Wednesday, September 25, 2013

All you want to know about painting 2: How do you choose your canvases, and a bit more...

This is the second post in "All you want to know about painting" series, where you get to ask any questions, and I promise to answer.

The second question comes from +Tarja Ollas: How do you choose your canvases?

Actually, the question was, originally, about how I stretch canvases -- it was modified because I don't stretch canvases at all (and I had tried to exclude such "technical" questions in my original announcement). The reason why I wanted to exclude them is two-fold: there is a lot of this kind of information around, mostly coming from people who care more about this side of the craft, and know more about it, than I do; and I often feel its importance is overestimated, especially from the point of view of a beginning painter (maybe because it's much easier to teach stretching than to teach painting).

Let me tell you a story to illustrate what I mean. I once met a man who admired other peoples' perceived talents in painting and was convinced that he had no such talent himself, even though he had always wanted to paint. Because at some point, he decided to try -- so he built himself an easel, stretched himself a canvas, and then found a random photo in a magazine and tried to paint the same scene (on his carefully hand-stretched canvas). The result was so disastrous that he concluded he had no talent, threw away his easel and his canvas, and never tried it again.  

I sometimes get a vague feeling that information about painting that floats around the world in general and World Wide Web in particular suggests and encourages this disastrous approach: to oversimplify just a bit, to become a painter, one needs an easel, a hand-stretched canvas, and a talent. Moreover, a "real painter" just must stretch and prime their canvases themselves; otherwise, they are naive beginners at best or eternal amateurs at worst.

On the other hand, if I were to rank things that go into the making of a painting (and a painter), the list would rather look like this:

  1. Studies, studies, studies and practice, practice, practice.
  2. Brushes.
  3. Paints (pigments).
  4. Talent (abilities).
  5. Support (canvas, canvas board, paper, whatever).  

And only the first one has to be hand-made...  Making brushes, paints, mediums, supports -- there are very few things in the life and work of a painter that can easily be delegated, and that's them. That's why I don't stretch my canvases, don't mix my paints, and don't make my brushes, but buy all those things ready to use.

To return to the original question: I prefer oil-primed linen, but it doesn't really matter much. The only thing essential for me in painting support is a certain degree of "catchiness" (that is, it should catch paint, not let it flow and glide) -- so for example, I do not use masonite boards. It can be a stretched canvas, or a canvas mounted on board -- the feeling is slightly different, and I know it's a crucial difference for some painters, but not for me (except boards are usually more convenient for plein air). I also prefer "gallery-wrapped" canvases, because they can be hung without framing, and I dislike frames most of the time -- but most, if not all, pre-stretched canvases are gallery-wrapped anyway. They are also all "archival" enough as far as I am concerned; but the truth is, I am not really concerned about "archival" qualities either.
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