How to Choose a Canvas – Part 1

When I started painting, I didn’t realize how much the canvas would affect my painting and painting style. Truth be told, I didn’t realize it until about 15 years into my painting life. Maybe I’m a super slow learner, but then again, I don’t think this was a topic any of my teachers mentioned let alone explained.

The first and big realization happened when I was painting with my friend and mentor. He asked if he could borrow/have some canvas. Of course, I gave him some. As he painted on it, he asked, what it was, but not in a way that was like, “This is great! What is this?” More like, “Yikes, what IS this??” I told him it was an oil primed portrait linen. I was surprised he didn’t like it. Oil primed linen was considered the best. All my teachers used oil primed linen and it was what I had painted on for most of my painting life. And, by the way, it’s not inexpensive running about $1,000 per roll. So, I asked what he didn’t like about it and what he preferred.  As he started to explain his visceral reaction to the material it was dawning on me that painting surfaces are personal choices that will also affect how you go about painting.

In this and the next several posts I’m going to talk about different materials, how they feel, and what they might be good for. But before I begin, let’s talk about the difference between an acrylic primed canvas and an oil primed canvas and the differences between canvas, linen, and polyflax. Unless I’m talking about a specific material I’m going to use the generic term ‘canvas’ from now on.

Primers

I’m not going to talk about prepping your own raw material. First, because I’ve never done it, and second because there are really excellent canvases available for me to use. I would rather paint than prep. That being said, I also have friends who swear by prepping their own boards as that’s the only way they can get exactly what they want. Like my friend in the previous paragraph! If you are going to prep your own boards (usually wood) and canvas (which is nothing more than a woven cloth), there is a lot of available information on the web.  George, from Natural Pigments, teaches classes on this subject and has all the materials you would need on his website. There is also a Facebook group called Natural Pigments that George and Tatiana oversee. It’s an excellent resource.

Canvases are primed with acrylic or oil. In very simple terms the primer is the top layer which separates your oil paint that you will apply from the fabric. There is an additional layer (sometimes a rabbit skin glue) between the fabric and the primer. If the primer wasn’t there the paint wouldn’t go on smoothly (have you ever painted on the wrong side of a canvas by mistake?!) Additionally, a reaction will take place over time that will erode the cloth. Sometimes the acrylic primer is a clear acrylic allowing the material to show through. Senso and Caravaggio are two examples of this kind of clear primer over linen.

An acrylic primed canvas/linen is the most versatile. It can be used for acrylic painting as well as oil painting. It is less expensive to prepare so the overall cost of the canvas will be lower. An acrylic primer can be applied to canvas, linen, and polyflax. An oil primed canvas/linen can only be used with oil paint, but it doesn’t matter if the paint is traditional or water soluble such as Cobra. Oil primed canvases comes as single primed (SP) or Double Primed (DP). Double priming adds more heft and weight to the canvas. You can also apply an oil primer over an acrylic primed canvas or board. I’ve done that using Gamblin Oil Painting Ground and like it. No matter what you choose, it should state that it is acid free

Canvas, Linen, and Polyflax

Canvas and linen are traditional surfaces to paint on and have been used for hundreds of years. The challenge with these two materials is that the fibers are somewhat hydrophilic meaning that they will absorb water or shrink up depending on how humid or arid the weather is. If you mount your material to sealed wood, then this will cause relatively little problem. But if you use a gallery wrapped canvas then the fabric will move at a different rate than the paint. Over time this can cause cracking. Polyflax is a newer material which is made from synthetic fibers that do not expand or contract with temperature and humidity. Hence, it is a more stable material. Museums really appreciate this as it makes their conservation work more lasting.

Buying Options

Canvas, Linen, and Polyflax can usually be bought by the panel, by the pad, and by the roll. Until you find what you like I have found it best to try different materials. It takes a while to understand your canvas so don’t rush to judgement. But it will always be much less expensive to buy your canvas/linen/polyflax by the roll. The advantage is that you can cut to whatever size you want. When you cut your canvas, make sure to leave at least a 1/8 – ¼ inch border so you can tape it to a board. The disadvantage is that you will have to deal with long rolls. Most come in four different lengths: 54”, 60”, 72”, and 84” all by 6 yards. Choose a length that is most easily handled and that will fit in your space when laying down. For me, 54” and 60” work the best.

