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Stretching and preparing a canvas

As the exhibition draws nearer I am aware that I have to be even more selective about which images to realise. I have more works in my head than I know that I can complete over the next few months. The strategy is to consider how all the works will appear together as a collection and determine the best selection of images from there. When imagining the hang, I am considering relationships between the works and how one work may inform the reading of another. Having now calibrated a kind of strategy, I have a set of goals that I am working towards that I believe is realistic to achieve in the time frame; given that I have a full-time job and next semester is looking to be even busier than usual.

I have two larger works that I want to start very soon. I have purchased some beautiful Belgian linen again for these. Because linen tends to be more effected by moisture in the atmosphere than canvas (and thus expand and contract at greater rates) I have also purchased some nice stretcher bars that will allow for the expansion of the stretcher at the non-fixed corners and thus take up any slack in the linen that may develop over time. Generally when using canvas I will make my own stretchers using simple, mitred, butt joints. These are sturdy but do not allow for the adjustment of the stretcher size by opening up the corners with little timber wedges. For smaller works using canvas this is rarely a problem.

When stretching canvas over a timber stretcher, I like to wet the canvas a little and add the first layer of an acrylic primer whilst the canvas is still damp. This allows for good penetration of the acrylic gesso into the fibres of the canvas. Three or maybe four slightly thinned layers of gesso (or matte, acrylic interior undercoat. Some ceiling whites are a little too porous and can leach too much oil from your paint if you use oils) are often added with light sanding in between layers. After priming, the canvas surface should be neither too rough to touch nor too smooth. It is important to fill the small pin-holes between the woven threads without losing the natural tooth of the fabric. An ideal surface will accept paint easily and is sometimes described as an egg-shell surface, which I think is very descriptive. If the surface is too rough to touch (like sand paper) you really have to work the brush to get the paint to cover the primed surface and lay down your paint. This is not only frustrating, it also does not allow for simple and easy gestures with the brush as you have to scratch the paint into the the surface of the canvas. If the primed surface has too much paint and the tooth of the fabric is lost, the paint brush will slip and slide across the canvas surface and not deposit sufficient paint. When the canvas is prepared 'just right', painting is indeed a pleasure, whilst optimising the ease with which you can apply the paint. Easy, pleasurable painting should translate to fresh, pleasing paint marks.

For these next two paintings I plan to stretch the new linen. I do not like to wet linen before stretching as it shrinks significantly compared to canvas. Not only has the choice of linen meant the purchase of commercial stretcher bars, I have decided to begin with an oil-based primer as the most archivally sound option for a fabric that experiences greater movement than canvas. Even though some regard oil priming for traditional oils as superior, preparation time is greatly increased. Depending on climate, it is best to wait about two weeks between layers. With three to four layers of primer, the wait time before the true painting begins is frustrating for those looking to be fruitful with their time in the studio. Before these layers of primer are laid down, rabbit skin size is generally added. Being a gelatinous material, and cheaper than an oil and white pigment mix, the addition of rabbit skin glue is a good choice for the closing of gaps between the woven threads and creating a barrier between the oil and the fabric. (A traditional gesso is simply made from rabbit skin glue mixed with a white pigment, like gypsum.) However, as rabbit skin size is an organic material, there are downsides compared to today's robust acrylics.

Whilst at Mi-Art recently I was introduced to the perfect solutiuon that I now love using. Many readers will be familiar with water-based oil paints. Art Spectrum have released a water-based oil primer. This wonderful product goes on like a dream and does not require the use of organic animal size and new coats can be added the next day - just like with acrylic paints. For those looking for the best possible primer for their oil paintings, I would not go past this great product. Belgian linen, commercial stretcher bars and beautiful primer are not for the budget conscious however. The expense needs to be viable at the end of the day. Working on beautiful surfaces is a little like drinking a great red after previously drinking rough ones. Be careful. There is often no going back.

This method for folding the corners I have found is the best of various methods - especially where you presume a simple frame may be added. This linen was stretched yesterday and has one application of primer added. The linen was slightly dampened after stretching and before priming.

Viewing the back, you can see the succesful penetraton of primer through to the back of the fabric.

This canvas on the easel has three coats of primer. I would prefer to add another coat but with the addition of a lean medium ground the surface should be well prepared to take unmodified oil paint. Like the armchair pictured in the excavated landscape, this painting will picture a standard, household vacuum cleaner. For some months I have been taking photos looking to get the right image to work from. I am still not convinced I have the right image and may be off again this afternoon to visit Harvey Norman and Godfreys.

...meanwhile the blank canvas beckons. Stay tuned to view the progress of this image from preparatory sketch through to completion.


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