Painting 101 — Priming a canvas

One of the plans I had for this blog was not only share an artist’s daily routine and challenges, but the knowledge and experience in the field of painting and photography that I gained over the years. With summer pretty much over and school back in session, I figured it is time to begin conducting classes and start by discussing what I do to prepare a canvas for painting. Though one may think it is rather an elementary process, I have found it to be most important.

You might be asking yourself that I should start with how to stretch a canvas onto the stretcher bars, to this I reply that most individuals purchase ready-made canvases. I also believe, most consumers are convinced that since these canvases have received a factory spray of two coats of Gesso, that no further treatment is necessary and that this is adequate as a base for their painting. I on the other hand feel it is most insufficient as a foundation for ones painting and will go as far as to say, that by not undergoing the ritual of preparing ones canvas, the artist loses out on an important psychological benefit, which binds the artist with the canvas on a spiritual level.

The process of priming a canvas takes a couple of days and with each careful application of Gesso I have found the mind engages in a thought process that is linked to what I am planning to paint. So by approaching the method of priming as if painting, we begin to reap numerous advantages and before one can begin to describe the procedure of these ceremonial steps, I should tell you we need to take into account the style and surface of ones intended painting, as each method employs a different approach and technique.

Before uncapping my bottle of Gesso, I seal off the sides of my canvas with Scotch-Blue painter’s tape so that the sides remain free of any Gesso or paint when working on the canvas. Using painter’s tape is not necessary when working with traditional canvases, only those whose sides are 1¾ inches wide and are not going to be framed.

There are three main surfaces, canvas, linen, and hardwood panels. Linen is the only one whose approach greatly differs, since classical artist mostly uses it with classical subject matters in mind and though hardwood panels have increased in popularity and availability, linen is still considered ‘king’ for the time being.

Linen comes in various grades of weave and so far I have only used ‘fine’. Though it is rather smooth from the start, I discovered that after each application of Gesso, I use either 100 or 150 grit fine grade sandpaper to smooth out any brush stroke marks. When it comes to linen and the traditional subject matter, especially portraiture, the desire is to achieve a glass smooth surface upon which one can lay down thin layers of oil paint and this is only achieved with sanding between each application of Gesso.

Searching for longitude along the coast of the Red Sea,
O/C 36 x 36 inches (91.44 X 91.44 cm), 2002

Regardless of the surface, each application of Gesso is applied in the opposite direction of the previous and since there are five layers applied to the surface, the first one is always in the horizontal direction of the paintings final position. Yes, I said five layers of Gesso, especially for cotton canvas and hardwood panels! In regards to linen, I discovered that three appears to be the minimum; four is even better, while five coats gives linen a real sumptuous baby skin feel and good rigidity.

Since I primarily paint abstract subject matter, I find this process of applying Gesso critical just as with classical themes, especially since a number of my paintings consist of multiple thin layers of oil paint mixed with Winsor & Newton's Liquin. This technique has a habit of revealing the surface texture beneath and because oil paint mixed with Liquin removes any traces of brush stokes, the five layers of Gesso allow me to create brush patters that are visible in the final stage, while the paintings surface remains mostly smooth.

A painting to which this technique of Gesso painting has been applied, displays not only a greater amount of brush work then was actually painted in oil or acrylic, but also has a visual depth, especially when the Gesso brush stroke goes in one direction and the paint layer in the opposite direction.

By taking into account the subject matter, the artist is able to control how much of their brush marks will show through the painting, as well as to the pattern and the width of the brush marks. The first layer of Gesso is a little thicker than the others, in order to establish a bond for all other applications. Once this has been accomplished it is time to begin making a spiritual connection with the canvas, if one has not do so already.

Symphony Nr. One — Red Dawn
O/C 36 x 36 inches (91.44 X 91.44 cm), 2007

Select a brush whose width you feel is appropriate for the results you’re aiming for, then work the arm and hand as if actually painting. Though I have used the very same brush the intended painting is being done in later, I have mostly used a cheap bristle brush purchased from a hardware store, because it leaves a more defined brush trail than a refined artist painting brush.

Painting in Gesso while building up the layers is what connects one to the canvas, it is the sanding, and careful layering of Gesso for a smooth surface that has the same effect in bonding as painting the undercoats.

The reason for my building up several layers of Gesso is all about establishing a surface that is worthy to paint on, regardless of the material. It was only a few years later when I began exploring creating subtle brush marks to compliment the artwork because of my extended use of multiple coats of oil with Liquin and it was during this time when I also noticed a spiritual bonding with the art work taking place. I strongly believe that by approaching the canvas with greater reverence, more of the artist personality becomes imbedded into the artwork.


Bobbie Altman said...

I totally agree that one has to prime the canvas no matter if you stretch it yourself or buy it 'ready made'.
When I was painting on canvas, I always stretched my own. I don't think I ever bought a ready stretched canvas. There was something very zen about starting at the beginning and doing it all. I loved the feeling of 'doing it myself' (you know that's my MO). I think I still have the metal gizmo I used to pull the canvas tight.

Trudi Sissons said...

I haven't had an opportunity to 'dig into' your words and images, but did want to thank you for your very useful and appreciated comments on my blog. I am grateful and look forward to having a leisurely visit through your work here.
I've added you to my list of blogs to visit on my blog (hoping you wouldn't object) and see now I can also 'follow'.
Forty years ago - Grade Seven - Pigeon Lake Summer Camp (all girls) - getting ready for JUNIOR HIGH and bras. :o)

kousalya said...

Really well done for the blog.these are so sweet and pretty!
oil Painting