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Today it is rare to find artists making their own brushes or paints; however, the reverse is true when it comes to preparing a surface or support to paint on. An artist's involvement in preparing a painting surface may range from purchasing raw canvas, stretching  it,  sizing it, applying a ground, and priming it,  to simply  apply­ing a second coat over pre-primed stretched canvas. Preparing your own surfaces to paint on provides the opportunity for you to create a working surface  that meets your own requirements.  Manufacturing  it yourself also saves money. Too often, however, an  artist's  impatience,  lack  of  money, and incomplete  understanding of the role of a properly prepared surface results in a painting that eventually requires major conservation or simply self­ destructs. The unfortunate reality is that the preparation of a proper painting surface is too often the last consideration that a painter makes. There are some basic guidelines for the preparation of a painting surface that have developed over the last seven hundred years. If these guidelines are vio­lated, disaster will result. This does not mean that only traditional surfaces may be used, but rather that the principles of these guidelines must be understood so that new, as well as old, surfaces can be properly prepared so that artwork will  have a reasonable chance of survival through time.

Definition of Terms

The following are basic terms used in discussing painting surfaces.

Auxiliary Support.

An auxiliary support is a device used to hold the support. Stretcher bars, for example, are the auxiliary support for the canvas,  which  is the support for the painting.


A support is what physically holds the painting, or paint film, such as canvas, plywood, compressed-wood fiberboards, metal, paper, and boards. The ground is applied to the support.

Size or Sizing.

Sizing is the material applied to the support to temper it and to protect it from any deleterious effects of the  ground  or paint.  Hide glue, gelatin, or acrylic polymer are used for sizing the support.


A ground is the surface coating or film, such as acrylic gesso, which is applied to a support, such as stretched canvas, to receive the paint. All grounds, with the exception of frescoes, are composed of gypsum and an  adhesive  or binder. It is the gypsum that provides the necessary absorbency to receive  the paint.


Priming is often confused with ground. It is the  layer  between  the ground and the paint film. For example, the ground may be too absorbent,  in  which case the absorbency may be reduced by  priming  the  ground  with  a medium or diluted varnish.

Portable Supports

There are two types of portable supports-stretched and unstretched. A stretched support is a material, such as canvas, stretched over a frame or panel. Unstretched supports are plywood, fiberboard,  particle  board,  metal,  paper, board, and even canvas without a frame. The purpose  of  having a portable sup­ port is to be able to move it easily from  place  to  place.  Therefore  a support's most important characteristics are that it be  lightweight,  stable,  and  durable. Often these factors must be balanced among one another. For example, if the support is too lightweight it is often not stable. And, if it is made to  be  very durable it is often too heavy. Each situation is unique and requires its  own balancing act.

Auxiliary Supports

The purpose of an auxiliary support is to give structure  and  support  to the sup­ port itself. An auxiliary support may be  either  stretcher  bars,  a  frame,  or  a panel. A panel is a uniform structure with at least one solid,  flat,  unbroken  surface. The first panels  were made of  wood  planks butted  against each other,  the surface of which was used to paint on. Today, lightweight panels are used as auxiliary supports as well as supports. A frame consists of a set of bars  that are fixed together and cannot be expanded. Frames were first seen in the seventeeth­ century Dutch school of painting. Their introduction was a major advance in reducing the weight and increasing the portability of paintings. Stretcher bars are bars designed to produce a frame that can expand slightly to tighten further a stretched canvas. The first stretcher bars with mitered corners and keys (little wedges used to force open the comers of a stretcher bar frame to  tighten  a stretched canvas) appeared in the early nineteenth century.

Frame Supports are the simplest and the oldest auxiliary support for stretching canvas. They are the easiest to make, but they have no provision for tightening sagging canvas. They consist of four pieces of wood in small sizes, which are simply glued and nailed together. Cross braces are added for larger sizes. Today, frame supports are made from kiln-dried pine or mahogany, which has less tend­ ency to warp. The bars are usually made from 1" x 2" lumber that has had one of


the 1-inch sides milled at an approximately 30-degree angle to produce a ridged edge. The ridge allows the canvas to be stretched with only one edge of the bar touching it, rather than a whole side,  which  could leave an unsightly  impression on the front of the canvas.

The corners  and cross braces are often reinforced  with triangles,  made of  1/s­  to ¼-inch plywood, nailed and glued to the back. All wood should be seasoned, cured, or kiln-dried and should be free of  knots.  Cross  bracing  is  most  often done every 18 inches. With heavy bars made from 2" x4" wood, cross bracing is done every 36 to 48 inches.


