Preparing a textured ground

Medium: Acrylic paint
Support: White card
Colours: Titanium white, phthalocyanine blue, yellow ochre, cadmium red, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow
Brushes: Daler Rowney Sky Flow brushes, short flat – 2” and 1”
Other materials: Daler-Rowney gesso primer (white), Liquitex matte super heavy gel, ‘Q’ tips
Size: 40cm x 28 cm (15” x 11”)


This exercise involved creating surface textures on the painting support. The course manual suggested having an idea in mind when creating the textured ground e.g. rough seas or autumn and I decided to work with sketches I had made of silver birch trees. After spending a weekend in the north of Scotland I had developed a bit of a fixation with the trees, especially those on the Drumbeg loop road between Lochinver and Kylesku.

Initial oil pastel sketch of silver birch trees

Initial oil pastel sketch of silver birch trees

The weather was against us that weekend with wind, rain and low cloud but it was still possible to see the potential of the trees. Given the conditions I managed one oil pastel sketch trying to capture the textures of the tree trunks. The grasses and smaller trees around the silver birches also provided different types of texture and I felt that this exercise provided a chance to work with these. In addition I wanted to catch the colours of the trees which had an almost glowing quality and seemed to reflect the colours of the surrounding foliage.

Back at home I worked on a couple of thumbnail images to consider possible compositions finally deciding on a portrait format to highlight the shapes of the tree trunks and branches.

Creating a textured ground

For the textured ground I had collected some items while we were in that area – sand from the beach, grasses and ferns from the dunes and even some of the luminous green bearded lichen.

My aim was to create a layered look with four main areas of texture:

  • The sky in the background – working the texture using acrylic paint
  • The middle ground of young birch trees – at this time of year a dark maroon and very twiggy.
  • Rough grasses in the foreground
  • The textures of the tree trunks and branches themselves.
Preparing the textured ground using gesso, gel, ferns and grasses

Preparing the textured ground using gesso, gel, ferns and grasses

I began by painting a piece of white card with white gesso primer, using a 2” brush and working the gesso loosely on the card.

I then added some of the matte super heavy gel to the gesso and, using a 1” brush, mapped in the outlines of the trees. I began to apply the mix more thickly using sweeping movements of the brush to suggest the contours of the trees and building thicker layers to suggest the texture of the bark. A dabbing motion of the brush produced stippled areas to represent patches of lichen.

Once I had the trees blocked in I started to apply grasses and small pieces of fern to the card. This proved to be trickier than it looked. I started off by using PVA glue, applying an area of it to the card and sticking the pieces of fern onto that. The fern proved resistant to all attempts and I decided to soak the leaves in water to soften them and, hopefully, make them more malleable.

The small pieces of grass were also putting up a spirited fight so I mixed some gesso, heavy matte and glue and applied this in a thick layer to the card. Applying the pieces was a bit easier this way though by this time the kitchen table and myself were covered in the mix.

By the end of the session it was hard to know who had won and, with the card buckling, not a certainty that anything would remain stuck to the surface.

Initial painting session

By the next day everything still seemed to be in place so I started with a colour palette of titanium white, cadmium yellow, phthalocyanine blue, cadmium red, burnt sienna and yellow ochre.

Initial session - working on background and tree trunks

Initial session – working on background and tree trunks

To begin with I worked on the background using cadmium red, titanium white, phthalocyanine blue and yellow ochre loaded directly onto a 1” brush and working with loose brushstrokes.

I used a similar approach with the tree trunks using yellow ochre, white and cadmium red. After an initial application of paint I felt that the paint was covering the textured layer too well. Using kitchen towel I removed some of the paint and blocked in the rest of the trees using a cadmium red and burnt sienna mix. Again I removed the excess of this to show the textured gesso layer underneath.

At this point I felt that the background was too heavy and began to scrub this off, fairly vigorously, using kitchen towel. Having scrubbed off the green I liked some of the marks that were left as they gave a sense of other trees in the background. I was uncertain, however, about the colour of this area.


Development of background, mid-ground and foreground

Development of background, mid-ground and foreground

In the next session I played around with the background adding washes of ochre (and discarding), then washes of pale purple (and discarding). I worked a little more on the trunk and branches of the tree adding mixes of ochre and white but began to feel I was just fiddling without any clear direction. I took a wash of cadmium red over the foliage in the mid-ground and some yellow ochre over the foreground.

At this point I remembered something that had appealed to me when I was doing the original oil sketch. In the background of the more mature trees had been younger trees. Their trunks and branches were less developed and had a dark maroon hue. I had liked the effect of the lighter tree trunks against this and decided to use a block of a similar colour for the background.

Work on tree trunks and foreground

Work on tree trunks and foreground

Work on tree trunks and foreground

I began to add more detail to the tree trunks by adding pure phthalocyanine blue and burnt sienna and applying this in a sweeping motion across the trunk. I then removed areas of this trying to get the effect of the light and dark patches of the silver birch and allowing the paint to seep into crevices to add additional texture.

For the mid-ground I used a mix of phthalocyanine blue and cadmium red as a wash across the entire area. I then picked out areas using a ‘Q’ tip to create a relief effect with the ferns and ridges of the gesso. To finish I took a wash of yellow ochre over the foreground.

Final session

Having reviewed the painting I felt that it needed to be more unified in terms of colour.

Final version of silver birch trees

Final version of silver birch trees

I used washes of yellow ochre and cadmium yellow over the ferns in the mid-ground to add a hint of light to this area.

Detail of ferns in mid-ground of painting

Detail of ferns in mid-ground of painting

To balance the foreground I did successive washes of phthalocyanine blue and a purple mix over the grasses. In between each wash I lifted out areas of colour to create darker shadows and highlights.

Detail of ferns and tree trunks

Detail of ferns and tree trunks

For the tree trunks I added washes of cadmium yellow and cadmium red, again lifting out areas to create a hint of sunlight through the branches.

Learning points

I really enjoyed this exercise. When I created the original sketch the aspect of the trees that appealed to me most was the bark and all the textures on the tree trunks. This exercise allowed me to explore a different approach to creating layers of texture.

  • In attempting this it was useful to have some idea of a subject as suggested by the workbook and the silver birches and surrounding foliage gave me a lot of scope to explore different ideas.
  • Working in this way does mean going with the flow and accepting that for part of the time you will be covered in glue, gesso and any other material you have used. Embrace the concept because it will embrace you, regardless.
  • It kept me on my toes because the materials tend to work in their own way and it was not always the way I had intended.

Using the gesso and heavy gel combined allowed me to create interesting textures for the trees and the surrounding foliage. It is a technique that I would like to explore further and has already given me some ideas for the final assignment.




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