Review of the new Michael Harding Coloured Primers

Michael Harding has released a new range of Non-Absorbent Acrylic Primers, coming in a variety of colors perfect for priming your surface with a tone of your choice.

The primers are designed specifically to protect your surface and ensure that your painting will look its best for years to come. Oftentimes, standard acrylic primers can cause the vibrancy of oil pigment to dull as the oil is absorbed resulting in a less dynamic, more washed out image. These new primers from Michael Harding combat that through a non-absorbent resin base, allowing for the entirety of the pigment to be retained on the surface without the chance of it leaking through and affecting stability over time.

These new tonal primers are lightfast, providing the opportunity for the surface to be sealed and ready for painting, as well as creating a tonal ground at the same time. The primers are high pigmentation, meaning that as you dilute them they remain vibrant and saturated. The viscosity of the primer doesn’t differ significantly from pigment to pigment, retaining a medium thickness which can be poured and spread with a palette knife or applied with a brush at your own preference.

The different tones offer different outcomes for the final painting, the possibilities of which are outlined below.

Michael Harding Non-Absorbent Colored Primers come available in 500 ml or 1000 ml tubs


Transparent primers are a useful way to provide adequate ground for oil paint to maintain its vibrancy, as well as keep the surface protected over time.

Working on raw canvas with an off white tone will provide a slightly warmer tone than working with one that has been primed with a regular bright white primer, something that can be useful when working monochromaticly where contrast is key to the balance and readability of the picture . This will change depending on the surface you favor – if you want to paint on a wooden panel but allow for the grain of the wood to remain visible, a transparent primer can be an excellent choice, allowing you to maintain the natural finish of said surface Whilst protecting it and allowing the paint to look it’s best.

This primer is my personal favorite when working with oils. Harding’s instructions on the pot suggest a 25% diluted first coat followed by a second full coat after one hour, but this comes with the caveat that each person will find their preferred ground through practice and patience. I like to work with raw canvas, primed heavily with this transparent primer in a single coat.

Using a single heavy coat means that the surface will be uneven, with visible brush strokes. Part of the appeal of working in this way is that it allows for a painting to pick up an unplanned sense of rhythm through the strokes and density of the priming. It’s a good opportunity to really emphasize the quality of the oil paint, exploring the exciting possibilities of the relationship between pigment and surface.

Titanium Buff

A neutral primer like this provides a suitable ground for most types of oil painting – whether your picture is going to lean towards warmer or cooler colours. Titanium Buff is a popular color in both landscape and figurative representational painting due to its versatility, acting as an excellent surface on which to build your image if you’d like to try something different from a brilliant white ground.

Neutral Gray

A Neutral Gray primer works much in the same way as the Titanium Buff, with the key differences being that it does not have a temperature bias. Neutral Gray is, once again, a versatile alternative to Titanium White in that you can build an image with cool or warmer colours, using the ground as either a contrasting or comparable tone to work from. Where it becomes significantly different to Titanium Buff is in its use for black and white monochromatic painting.


Black primer is a less common ground that can provide fantastic results – especially for landscape painters

Although useful in many different types of painting, black primer helps to create a sense of tension in a painting through the stark contrast it brings. From the beginning, color will appear darker and the painter will be encouraged to approach the subject in a different way – pigments behave differently on darker surfaces; vibrancy, tone, texture and dispersal are altered when using a black primer. Other black primers can create a shiny, reflective surface but this one maintains even, matte black coverage under all lighting conditions.

An interesting feature of black primer is the way that it alters our relationship to colored pigment. Strong, opaque colors will pop off the black surface while more gentle, transparent colors will be dulled by it. If you’re used to painting on a white canvas, changing to a black surface will invite you to approach color in a different way. A black surface will challenge you to make confident and bold color choices, with no real room for subtle layers or transparent glazes. It can be an excellent tool for getting those less confident with color out of their comfort zones

Olive Green

The Olive Green Primer is perhaps the most exciting of the new range. Originally designed by Harding as the perfect base for portrait painters, it provides an ideal surface on which to push red and brown tones to their most vibrant. Whilst this is absolutely true, I think that it shines equally as a base for landscape painting, or figuration using complementary colours.

Building on the mossy base with yellows, off whites and light brown tones allows for the creation of dynamic, lush environments and the toned base avoids the necessity to cover white. The verdant undertone creates the perfect ground to highlight the natural contrast seen in nature, allowing landscape artists to create images with a real organic feel.

Michael Harding Non-Absorbent Acrylic Primer 500ml Olive Green

Like everything else in the range, this primer suggests two coats (the first diluted with 25% water) and while this does create an excellent ground, I would suggest experimenting with different levels of dilution and numbers of coats. Applying the diluted primer to a wet surface creates unique pigment dispersal whereby the olive green breaks down into green, brown and almost yellow tones – perfect for a toned underpainting. When the green is applied to raw canvas or linen it creates a vibrant, dynamic foundation for your painting.

Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna (Transparent)

These primers provide a fantastic, quick drying alternative to the traditional approach of toning a surface prior to painting with a stain of Raw or Burnt Sienna, often practiced by classical figurative painters and portraitists. One of the key qualities that these new non-absorbent primers possess is their ability to seal, prime and tint your surface with a single product as opposed to using three products in three stages to do so.

Raw Sienna

Washing a canvas with Raw or Burnt Sienna is a traditional way of ground a painting, providing a mid-tone (either lighter in the case of the Raw Sienna or darker in the case of Burnt Sienna) from which to work. These classically toned primers provide a fantastic alternative to oil toning your surface and are designed to maintain the vibrancy of your pigment over time.

Burnt Sienna

Both of these primers are transparent, meaning that they won’t dominate your surface. Rather than creating an opaque, solid color these primers will allow the surface that they’re applied to partially show through and play a role in how the primed surface appears.

While these colors can be applied straight to raw canvas or wood, they are also well suited to be applied thinly with a dry brush over the top of a surface primed with white, to create an earthy and warm backing. As with everything in painting, it’s important you find a way of working with these materials that suits your practice. When experimenting with toned primers, it can be good practice to try a few different densities of priming on oil paper or scrap canvas to get an idea of ​​how you’d like to utilise their qualities.

Raw Sienna Dark (Semi-Transparent)

The darker semi-transparent Raw Sienna tone works in much the same way as Raw Sienna and Burnt Sienna, providing a warm neutral ground on which to work. Harding suggests that this is applied in a similar fashion to the other two, but can equally function well when using the 25% water two-coat detailed method on the tub.

Michael Harding Non-Absorbent Acrylic Primer 500 ml Raw Sienna Dark

Whether you choose to apply your ground over white with a dry brush or to apply the Raw Sienna Dark direct to canvas will depend on your personal painting approach, however it’s important to note that the transparent Siennas will allow more texture and tone from the natural surface to show through than Raw Sienna Dark, which has a pigmentation more akin to milky coffee than its transparent counterpart’s terracotta hue.

Pozzuoli Red Earth (Semi-Transparent)

Another semi-transparent primer, Pozzuoli Red Earth provides a warm terracotta colored ground for painters. This strong tonal primer will particularly benefit painters who are looking to emulate the look of warmer toned work of classical landscape painters like Constable or Turner.

Michael Harding Non-Absorbent Acrylic Primer 500 ml Pozzuoli Red Earth

When using Pozzuoli Red Earth, a little goes a long way. The strongest of the warm primers, this color will help to give your pictures a deep tonal caste.

Shop Michael Harding Non-Absorbent Colored Primers on

Further reading

Size, Primer, Gesso and Ground Explained

On Location: Michael Harding Handmade Artists Colors

Image Transfer Technique With Schmincke Transparent Primer

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