A Framed Panel Support is a piece of lightweight mahogany veneer plywood  with a frame attached to the back to give additional reinforcement to prevent warping. Panels such as these are used to stretch canvas over. The panel is made from plywood 1/s-inch thick,  or ¼-inch  thick for larger sizes.  The frame is made of I" x 2" (milled 1" x 2" is actually ¾" x 1¾") mahogany strips with cross bracing every 16 inches. The panel is glued to the frame and sealed with a wood  sealer.  The advantages of this type of auxiliary support for stretched canvas is that it is strong, yet lightweight,  and  it allows  for the easy  sanding of a gessoed  surface to achieve a smooth finish. It also provides support for drawing and for egg tempera paintings. The problem with this kind of rigid support is that the canvas cannot be tightened without restretching. In addition, care must  be taken  not to glue the canvas accidentally to the surface of the panel when sizing it or when preparing a ground.

Stretcher Bars are designed so they can be assembled without being fixed  in place, and the corners can be expanded after the canvas has been stretched. They should always have a raised lip at the outer edge  to keep the canvas from  touch­ing the inside edge of the stretcher bars and leaving an impression. The main purpose of stretcher bars is to remove any sagging of the canvas, a  recurrent problem with linen,  which can occur during stretching and sizing, as well as during the application of the ground.  Expanding  the corners of  a painted  picture is not wise because small cracks can develop, which will eventually  become  larger, especially in older paintings. The general rule is that if a sagging painting cannot be corrected with minor adjustments, leave it alone or get help from a professional restorer.

There are several types of comer designs-tongue and  groove, Lebron, Muleski, and Starofix. The tongue and groove system is the style  most  com­monly used for commercially made pine stretcher bars.  They range from  5/8  to  11/16 inch in depth and 1½ to 1 5/8 inches in width, and  lengths from 6 to 72 inches with increments of one inch. One end of  each  bar is cut  so that it  will  slide into the groove cut into the end of the other  bar.  The  cutting  remnants, which are in the shape of little triangles, are used to expand  the  comers  by wedging them into the gaps in the inside  of  the  joined  comer  after the  canvas has been stretched over the bars. A heavy-duty version of these bars can some­ times be found in art supply stores or can be ordered through  them.  One of  the best I have seen is manufactured by the Best Moulding Company and is illus­trated opposite.


Two types of hardware are used to expand the comers of stretcher  bars.  The  first type is a turnbuckle, which involves a metal link  that holds together  a screw on each end. The screw has an eyelet at the end so that it may be fastened to a surface. The screws have opposite threading so that when the link is turned the screws are pulled together. The Muleski stretcher bar comers, named after the designer Thomas Muleski, employ turnbuckles.

The corners have a large groove in which a small  aluminum  plate is inserted  and the eyelet turnbuckles are fastened to the inside of the corner groove. The link is exposed in the inside of the comer and when turned the corner expands along the aluminum plate.

The Lebron stretcher bar system, named for the designer James Lebron, uses a Tite-Joint Fastener, which consists of a locking sleeve on one edge of a draw  bolt and a tightening nut assembly on the other end.

The nut assembly and the locking sleeve are embedded into each side of the corner. Dowels are placed on each side of the draw  bolt,  parallel  to  it.  The corner is expanded by turning the round nut with a pin or nail,  which  fits into  small holes made for this purpose.  As  the corner  expands  the dowel  maintains the alignment of the corner.

A new development in stretcher bars is the use of extruded  aluminum  strips with outside edges made of wood. A company  called  Starofix  has  developed what it calls a "continuous tension stretcher." A type of adjustable spring clip is used in the inside corners to keep the canvas stretched taut. They  are  light­ weight, and so strong that cross braces are not required for lengths less than 72 inches. They are ideal for conservation work and for very large canvas works.


However, they are expensive and their high price  puts  them  out  of  reach  for most painters. In addition, they are not readily available outside New York City.


By the Renaissance, fabric was widely used as a support for painting and had almost replaced the wooden panel. Panels  are heavy  and the paintings on them are easily damaged. A bumped panel can send ripples through the surface, weak­ening the bond between the ground and the support. Fabric stretched over a frame resolved the two major problems of weight and elasticity.

The time-tested practical approach to painting on a fabric support, such as canvas, is to stretch it across a frame, stretcher bars, or a panel. Paintings­ particularly oils-that are completed on unstretched fabrics and later stretched, form tiny, almost invisible, cracks in the paint film, which eventually become larger. Therefore, unstretched artwork should remain unstretched and stretched work is best left alone.

Of all the possible fabric supports, canvas is  the  best  choice  because of  its long history of durability. The term "canvas" is derived from  canabis,  also  known as hemp, which, with flax, was the first fiber used to produce sailcloth. "Canvas" now includes jute, which is used to make burlap, and cotton. Of these three, cotton and flax, or linen, are the most popular.

