anything else you want to paint on. Using it on Yupo plastic watercolor surface will give an interesting variety of absorbent or non-absorbent effects that would make a watercolor painting look like mixed media. It has a thousand uses and many of them will save you money.

I love the stuff and will always keep it on hand, there's nothing better than being able to paint on whatever takes my fancy.

Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground is available at Daniel Smith online. Other companies that carry Daniel Smith products may have it available.

Here's a link with image to the Daniel Smith website:

Daniel Smith Fine Quality Artists' Materials


  1. Wonderfully thorough review Robert. Is this stuff a bit like gesso without the grit or something completely different?

  2. Thank you! I was wondering about that product. Your review was very helpful. I am going to order a jar.

  3. I Love it, too! I have used it on matboard and wood and canvas with excellent results. Yes, I even used it to create texture on watercolor paper.

  4. Great idea Robert, I've been painting on journals through the winter with acrylic but didn't realize I could do the same with watercolour. You can see some of them on my blog.

  5. Dale, yes and no. It functions like gesso and is just as opaque, but it has an extremely absorbent watercolor-loving surface that's more like paper or plaster. It's splendid stuff with its own unique texture. I bought some plain gesso too without grit and that stuff's fun too, but I think watercolors work much better on this ground.

    Betsy, thank you! Glad I could help.

    Lee, that's great. Awesome you used it for texture on watercolor paper. It could create a rough patch or a smooth patch easily to contrast with the rest of the paper.

    Tracey, that's fantastic. Daniel Smith is currently running a special where you can get the full size pint jar free with any purchase of eight or more of their watercolors. I'd seriously recommend that deal, the big jar is well worth it and will allow large projects on just about anything.

    I love painted journal covers and will be doing many more of them with this ground. I might use regular gesso instead if I'm going to do them in acrylic though, will have to test both surfaces with it. Odds are it'd look different depending on the ground, but this might also be good for thinned acrylics when they're treated like watercolor.

  6. Great post, thank you for sharing!

  7. Thanks so much for the review and the road test - I have a lot of under-used watercolours because of the surface limitations, but with this product you just opened up my mind to some more wonderful possibilities :)