Monday, June 25, 2012

Painting Surfaces

In 1956 a group of us went out on a class session near the Stamford Reservoir where our teacher, Alfred J. Tulk, had selected a yellow house for us to paint (make a painting of).  We all had our folding wood tripod, paint box and a Fredrix canvas board. This canvas board was a cardboard core wrapped in primed canvas.  There was no discussion about archival boards back then for our work.

However this painting has lasted 56 years, and counting, without any signs of deterioration. The label glued on the back fell off years ago. This was my introduction to painting surfaces and my regular painting surface for a few more years.

Pio was my nickname.  A very long story. Don't ask
In the painting courses at college, the teacher wanted us all to loosen up and use large painting surfaces. Large being around 48" x 36". Of course stretched canvas was not in our student supplies budget so the school offered alternative materials at very reasonable cost.  Sometimes we had untempered Masonite. These were all available through the local lumber yard and furnished to the school at reasonable prices. They were primed using white house paint applied with a paint roller. Our concern was definitely not longevity. At times the work was over-painted with a roller and reused if it was nothing you felt was worth saving and usually this was the case back then.

The idea was to use a large brush, thinned out paint and use your entire arm with LARGE, studied, decisive strokes. That really changes the way you see the subject before you touch the painting surface.  I still do small study sketches with black and white Conte or pastel to see what I have.

Black and white values study on colored paper.
Once I had need of some non-standard size canvases which I had custom made through a New York supplier.  The linen and stretchers were absolutely first quality and were rather expensive as expected.  After that I tried to stay with standard size stretched canvases.  My work was 90% hobby and cost was an issue.  The difficulty with these inexpensive canvases is that some were made in countries that used the metric system and their 16" x 20" canvas did not exactly fit a pre-made 16" x 20" frame.  Drats.

Having learned to paint on a hard surface initially, I found the stretched canvas has a spongy quality to it.  So I re-investigated painting boards.  Some painting boards were more expensive than stretched canvas.  In my internet surfing I discovered RayMar brand with various canvas types mounted to a masonite panel with an additional gray melamine finish on the back. These are of archival quality in packages of ten. I also liked the fact that if I needed a non-standard size, I could cut the board with a sturdy utility knife and a steel edge.  How convenient.  I also use a very fine toothed blade in an electric hand saber saw (jig saw) with a fence guide for straight lines.  Since the blade cuts on the up stroke, I put the canvas face downwards for a really clean cut.

I continued using RayMar until I discovered that Fredrix started making an archival quality canvas wrapped Masonite board with the qualities that I was looking for.  Unlike RayMar, they were available at almost any outlet that carried Fredrix products.  Their price was also about a third less than RayMar. They are also sold in a package of ten boards.  They can also be cut down to any size you like as well.

Remember that you can also do oil sketches and studies on sized paper. See the post of February 12, 2012 for details.

Thursday, June 14, 2012


In 1952 I was in the Boy Scouts, and working for a Merit Badge dealing with birds.  My father surprised me one day with a small set of Winsor & Newton watercolor pans.  I recall a Scarlet Tanager that I painted with Vermillion on a 3" x 5" index card.  Now this was something special.  Watercolors have been in my studio since that time.  There is something amazing about the flow of the liquid which is very exciting.

For architectural renderings in school, I selected line drawings with a watercolor wash as my preferred representation.  The lines were either pencil or ink.  I liked the results so well that I have been using the technique for over fifty years.

Pencil drawing with watercolor. The original is 13" x 9" and from the early 1990's.
During the summer of 2003, I was recuperating from Lyme disease and on an I.V. every day.  I spent most of the summer painting indoors.  However, Beth went into our extensive garden, where I probably got the Lyme, and brought in flower cuttings for subject material. 

Ink lines with watercolor. Garden flowers. 8" x 6.5"

Watercolors come in three basic forms: dry cakes, tubes and liquid.  For my usage I prefer tubes because I get a lot more color in one purchase.  This is important for me as grandchildren who visit the studio to make Valentine's Day cards can consume an entire cake of red color in one sitting.  With the tube supply, I just squeeze out a little more onto the palette tray and the work continues.  The unused portion is left to dry and can be easily activated for use with a few drops of water. Mold can grow on damp, covered paint.  I only use the cover for the tray when the paint is completely dry to protect the colors from dust and foreign particles.