There are several ways to classify canvas. For the artist, the most important information involves the ounces per square yard and the thread count. This infor­ mation, however, is sometimes difficult to obtain.  Ounces  per square  yard  will tell how heavy the canvas is. Threads per square inch will tell how dense  the canvas is. Canvas that is less than seven ounces per square yard with  a thread count of less than fifty threads per square inch is too lightweight for use as a support for painting. It will not be sufficiently strong to resist tearing and  the spaces between the threads will be too large to fill adequately during sizing. As long as the canvas is heavier than seven ounces with a tighter weave than fifty threads, your choice can be based more on appearance and feel than technical specifications.

Linen has been found in Stone Age remains  and in the tombs of ancient Egypt and has proven its durability. The linen wrappings from Egyptian mummies  are still flexible today. The source of linen fibers is the flax plant, whose fibers are stronger than any other natural fiber and range in length from 10 to 36 inches. Linen fibers are round, not flat like cotton, which gives linen  fabrics their irreg­ ular texture. Chemically, the fibers are 70 to 80 percent cellulose and contain the same oil that is found in the plant's seeds and that is used in linseed oil.  The natural content of linseed oil preserves the fibers and keeps them flexible. On the other hand, it was long ago discovered that  paintings  using  linseed  oil  on unsized linen rotted quickly, because the fibers can  stand only so much linseed oil. When linseed oil dries it becomes acidic  and  will  attack  the  cellulose. Today, the problem of acidity is greater, because of the  acidic  air  pollutants, which can also attack the cellulose of  linen.  Bleached  linens should  not be used as a support for painting because the bleaching process severely  weakens  the fibers.

The ropelike quality of the linen fibers produces an irregular texture which is especially ideal for figurative painting because of  the sense  of depth  it gives  to the surface. Unfortunately, linen is more difficult  to stretch  than  cotton  canvas, for it has a tendency to sag after the first attempt, thus requiring tightening. In addition, linen is often two to three times more expensive than cotton and  is difficult to obtain in weights greater than seven ounces with thread counts greater than fifty. Although a thin linen canvas is stronger than a thin  cotton  canvas,  artists should nevertheless use linen heavier than seven ounces per yard  and  denser than fifty threads per inch, with as few knots as possible. Today, the best grades of linen are produced in Belgium. Yet, few artists can afford an eight- to ten-ounce, tight-weave Belgian linen in widths  larger  than  54 inches,  let alone find it. At the present time, most of the affordable linen is imported from South­ east Asia. The quality and consistency is not as good, but it is adequate.

Cotton, like wood and linen, has been in use since prehistoric  times, particularly  in the Orient. The best cotton comes from the east coast of the United States; the second best is from Egypt. Cotton fiber is almost pure cellulose and is easily affected by acid and bleach. Therefore only unbleached cotton fabrics should be used as supports for paintings, and they should be sized before oil painting to protect against acidity.

There are several negative aspects of using cotton  as a  support  for  painting. For figurative painting, cotton has a less interesting texture than  linen.  It is also less strong than linen. for its fibers are shorter, ranging from 5/16"  to about  1½ inches in length. Cotton fabrics derive their strength more from the process of twisting the yarn during manufacturing than from the weight or thickness. A well-twisted yarn can  be stronger than two yams of  the same thickness  that are not twisted. But, it is very difficult for most people to perceive this quality by casual inspection. What you can look for to give you an  indication  of the quality  is the "trash" content. Trash is the waste recovered from the processing of  the cotton bolls and, to cut expense, a small amount is often added  back  into  the cotton as a filler. If too much trash is used, the strength  of  the fabric will suffer.  An indication of the amount of trash in a fabric  is  the  brown  specks,  called moats, which come from the seeds and husks  of the  cotton  boll.  The  fewer moats you see, the less trash and the better the quality of the canvas. Lack of strength in a cotton canvas can be overcome by selecting a heavier weight and a tighter weave. Eight ounces per square yard should be a minimum. Most profes­ sional painters use a  ten to twelve-ounce canvas  with a  weave so tight that few  if any holes can be seen when the fabric is held up to the light.

Cotton is not as permanent as linen because it lacks linen's natural oil content. Cotton fabrics are basically unprotected cellulose, which is easily attacked by acidity. The exposure to the acidity from air pollution and ultraviolet light over several decades will substantially weaken a cotton canvas. This can be somewhat compensated for through proper sizing with acrylic mediums.

Commercially Prepared Canvas is an alternative for those painters who do not wish to prepare a painting support themselves. Preparing a traditional glue-sized, lead-primed,  linen canvas requires skill as  well as effort, and  a prepared  canvas  is often the only sane option.

