Preparing a Canvas for Acrylic Painting

4x4 canvases 1 edited I work almost exclusively in acrylic on canvas. For larger works I use unstretched canvas hanging it over a dowel rod, much the same way you would display a quilt or tapestry.

But for my smaller works I use Blick Gallery Profile pre-stretched canvases.

Side note: Everyone who's been through art school has learned to build their own stretched canvases. I used to. Now it's more economical for me in terms of time and labor to order pre-made canvases in batches of 4-8. Want to learn to build canvases yourself? YouTube's got you covered.

canvas brand

Why Bother?

When someone buys my painting and takes it home, I want them to know that they have purchased a quality product that will last for decades to come - not something shabby that will fall apart in a year. The value of my work is more than the paint I've put on the canvas; it's in the care I've taken to ensure that my collectors enjoy living with my art. Prepping a canvas before painting is just one way to demonstrate that I care about my client's experience.

The preparatory process also prevents small problems that, added up, can really interfere with the final product.

Step 1: Corners

4x4 canvases 2

I buy these Blick canvases because they are very well-constructed. However, the corners do tend to come loose, and sometimes the canvas has been trimmed unevenly. (Not true of hand-built canvases; see note above re: economy.)

See those flappy edges? Even if I paint over them those are still weak spots that will get worse as the painting ages. I want to nip that in the bud.

I glue down those corners with Golden Heavy Gel.

golden gel

I apply the gel undiluted to the corners of the canvas, both on the sides and the back, and press those flaps down hard. Any gel that squishes out gets smeared over the raw edges to seal them. It doesn't matter how much gel ends up being visible because I'm going to paint over the entire thing. I let them dry about 30 minutes.

canvas corner 1

Step 2: Sizing the Back

The canvases you see pictured here are very small - 4x4" each. This next step is much more important for larger canvases.

In most cases, a pre-stretched canvas will be primed on the front side only. Priming the other side strengthens the canvas and helps ensure its longevity. Also, the tighter your stretched canvas, the less likely you are to bump against the underlying stretchers while painting.

With a stiff brush, I wet down the back of the canvas. I make sure to get that water as far under the stretchers as possible. On a larger canvas, I follow up with diluted gesso. I brush both vertically and horizontally to work the water and gesso into the weave of the canvas. You'll notice right away that the canvas gets tighter. It will loosen a little after drying, but will be stronger for the additional gesso.

Step 3: Gesso Coat

I buy canvases pre-primed, but I like to add an additional thin coat of gesso to front and back before painting. The manufacturer's acrylic primer can sometimes resist initial paint application, causing the paint to bead up on the surface. Gesso is chalkier and will soak that first coat of paint right up.

canvas gesso coat 1

Or maybe a super-fun and interesting thicker coat.

canvas corner gesso 1

A little sanding may be in order on your stretchers. Nobody likes splinters, right?

Step 4: Rock Out

Now she's ready to go.

mckinney underdrawings 2 edited

The Finished Product

three 72 500

Orange, Kiwi and Apple. Acrylic on canvas, 4x4" each, 2014 by Sarah Atlee Private commission

What are your tips for prepping before painting?

Let us know in the comments below.

My Naughties

That's what happened.
Yeah, I'm a little late to the top-ten-list party. Here are my top ten artistic moments (in chronological order) from the Naughts, 2000-2009 :

2000 I have my first solo show, ____ day of my life, at the now-defunct ASA Gallery at UNM. 2001 My senior thesis show, Actual Size, sells out. I graduate from UNM with a BFA. 2002 Making art on my own in Indiana, I realize that I need more instruction to become a better painter. This becomes my goal in applying to graduate school. 2003 I begin graduate study at RIT. 2004 I learn a heck of a lot about the illustration business, and my personal style really begins to solidify. I start making paintings like this. 2005 I complete my graduate thesis show. One of these paintings is accepted to the Society of Illustrators Scholarship Competition. 2006 I move to Oklahoma, and am warmly welcomed into the artistic community here. 2007 I get a beautiful studio above Mainsite Gallery, and a slot in the Art 365 program. 2008 The Art 365 show debuts, including my series Normal, OK. 2009 I join the fabulous, inspiring, nerdcore community at the Oklahoma City Coworking Collaborative, or okcCoCo.