In the next post I will talk about the weight of the different canvases and how the weave will affect your final work.

If I Had to Pick Only One Painting Easel……

I wish I could choose just one easel…… Like most oil painters I have more than one. I have at least 4 and each has its own sweet spots. Some are great for in the studio. Some work for when I’m traveling, and some work for both. I started out with a traditional French easel but found it clunky once I ventured outside to paint. So, I added other, smaller easels. A couple I got one as gifts!

Below I will talk about the pros and cons of some of these easels and how I got around some of the issues that I ended up having to deal with.

French Easel – My first easel. There are several manufacturers that make this kind of paint box and there is also a half French easel which is half the width. This cuts down on weight. For how I use mine, a full French easel is best. Mine is made by Richeson. While I haven’t compared all the different manufacturers, I would think they are all rather similar in size, how they set up, and durability.

I’ve had this easel the longest and use it quite a lot. I use it for both drawing and painting in my studio.

Here are some of the pros for this easel:

  • It has 3 legs that spread making this a very stable easel.
  • The maximum easel height is about 69 inches.
  • The largest vertical size the easel can hold is 33 inches, though I’ve jerry-rigged it to hold a taller canvas.
  • The legs are adjustable in height.
  • The place where the canvas or drawing board sits can be tilted from completely flat to leaning toward you. The ability to lean the board area forward is especially helpful when I work in charcoal and don’t want the dust falling down my work. In this configuration I also put a strip of aluminum foil underneath my drawing board to catch the dust which I can then re-use or toss.
  • The place where the canvas or drawing board sits can be raised quite high. Though I’m not tall, it’s very helpful to be able to raise this grooved bar as many of my canvases are small.
  • I can easily clip a light to the top.
  • The drawer can hold either painting supplies and/or pencils/charcoal in the separate compartments. And there is another compartment below the drawer which can hold additional items.
  • When the drawer is extended I use the drawer as a base to hold my French Mistress painting palette. https://www.dickblick.com/products/french-companion-mistress/
  • It will hold a wet canvas allowing you to transport a wet painting when the box is closed, though not one under 10 inches.
  • It comes with a wooden palette.
  • It can be folded up, and when folded up it doesn’t take a lot of space.
  • While you can paint a small canvas with this easel, the top bar doesn’t come down far enough to hold a panel in place. I have a larger separate adjustable panel holder that I had made for me which I use with my small panels.

Here are some of the cons for this easel:

  • While it’s great for my studio, I found it rather awkward and heavy to carry around when I was painting outdoors (en plein air).
  • It was also awkward to carry around if I needed to take it to a class.
  • While this isn’t a con but something to note, sometimes the screws will come loose and things feel a bit wobbly. I’ve found it VERY easy to take a Phillips-Head screwdriver and tighten up any loose screws.
  • While the French Easel comes with its own wooden palette, if you are painting plein air at the end of a painting session you will need to find another place to store your leftover paint.
  • The wooden palette is not a very comfortable palette to hold, though you could rest it on the open drawer as I do with my French Mistress palette. I’ve only used mine once and never again. I have other arm/hand palettes that are MUCH more comfortable.
French Mistress/Companion sitting on the drawer of my French Easel

When you open or close up the easel you will need some room and a bit of coordination to fold it all back up. You will find a way that works easily for you, hopefully.

All in all, this is a good all-purpose easel and the more I’ve used it the more I like it. I would not suggest it for plein air painting, though many people use it for that and like it. I like things that are smaller and easier to hike around with.

https://www.jerrysartarama.com/monet-french-easel

Here is a YouTube video showing the easel in use:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zrzaZYjxe30

Pochade Boxes

A pochade box is a small, portable painting box that can be used in the studio, but more often used en plein air. The word ‘pochade’ means a quickly executed sketch or study. Because light in the field changes rather quickly, many landscape paintings are done as ‘studies’ even though they may be complete works unto themselves. I have 3 kinds of pochade boxes.

