Bad craftsmen–a cautionary tale

One of my pet peeves is subpar or crappy material marketed to artists at boutique prices. I will swallow hard and pay premium prices for premium material, but too often I end up paying top-dollar for unusable junk. The art supply market is chockablock will hucksters, con artists, and amateurs.  Many producers simply do not know what they’re talking about and their products reflect that.

Some years ago, I was spending a lot of time (like now) building stretchers, stretching canvases, and preparing surfaces. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be great if I could save time by ordering canvases made to my specifications?’ I searched the web and identified a producer who specialized in ‘professional grade’ pre-stretched canvases. This self-styled master craftsman was getting good reviews around the web, so I took a chance and ordered a slew of canvases.

I ordered 9 48″ x 60″ canvases. I don’t remember the total cost but it was around $500. Normally I would have bought one to try before making such a large purchase, but my wife wanted to give me a significant birthday gift, so we placed the large order. The canvases were to have smooth, white, oil grounds.

Initially, I was happy with the purchase. The package arrived on time and was professionally shipped–no dents, rips, or tears. Each canvas was individually sealed in plastic. The stretchers were well made and perfectly square. The stretcher bars were made of hardwood as were the cross-braces. The surfaces were high enough and taunt enough that they were in no danger of sagging against the braces, as is often seen in cheap commercial canvas. Obviously, the producer was an experienced carpenter or woodworker.

The canvas itself was lightweight cotton, lighter than I prefer, but far from low-end junk. Certainly usable if properly prepared.

But the surfaces–ugh! Far from being smooth, they were extremely rough–so rough they were unusable without further doctoring. My justification for the order just flew out the window. All the canvases had the same surface. How the producer thought these were ‘smooth’ is beyond me. When I apply an oil ground, I use the traditional scrapper-applied method. This method produces a very smooth surface without sanding. These grounds were applied with a spray gun.

Resigned to the unhoped for additional work, I sanded the surface of one of them and started in. Several days later, I was horrified upon discovering oil stains on the back of the canvas. And not just from where I’d applied the paint. There were splotches all over the back. The canvas hadn’t been properly prepared with glue and the oil ground–and my  paint–were bleeding through the canvas! This kind of bleed is death to canvas; the whole point of preparing the surface is to prevent this bleed-through. This ‘master craftsman’ had either neglected the glue or applied a layer so thin as to be ineffectual.

How can a producer of ‘professional stretched canvases’ not know that the surface must first be sealed and protected with glue before the oil ground is applied? This is canvas preparation 101. When the oil bleeds, several BAD things happen. Oil is very acidic and if allowed to seep into the canvas rots it–death to the canvas. The oil pulled out of the paint leaves only the powered pigment on the surface  which falls off or gets rubbed off–death to the painting. His neglect of this essential step betrays a complete lack of understanding of the craft.

And it wasn’t just the one–all showed the same telltale yellow splotches on their backs. Far from being ‘professional quality’ and ‘archival,’ these canvases were a disaster. Time and again I’ve run into art material suppliers that have significant and deal-breaking gaps in their basic knowledge. The goal, the purpose of a canvas is to provide an archival surface finished to the artist’s taste. Without these, a canvas is worthless-regardless of how well it might otherwise be built. These canvases have neither quality; they are essentially hideously over-priced stretchers.

Disgusted, I put aside the painting I’d started and stored it away along with the other canvases. I planned to rip the canvas off the stretchers and re-stretch and prepare them myself.

By the way, the producer steadfastly maintained the quality of his work. I was the only customer ever to complain–according to him. He wouldn’t budge from his ‘no returns; no refunds’ policy.

That was 10 years ago. I never did strip the canvas from those stretchers. After ten years the canvases are as dry as they are ever going to be. There has been no further bleed through.  I’m determined to retrieve as much of my investment as possible. I’ve sanded several of them and applied a coat of acrylic gesso over the surface. So, we’ll see.

The painting I started when I discovered the problem? I discarded it. That is, I sanded the surface and applied a coat of oil-based gesso tinted gray. I am going to put a new painting over it. You can see the result in this photo. The original ghostly image is visible through the new ground.

Phantom painting; painted-over painting

Phantom painting; painted-over painting



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