Materials · Northern Neck Artisan Trail · oil painting · Step-by-step · Technique

The Right Surface

When I started painting many, many years ago in school, I was taught that there was really only one surface acceptable for fine art paintings: canvas stretched and primed with acrylic gesso. I’ve learned since there then are a whole lot of other options and so long as you approach the issue in a logical fashion, you can paint on almost anything.

At 60 years old, I don’t really anticipate that my work will be “discovered” by any great art mover and shaker and land in an art museum where curators will worry and fuss over the work. My work just isn’t that edgy. I do hope, however, to produce work that is cherished by the person who purchases it and that their children will also keep it for their children who will hang it on their walls. Within three generations I rather imagine that the paintings will be considered horribly “dated” and tacky and put out on the curb when the grand parents die. But who knows? I can dream, right?

In any case, I do believe in presenting quality work or the best work that I’m able to produce at any given time. That quality, I’ve learned really does begin with the surface on which I paint and the quality of the paint and mediums that I use. I’ll talk about the brands of paints I use in another post, but for now, let’s look at some of the surfaces I’ve come to enjoy using.

Prepared wooden panels were the go-to surfaces for a very long time. They had to be sawn from logs, then planed and sanded and finally sealed. Animal skin glue was used for eons to seal the wood and then it was coated with a mixture of white lead oil paint and gypsum or silica or, most commonly, chalk. Finally, the artist could paint on this surface after, of course, creating his or her paint by hand from pigments that had been mined and ground with a drying oil of some sort. Usually the paints were ground and mixed with the drying oil as they were needed. The brushes also had to be manufactured by hand. All in all, it was an extremely labor intensive and expensive proposition to create a painting.

As the size of commissioned work grew, if the artist was not painting directly on the walls (as in a fresco), the size of the surface had to grow. In most cases the wood panels were just too small for the grand works and even large panels became too heavy to be easily framed and hung. The advent of the canvas came along. Some believe that artists took advantage of the canvas sail making shops. They had to figure out how to safely seal the canvas as oil paint will rot fabric in very short order.

As I’ve researched the work that I aim to do, I’ve learned that the problem with canvas is that it flexes. There is a point in the process of oil paint oxidation, in which it no longer flexes (unlike acrylic which will, because it’s plastic) will continue to adhere to a flexible surface longer without cracking. Acrylic paint, however, is a whole other critter from oil paint and I’m not a convert as yet.

So, I’ve painted on very taunt linen commercially prepared with an oil ground or a very taunt cotton canvas also prepared with an oil ground. I like the linen with oil ground the best for its smoothness and and I have less problem with “sinking in” (which is when the dark colors lose their luster and go very flat and dull and the painting looks very patchy.) Stretched linen, unfortunately, absorbs moisture from the air and will, in high humidity, get a little droopy. As it dries out again, it will get taunt again. This can, over time, create cracks in the painting.

So, for 2020 I’m trying out something new. I don’t paint huge paintings (at least not yet). I like painting on the linen surface. I also like painting on little panels like Gessobord. Unfortunately, Gessobord can get expensive really fast and sometimes my paintings need a non-standard size for the composition to work. For example, I’m getting ready to do one that is going to be 12×30″. They don’t cut panels that size. I don’t want to go through the hassle of applying the ground to my panels (believe me it’s a pain). So, I’m going to try to come up with a functional and archival method of applying commercially primed oil ground linen to panels of sealed wood that I’ve cut to size in my own garage. I’m using masonite which is strong, durable and relatively light weight. It’s also really inexpensive and easy to store under a bed. And if I need to apply strips of wood on the back to prevent the masonite from warping, I can use thin strips of hard wood glued on to do that.

Before I go to the trouble of cutting this odd size, I’ve decided to use the same method for a prepared panel in a standard size for a portrait study of my mother-in-law. If the portrait fails I can just hide it somewhere in the studio… but if it works, it will be a gift to the family and who knows, maybe the kids, grand-kids and great grands will pass it down.

So, I have the masonite panel, the oil primed linen and some PVA glue (basically, “Tacky Glue”). I diluted the glue with a little water so it would spread nicely. Brushed it as evenly as I could across the panel, laid the linen over it, used a brayer to smooth out any bubbles or wrinkles and turned the whole thing upside down and weighted it all over and let it dry overnight. This morning’s inspection revealed that it had adhered very well and today I will cut all the overhanging edges of linen flush with the panel using a razor blade over top a self-healing cutting mat. And I’ll go ahead and stain it in preparation to get my initial drawing transferred.

The linen glued to the panel will not have the same bounce as the stretched linen, so I will have to re-figure how to paint some of the soft edges that the bounce makes so easy to do, but I used to do it with the bird paintings on Gessobord, so it should come back to me pretty quickly.

From a purely economical point of view, the panels and fabric covered panels are MUCH cheaper to frame as you do not need to accommodate the stretcher depth within the frame rabbit. You can purchase frames with as little as a 1/2″ rabbit and that can reduce the cost by thousands over dollars over just 15 or 20 paintings.

I’m still trying to decide which photo I’m going to use as my reference. The closer cropped version without her hands, is more “modern” and the one with her hands showing is more “classical”. I may just close my eyes and pick or I may press my husband into choosing as it is his mother, after all.

I will, simplify the background and remove the handle of her walker.

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