Manufacturers of prepared canvas refer to their products as "primed" canvas because they are ready for use without further preparation.  his is not an accu­  rate use of  the  term  "primed,"  but it has been adopted  because of  convenience.  It is simply easier to say "double-primed linen," for example, than "linen with a hide-glue size and a lead white, oil ground." Unfortunately, this use of the term "prime" has carried over to common artists' vocabulary, occasionally leading to incoherent discussions of various  products and  methods  used  in the preparation of canvas for painting. In this discussion of prepared canvas, the commercial descriptions of products are used, but please  do  not  confuse  them  with  the proper use of the term "primed."


There are four basic varieties of prepared canvas available in most artists' materials stores. They are  acrylic-gesso-primed  cotton,  acrylic-gesso-primed linen, glue-sized single-primed linen, and glue-sized double-primed linen. All of them can be used as supports for oil paintings. Acrylic or vinyl paints, however, may only be used on the acrylic-gesso-primed canvases, which conforms to the  rule of not using a water-based paint over an oil-based surface.  "Single-primed" and "double-primed" refer to the number of coats of lead paint that have been applied. The more coats, the smoother the surface, the stiffer the canvas, and the greater difficulty in stretching it. "Double-primed" is less flexible than "single," which makes its permanency more questionable.

Commercially prepared primed canvas comes in several forms: rolls, panels, pads, and stretched. The rolls are generally of 6-yard  lengths  with  widths rang­ ing from 45 to 84 inches. Most are made from eight-ounce canvases, although different weights and weaves are common. There are differences in quality,  but they are, in most cases, not related to permanency,  and  choice should  therefore  be based mainly on cost and personal taste. The only caution to be taken in your selection is the weight, or strength, of the canvas. Remember that the larger the painting, the heavier the canvas should be. Preprimed and stretched canvases are often of a quality too poor for profes­sional work, and are normally reserved for studies or experimentation. The better grades  are  considered  by  many to be  minimally  acceptable  in  sizes   up  to 24" X30". Beyond this size, substantial reinforcement is often required.  Canvas pads and canvas panels are not suitable for truly professional work.


Fabrics like canvas are stretched to the maximum during the manufacturing proc­ess and this tension has to be maintained, if not increased. If this is not done the fabric will attempt to return to a more relaxed state as the humidity changes or if water-based paints are applied to it. The result can be buckling, sagging, or distortions of the painted surface. It is therefore best to fasten a canvas securely before painting.

Fredrix Artist Canvas, Inc. offers instructions for stretching canvas; this is a simplified version of its recommendations, with some modifications. 


Check the squareness of the auxiliary support, and verify that it is adequately reinforced. It can then be placed over the canvas, aligning the vertical and hori­zontal weave. There should be at least three inches  of  excess  material  on  all sides so that the canvas can be held and wrapped around  the edge  of  the auxiliary support.

Wrap the canvas around at the center of one of the longer sides of the auxil­iary support and then tack or staple it to the back  of  the support.  The opposite  side of the canvas should be pulled (canvas pliers are often helpful at this point) and tacked down in the same fashion. Repeat the procedure for the centers of the adjacent sides. At this point, there should be a diamond-shaped wrinkle.

Return to the center of the long side. Choose a point one or two inches to one side of the point where the canvas is already tacked, and pull  the canvas  and secure it as before. Working outward toward the comers, tack  down  the opposing side, followed by the adjacent sides. The diamond  wrinkle should  disappear as the comers are reached. About two inches  from  the comer,  tuck,  fold, and tack the canvas in place.

If you are using stretcher bars as an auxiliary support for raw canvas  and there are minor wrinkles, the comer may now be expanded to remove them.  If  the canvas is fixed over a frame or panel, all or part  of the canvas must be restretched to remove wrinkles. With raw canvas, dampening and drying will remove most minor wrinkles, but they  may  return  when the canvas is prepared for painting.

Wrinkles in prepared canvas should nut be removed by expanding the corners or by dampening, both of which can cause cracking and weakening of the bond between the support and the ground. Care should also be taken not to stretch lead-primed canvas too tightly because fine cracks can develop.


Wood is the oldest unstretched support, and examples of its use date back to 2900 B.C. in Egypt. During the Renaissance, oak was the wood of choice, fol­lowed in popularity by pine and then poplar. Wooden supports were panels made from boards joined together at the edges. Today, even if you chose to duplicate these panels and had the carpentry skills and knowledge of woods necessary to produce them, you would have great difficulty finding properly cured hardwood milled in the correct manner. Panels that are built up from boards joined side to  side have the drawbacks of being heavy and having a tendency to develop a washboard effect on the surface of improperly prepared  panels.  Today's unstretched supports include canvas, paper, plywood, fiberboard, particle board, and metal.

Plywood is available in two types. One has a  solid  wood  core  and  a  wood  veneer on both sides. The other, which is most often used as  a  support  for  painting because of its availability and lower cost, consists of several veneers of wood glued with the grain at right angles to each other. The veneers of wood are produced by rotary cutting; a whole log is cut on a giant lathe  by  rotating  it against a blade, shaving off layers. In all veneer plywood the inner layers are of a cheaper grade and are thicker than the  veneer. The outer veneer can range from a construction grade to that of a  fine-quality  hardwood.  A  hardwood­ surface veneer plywood with one good side that is at least ¾-inch thick is suffi­ciently warp-resistant for use as a support. Plywood is actually stronger than its equivalent in wooden planks and less subject to shrinkage and warpage.

The problem with using plywood as a support for artwork is that the glue that bonds the plies can fail. In addition, a  washboard  effect can develop in  a paint­ing because the veneer is cut in a rotary fashion and then  flattened  and  joined edge to edge to cover the large surface. In general, wood does not expand  or  shrink equally in all directions and, because of this, not only can this washboard effect appear but the entire board, no matter how thick, can warp. Gluing 1" X 2" strips of wood to the back of the plywood and sealing both sides with a wood  sealer can help to prevent this.

Sealing plywood also helps to reduce the tendency of the  grain  (the  correct term for what most people call grain is actually "figure") to swell when such waterborne materials as acrylic gesso are applied. Most commercial wood sealers are oil-based so that they themselves will not  swell  the  grain  (figure)  of  the wood during application. Yet this does not present a problem for the subsequent application of acrylic emulsion paints or grounds because sealers work  by soak­ ing into the wood rather than sitting on top of it; they do not prevent paint  or ground from also soaking in and establishing a firm mechanical  bond.  This appears to be one of the few exceptions to the rule of never applying  a water­  borne paint over an oil-based material. The surface should be lightly sanded after the sealer has dried and before the application of the  size  or  ground.  This  increases the surface tooth for better adhesion.

Fiberboard, commonly called by its trade name, Masonite, is made of ground wood chips, which  include  bark, that have  been broken  into fibers  with the aid  of steam and pressure. The fibers are glued together and  formed  into  a  sheet using the lignin content of the wood (lignin  is the natural adhesive  that holds a  tree together) and some synthetic resin adhesive. Wax, rosin, paraffin, and a preservative are often used as additives to control moisture content and to resist attack from mildew and rot. A hardwood fiberboard, commonly referred to as tempered fiberboard, is produced by treating fiberboard with heat and impregnat­ing it with oil. Tempered fiberboard is dark brown and has two smooth sides. Untempered fiberboard is chestnut brown and has only one smooth side. Fiber­ board is dense, hard, durable, and does not warp or bend easily.  Its thickness  ranges from 1/s to ½ inch; ¼-inch is most commonly used  as  a support.  Sheet sizes can be found up to 4' X 16'


Only untempered fiberboard should be used as a support. Tempered  fiberboard is unsuitable because the oil impregnation does not allow for a secure ground. Fiberboard supports of 24" x 36" and larger should be reinforced by gluing a framework of 1" x 2" wood strips, made of either basswood or mahogany, to the back, as would be done for a framed panel.

Particle Board, which is made from byproducts of milled lumber, began to be manufactured during the 1940s after synthetic resin glues were developed. Particle board, an inexpensive alternative to plywood, is formed  by  m1xmg  wood chips and sawdust with a water repellant and a preservative and then gluing them together. Particle board looks like a wooden version of meatloaf, and when it is made wet it develops a similar texture because the wood chips swell and  rise  above the surface. Consequently, it is necessary to seal particle board with  a wood sealer prior to preparation for painting. It also has no internal structure and tends to sag, particularly when it is exposed to moisture, unless it is sealed and reinforced with wood strips on the back.  Particle  board comes in the same sizes and thicknesses as plywood. A minimum thickness of ¾ inch is best for use as a support for painting.

Particle board is heavy, however, and the edges  tend  to crumble,  which does not make it the best choice for a support. It has also been found to give off hazardous formaldehyde vapors. The only reason particle board  still remains  in use is because it is inexpensive.

Metal was not used as a support for large paintings until the 1970s. In ancient times, metals were rare and too expensive to be used as a support for painting, except in the case of miniatures. Since metal is heavy, only  thin  metal  sheets could be used and they were often too flexible. Copper was commonly used for minatures until the development of aluminum, which was first used  commer­cially in 1886. It was not a practical alternative until the  introduction,  in  the 1970s, of aluminum honeycomb support panels, which were originally used by conservators for relining canvases. Frank Stella was the first major contemporary artist to use this material to produce sculptural paintings. Aluminum honeycomb


support panels have a honeycomb aluminum core with a cell size of 3/8 inch and thickness of 9 /16 inch covered on both sides with a skin of aluminum alloy that is 0.025-inch thick. The skin and honeycomb are bonded together with heat and pressure-cured epoxy. Some manufacturers, such as the Process Materials Corpo­ ration, supply the panels with a redwood edge. The overall thickness is % inch. There is no standard size because the panels are  custom  made.  They  are extremely expensive; a 40" X60" panel costs several hundred dollars.

