New Materials: Absorbent Ground

If you have been following my blogs this year, you know that I have been looking for a satisfactory way to apply watercolor to canvas. Among other things, I found that gessoed canvas does not satisfactorily hold watercolor well enough to permit layering—called glazing—an important technique when using transparent watercolors. But then I came across an alternative surfacing material, similar to gesso, that claims to hold the color better—Golden’s Absorbent Ground, in matte white.

Directions indicate that multiple coats increase absorbency, so I decided to prepare a canvas panel sectioned roughly into thirds, which I would give one, two, and three coats, respectively, of the absorbent ground to test for my own edification.

I began by coating a 16”x20” pre-gessoed canvas panel with a single coat of the ground. I dipped my brush into water before applying the ground to make it easier to spread, but otherwise did not thin it. After it had dried for several hours, I taped off the left third and coated the remainder with a second coat, which I permitted to dry overnight before applying a third coat to farthest right third. The three sections were separated with pencil lines for easier identification.


After the third coat was dry, I applied separate washes of two watercolor paints, Winsor blue, red shade (phthalocyanine blue RS, aka PB15) and burnt sienna (a synthetic iron oxide red, PR101) across all three portions of the panel. Both paints have a staining quality, which is preferable for glazing purposes. Near the top of each, I lifted out swaths through both color blocks while they were still wet, both with a dry paper towel and with a damp brush. Once the base color had dried, I applied separate glazes of both colors over each of the color blocks. Finally, I again lifted a swath from the bottom of each dried color block with a damp brush. (The illustration above shows the finished test panel.)

The following day, the effect of the absorbent ground became considerably more apparent when I ran water over the entire panel and scrubbed it with a gentle brush. Most of the color washed off, but the absorbent ground had been stained to some extent by both base coats. The more layers of ground I had used, the more stain remained, as shown below.


Conclusions: Does the absorbent ground improve paint retention? Yes!
Does the number of coats make a difference? With each successive layer of ground, the paint lifted less readily, although within a couple hours after painting, with a bit more effort and a damp brush, paint could be lifted out from even the triple application. After the paint had dried overnight, however, both paints had stained the ground and become more difficult to lift. It appears that the ground continues to absorb the stain until both the paint and the underlying ground have thoroughly dried (the ground having been remoistened by the application of wet paint). The more coats of ground there are, the longer they take to thoroughly dry, hence the more stain they absorb.

Recommendations: If glazing is to be used on (pre-gessoed) canvas, I would recommend, first, applying a minimum of three coats of the absorbent ground before beginning a painting and, second, leaving the base coat of paint to dry overnight or longer before applying subsequent glazes.

Additional notes: According to directions, “Due to the fragile, absorbent quality of the ground, finished paintings need to be protected.” Whether this protection must be in the form of glass or the equivalent or whether a spray varnish will suffice is not specified. Since my primary reason for using canvas instead of paper is to leave an exposed surface, my own inclination would be to opt for some kind of protective varnish or sealer rather than a glass or acrylic cover sheet. Such a solution might or might not be adequate—only experience will tell.

Tags: , , ,

7 Responses to “New Materials: Absorbent Ground”

  1. kath says:

    Hi, Thanks for posting this. I am about to start experimenting with this product too. Have you used it again since April? What have your thoughts been? I looked at the images that came up in google images under absorbent ground -(Google images) and it seemed to me that there were no really strong deep colours shown. Cheers Kath

  2. Charlotte says:

    Thanks for your note, Kath. I’ve been so busy with other projects that I haven’t gotten back to using the absorbent ground. That will be a good project for this coming month. Look for a follow-up blog about it later this summer. I’d be interested to hear what your take on it has been, too.

  3. judielaine says:

    Golden is very good about providing usage data for their materials. They have instructions for the sealing and varnishing steps at (I dabble in acrylics; my spouse watercolors and is planning on giving the absorbent ground a try, too.)

  4. kris m says:

    Very helpful info, thanks! Golden should post it on their sire 😉

  5. Allyson says:

    I just bought some absorbent ground and gesso to try out on some canvas! Another site I was reading said if you gesso first, it really does help the ground absorb, as opposed to just putting the ground straight on the canvas. So far I have 3 canvases prepped with 1 layer of gesso and 2 of ground. Going to add the 3rd layer and then see what I get tomorrow! Did you ever find out if you needed to seal a finished product? A friend of mine has asked for some pieces for her baby’s nursery, so they wouldn’t have to last for longer than a couple years, but I do have to ship them across the country, so I’d like them to hold up well :)

  6. Charlotte says:

    Allyson, I found that the more layers of ground I applied, the more absorbent the surface became. It’s usually a good idea to seal acrylics or to varnish oils. The question here, though, appears to be in regard to watercolor. I assume that, because you want to paint on canvas, you are trying to avoid framing, which means that the watercolor should definitely be sealed in some way, since it won’t be protected by glass or Plexiglas. To seal watercolor I would do it very carefully with several light layers of spray, allowing it to dry thoroughly between applications, since any moisture added to the dried watercolor can reactivate it, causing inadvertent and unwelcome smears or runs. Be sure to shake the can thoroughly and apply it according to the manufacturer’s directions. I attempted it once without sufficient shaking, and wound up with what looked like a fibrous haze across the surface. The painting wasn’t entirely ruined, but neither was the image as clear as it had been. I wish you success with your paintings, and hope that your friend appreciates the care and effort you are putting into your gift to her.

  7. I do watercolor and colored pencil paintings on purchased, pre-primed stretched canvas that I have applied 2-3 coats of absorbent ground. Once the pictures are finished, I apply 2-3 light coats of a spray final fixative. This prevents colors from bleeding or hazing. After that, I apply 2-3 coats of gloss varnish, in either spray or brush on. This protects the paintings completely, and I have pieces hanging in galleries, shows, homes and exhibits all without any glass or acrylic. Since I discovered this method, I have not used glass or acrylic in any frames.

Leave a Reply