And from this past year, 2009:

January: I make two drawings for the Seeing Other People show curated by Jennifer Barron. February: I take my family to Society of Illustrators in NYC to see my piece in the annual Book Illustration exhibition. March: I quit my last day job to commit to art full-time. Haaaa-le-lu-jah April: I attend OVAC's Artists' Retreat at Quartz Mountain, where I learn all about residencies. May: I began the Occupied project, on my own, because a) I wanted to and b) I can. June: My drawing of romy is accepted to the 24 Works On Paper travelling exhibition. July: Back to Normal: Normal, OK Revisited opens at the Gaylord-Pickens Museum. August: I join the okcCoCo and move my studio there. November: I'm accepted into OVAC's first Oklahoma Art Writing and Curatorial Fellowship. December: Looking forward to 2010. There have been so many positive changes for me in recent years, I can't wait to see what comes next.

Seriousness Abused

Tate I, photo by Flickr user Martino's doodles Tate I, photo by Flickr user Martino's Doodles. Click image to visit the Flickr page.

It's easy to label me as an artist: I paint. I paint pictures. I paint pictures of people. Easy, right? I don't happen to be particularly turned on by conceptual art, or art that's deliberately obfuscated, or art objects overshadowed by the artist's mission to "break boundaries" and "challenge preconceptions."

Before you click away, conceptual artists, please hear me: I love you. And also you guys, who like to paint pictures of kitties and geraniums: I love you, too. Art is art, and it takes all kinds. There, I've said my thing.

Art can be difficult for us to swallow. As Dan Fox writes in this editorial for Frieze Magazine, difficult art has become the norm in the art world.

Boundaries are ‘broken down’ and ‘preconceptions challenged’ so often as to make subversion and radicality seem like a mandatory daily chore rather than a blow to the status quo. They perpetuate old-fashioned notions, such as that of the artist visionary liberating the masses from mental enslavement by bourgeois values. Overuse has made these words sound strangely toothless, for what’s at stake in the art is often less important (but not necessarily without value) than the language suggests.

Of course, what constitutes "the art world" is an ever-shifting tapestry of popular opinion, preconceptions, and nebulous reputations. (Perhaps some boundary-breaking is warranted here.) It seems one is either in it or not. It's hard to say when exactly an artist becomes part of the art world, we usually rest upon the consensus that they have arrived. This vague notion of the art world as an establishment points out our links to the tired cliche of the artist as revolutionary. At what point does the liberator become the institution?

This is just one of the many questions I asked myself while reading Fox's article (via Kristin Anderson). I didn't come up with many answers. I'll continue to think about how deeply the following resonates with me:

You have to understand the pieties: the weight of an artist’s monograph or how many times their name crops up on e-flux announcements; someone’s preference for reading October rather than frieze; the internationalism of the contemporary art world – some romantic residue of the idea that, if you travel regularly by plane, you must be high-powered because your business reaches far outside your locality; artist names exchanged as collateral by those jockeying for position in the marketplace of curating or criticism. These are the little curlicues that adorn the edifice of the professional arts establishment.

How and Why to Title Your Work

Julia Kirt, the director of the Oklahoma Visual Arts Coalition, published a post today about labelling your work when you deliver it to a gallery. Snip:

I recently organized an exhibition with 18 artists in it. Several pieces had no name on the back, much less a title or contact information. Of those pieces, a few were delivered when I was not in the office, so could easily have not known which was which.

I had a similar experience in 2003 when I was an intern at the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe. We were mounting a fundraising show called Inside [8*3], an open call for works less than 8 inches on a side. We had hundreds. Can you guess how many of those pieces were called Untitled? Answer: waaay too many. We even had a few mixups in which buyers got incorrect pieces delivered to them because the works of art were indistinguishable on paper. This brings me to the crux of today's post.

Title Your Work

Please, do this. "Untitled" is a cop-out, unless you have created a work that is intentionally formal (that is, concerned mainly with forms), and/or you wish for the piece to reflect as little context as possible. For my part, I'm incapable of making paintings that don't reference visual culture in a thousand little ways, so I might as well create titles that provide additional content.