Before I bought my first pochade box I spoke with a lot of painters. When I was painting with a group of other painters, I would notice that some easels were more popular than others. So, I spoke with everyone I could about what they liked and didn’t like about their easels. How much did it weigh? How much did it cost? Did it live up to their expectations? It’s very helpful to see these easels in action and what’s good for one person may not fit with your needs. Pochade boxes come in all kinds of materials including aluminum. Consider all the options before buying.

My needs were as follows:

  1. It had to be easily portable
  2. It had to have a built in wet canvas holder as I didn’t want to be dependent on having carry a wet canvas box in addition to my gear (though I’ve also used clean pizza boxes to hold wet canvases)
  3. It had have a large enough palette to be able to mix a good amount of paint
  4. It had to be able to accommodate a canvas up to 20″ in height
  5. It had to have enough depth to add a glass palette that would cleanly fit it the box

My most used pochade box is from Artwork Essentials and called an EASyL Versa.

http://artworkessentials.com

PROS:

  • Most of the EASyL palettes can hold 2 wet canvas panels in the back of the lid. It can hold 3 sizes of wet canvas.
  • This size has an added benefit of holding larger canvases and having a larger mixing area. Both were very important to me as this was an easel I would take when painting outdoors and also when I went to class. The Versa is the largest of their pochade boxes at 12 x 16.  
  • Another added benefit of this easel is that I can close the lid and not worry about my paints getting ruined. In other words, I didn’t have to clean my palette if the weather quickly changed.
  • The set comes with a tripod, 2 quick release plates, a couple of hooks to hold your OMS container, and a brush holder. I traded my brush holder for a side tray.
  • I added a narrower panel support tray which gives me the option of using the wider tray when painting on a gallery wrapped canvas or the narrower tray when painting on a panel. Because I mostly paint on panels or canvas taped to a board, I use the narrower tray almost always.
  • One of the best features of this box is the panel position isn’t fixed on this box. I can raise the painting panel to a height that’s comfortable for me while having the palette at a comfortable level as well.
  • While the height of the canvas is limited, the width isn’t.
  • The palette area is deep enough that I was able to insert a glass palette.
  • There is a removable piece of wood that separates your paint from the palette area which allows you to store your brushes and some tubes in the box itself without fear of wet paint getting all over your equipment.
  • The area that holds your canvas will go from flat to vertical to closed.
  • The easel can be easily adjusted for watercolor and pastel work.

CONS:

  • While it isn’t the lightest in this category, it isn’t so heavy to be a deal breaker.
  • If you paint larger than 16” in height you will need to find a way to clamp the canvas to the supporting back. Like most painters, I jerry-rig when necessary.
  • I added a glass palette which adds a bit of additional weight to the box.

My second Easy L pochade box is one they don’t sell any more. I wanted an easel that was lightweight and could easily fit in a backpack. At the time, what I bought was a good option. What Artwork Essentials sells now are much better options. The one that is most like mine is the Slimline Classic Mini.

Slimline Classic

PROS:

  • It’s lightweight and thin.
  • The smaller size should easily fit in a backpack
  • It can hold a wide range of canvas sizes, including as small as 4” which is an improvement over mine.
  • Depending on which of the 3 Slimline boxes you get, it can handle up to 20” in height, which is a huge improvement. On my older box I’m limited to 10 inches in height.
  • The interior of the box is a full rectangle which should allow the placement of a glass palette
  • CONS:
  • It doesn’t have a wet panel holder on the back.
  • It may or may not be deep enough for a glass palette. I haven’t seen the new ones so can’t tell for sure.
  • You can’t store brushes in the palette area as there is no way to separate the wet paint from the mixing area.

My smallest traveling pochade box is what’s called a Thumb Box by Guerrila Painters https://guerrillapainter.com/.

The Guerrilla Box comes in many sizes. Mine is a 5 x 7 and will hold a 5 x 7 panel horizontally and that is also how up to 2 wet canvases are carried. Below I’m showing it clipped to paint vertically. It’s super cute, but not the most practical – at least for me. It is small. Definitely a plus if you want to travel light and want to paint from your car or as unobtrusively as possible (hence the name, Guerilla Painter).

