My Blog About Art

Gesso & Brushes January 24, 2017 09:31

I finished "Hope of Transformation." The original painting sold right away (yay!) but I have plenty of prints. I then went on to do "Love Spell," which was fun because of the bright colors. I used a very textured gesso layer on that one and found it was a bit harder to do much detail because of it. Should have known.

Poison Toad work in progress Harold Roth 2017I've been messing with gesso a lot. I love the smooth surface I get from using the clay scraper, but it is incredibly messy, so I decided to try applying it with rollers and then sanding. A foam roller made applying it a snap but left a very pebbly surface. I tried a mohair roller with a 1/4" nap next, which is supposed to leave a smooth surface. Not quite, although it left less of a texture. I also tried sanding between coats and sanding just at the end. The painting I'm working on now, "Poison Toad," I sanded just at the end. It's a pretty good texture for me. It's enough to grab the paint and counter brush strokes (I like to paint smooth) but not so much that it interferes with details, like the pebbly texture of the foam rollers did. So that's positive. The rollers also make it much easier to gesso up a wood panel, which is what I've been using in the Vessels series.

For several years now I've been using Escoda synthetic brushes, which I switched to while still painting with watercolor on the recommendation of a post in an art forum. I used very expensive Wiinsor & Newton Series 7 sable brushes all my painting life up until that point. Escoda Prado synthetics don't hold as much water, but wow do they ever hold a point. Once I changed over to acrylics, I began experimenting with brush shape and find that now I really like brights. For those who aren't familiar with brush terminology, these have a square shape rather than the rectangle of a flat. They are great for pushing paint around and for "smudging" it, which I like to do. I do wear them out quickly, so I tried Escoda's synthetic mongoose brushes (Modernista) when I began "Poison Toad." These are much stiffer and they are flats rather than brights, but they work pretty well for my technique. I ordered the smaller sizes to try for details.

I also decided to try Golden's Sandable Gesso, which is made for stiff surfaces like wood and panels. I like painting on wood boards, although they are 10% heavier than canvases, which means higher shipping, especially for the larger sizes. Because of that, I also sent for some GAC 400, a fabric stiffener, to use on the back of gessoed prepared canvas. This might make them stiff enough for me to feel more comfortable with. If not, I might go ahead and try stretching my own canvases and using the fabric stiffener on both sides before gessoing. This should make them very stiff. But I hope that a couple coats on the back with stiffener and the usual 6+ additional coats of gesso on the front will result in a canvas that is stiff enough. 


Finally Here! September 06, 2016 10:01


My Blick Light-Duty EaselI moved from Elmira, NY to Pawtucket, RI on August 18/19, but it's taken me all this time just to get sort of settled in. I still have stuff to unpack, but "only" about 15 boxes, mostly kitchen stuff, clothes, and more importantly, all of my art stuff. I love my new place--a loft in an old fabric mill. This space is filled with light from ten windows and has more room than my former house. And I can walk to all sorts of things and take the bus to others. It's fab.

I did take some time the other night to put together the easel I bought from Blick a couple months ago. I'm still missing the bit that holds the top of the canvas, but I remember putting it in a box and so I just haven't gotten to that yet. Meanwhile, the easel is there to spur me on.

Someone on FB posted that Blick is having a canvas sale, and even though I've got 5 or so 18 x 24" wood panels and one 16 x 20" canvas on hand, I bought 6 18 x 24" canvases. I've gotten used to gessoing the canvases and how they feel with a lot of gesso layers that allow me to paint without any "bounce" but still leave enough flexibility for me to press the canvas against the scanner glass so I get a good image for reproduction. I didn't want to deal with gessoing the wood panels and then trying to photograph them correctly right now. So they are going to wait until I have enough time to do that. 

I have a lot of ideas for new paintings. I still want to work on water images and have a raft of reference photos I took on my last trip up to Seneca Lake, my favorite of the Fingerlakes. It was a great day for photographing--the water had that sort of oily quality it does sometimes when there's no wind. So I look forward to trying that out on canvas as well as doing some little wavelets against the rocks and some nice contrast between surface reflection and weeds and rocks below. I love those sort of palimpsest type images. Layers on layers! 

But I also downloaded a bunch of reference photos of all sorts of industrial buildings, inspired by a photo of a very foreboding prison, now abandoned, that stands in a town I lived in as a teen. That photo sent me down a rabbit hole about industrial buildings which in turn gave me all sorts of ideas for new paintings. I would like to move toward more complex images on larger canvases that allow for that a bit better, so I will try it on one of the new canvases as soon as they get here. I'm planning on two series, neither of which is about clouds or water, although they might be included in these images.

I've got notes about color and two reference photos ready for a basis for a sketch for the next painting--not on the actual canvas but on a sheet of paper I can in turn use as reference for the illustrations for my forthcoming book on herbal magic. I got the idea from the way I used notes in grad school--the very act of writing down the information was enough to sort of fix it in my mind. I thought drawing might work the same way, and it did for the plant illustrations, so I'm going to try the same technique for paintings: Put together a drawing based on arranging and aspects of various reference photos and imaginary stuff to come up with a drawing that I use as a reference for the painting. I'll take photos of the process.

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.