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Color Fundamentals

Lesson 5 of 22

Ground or Surface Color

Mary Jane Begin

Color Fundamentals

Mary Jane Begin

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Lesson Info

5. Ground or Surface Color

Lesson Info

Ground or Surface Color

So when I talk about the ground, and it's something we will do today, this refers to the color of the surface or the base coat of the color that you start with in a piece. And basically in this piece I used, excuse me, she used a purple ground, and the piece to the right is a green ground. And the reason why they were chosen this way is that when creating an orange pumpkin, you want the attention to go obviously to this area, its most orangeness. That is going to react to the ground underneath. If this pumpkin were painted, an orange pumpkin on an orange ground, or brown ground, do you think there would be any reaction? (students murmur) It'd be boring, super boring. You could maybe do something with value, but you lose all the opportunity to work with complimentary colors. The same is true for the apple. The apple is really red, and it's vibrant and kind of light. It's on a dark green ground. So by painting a ground over the whole area, the thinking is, what fruit or vegetable will re...

act to that ground? Or what ground should I choose based on the fruit or vegetable that I've chosen? Usually you start with your subject and say, what will react to that? The interesting thing that happens here too, and I want to point this out, and we can look at it again in the next slide, is that when the color, the complimentary color, is the most opaque, it's gonna pop off that background. It's gonna zing off of it, they're reacting. When it's at its most transparent or translucent, it's going to neutralize the color underneath, because orange and purple are opposites. When they land on top of each other and they're not opaque, they just, the sugar is kickin' down the sour, right? And that happens every time, it's just a guarantee. It's the way color works. And is that what you taught us earlier, that to make brown, was those opposite colors? Yep, that's one way to. One of the ways. Yeah, and it's basically, they're neutralizing each other, so neutralize makes the browns and the grays, the colors that are less vibrant. And the primaries, by default, if you have blue and yellow, that's a green, and you have the red, well, it's purple, and it's green, and they're basically functioning in the same way, canceling each other out, because they're compliments, essentially. So that's the reaction here, and the same thing is here. The most red, most vibrant, most opaque, most lit spot is the top. We look here. If you said you looked way down on the bottom, I'd be really surprised, because it's like, how could your eyes not go to that spot? And it's reacting to the green that's underneath. And I just wanted you to see up close, there's another thing about grounds that's really important. Well, there's a couple things. You can really see that's a purple ground. You can really see that's a green ground. But what I think about in terms of grounds, is that it's a great unifier. It's like the family blood. It's what holds all the colors together. It's like Mom, you know? It pulls everything together so that all the colors will relate to each other. Without a ground you have to, if you have a white surface, you have to do that intentionally, to try to pull the colors together. But a ground does it for you. It unifies the story of the colors on top of it. And that's a really nice thing. It also, for me, it removes a kind of intimidation with color. If you're looking at a colored surface, you've already got something talking to you there, as opposed to the white of the page. I think that sometimes why I like to use grounds is because the white of the page is like, (gasps) "Oh my gosh, put some color down." Oh, okay, I've already started. So that's kind of, partially it's practical because it's easier to jump in, and part of it is that it gives you something to react to and it unifies. And part of it, too, is that it helps to send the expression of the message, depending on the color that you choose. The ground does a lot of the work here. Yep? So, to your point, ground work is a good way to think about. Yeah. That terminology. Yeah. Laying the groundwork. Yup. I'm curious about looking at these again. The purple, once you said that the ground was purple on the left, and green on the right. Yep. And that's coming through in the shadows? Are there times where you lay a ground that you're then actually not going to see? Or is it always kind of an element within. So is it, do you bury it entirely? Or do you let. Yeah, right. Or is it because we see it in the shadows that that is the meaningful ground, I guess. Actually, it's functioning in a way that it's necessary, whether it's buried or not buried. Okay. So when it's completely buried, that's where it's reacting the most, so that's an important element. And when we see it, that's also, it's sort of, it's telling us that this part of the piece is actually connecting to the rest of it because some of that color is actually a little bit visible. But this is what I tell my students. If you completely bury the ground and everything is, the only way to do that, really, is to make everything opaque. Right. If everything's opaque, the ground disappears. Why bother with the ground? So you're trying to create the hierarchy of opacity, translucency, transparency, to let the ground do its job. And that's something that takes a little time to learn because as you're doing it, there's a tendency like, "Oh my gosh, it's so purple, it's so green. "I must bury this color." But you need to let it have voice in the picture. Otherwise there's no point to actually making it, if that makes sense. It does, thank you. Okay, you're welcome. So we just talked about color harmony a little bit. Colors are said to be harmonized if they work together in a piece. And this can be achieved by using a ground or limited number of colors. This is some student work, and you can see here that basically they painted a ground tone and then they tested a variety of colors to figure out how to make this landscape picture. And they tried this palette, and they tried this palette, taking some notes. I think it's really a critical piece for people, and it makes it easier, if you are going to make a palette, you're starting to think about your colors and you want them to harmonize. Test it on a side paper first, rather than dive right in. It takes away some of the fear, and it also can tell you, "Oh wow, I thought that palette would work, "but it doesn't, so I'll try this one." And you can see this palette was too close to the ground, so it sorta just, nothing really happened. And when they chose these colors, there was more reaction, so it also related to what they were trying to say with the final piece. The other thing that I want to say here is that a really good trick to creating color harmony besides using a ground, is to limit your palette. And sometimes people see, "Oh, I have 15 colors "in my toolbox, or on a computer." In Photoshop you have all the colors of the world. So how do you select your palette? I usually recommend choosing a blue, a red, and a yellow, three primaries. And make all of your greens, all of your purples, all of your oranges, every brown, every gray. The black, which is from all three primaries in their darkest form, that will make a black. All those colors from, it's three parents, not two. But the three parent colors make all the children. And so instantly, if you use just the three colors, everything you make from that will harmonize. So it's a kind of a nice place to start. You can always add in and bring in another voice, but if you start with 12 colors, it's overwhelming. So I say don't do that.

Class Description

This class will give you an overview of color principles and demonstrate how to apply them. Instructor Mary Jane Begin is an award-winning illustrator and author of children’s picture books, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate and professor in the Illustration Department. 

In this class she covers: 
  • The elements of color, including value, temperature, saturation, hierarchy, complements, light, harmony, and contrast 
  • The use of color complements in image making 
  • The relationship of color to the medium and expression 

Through a series of demonstrations, you’ll learn how to work with color and ultimately make better color decisions. This class covers color theory foundations that applies to all image making, in design, art, illustration, photography, and beyond.


Anna Kotzè

I really liked the informal demonstrations and I also liked the way she set out her pallet with warm and cold colors. This was not only an informative class but inspiring. The casual and relaxed working style, encourage playfulness. Thank you for an awesome class.


I’ve had foundations in many of the color instruction that was presented here so the information was a very good revisit. I also think it was explained better in this presentation than in the other training I’ve had. I enjoyed listening to the lecture, thankfully they weren’t drawn out until you want to stop listening. The demonstration was best after we moved off the charcoal drawing (although that was interesting to watch) because using the paints really brought home to me the application some of the lessons learned. I wish that part would have been more robust so that all of the elements in the lecture could have been directly called out in the demonstration. The instructor was most effective when not trying to multitask too much. Overall, I recommend this course.

Robin B.

I had previously learned basic color theory, but this instructor took my knowledge beyond with layered instruction about value-contrast-complements-hierarchy, etc., and she does it in such a fun way with her own examples of work and great stories! I like her poise and confidence and think this series is a terrific value.