PROS:

  • Super small
  • Super lightweight
  • Has a small amount of storage under the palette
  • Can carry 2 wet/dry 5 x 7 canvases panels.
  • Can buy add-on accessories if you want to paint up to 8 x 10.
  • The area that holds your canvas will go from flat to vertical to closed.
  • Has accessories specifically for the thumb box. I added a side tray that folds on top of the painting palette area without touching the paint.

CONS:

  • The palette area is very small and takes getting used to. If you are using a 3 color palette plus white it is OK, but any more than 4 colors makes for an extremely crowded space.
  • There is no height adjustment for the canvas. This means that if you are tall you will be restricted to the height your tripod will extend. It might not be comfortable for mixing paint as the whole box will be fairly tall. Conversely, if you are shorter, the mixing area may be at a comfortable level but the eye level of the painting may be too low.
  • My thumb box has a hole in the storage area, presumably for your thumb, so it will need something slipped in place to cover the bottom or things can fall out. I put in a thin piece of cardboard.
  • If you paint larger than 5 x 7 you will need a way to carry your wet canvas(es).

A Framed Easels

I have a couple of A-Framed easels. One I won and the other was given to me be a person who was moving. If I’m painting a very large canvas, which is rare for me, I will use them. In general, I use them to hold finished work to show clients or at art shows. There are some lovely fancier ones such as this Mabef easel which folds and has a carrying strap for easy travel, to the more traditional.

More traditional A Frame easel

PROS:

  • Very lightweight
  • Folds Flat
  • Small footprint
  • Can handle large canvases

CONS:

  • On my easel the canvas needs to be stabilized somewhat as the place where the canvas rests is not that wide and can be wobbly. But mine is very old and probably not the best made.
  • In a wind, the canvas can easily blow off unless strapped in some way.
  • You will need some way to accommodate a palette. I use a very lightweight hand held palette when using these easels to paint. You can also set up a taboret/narrow table and have your palette rest on that.

In summary, there are lots of easels and there is no one solution. But after choosing your first easel, no doubt, you will get a second. All will become friends. And if one doesn’t work out then you can re-sell it.

Is it a Bad Habit to Trace or Project an Image?

There are 3 schools of thought on tracing or projecting an image.

  1. It’s a sin
  2. It’s a timesaver
  3. Sometime it’s OK and other times not

Let me go through the 3 thoughts.

Starting with “It’s a sin”:

When you trace you aren’t really learning to draw and you can become very reliant on tracing or projecting. Drawing freehand is hard. It’s a lot nicer to have something that looks like it’s supposed to. When you trace you are giving the impression that you can draw because you have a relatively accurate image, but in reality you may not be able to draw as well as the tracing. So, in essence, you are giving a false impression, unless you fess up.

Another challenge to tracing is that if you do it a lot, any free-hand drawing is going to look ‘bad’ to you. This starts a cycle of only drawing when you can trace or project without learning how to translate what you are seeing in 3-D to 2-D. It’s a very false economy.

“It’s a Timesaver”

There is no doubt that tracing saves time in getting work onto a canvas or paper. If you goal is to work on a particular technique (other than drawing), this might be a good way to go as it allows you to get right to the exercise allowing you to focus on that. It is a great timesaver which lets you get right to the job you need to do. One thing to know about tracing….You can still lose your drawing. There is also a tendency to stay between the lines keeping your drawing tight. The trace should be guide only.

“Sometimes it’s OK and other times not”

From the two previous pros and cons you can see when it might be useful and when it’s not. I have a class I’m teaching where I am allowing my students to trace because I’m teaching them about color and I want them to have confidence in their start. But they’ve already also had a lot of drawing classes with me. Interestingly most have decided to draw freehand instead of tracing.

When I was in school I never traced as I knew drawing was essential to my understanding. When you take the time to draw you are actually learning about the thing you are drawing. Every time you draw it, or a section of it, you gain a deeper knowledge that you wouldn’t have by tracing.

