The Intimidations of Canvas June 05, 2016 10:49

Rabbit not wanting to give up its skin for gessoYears ago, a fellow student asked me if I wanted to learn how to prepare a canvas from scratch. I did, and I remember watching her as she stretched the canvas and then gessoed it with real rabbit-skin gesso. She sanded it between each coat. I was so intimidated by the whole complicated (and messy) process that I decided I would avoid painting on canvas. And I did, for decades.

When I switched from watercolors to acrylics, I considered painting on canvas--the readymade stuff that comes all stretched and gessoed (with acrylic, not rabbits). But since I did not do brushwork or impasto, which would rule out using paper, and since I was still intimidated by canvas, I ended up continuing to use heavy cold press watercolor paper. It was familiar. I did try painting on panels too, which I actually liked, even though it meant basically relearning how to use acrylics, since the absorbency of the paper was gone. But the slick surface encouraged me to change my technique, and I knew that I could go a lot farther in terms of what I wanted to paint if I kept working in that technique.

The only problem was that much as I wanted to, I could not get the hang of photographing my works and kept having to use a scanner for photos. It was quite the hassle to find a reliable, more-or-less simple way to stitch scanned bits of the painting together (Photoshop Elements was the answer). Scanning a painting is fine if you are painting on paper, but with my scanner, the beveled edge around the glass kept a panel from being in touch with the glass and so any scan was out of focus. Sheesh.

I went back to painting on paper, feeling a bit defeated. Then I saw a sale on canvases and decided to give them a try. This is what I bought.

When I finally got around to actually using the canvas, I practically howled with dismay. First, the canvas was so fricking bumpy that there was no way I could do any detail on it, and I like me some detail--a LOT of detail, most of the time. Second, the canvas was bouncy. It was like being drunk or in outer space or both. I HATED it. I couldn't see how anyone could have ever painted anything. 

So I went back to painting on paper again, feeling a bit more defeated.

Thank the gods for the internet. I stumbled across someone describing how they did not like the bumpy surface of canvas and would go through all these stages to get a glassy surface. through multiple coats of acrylic gesso. I knew so little about canvas that I didn't even realize that such a surface was possible. Various methods for achieving this surface were described, but I decided to try using a soft brush.

Well, that was a huge messy FAIL. All I got was a canvas full of brushmarks. And gesso all over the place.

Now I was getting mad. There had to be a way to do this. There were paintings out there with plenty of detail on canvas. Was it because they were on linen? I looked at the prices of linen canvases with dismay. Plus I already had all those canvases I'd bought on sale. 

So more prowling around the internet. I decided to try two methods. One involved spreading the gesso with a credit card (I used an AARP membership card, lol). It left edges that I had a hard time getting rid of.

Clay scraper thingThen someone described spreading gesso with this thing, which I believe is actually a clay shaper. By that time, I was a bit aggravated and was pressing the canvas firmly with the shaper, which helped surround the bumps in the fabric and make it smoother. It worked. And it worked well. I made about ten thin coats with the shaper on two canvases. They weren't perfectly smooth, but they were much improved. I liked it so much I even wrote a positive review about using the shaper thing to spread gesso. 

There was still a bit of a give, so I decided I'd put a book under the canvas to act as a support while painting. I do like to stretch out over my canvases and can do that thanks to acrylics drying so fast. 

When I finally decided to take one of these prepared canvases for a test drive, I was so shocked. This is the perfect thing for me to paint on. It doesn't have the absorbency of paper, but it doesn't have the drag, either. It feels just right. And I can indeed create plenty of detail, although I actually do even more coats now to make the surface smoother. I was surprised that I actually like some of the texture showing through and even some of the gesso unevenness on the first canvas (I'd just gessoed right over the brush stroke fail). 

Since then I have gotten much better at making a smooth gessoed surface with the clay shaper. Now I'm almost at the end of those 10 canvases. I want to gradually work on larger supports, so I checked around for 18 x 24" canvases and instead found birch panels on sale. I got five of those. Not being able to lean on the surface still is a bit of a problem for me, and that's not an issue with birch panels. But the thing about panels is they are way more expensive and worse, heavier than canvas. That can be very costly when it comes to the larger sizes. And I do want to experiment with large paintings. I've got five 24 x 36" primed canvases (also bought on sale) for when I use up the panels, but eventually, I want to try going larger. 

Then I found out that using Golden's GAC 400 on unprimed canvas as the first couple of coats beneath the gesso will make the canvas nice and stiff. Sounds like a win to me. When I use up what I've got, I'm going to stretch my canvases myself so I can use this canvas stiffener. I've gotten a lot better at photographing my work, so I'm hoping that's not going to be an issue.

It's more than 40 years ago that my friend tried to show me how to prepare a canvas. It feels neat that all these years later I will finally be doing it myself.