The main advantage of this material is that  it does not  warp,  is  very  strong and lightweight, and resists sagging. Unlike copper, which  reacts  with  the lin­ seed oil in oil paint and turns green, aluminum is relatively inert. However, an aluminum surface that is polished is not as good a support as a surface that is sanded or slightly oxidized. Although all metal supports can  be painted on with­ out sizing or ground, the surface of aluminum must be completely covered with paint or protected with a varnish. If this is not done, the moisture in the air will react with the aluminum and will result in corrosion.

Unstretched Canvas has been successfully used as a support, but it  has  never quite caught on. Ed Moses, the founder of nonrigid, unstretched artwork, devel­ oped a means of impregnating paper or fabric art  with  an  acrylic  polymer medium to give it strength and durability. This process basically involves coating both sides of the material with a pure acrylic polymer (made by the Rohm and  Haas Company), or any other acrylic polymer  medium.  The wet, coated  material is then spread out on a sheet of glass to dry. When it is dry  it can  be carefully peeled off the  glass.  Collages  can  be  made  by  adding  coated  dry  material  to  the coated wet material on glass and, when dry, can be removed as one piece. The surface, although slick, will accept thin layers of acrylic or oil paint.

Unstretched canvas can also be primed with acrylic gesso  and  then  painted over with acrylic paints. However, uneven  surfaces,  shrinkage,  and  how  to  hang, display, and store unstretched artworks make this type of support problem­ atic. A traditional hide-glue sizing and lead white priming  should  not  be attempted on unstretched supports because. of the potential for cracking.

Paper painting supports should, in general, be heavyweight and  have  a  high cotton content, like 300 lb., 100 percent cotton watercolor paper or 100 percent cotton museum board, both of which are durable and sufficiently absorbent to be adequately sized and primed for oil or acrylic painting. Wood-pulp papers  or boards can be used if they are first thoroughly coated with an acrylic polymer medium on both sides. However, these are still not considered as safe for fine artwork as cotton papers and boards. Lightweight  papers as well as print papers  can be used, but they are best avoided until after experimentation  with  heavy paper and board. With rare exceptions, when using  paper or board  as a support  the finished painting must still be framed behind glass, like any other  paper  artwork for proper protection.



Sizing is the application  of  a substance,  such as hide glue or acrylic  polymer,  to a support to reduce the absorbency of the support and to keep the paint from coming in direct contact with the fibers that make up the support. The oil in oil paint will cause unprotected natural fibers to rot and become brittle. Polymer emulsion paints will not adversely affect natural fibers and can actually help preserve them. Although sizing is not needed to protect a support from acrylic or vinyl emulsion paints, it is often used to reduce the absorbency of the support because, if too much of the paint sinks into the support, the color  loses  its  intensity and develops a dull appearance.

The sizing used by the manufacturer of paper and board to produce a specific working surface should not be confused with the sizing needed for paintings with oil or acrylics. Watercolor paper, for example, is sized to help keep  the color on  the surface, not to protect it from the  paint or to make it more  permanent.  All  such sizing incorporated in paper and boards during the manufacturing process is not adequate for the preparation of supports for oil, or polymer emulsion, paints.

Sizing Paper. The technology that makes it possible to use paper as a support is relatively new and is still considered experimental when compared to other tradi­ tional supports. When producing fine artwork, it is safe to use polymer emulsion paints directly on unsized paper or board, although better  results  are  often obtained when sizing is used. Using oil paint directly on unsized paper or board will result in self-destruct artwork because the acid from  linoleic  acid of linseed oil in oil paint breaks down the cellulose  of  the paper,  and  the combination  of the two provides an ideal environment for the growth of mold. To prevent  this  kind of damage to the paper fibers, they must be coated with a size.

The easiest way to size a paper support is to apply two coats of undiluted polymer emulsion medium (only the working side needs to be sized, but less buckling will result if both sides are coated). This produces a "plastic"-looking surface and tends to make thin paper translucent. There are several ways, dis­ cussed below, to reduce this plastic effect to a minimum if the natural surface appearance of the paper is desired. These methods are still considered experi­ mental, despite the current positive results. Paper will tolerate only limited  con­ tact with oil, including linseed oil. The inks used in fine art printing contain oils. However, during the printing process only a small amount of ink and oil  is  actually left on the paper surface. Some deterioration  does  take  place,  but  in most cases after decades of use it has not been considered significant. There is obviously some room for error, but only time will tell how much.