On the other hand, if you are keeping the scale at the same size as what the tracing would be, it’s nice to be able to lay a piece of tracing paper over your work to see where you’ve gone off the rails. In this instance you are using tracing as a learning tool.

Tracing and projecting is a tool. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to tighten a bolt (you would use a wrench) it’s still helpful to have a screwdriver in your toolkit. I consider tracing and projecting part of my tool kit. I just use it very judiciously.

Artist Sets vs Individual Paint Tubes

“When buying artist grade oil paint, should you buy a set or buy them separately by tubes? If buying separately, what are some good/essential colors to get?”

I got this question on Quora, and it’s a really good question.

It might seem that if you get a pre-packaged set you will have great colors to start with. And you might. But then again, you might not. When I see these sets there are a couple of red flags for me. The first is that the colors, while often are very good, often the colors are also extremely strong, meaning they have a very high tinting strength. This can completely overwhelm a palette and make it truly frustrating for the beginning painter. The other red flag is that often these colors come in smaller tubes so not enough to really work with to understand each colors working properties.

As a teacher, I have a suggested list of colors I want my students to have for my beginning painting classes and I always suggest buying the colors separately. 

Most Basic Palette:

If I was starting out and just wanted the minimum 3 colors plus white, I would get the following:

Cad Yellow Pale: This is a color that is closest to a ‘true’ yellow and therefore can be bent toward the warm (orange side of yellow) as well as cool (green side of yellow) while still staying yellow.

Cad Red Medium: This is a middle value color and is relatively unbiased, meaning it is pretty close to a true red without an orange bias nor a violet bias. For example, Alizarin Crimson is a red that has a violet bias, and Cad Red Light has an orange bias.

Ultramarine Blue: This is a mainstay on almost all palettes. It is a clean blue, dark in value, and can help make clean secondary colors of green and violet, though the violet won’t be as chromatic (it will be a more brown violet) unless you also have Alizarin on your palette.

Adding more colors:

Double Primary Palette: Is a palette of 6 primary colors each having a warm and cool relationship to each other, plus white. The following is what I would suggest for a Double Primary Palette: Cad Yellow Lemon/Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Red Light/Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue/Cobalt or Cerulean Blue. 

With a double primary palette you have the opportunity to create the most chromatic secondary colors (orange, violet, green) as well as duller versions of these secondaries. Each of these colors has a particular bias which will affect your color mixtures.

Additional helpful colors:

Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna: These are considered dull Oranges. When mixed with Ultramarine Blue, give you beautiful greys to black. Also, when burnt umber or burnt sienna is mixed with Alizarin you will create lovely warm darks.

Viridian: This is green that has a blue bias.  Yellow added to it will bend it toward the cooler greens until it goes to yellow or, by adding a bit of Ultramarine Blue, will get slightly warmer versions of green. Mixed with Alizarin you will get another version of greys.

Black: I rarely have this on my palette, but if you switch your palette for Black, Cad Red, and Yellow, then you will get a modified Zorn palette. Black substitutes for a very dull (low chroma) blue. So mixed with yellow you will get greens, mixed with reds  will yield versions of violet (though you will need to add a bit of white to see the true hues.

Anders Zorn was a wonderful landscape and portrait painter from Sweden and was the John Singer Sargent of his country.  The Zorn Palette is called that because Zorn has a self portrait of himself holding his painting palette and on it are the colors, yellow ochre, vermillion, black, and white. While this set of colors is attributed to Zorn, it was, and still is, a common palette. The portrait below was painted using the Zorn palette.

I hope this helps. For more information on color you might want to take my self-paced online class, “Understanding Color and How to Mix It: Teaching Your Colors to Play Well With Others”

But Wait…..I Think There is More….

How do we know when an art piece is done? There are times when we just want to keep adding things/details/color…..whatever……because we can and because we are having fun and, maybe, because we are testing ourselves. But when is the piece actually done? Well, in truth, it depends on you and what your intent is.

If you look at Hieronymus Bosch paintings, for example, many are filled with lots of details. “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, below, is just one example.