A note about color layout on my pallet whether it is watercolor or oils.  From the upper left moving clockwise blue, green, yellow, orange, red, violet.  Some time I add the earth colors in the orange family and depending on the pallet size, or  sometimes they come after the violets and other pure colors.

For scale of this photograph, the tubes are the half ounce size which is 3" in length.
The above tray is what I usually use for average size paintings.
This is the Kremer box with 14 full size snap in pans and room for two brushes.

This is the box spread out for work. There is a lot of mixing areas.
Snap out pans are shown removed for illustration.

Rather large graphic study for a commercial client.
The color is straight out of the tube and onto the dinner plate and thinned with water.
The brush is a number 10 Da Vinci quill. See post from Feb. 21, 2012 for a brush photo.

Over the years I slowly acquired Winsor & Newton Series 7 finest sable brushes in varying sizes up to a number 8.  Larger sable brushes get to be rather expensive, especially today.  Many of my sable brushes were purchased years ago.  Synthetics have become acceptable in their quality and budget.

My favorite paper is Strathmore 640 gsm, cold pressed, sized, watercolor paper.  It is thick enough that is does not warp or buckle. I always lay the paper on a level, flat surface for the best control of the liquid. 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

If you have a technical interest in the composition of tube watercolor, this illustration will show the complexities of the modern product.  The image is from the site Handprint by Bruce MacEvoy.  Handprint is the finest guide to watercolors.  It truly is the most extensive and detailed work on the subject and an excellent reference source.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Studio Set Up

In the studio, I have an 18" x 32" taboret which originally was sold as a buffet serving table.  The top slides back 3/4 of the way revealing a storage area.  We bought it over twenty years ago as a diaper changing table in the bathroom.  After the need for diapers vanished, I eventually took it into the studio and adopted it as my taboret for supplies and tools.

I dislike holding a traditional pallet so I bought a 16" x 30" sheet of safety glass which is about 1/4" thick made up of two sheets of glass bonded to an internal core of plastic.  The construction of safety glass is such that if it breaks, the shards of glass will remain attached to the plastic core. The corners and edges were ground smooth and I painted the back of the glass with a middle gray spray paint.  The gray is close to the standard Kodak middle gray sample sheet, but not an exact match. I like a gray pallet to better be able to distinguish the color values.

About half of the glass surface is used for mixing paint and the rest for color tubes, brushes and pallet knife in use.  Also there is a small bottle of Galkyd Painting Medium mixed with odorless mineral spirits.

On the bottom shelf are the pastel boxes and the PanPastels. 

The sliding top opens and stores painting supplies.

If the pallet will be open to the air for a long time, I clean off the mixing area of the pallet with a pallet knife or razor scraper. Cover the globs of oil paint remaining with plastic wrap which clings nicely to the glass making an air tight seal. 

Allway makes a glass scraper with a slide that moves a single edge razor blade in and out.  The blade "cuts" the oil residue off of glass and only glass.  Use a light touch as the razor blade is harder than the glass and can scratch it. It is great for removing dried paints.
Allway glass scraper about $3 in many hardware stores.
To finish the job, use the denatured alcohol and a paper towel. Denatured alcohol is powerful stuff and not being a chemist I'm guessing that it breaks down the composition of the oil binder in the colors.  Watch where it goes.  Maintain adequate ventilation.  It is very combustible and the vapors are dangerous.

Some of these tips come from Richard Schmid, who has much knowledge to share in his books and videos.  I ran across him around 1998 - 99 on the internet and bought his book, Alla Prima, Everything I Know About Painting in 2000.  Subsequently, I bought one of his DVD,s and borrowed another from a friend. 

Moveable furniture allows for converting the use of the space for photography.
I am retired and working in a large well lit studio.  If someday I must live in a more confining housing situation, I would be willing to abandon the oil colors, pastels, and everything that goes with them. I could take a traveling watercolor box and a few sable brushes. I would only need a few square feet of table top temporarily and a small box for all of my supplies.  Cleaning up afterward only requires rinsing out of the brushes and letting everything dry. Finished. 

See the next post on Watercolors.