I have been preparing a canvas for a new painting – a commission to paint a scene from the woods in Pennsylvania. I could not start right away. We had such great fall weather, and I was committed to using up every last minute of outdoor painting time. I had to wait until the weather changed in order to work in the studio. I started on November 14. The first step in preparing a new canvas is the dusty search for the right size stretchers. I have several boxes, each containing a range of sizes. I am never sure that I have exactly what I am looking for. I try to think ahead and guess what size canvases I might be using, but it varies from season to season, and I shift around a lot. It is very frustrating if I come up short, when I want to paint, I WANT TO PAINT! and I don’t want to start going to stores to get materials. Anyway, I found what I was looking for, sanded down the edges, inserted the corners into each other, checked to make sure it was true and square. Stapled the corners to make sure they don’t shift.
The next step is to measure out and cut the canvas to the right size. I knew I had enough canvas because I stocked up last spring. This is 10 oz cotton canvas. It is sturdy but still pliable, a good heavy weight for a large painting. This painting will be 20 X 30″. I cut the canvas 5″ bigger on each dimension so that I have enough to comfortably pull around the sides of the stretchers. This is very wide canvas, so I was left with two equal pieces side by side. I thought I would set the second piece aside to do something with later, but as it turned out, I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for the gesso to dry on the first one, so I found more stretchers and stretched up another canvas of the same size the next day.
I am trying something new with this canvas. When I went to the Golden Paint factory last month, I was amazed at the amount of technical information that was available. There were several newsletters about preparing the paint support, and I learned a lot about canvas, grounds, and stretching. I had always stretched a canvas from the center out to the corners. However the technicians at golden have done research on canvas tension stretched in different ways, and the effect on the paint film. The cotton fibers have greater freedom to move if they are not locked in the middle right away. I was skeptical, and it seemed like a lot more work to do the extra step of using push pins first, but after some hesitation, I got started, and it turned out to be a good process,
This image shows the canvas fully stretched and tacked with push pins. The next step is to replace the pins with staples, again starting at the corners. Below, you can see the tools that I use for this chore. Pliers for pulling the canvas taut, and an electric staple gun. The canvas had a taut and bouncy feel to it.
The next step after securing the canvas is to apply a ground. This stabilizes the canvas by locking the fibers together, and stiffens the cloth. It also protects the cotton from the destructive forces of acid in the oil paint.
I put three layers of acrylic gesso on the canvas. The first one was a thin coat, I mixed the gesso with 25% water. This makes it possible for the gesso to soak into the cotton fibers and completely saturate them. The other two layers of gesso were full strength. I sanded the second and third layer. This creates a smooth surface with a good amount of tooth.
The last step is to apply a colored oil ground. This is an excellent surface for oil paint. Having a grayish mid-tone makes it possible to see the range of lighter and darker tones in relationship to the ground. I chose a cool gray to have contrast with the warm tones of the autumn leaves that I will paint on top of it. I am just waiting for the oil to dry (actually oxidize and harden.)