400px-Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_(Ecclesia's_Paradise)

But if you look at many Eugene Carriere painting, they are simple in composition and color.

A question you can ask yourself is, “what is the least amount I can put in and still have it work?” But to do this, you need to know what you want to evoke at the beginning. Sometimes it will change as you are working, but you need a start. For example, I had an idea for a painting, but as I started working on it, it was more interesting as a somewhat abstract work. It was really, really hard to not continue and I added more and more details until I had to physically walk away from the piece. While it’s cool now, I liked it better when it was more abstract.

I then painted a second painting and included more detail, though not as much as I often do.

It’s up to the painter and the viewer to decide which is more pleasing to look at, and I am often surprised that what I like and think is a better work, a collector will totally overlook.

From my perspective less is more as the viewer will fill in what’s missing and make the artwork more their own. But in the end, it’s up to you and your particular style and personality. Experiment and see what happens. Honestly, not every piece you make will be a success, but every piece should be considered an experiment.

Mother & Calf

It’s spring time and that means all kinds of new babies. This baby cow, with it’s knobby knees and mom licking it clean, looks like it pretty recently made its entrance. This small painting is part of my regular daily painting practice.

Mother and Calf is available here and shipping is included

Ebay Mother & Calf 5.jpg

Mother and Calf

Oil on Canvas

7 x 5

Bidding begins at $95 and includes free shipping

Daily(ish) Painting

I’ve been painting for a pretty long time on a regular basis, but having announced that for at least the next year I would be doing a daily(ish) painting and then posting it for sale on Ebay and other sites, I find I’m both addicted to this practice and also a bit in a quandary to keep coming up with fresh ideas. But let’s back up and see where I’ve been and what has happened, just in case you want to follow a similar path.

My postings began in very early January. I planned on doing small works, mostly 5 x 7’s, some 6 x 8’s and a few 8 x 10’s. I ordered over 200 panels and started to paint them mid December so that I would have a stock to fill in gaps when I was on holiday or teaching and couldn’t get to my easel. I was nervous and excited, but mostly nervous about posting so often. I have a fair email list but would this consistent in-box posting put people off??

After letting people know this is what I was going to do and the date I was going to start, and then encouraging my peeps to either look and bid or just delete – no pressure- I started with a very strong painting that I hoped would sell and sent the first email. It sold with multiple bids!

#1 Ebay Honey jar small.jpg

And then I sent a second painting, and a third, and a fourth……day after day……It was too much. I was getting a serious number of ‘unsubscribes’! It freaked me out.  I know from reading other blogs that we need to find our own ‘tribe’. But it reminded me of all the people we think are our friends on FB, but they aren’t really. OK, no problem. Re-think how I might feel. So I went to every other day.

After 2 weeks I needed to take deep breaths before opening my email to see who else was, ‘no longer interested’, but then things started to stabilize and fewer were opting out. After a month (and several more sales) people were dropping me notes to say how much they enjoyed seeing what I was doing. People at my local Trader Joe’s would talk to me about what they saw. It was very encouraging. And now I didn’t want to let anyone down!

It’s been just over 50 paintings and this is what I’ve learned so far:

  • People will unsubscribe and that’s OK. I lost about 12% of my list, but when I really looked at who unsubscribed they often didn’t open any of my emails.
  • People are watching….way more than I thought they were.
  • People have let me know they are encouraged by what I’m doing.
  • Sales will happen, but not always directly. One client bought 3 paintings after the auctions ended, including one which was a larger piece.
  • It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s just a given. But create regardless.

If you have a daily or almost daily practice, I would love to know how this has changed and affected you and your work. I will post about this again in a few months.

 

Daily(ish) Painting – Avocado and Tulip

I will have a bit of catching up to do as I’ve been on Colorado visiting and studying the Degas exhibit at the Denver Museum. If you have a chance, GO! I will write about it, and also my visit to the abstract painter’s Clifford Still Museum, which is right next door, in a later post.

But for now here are a couple of paintings that I have on Ebay as part of my Daily(ish) Paintings.

Avocado

Ebay Avocado 5

And Tulip

Ebay Tulip 5