Diluted  polymer  media  can  be  used  effectively  as a  size for paper supports with less change in the natural surface appearance. When applied in dilute mix­ tures, both gloss and matte polymer media will appear matte on most paper surfaces, and since the gloss version dries clearer it is best to use it whenever possible. Adding more than 50 percent water to  acrylic  media  should  not  be done if a colored support is used because  the overthinning  can result in a  milky, or cloudy, appearance. It also lessens the ability of the acrylic polymer to form a strong paint film. When used  as a size for white paper or raw canvas,  however,  the cloudiness cannot be seen and  a strong  paint  film is not  desired.  A  mixture of one part acrylic medium to four  parts distilled  water applied  in two thin coats to both sides of a paper support appears to give good  results.  The  mixture  is easily  applied  with a wide squirrel-hair  brush or with an inexpensive  foam brush. The wet paper should be laid out smooth on a clean sheet of  glass to dry.  When dry it may be easily peeled off the glass. 

Gelatin is a refined glue. It is considerably more expensive than other types of size because of its unique manufacturing process. When used as a size for  a painting support, gelatin should be hardened with either formaldehyde or alum. Expense and inconvenience have kept painters away from using gelatin as a size. Gelatin is used primarily as a size for such  papers  as  watercolor  paper  where only a dilute solution is needed and the quality of the size is important. Never­ theless, if you  wish to use a gelatin size, Winsor &  Newton offers prepared size   in two-ounce bottles. It shoud be heated gently until liquid and applied  directly with a soft brush. Two coats should give adequate protection without seriously altering the paper's natural appearance.

Grounds for Canvas. Lead carbonate ground into linseed oil is the oldest sub­stance still in use as a ground for oil painting. It is traditionally applied to a hide-glue-sized support, but it can just as well be placed  over  a support  sized  with polymer emulsion. Lead grounds are highly reflective and have been nick­ named silver white. They are also durable and very elastic. To maintain its flexi­ bility, an oil ground must contain only linseed  oil as its vehicle  and it therefore  has the disadvantage of tending to yellow.

Great care should be taken when handling a lead ground because of  its tox­icity. Another caution about using lead white is that air pollutants can react with unprotected lead white pigment and blackening can occur. A final protective varnish over the painting will prevent this. Nevertheless, if correctly used, lead carbonate is still one of the best options for a ground.

Today, many whites are ground only for mixing with colors and contain  such  oil vehicles as safflower oil, because they do not yellow as much as linseed oil. These mixing whites are not  nearly  as flexible  and therefore  not  as safe for use as grounds. The term "foundation white" is often used by manufacturers to indi­cate that it is made to be used as a ground for painting.

The first coat of an oil ground should  be applied  thinly  with  a palette  knife and worked into the surface texture. The second coat should cover the surface.  Lead oil paint dries quickly, but a  minimum of ten days should  be allowed  for the lead paints to cure before painting begins. The Fredrix Artist Canvas  Com­pany states that it ages its lead ground canvas several weeks before shipping or applying a second coat. To accommodate the impatient artist, fast-drying alkyd primers, consisting of titanium white in an alkyd resin, have recently been devel­oped. A second coat can often be applied within  three  hours  and  will  be ready for painting in twenty-four hours. Many traditionalists favor  lead  grounds  and  feel that there is little difference between alkyd primers and the use of acrylic gesso. They argue that a lead white ground supplies more than just  a  white  surface to paint on; it also provides a naturalness to the eye that cannot be synthesized.

Gesso-which means "chalk" or "gypsum" in Italian-traditionally  refers  to recipes of chalk and glue for ground on rigid supports. Today, acrylic polymer emulsion gesso is so commonly used as the painting ground that it has taken the term "gesso" for itself and the original gesso is now usually referred to as powdered, or dry, gesso. Acrylic polymer emulsion gesso has not  so  much replaced the traditional gesso formula used on a rigid  support  as the  hide  glue and lead white ground combination used on canvas. Since the polymer of the acrylic polymer emulsion gesso can size a support as well as form a painting ground, it can be applied directly to canvas without any additional preparation. However, most painters find acrylic polymer gesso too thick to apply easily and choose to dilute it first. A very smooth surface can be achieved by first applying two coats and then sanding, and then repeating this several times until the sur­ face is as smooth as vellum tracing paper.


Grounds for Wood or Wood Particle Panels. Only a few fastidious  painters still use the traditional gesso ground of chalk (gypsum) and hide glue to size rigid supports. Polymer emulsion gesso is now the ground of choice, although the original gesso grounds are superior in absorbency and in their ability to be polished. Polymer gessos can also be polished, but not to the same degree. Modem ready-mixed commercial versions of traditional gesso often have titanium white added to increase coverage and add brilliance. This kind of gesso is supposed to be used only on rigid supports, but there is one notable exception to this rule. Over the centuries, Tibetan scroll painters have developed a tech­ nique to use this normally brittle ground on a flexible support. A thin layer of a white chalk and glue is applied to a stretched, glue-sized linen that is similar in weight to a bed sheet. The gesso surface is polished under compression first with a damp smooth rock, about the size of a small potato, and then with a small, very smooth, dry stone. This otherwise brittle ground is made flexible by the thinness of the glue and gesso layers, the application of the minimum amount of glue and size needed to  create  a  safe  ground,  and  the  compression  of  the  ground during polishing. This process has permitted scroll painters to create works that can be carefully, but safely, rolled and unrolled for centuries.

