Sunday, November 15, 2009

Preparing Your Canvas

(this is a study done from an original painting by Richard Schmid) It has nothing to do with tonight's post except I just thought I needed a photo!

Tonight, I'd like to share one of the most valuable changes I made as a painter. This change has made a huge difference in the way I am able to apply paint to the canvas. It produces more luminous color, better brushwork, and I can honestly say, made the process of painting more fun.

It's a simple and inexpensive thing, too, so you might want to give it a try.

It has to do with preparing your canvas before you ever start the painting. And you don't have to stretch your own canvas, or even start from scratch with raw unprimed canvas. You can use this method on commercially prepared stretched canvas or canvas panels.

Unless you purchase "oil primed linen", then what you are painting on has been primed with acrylic gesso. (it's not real gesso, but that's what they call it, so we'll go with that). This surface is dry and scratchy to the touch and, here's the biggest drawback.. it is very absorbent.
Oil paint applied to this surface will soak in, and unless you apply really thick layers of paint, what you get is more like "staining" the canvas. The solution to this is to apply an oil-based primer that will seal the canvas and allow all that paint and color and wonderful brushstrokes that you work so hard to achieve to stay put right there on the surface! Who wouldn't want that?

So, let's get to it. What you'll need is a large palette knife, a tube of Flake White, and some fast dry medium, such as Windsor Newton Wingel, or Maroger, or even Liquin. The medium is optional, but since white dries so slowly, unless you are lots more patient than me, and don't mind waiting up to several weeks for this to dry, then use the medium. I'd probably recommend the Wingel. I didn't have any Wingel for this photo, but here's the main ingredients - Flake White and a large palette knife.
Note: Flake White is a LEAD-based white. Be aware of this, and perhaps wear gloves when using it.

Put about a quarter-sized dollop of the paint on your palette, and mix an equal portion of the fast dry medium. The paint will be soft and creamy.

Next, take the palette knife and plop some on the corner of your canvas. If you're using stretched canvas, you will want to make sure to lift the canvas away from the stretcher bars so you don't create a line along that stretcher bar - it will be permanent! You can see how I just sort of pushed the canvas away from the back with my finger as I worked.

Take the back edge and flat surface of the palette knife and spread that paint around on the surface. All you want to do is to seal the holes between the weave. You will not need a thick layer or alot of paint.
After you've spread all that dollop of paint, then take the FRONT edge of the palette knife and scrape and push the extra paint towards the middle of the canvas. See photo.. there's a little ridge of paint that develops as I scrape the excess off...

That's all there is to it! Just work your way around all the edges, and then, do the center, and scrape off and discard any excess paint. Again, although you CAN leave texture if you desire it,
all you really need is a very thin layer that seals the holes between the weave in the canvas.

Let this completely dry. ( a couple of days if you used the fast dry medium, or up to a couple of weeks if you didn't).

That's it! The surface should feel smooth and almost glossy. It might take a bit of adjustment to paint on this surface... whereas before you almost had to scrub paint into the canvas, brush strokes will remain on the surface.

This also makes it possible for me to do the kind of block in that I like to do for still life.. which I'll show you in another post.


Judy P. said...

Wow Deb- again it's like you are peeking in my window; I've been recently wondering if a better surface, or different medium, would help make me make better edges or a superior painterly surface. You're here to the rescue again!
But I've been actually thinking about using an oil-based Kilz I've seen at Home Depot- would that be a terrible thing? Also, why Flake white? Lead sounds scary. I am leaving the curtains open on my windows, just for you!

Deb said...

Hi Judy.
Great questions.
First, flake white is historically the choice of traditional painters. It is more flexible than other whites, and thus makes a good foundation that won't tend to crack many years from now. (before they outlawed lead in house paint back in 1978, the paint would last for years - it is very durable) Many oil paints contain heavy metals. The cadmiums are maybe worse than the lead, and the medium is the worst of all. Unless you are putting it in your mouth, or smearing it on your fingers and then enjoying some grapes or chips, I personally am not concerned with using it. Wearing the disposable gloves will safeguard against any skin absorption.
Second, oil alkyd primer, such as Kilz, would probably NOT be a good choice for canvas, since its flexibility is unknown, and the give and take of the canvas or linen surface might create problems. You CAN use this as a primer on panels. I used Benjamin Moore Fast Drying Oil Alkyd primer for my homemade panels.
It is not as slick as the lead primed surface, but works well for landscapes, where I need a slightly more absorbent surface especially if I am working plein air and want it to set up quickly.
I've experimented quite a bit, and the lead primed surface on fine linen is about the nicest painting surface there is. Sometimes I even do a second coat for an extra slick feel.

It does take a bit of getting used to, painting on a canvas primed in this way. But you will quickly come to love how paint stays luscious and brush strokes are evident. At least, I sure do love it. If I could point to one single thing that had the most immediate effect on my painting, this would probably be it. Even just plain, mid-grade store bought canvas can become a thing of beauty when lead primed.
Good luck!

Judy P. said...

Thank you for this detailed response Deb- I'm off this AM to buy some Flake White! This is such good info, you should put this as a whole other posting. Then you can post a beautiful painting above it, just as an added bonus!

julie susanne said...

Have you tried different flake whites and do you have a favorite?

Lee said...

Hi Deb

Thanks for this. Beginner question. I'm keen to give it a go. I normally stretch & staple a piece of cotton canvas fabric to a wooden board (remove it from board when finished) and then gesso the surface. Do you think your method would work okay taking this into account?


Deb P said...

Hi Lee,
I am not sure I understand your process... You staple a canvas to a board, gesso it, then remove it?
Do you start with raw canvas? What do you do with the gessoed canvas when you remove it from the board?

You can use the flake white over a gessoed canvas. I would not use it on a raw, unprimed canvas, however. The surface needs to be prepared ina slightly different manner when you start with a raw piece.
However, you can do the flake white over your gesso. Or on a store boight piece of cavas, which will be primed using acrylic gesso.
Make sure you get true flake white, not flake white hue. True flake white is lead based, and will say so innthe list of ingredients. It will be lead carbonate. Hope that helps.