Scratching the Surface

During the Spring term, de Laszlo scholar Johnty Robinson gave a fantastic lecture on painting surfaces.

This blog post aims to provide a guide on how to make a few painting support options. 

Making your own painting surfaces is not only cheaper than buying ready products at many of the large art suppliers but it also lets you have greater control of how the surface will ultimately act when painted upon. For example, you can control how textured and absorbent the surface will be.

Also, you can rest easy knowing that your work will be as archival as possible, as you know exactly what is going into it.

Oil Primed Linen Canvas Guide (Highest Quality)

What you will need:

Unprimed Linen

Stretcher Bars

A size, either Rabbit Skin Glue (RSG) or Neutral PVA

Oil Primer

Large Paintbrush

Sandpaper (optional)

Canvas Pliers (not if using RSG)

Step One: Attach the raw linen to the stretcher bars.

Once you have purchased the raw linen you need to attach it to the stretcher bars. There are plenty of guides on how to do this on YouTube.

If you are using rabbit skin glue as a size then it does not need to be attached too tight, as the RSG glue will pull it taut. If you are using PVA then make sure it is nice and tight, you will need canvas pliers.

Step Two: Apply two thin coats of RSG or PVA glue to the front and side planes of the canvas. Let dry in between layers.

If using PVA glue then make sure it is neutral PH PVA glue that is purpose-made for the task. For example, Gamblin makes an artist PVA glue and Lavender Hill Colours also stocks a great option.

Step Three: Apply two to three coats of oil primer and let it dry in between layers. There are three oil primer options.

  • Lead-based primers are very toxic and extreme care should be taken when using them, however, they provide a beautiful warm white that shines through a painting. (I am not recommending using lead but it is good to know what the options have traditionally been)
  • Titanium-based oil grounds are just lean titanium-based oil paint.
  • Alkyd oil primers are faster-drying oil paints that are made of synthetic resin rather than linseed oil. (Often called Thixotropic Alkyd Primers)

Personally, I use Alkyd primers as they dry faster than oil grounds but I recommend doing some research.

Things to think about:

What linen to buy? 

  • If you are buying unprimed linen then the price does not vary massively, when costing it up you will find that the stretcher bars may be the most expensive bit. My advice is to try and save money when choosing the stretcher bars and choose premium quality linen.

What texture do you want your linen to be? 

  • Fine, Medium, Course etc 

Whether to sand in-between layers of primer?

  •  Sanding can add or remove texture (If you use a lead-based primer this is extremely dangerous, so don’t do that)

If you would like your PVA glue to act more like RSG and tighten the canvas?

  •  Then apply one layer of GAC 400 by golden to the canvas. This would be done when it has been attached to the stretcher bars before you size

How worried are you about it being archival?

  • RSG is thought to be a major cause of cracking in paintings as it is hygroscopic. PVA is superior in this regard. However, do some research and make up your own mind, cracking won’t likely occur in your lifetime!

Oil Primer is expensive!

  • Oil primer may have a larger upfront cost than acrylic primer but it goes a lot further and you need to use a lot less of it. Some Alkyld oil primers only need one coat

Also remember, If you are using an oil primer you can’t paint acrylic over the top of it!

Acrylic Primed Linen Canvas Guide

What you will need:

Unprimed Linen

Stretcher Bars

Artists PVA

Acrylic primer

Sandpaper (optional)

Canvas Pliers

Large Paintbrush

Step One: Attach the raw linen to the stretcher bars.

Once you have purchased the raw linen you need to attach it to the stretcher bars. There are plenty of guides on how to do this on YouTube.

Make sure it is nice and tight, you will need canvas pliers.

Step Two: Apply two thin coats of PVA glue to the front and side planes of the canvas. Let dry in between layers.

If using PVA glue then make sure it is neutral PH PVA glue that is purpose-made for the task. For example, Gamblin makes an artist PVA glue and Lavender Hill Colours stocks a great alternative.

Don’t use RSG if you are using acrylic primer, as your painting will crack!

Step Three: Apply two to three coats of acrylic primer and let it dry in between layers. 

I would really recommend using Michael Hardings Non-Absorbant Acrylic Primer. As it is non-absorbent it feels a lot more like using an oil primer.

Things to think about:

What linen to buy? 

  • If you are buying unprimed linen then the price does not vary massively, when costing it up you will find that the stretcher bars may be the most expensive bit

What texture do you want your linen to be? 

  • Fine, Medium, Course etc  

Whether to sand in between layers of primer?

  •  Sanding can add or remove texture

If you would like your PVA glue to act more like RSG and tighten the canvas?

  •  Then apply one layer of GAC 400 by golden to the canvas. This would be done when it has been attached to the stretcher bars before you size

You should not put acrylic primer over RSG, only put it over PVA. It will lead to severe cracking.

Acrylic Primed Wooden Support

What you will need:

MDF board or Birch Plywood (I use MDF- it’s very archival and cheap)

Artists PVA

Acrylic primer or Acrylic

Large Paintbrush

Sandpaper (optional)

Step One: If using Birch Plywood then make sure that the edges of the board have no sharp edges with sandpaper

Step Two: Apply two coats of Artist PVA to all sides of the wooden board with a large paintbrush

This is going to stop the wooden board from absorbing moisture and reduce the chance of warping. 

It is also going to provide a more even surface in terms of absorbency for the primer to stick to.

Step Two: Apply two to three coats of acrylic primer to the front plane and let it dry in between layers.

I would really recommend using Michael Hardings Non Absorbant Acrylic Primer. As it is non-absorbent it feels a lot more like using an oil primer.

Things to think about:

What wood to buy

  • You can either buy MDF or a Birch Plywood Board (or an alternative wood that is similar to Birch, like Poplar)
  • I use MDF as it is cheaper and I mostly use wooden boards for landscape painting and studies
  • Birch has a more natural grain but by the time the primer has been put on it is hard to notice

How think wood do you need?

  • It depends on the size, the thinner the wood the more likely to warp
  • I use 3mm for landscape studies, as it is light
  • I would recommend going thicker for anything larger than 10×12 inches or anything you will want to definitely want to keep or sell.
  • Also, you don’t want to go too big as it will be hard to put on the wall if it is too heavy, I recommend using Canvas for large projects

Whether to sand in between layers of primer?

  •  Sanding can add or remove texture

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