The Good Earth 3 – Painting on Linen


In a previous article, I promised a few tips on how to stretch your canvas ground. Here they are:

TIP. For any size larger than 18 inches on the long side, I recommend that you use heavy-duty stretcher bars. This timber is strong enough to make the traditional ‘cradle’ support unnecessary. However, you will still need to set-in an upright centre bar in the slots provided. It’s a good idea to reinforce each end of these with a small piece of timber nailed to both upright and stretcher bar.

TIP. Keys – those little wooden wedges designed to be inserted in slots at the corners of the finished stretcher – are best not used at all. You can tack them, in a small plastic sandwich bag, to the back of the stretcher so they’re handy if you do feel a need to tighten the canvas later.

TIP. Use stainless steel staples only; ordinary steel will rust and may rot the canvas. Invest in a good, heavy-duty staple gun; your hands will really appreciate it. Always cut your piece of canvas from the roll 4 inches longer each side than the stretcher. Don’t trim it off at the sides. It won’t look so neat, but if ever the painting needs to be de-mounted or re-stretched, the framer or conservator will bless you.

The day will come when nothing else but linen will satisfy you, and you’ll be glad you’re already familiar with the techniques for stretching and painting on canvas. As an organic fabric, any canvas absorbs moisture, swelling as it does so, and stretches or sags with the pressure you apply while working on it. Not a worry; that’s just natural. When the work is finished and the paint layers begin to dry out, the canvas will return to its original state. There’s no need for you to tighten the keys at the stretcher’s corners; it’s far better that you leave them alone.

TIP. Sometimes, collectors are tempted to tighten the keys when they notice a painting getting ‘floppy’ during a spell of wet weather. The risk of physical damage from that busy little hammer on the keys, and possible compromise of the paint layers from the stressing of the canvas, are thoughts that haunt me. So I’ve developed a way of deterring them. Over each mitre at the back of the stretcher I apply a galvanised steel bracket, held with galvanised screws – not nails. And I briefly explain why they should not be interfered with. Clients appreciate the extra care and trust the artist to know what’s best for the painting.

Finally, why paint on linen?

The immediate answer lies in the gorgeous, ‘live’ look of linen and its substantial ‘feel’ as you work on it. Most artists who work in a finely detailed, realistic style prefer the smooth and tightly-woven version called Portrait. I happen to enjoy a heavier, rougher grade of linen. It does mean some wastage when cutting the roll, to avoid any areas where defects are too obvious. Also, it requires thought when choosing which side is ‘up’ so as to avoid having a troublesome slub just where a face or some other delicate element is to appear. But I think it’s worth it to gain that subtle ‘richness’ that only a heavy grade of good linen can impart.

The ‘How To’ books on painting are legion. No doubt, like me, you’ve helped enrich the authors of many. Frankly, the years have taught me that is their main purpose in being; nearly all are too personal to the author/artist’s style to be of much help to the artist trying to find her/his own Way. Of far greater help to you is a good, clear, and comprehensive book on materials and techniques – something that will give you the tools of craft to make your own kind of art. Here is one I recommend unreservedly:

The Painter’s Craft – An Introduction to Artists’ Methods and Materials by Ralph Mayer 226 pages limp cover illustrated in black and white. First published in 1948 by D Van Nostrand Company Inc, New York, the book has no ISBN since the International Standard Book Number system was adopted only in 1969. I have a treasured copy of the 1966 edition published by Viking Press of New York, from whom I understand the title is still obtainable. If you’re a painter, and can have only one book on techniques and materials – this is the one!

The long-term benefit of using linen is simply that: Longevity of your work. None of us can predict what verdict History will make on what we produce. But after all, why not proceed as if our paintings, or some of them, may one day be as treasured as the work of the Old Masters? They were trained to have respect for craftsmanship in every aspect of making a work of art. As a result, many of their paintings survive to delight us, five hundred years later. We may as well follow their lead.© Dorothy Gauvin


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