Smooth Move—Smooth Painting Surfaces

All artists are self-taught today. It doesn’t matter if you have a masters degree or never set foot in an art school–everyone is on their own.

The most important piece of painting gear my last professor had was a pair of fishing boots. His technique was to cover the studio floor with huge canvases, and pour rivers of acrylic house paint over the entire surface. Then, before the rivers were dry, he’d don his fishing boots and wade manfully into the lake of paint, creating patterns as he stalked across the the floor.  He was absolutely convinced that he was a genius.

As you might guess, he had no interest in traditional practices, such as drawing. If you wanted to actually know how to draw and paint, you were on your own. I’m sure it’s still the same for today’s art students.

In these ‘Shop Talk’ posts we’ll share tips and techniques with one another.

Which brings me to canvas boards.  🙂

You know what canvas boards are: the cheap, canvas-covered cardboard surface generally used by students as an alternative for the more expensive stretched canvas.  By themselves, they are not recommended—surface quality is poor and they warp badly beyond a certain size.

But cheap doesn’t mean bad.

A good painting surface is hugely important. By good I simply mean one that is suited to your technique or aims. These days I like a smooth, hard surface. Wood is the traditional solution, but wooden panels, for any but the smallest sizes, are outrageously expensive.

Here’s what I do to convert a so-so surface into a first-rate one:

1. Sand an acrylic-primed canvas board with medium sandpaper.
2. Apply a coat of traditional gesso over the sanded surface.
3. After the gesso is dry, sand with medium sandpaper then sand again with fine or extra-fine sandpaper.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 once or twice more, depending on how smooth you want the final surface.

Simple. The key here is the traditional gesso, not—repeat, not!—the ubiquitous acrylic gesso. Traditional gesso is made with chalk (or whiting or marble dust) mixed with hide glue (and sometime white pigment).

The dry gesso is mixed with water and heated until the glue melts, then applied with a brush. A surface prepared with traditional gesso is absolutely wonderful, like a big, juicy litho stone–you can’t help but make a successful work on it!

But there’s a catch. Traditional gesso is not very flexible, so it is not recommended for stretched canvas beyond a certain size.  But for firm surfaces like wood and—voila!—canvas board, it’s perfect. In another post we can talk about grounds for stretched canvas.

Here are links to two suppliers from whom I’ve purchased traditional gesso. The mix comes with instructions and the materials are non toxic. Expect to spend $20 for 2 lbs. of dry gesso mix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *