In a world that races by ever more quickly there is often little time to get everything done in a day, maybe it was always so but the more technologically advanced we have become, the more the age old established crafts and manual skills have been lost. I’m particularly thinking of the crafts needed to be a fine-art painter, canvas and support preparation, the making of special oils and mediums. Recently I’ve begun to buy various supports, panels and canvases. I now stretch my own canvas and apply a size made from rabbit skin glue to protect the canvas from the acid in the paints which over time would destroy the canvas.
I’ve experimented a little with making oil paint with pigment and linseed oil but for the moment I’m happy to continue using quality tube paints with the addition of Louis Velasquez C.S.O. grinding medium, it is a lot of work to do everything for yourself and then paint and of course in the past successful artists had ‘ateliers’, with apprentices to do the more mundane manual tasks. My plan is to add skills as I need them and if they really are too labour intensive then I’ll see them as such and find an alternative solution.
I arrived at the idea of preparing my own canvases for two reason, firstly it gives you a greater freedom in choosing what size of canvas to use and I grew frustrated with applying acrylic gesso, I don’t like the stuff, I’ve found it dried unpredictably and too quickly when applying it to large canvases, rabbit skin glue conversely is easy to work with so long as it is kept at a reasonably warm temperature, similar to hot tap water. It can be sanded between coats until a smooth surface is obtained when a toned or tinted gesso can be applied. For panels I use a traditional gesso made with hot glue and chalk from Champagne in France.
I think the craft of painting will ultimately only be learned by those who wish to become more complete as an artist but of course this is not meant as a slight at painters who wish to paint and are happy to use the shop bought materials which are currently available. There is one other benefit to learning how to make your own canvases and prepare panels and that is one of cost, it’s true that shop bought panels are available for little money in all sorts of stores but the cheap ones are cheap, they twist and they still require the painting surface to be coated with a couple of coats of acrylic gesso. The more expensive canvases are just that – really expensive, once the craft of canvas preparation has been learned, there is a cost benefit to be had from doing the work for yourself, along with the afore-mentioned freedom to customise the canvas size and apply a quality glue size and glue based gesso.
I stretch my own canvases and prepare the surface with RSG and distemper. My preference is for cotton canvas. If I use a wooden support I will source these from a good art supplier such as Jackson’s of England, I usually start a painting by drawing directly onto the ground, transferring the drawing by using the ‘grid’ method, by using a projector (rarely) or tracing the image using ordinary tracing paper or carbon paper. From there the drawing is sealed with skimmed milk (casein) applied with a household plant sprayer, I apply several coats, wiping the excess off with a squeegee and also ‘blotting’ the support with paper towels, I leave the support to dry and then apply the next coat and so on.
I continue usually painting a grisaille, aiming for a charcoal tone rather than a blue-black. I sometimes add yellow ochre to black to produce a green tinted grisaille, a ‘verdaccio’. A grisaille is a proven method to establish values early on, it works well if you have a very clear idea about how the finished painting will look, it is not so good if you have a freer, more painterly style. I then add colour, painting with a limited pallete, building up the painting using, glazing techniques, scumbling, opaque paints and impasto. I use and recommend the calcite sun oil.com technique developed by Loius Velasquez, the paint quality created by adding a grinding medium made from sun thickened flax oil and chalk from Champagne in France is remarkable. In addition the ‘oil out’ is made from ‘glair’, (a distillation of egg white) and sun thickened flax oil. This is rubbed onto the canvas and the paint prepared with the grinding medium is painted into this ‘oil out’. This viscous paint has a great ‘flow’ to it, quite unlike and superior to that achieved with any other mediums that I have tried.
In the final stages I add transparent glazed shadows. I may then add impasto paint where it is needed, it is rare that I will use thick paint in the lower layers as it will take a while to dry and may crack as the painting will dry at very different speeds. I mix more chalk from Champagne into my impasto paint, I’d like to thank Louis Velasquez of C.S.O. oil for the information on how to make the C.S.O. oil and for many other valuable tips and for his invaluable support.
I have made a large drying cabinet which allows the painting to dry well enough to continue adding layers, (thanks to Donald Fels of Alchemist Mediums for the information on how to do this) the next day or the day after, C.S.O. paint is quick drying, usually less than 24 hours in summer but the drying cabinet helps in winter, when the air is not as dry.
Regarding a finishing varnish, if there is not too much white in your painting, amber varnish gives a nice deep glossy finish but your whites will slightly yellow. I stay away from Damar and similar products and instead use the ‘viscous emulsion’ made from glair and sun thickened flax oil, invented by Louis Velasquez, it gives a nice protective sheen to the painting, is long lasting, easily re-applied when necessary and is without the ngative properties of solvents.