What to paint on?

“The genuis of an artist is the patrimony of his country, and that the former has the duty of guaranteeing the longest possible duration to the masterpieces to which he may give birth, and that this may be assured equal precautions must be taken in regard to all paintings; as be it understood, that a painter, however celebrated he may become, always begins by being unknown, and that he may happen by chance to be modest; and in consequence ignorant of the later value of the work he may be undertaking, he must not be allowed to compromise its existence by negligence or economy.”

The Dutch Government

The craft process and one of the biggest determinants of the appearance of the finished work begins with the decision of what to paint upon.

We need to acknowledge that in these times, the quality of products can vary widely, and some of the products offered to the artist are so poor that they virtually guarantee the destruction of the work within a few decades.

As the Dutch Government advises in the opening quote, the modesty of the painter is often what results in the painter buying mediocre canvas for their ideas. But what happens if the artist creates something wonderful, and then perhaps sell it or bequeath it to a museum, only for it to fall apart?

Cheap cotton and cheap acrylic gesso is a bad combination. Linoleic acid, linseed oil, ‘burns’ cotton fibres, rendering them brittle. Cheap acrylic soaks up oil resulting in a dulling of the painting. Cheap acrylic primer may crack when rolled, ruining the painting.

Linen-polyester mix, or pure linen is far more robust. Upon which the linen should be sized with rabbit skin glue front and back. Upon this sizing, oil primer (which is not true gesso) is used, which is traditionally linseed oil, whiting and lead carbonate based.

…linen canvas, sized with rabbit-skin glue and primed with a lean oil ground. The ground is usually pigmented a dull white using a mixture of lead white and chalk applied by brush in at least two layers. It is applied evenly and smoothly,

Paintings on Canvas: Lining and Alternatives Stephen Hackney . Tate Papers

When you go to the art shop you will see many products called ‘gesso’. However genuine GESSO is chalk whiting (marble dust/calcium carbonate) in rabbit skin glue. It is a brittle layer which will crack if rolled or folded, so is unsuited to canvas. It is brilliantly reflective and potentially exceptionally smooth when polished. It is more suitable for wooden panels, oak and so on.

“Nothing is purer, fresher and less yellowing than gesso size. No white pigment, suspended in oil will match it, due to the translucency of pigment and its suspension in a yellowing medium.”

A.P Laurie, M.A

Upon linen it is more common to use lead white priming. Genuine gesso is to rigid to use upon flexible grounds such as linen. If we really want to combine the strength of linen and gesso, we may consider affixing the linen via rabbit skin glue to a stable support like mdf or wood that has done its warping already (seasoned oak, victorian oak furniture is excellent). This technique is called merouflage.

“What is a sound support? One that copes with handling and transport, tensions from humidity and temperature changes, is chemically stable and visually acceptable. A marouflage is a sound support, but that is an extreme solution.”

Paintings on Canvas: Lining and Alternatives Stephen Hackney . Tate Papers

Actuallythe labour for gluing a piece of linen to a stable support like wood with rabbit skin glue is not very ‘extreme’, it is not particularly labour intensive nor expensive. The main drawback is it does not allow the painter to paint very large. I consider it ideal for smaller works as it partakes of the tooth of linen and the durability and stability of wood. (Copper and aluminium may also be used).

As a very brief overview of how the proceedure of marouflage may be conducted :

“The canvas was then marouflaged with a mixture of rye flour and animal glue onto the masonite boards. The adhesive between the canvas and masonite were applied with a flat spatula. Heat and pressure were then applied with a commercial iron through brown paper from the front of the test painting.”

”Backing Munch – past and recent attachment of Edvard Munch’s monumental Aula paintings to rigid supports” by Tine Frøysaker, Mirjam Liu and Thierry Ford, University of Oslo

If we do not choose to stabilise our canvas via meroflage, we must choose a flexible primer for our linen. Bearing in mind, acrylic gesso or oil gesso are not true gesso, but are sold as ‘gesso’ whereas it would be more correct to called them primer.

So upon cotton or linen we must choose between ‘acrylic gesso’ (primer) or oil primer. Acrylic gesso is faster to apply, sands down well, and good quality acrylic gesso can be brilliant white, fairly flexible and enduring. However, unless you buy a special non-absorbent acrylic primer, it will suck up the oil… it will be thirsty, resulting in a dull appearance.

Oil primer on the other hand is not as brilliant white, but has the advantage in terms of oil painting of not introducing acrylic to the process, and is also less absorbent, so the oil tends to sit upon and dry upon the oil primer rather than being absorbed in… thus remains a fresh appearance.

Let us review ‘The Painters Methods and Materials’ by A.P Laurie, M.A :

“It is evident that if the gesso is absorbent and stained with oil it looses all its optical value.”

By which is assumed that the saturation of oil into absorbent gesso will result in a yellowing or browning white, as opposed to the clarity of pigments that are laid upon – as already contented, upon a non-absorbent white

This would point to necessity of resins within the tempera within mischtechnik paintings, otherwise the paint tends toward absorbency and thus dulling.

“I am proposing to put a thin coat of oil over a white ground from which I wish to secure the maximum brilliancy by the reflection of scattered light. I have therefore painted the ground with white lead… mixed with a low refractive medium like size. What would be the effect of varnishing the surface with oil? The reply is, that if the surface is absorbent, that is, if the pigment is not effectively coated with size, the oil will soak in with degradation of tone. But if the surface is non-absorbent, there will be so little degradation of tone as to be hardly visible. Therefore to obtain the highest illumination through a layer of oil we must mix the white lead… with a medium of low refractive index and introduce sufficient of the medium to produce a non-absorbent surface.”

A.P Laurie, M.A

Points to take from this :

  • Genuine gesso is whiting + rabbit skin glue
  • This genuine gesso is only suitable for rigid supports such as wood
  • Flexible primer such as oil, whiting, lead or acrylic primer for flexible fabric
  • Linen is stronger than cotton canvas
  • Linen or cotton canvas is even more protected with merouflage (gluing the fabric down to a panel)
  • Traditionally canvas and linen and board were ‘sized’ (prepared with a layer of rabbit skin glue to prevent absorbency of moisture into the panel and fabric during damp conditions).
  • EVA and high quality PVA glue are the modern substitutes for rabbit skin glue and may be used in sizing.
  • In merouflage, the panel should be sized front and back (covered with fine layer of EVA or PVA glue)
  • Absorbent grounds will dull and brown faster than non-absorbent grounds.