(I began actively titling my work under the instruction of Martin Facey at the University of New Mexico. It was one of the lessons that stuck.)

Another reason not to rest on "Untitled" is that it makes your work harder to distinguish and identify. As Julia mentioned above, it can be headache-inducing for gallery workers as well (and you want those people on your good side). Imagine you've just delivered 20 paintings to a gallery for a solo show. They have twenty different prices, but they're all called "Untitled: oil on canvas." It would be difficult enough for the gallery staff to properly identify your work, not to mention audiences at large.

Note: A good solution to this is to provide your gallery with a detailed inventory including thumbnails. I'll be talking about this in more detail at an upcoming OVAC workshop; see note below. How To Title Your Work

Language is a frequent trigger of my creative process. In my character-based work, I may start with a name and put a face to it, or vice versa. I keep a file containing my favorite idioms, and another for the almost-correct-but-mistranslated-sounding advertisements that appear in my email spam. Maybe I'll latch onto a song lyric or movie line. Sometimes I'll be working on a painting, and an appropriate phrase will float to the surface of my consciousness. All these can become titles.

If coming up with titles is difficult for you, here are some suggestions for semi-random word generators.

Reader's Digest or any newspaper or magazine. Pick a column. Read the last word of each line in that column. Choose a sequence of 3-5 words that sound interesting. ex. "Teaches how they sip." "Working love had most empathic."

Babelfish. The AltaVista Babelfish translator is a great source of slightly innacurate language. Begin with a common phrase, such as "All roads lead to Rome." Send it through the translator multiple times through multiple languages. I had it translated to Russian, back to English, to Japanese, to English again, to French, then Greek, back to English. "Action of all streets to Rome" is what came out.

Channel surfing. Flip through channels on the boob tube. Write down the first word that you hear each time you turn to a new channel. Repeat as needed.

Diceware and the Beale List. Roll 5d6 (or one six-sided die five times) and write down the six numbers that come up. Repeat two more times, or more if you like. You will have three five-digit numbers. Each of these numbers corresponds to a word on the Beale list. (This is an excellent method for generating memorable but hard-to-break passwords.) ex. "Noun walls fauna." "Feels bozo spire."

Place names. This is how I created the characters of Normal, OK. Use an atlas or actual road signs. ex. Pernell Foster, Guthrie Perkins Cushing, Stillwater Hennessey.

Your birthdate and a book. Say your birthday is April 4 1967. (Mine isn't.) Grab any book off any shelf. Turn to page 4, look at the fourth line, and note the first, ninth, sixth and seventh words. ex. "Writing as is uncertain." "Worthy now as I." Modify this as you see fit, by matching the digits of your birthdate to chapters, pages, lines, or words.

Speaking of books. Look at your bookshelf. Read one word from each consecutive book title, three to five in a row. ex. "Dawn to Modern Ambassador." "Name Visual Working Basics." "Geek Garlic Housekeeping." "Sylvia Companion of Insects."

Phone book acronyms. Open the phone book and choose the first name you see (first or last). Write words that begin with each letter of that name. ex. "Paul" becomes "Please Accept Understanding Limes."

Wikiquote. Use a quote as is, or for extra fun, switch the words around.

The Internet Anagram Server. Begin with a name or phrase, then send it through the anagram generator. For a more concise result, I set the maximum number of words to no more than three, and the minimum number of letters to three or four. Here is such a result for "All roads lead to Rome." That's right, 654 anagrams. That's why I leave this up to a computer. Amoral aloe toddlers, anyone?

New proverbs.

Go ye and title.

UPDATE. You can find some more colorful phrases at this page detailing the animal naming scheme for various versions of Ubuntu (a popular distribution of the Linux operating system).

Related: I'm going to be giving a talk about organizing one's art inventory on November 22. It's part of OVAC's workshop series called A.S.K. (Artist's Survival Kit). The Business of Art 101 will be at the Edmond Public Library. Visit OVAC's site to register. I recently attended an OVAC workshop on building your portfolio, and it was a great experience. I came away feeling energized, motivated, and well-informed. Most of these workshops are only $15 for non-OVAC members! You can't not go.