Whether a traditional gesso formulation or a modem polymer gesso is used to produce a ground on a wood support, it should first be sealed with a wood sealer to preserve the wood and protect the ground from any tree sap. After that, the methods of applying a polymer gesso ground to a wood support are the same as those for canvas. The preparation of a traditional gesso ground involves the same recipe for making a hide-glue size for canvas, except gypsum is added along with the glue before it is cooked (for a hide-glue recipe, see page 143). For every part of glue added to the water, two parts of gypsum are also added. After it is cooked and applied, the surface may be sanded and polished with a smooth stone or a silk cloth. Liquitex offers a convenient ready-mix called Gesso Ground Dry Mixture, which has detailed instructions for its use and how to mix it with a 10 percent hide-glue solution

Traditional gessoed panels are often far more absorbent than those produced with a polymer gesso, and the surface often has to be primed before painting is begun.

Grounds for Metal. Metal is nonabsorbent and is a difficult surface to apply paint to. Only oil-based paints will bond pennanently to the surface. Metal does not require a ground to receive paint, but it is often best to prime the surface first. This will help to keep the paint from sliding over the surface when it is being applied.

Priming is done to regulate surface absorbency. Traditional gesso panels, for example, are often too absorbent and metal supports are too nonabsorbent. The challenge is to regulate the absorbency to your needs. There are various ways to accomplish this, but one rule must be observed: never apply a waterborne paint over an oil-primed surface. Do not be fooled by appearances. It is not difficult to get waterborne paints to go on an oil-primed surface, but you cannot make them stay there over the years.

Waterborne priming to reduce absorbency can be accomplished easily using diluted polymer medium (half water to half medium) brushed on in thin coats or, better still, airbrushed. The Winsor & Newton Prepared Size  can  be  heated, diluted with water, and applied in thin coats until the desired absorbency is obtained. Dilute solutions of gum arabic or a hide glue can accomplish the same effect.

Oil-based priming to reduce absorbency is most often done with a retouch varnish, which  can  be brushed on, airbrushed on, or applied with a commercial spray can. Dilute solutions of damar varnish or shellac are also used.

Metal support surfaces are made more porous  by  the application  of  several thin coats of a lead white paint (foundation white). Lead paints should not be airbrushed or sanded. Almost any foundation white paint, commercial metal pri­ mer, or lacquer primer (not synthetic lacquers) will do the job.

Fixed Supports (Walls)

THE SCOPE of this book is limited to painting and drawing materials used to produce portable, and, as much as possible, permanent artwork.  Mural  painting is, with rare exception, neither portable nor  particularly  permanent.  Although most of us like to think of the walls of our homes and buildings as permanent, weather, sun, heat, cold, acid, alkali, air pollution, earthquakes, wars, fires, bulldozers, and interior decorators have all contributed to their impermanence as well as to the impermanence of any artwork applied to them. In fact, today's muralist counts himself or herself lucky if an outdoor painting survives for ten years. Examples of indoor murals that have lasted for centuries are due to extraordinary care and protection, and have often undergone conservation and restoration several times. It has recently been discovered that many murals cur­ rently under restoration have been so poorly "restored" several  times in the past that some repainted areas bear no resemblance to the original painting.

Murals become a fixed part of the environment  and, for the  most  part, cannot be protected. Paper artwork  is framed  and protected from  the environment.  Oil  or acrylic paintings are executed on grounds and supports chosen for their per­ manence and portability. They are also varnished to protect the surface and  are kept away from the surface of the wall  when  hung. Murals  are attacked  from both the front and the back by the environment.

To produce a mural that will last several decades outdoors, and several more indoors without extensive protection  and care,  requires  an extensive  knowledge in several areas, some of them  well beyond that of  artists' materials.  Assuming  the artist knows which pigments have the highest lightfastness rating and are alkali-proof (modem walls tend to be highly alkaline), extensive knowledge of building materials and their chemistry is also required. For example, it is not uncommon for an inexperienced muralist to find a painting on  a  new  concrete wall peeling off after several months. This is because the form  oil  (used  to  prevent the wood moulds from being cemented  to the concrete  after  it has  set) had not been removed before painting. This oil can stay in the wall for several  years and must be removed (usually by sandblasting) before painting begins. It is knowledge such as this that cannot  be left to trial and error.  Anyone  who wishes to do serious mural work should apprentice with an experienced muralist.

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