Primers: Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground (review)

While ordering some watercolour pans from Jackson’s one day, I noticed they had an offer on where you could get a free 30ml sample of Daniel Smith’s Watercolour Ground. I hadn’t heard of this before, so I did a bit of internet research and found that in addition to allowing you to paint with watercolours on a variety of surfaces, it supposedly also let you ‘save’ watercolour paintings in which you had made a mistake, simply by painting over the error with the ground and repainting the section once it was dried. As watercolour is probably the medium I struggle with the most, I went ahead and got myself a little sample. After I played with it on a few smaller surfaces, I decided I wanted to do a watercolour design on a large canvas panel which had a failed acrylic painting on it, and since the sample was only small, I bought a full-sized jar. I never ended up applying it to that big canvas panel (that’s still on my to-do list), but I have used it on a few smaller projects so I thought I might as well review it.

Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground

As far as I know, this is only available locally in these 473ml (1 pint) jars, though I seem to remember seeing 118ml ones available online somewhere. The jar says you can put this stuff on pretty much any surfaces, though smooth or non-absorbent surfaces may need to be sanded and roughed up a bit before applying the ground. The ground is a thick paste, almost like plaster (it reminds me a little of modelling paste used as an acrylic medium) and it can be thinned a tiny bit with water. In fact, I had to thin mine a bit as it sat in the cupboard forgotten for a few years before I dug it out and it had dried out to the point it was almost solid. I added just a little bit of water and stirred it with a palette knife and the ground was as good as new, so I applied some to some paper, let it dry for 20 minutes or so (at that point it felt dry) and started painting.

Daniel Smith WC Ground Contents

What I should have done, however, is read the instructions. Almost as soon as I started painting, I noticed that the white ground was starting to come off and mix with the paint in my brush. It was only after I’d more or less destroyed the nice smooth surface I’d created that I bothered to read the jar properly; the instructions say to let the ground cure for 24-72 hours before trying to paint on it. I painted another rectangle of ground onto a new bit of paper and let it set for two days.

A little bit of this stuff goes a long way. It had a textured sort of surface, but you could sand this down if you wanted a smoother finish. Also I suspect it would have come out smoother if I’d thinned it a little more, as it was still more of a paste than a fluid even after I’d added water to rehydrate it. I probably should have added more water as my brushstrokes were visible in it, but I didn’t mind too much since it was just an experiment and it added to the texture. It’s also opaque, so no matter what colour surface you apply it to, you’ll get a nice white finish.

In order to test how the ground affects any watercolour that is applied to it, I decided to do a painting with half on normal watercolour paper and the other half on the watercolour ground. I also painted a thin layer of ground over one section of the paper half just so I could paint over it and see how useful it really is for covering up mistakes, since I suspected that, aside from the texture, there’d be a difference in how the colour appeared due to how it absorbed (or didn’t absorb) the paint.

I painted this hibiscus with Saint Petersburg White Nights watercolours on a page of thick paper from a mixed-media journal. The left half of the paper was coated in watercolour ground and the right is just plain paper. Everything I painted on the watercolour ground side looked noticeably lighter. It seemed that the ground was more absorbent than the paper, as irregularities in the wash on the paper side seemed to be ‘evened out’ on the ground side, producing a much smoother wash. Paint seemed more inert on the ground; I applied a thick wash to the leaves and tilted it to make the colours run, and though this worked quite well on the paper side, the paint seemed reluctant to spread and flow on the watercolour ground. I also painted a thin layer over the yellow stamen so that I could repaint it, as I accidentally went over it with some of the red. Using a thinner layer seemed to make it behave more like paper, as when I applied colour to it, it looked almost as strong as it did on the paper (though you can still see the difference when looking at it closely).

Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground Painting

After I did this painting, I also found a small hardcover journal which had a rectangle of the watercolour ground painted onto the cover. I remember I’d been planning to decorate that journal cover but never got around to it, and just shoved it back into my drawer. Even after being knocked around in there for a few years, the watercolour ground showed no signs of chipping or cracking, so it seems like it is reasonably durable if you are using it on surfaces other than paper.

Though it doesn’t quite behave exactly like watercolour paper, Daniel Smith Watercolour Ground still provides a good surface for watercolours or other water media, though care may need to be taken to ensure a smooth application depending on your subject. It’ll also help you transform a variety of other surfaces or items into something you can decorate with your watercolours. You may not have use for a large tub of it but I definitely recommend getting your hands on a sample or at least on one of the small tubs if you can just so you can try it for yourself.

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