Painting supports, particularly good canvas, is expensive. It is no surprise that artists create their own or have someone create supports for them. Even the discount store ones get pricey if you want to ruin four supports a day through destructive experimentation like I’ve been doing lately. Then when it comes time to create something ‘serious’ on a better quality canvas, the next problem is the pressure to create something good so you don’t waste your money. To tackle this problem, I created my own painting supports. Although it took a full weekend to do (yes, two full days) my supply of painting supports is now plentiful, so I’ve no excuse not to continue my destructive experimentation. That is, no excuse apart from procrastination, housework, or baking cookies…
Aside from the financial benefit, another benefit of this is the different textures and materials you get to paint on. Not being restricted to just canvas, you can cover your frames with any sort of suitable fabric or other material, or just use straight board or cardboard. You can also use any shape and size you want – you don’t have to be restricted to working on a certain size or dimension which is dictated by the canvas rather than your own creative bent.
Before you can go ahead just painting (esp oil painting) on any support you want, you need to prepare it. This is the time consuming and messy part. The reason for preparing the support (that is, the canvas, board etc) is to prevent it from deteriorating, especially with oil paints which will eat away at organic fibres over time. The preparation is therefore basically about creating a protective layer to go between the support and oil paint. It is also done to create a suitably smooth white surface to begin painting on. Below are the steps I took to creating my own painting supports.
Step 1: Collect suitable materials for supports
This involved a fun trip down to the local tip, a strange adventure I love because you never know what you’ll find. I also get incredible satisfaction from being able to reuse something creatively that would have otherwise eventually found it’s way into landfill. I also found a few of these materials just by rummaging around the garage – it’s surprising what junk you can find in your own home to re-purpose (perhaps that’s saying something about the state of my home!).
When you’re collecting materials make sure it is big enough, the surface is uniform enough to sand (which you’ll do later), flat enough or has the potential to be ironed, and can hold the paint easily. Many synthetic materials such as plastic mesh (like that seen below, far right), smooth plastics, and vinyl don’t hold paint very well. You can probably work out intuitively which ones wont work straight away, but having said that I still picked up that black plastic mesh below, so it’s probably partly trial and error. I’ve read that Jute is not a good choice, as it tends to deteriorate quite quickly regardless. MDF also contains formaldehyde and so some art texts advise against using MDF because of the potential that it will release toxins, but lots of people use it anyway. Some of the materials I collected were:
- Calico curtain
- Old already painted and printed canvas
- Masonite-type boards with varying textures
- Cardboard boxes
- MDF board
- Denim jeans
Step 2: Collect your mediums and painting equipment
Next, you need to purchase mediums to use for sizing and priming the supports, most of which I picked up from the hardware store except for the Atelier binder medium. The gesso ingredients I already had at home. You will also need to get something to paint with, like a wide priming brush. Choose a good quality one, with light coloured, natural hairs! I first attempted this with a cheap black synthetic bristled brush – pretty much the cheapest nastiest thing I first came across – and boy was that a mistake… there were ugly black chunks of bristle all through the paint and I had to start again (it’s not worth the hassle just to save a few dollars). Mediums I used to prime the supports were:
- ‘British Paints’ ceiling paint
- ‘Crommelin – Aquablock’ acrylic sealer binder
- ‘Atelier’ binder medium
- Multihesive glue (similar to PVA except stronger)
- Homemade gesso (recipe here)
Step 3: Prepare Workstation
For this I preferred to work outside. My indoor studio space is quite small and not that well ventilated, so the courtyard made most sense for both these reasons. I did the majority of work over one weekend so I made myself quite cosy and made sure I had everything I needed at hand. If working outside, beware of the natural elements… there is definitely a real risk of pollen, sticks, leaves, little flying bugs, and less likely bird poop contaminating your medium. By real risk, I actually mean inevitability.
Step 4: Cut the supports to the correct size
Next I cut the supports to the correct sizes. This was quite tedious as it is not as straightforward as just cutting them up. Measurements are required including allowing enough overhang on fabric so it can be stretched over the canvas frames, but in addition to that there was fiddly work like removing the seams from the calico and denim, and the velcro strips from the mesh bag. That alone took half a day.
Take home lesson – the better quality your support is when you buy it, the less work you’ll have later preparing it.
Step 5: Size the supports
First, let’s quickly clear up some terminology. There are two meanings to the word size, both applicable when making supports. In the last step we cut the supports to size – in this case we use the term size to denote dimension. ‘Size’ however is also the term used to describe the medium we will next apply to the canvas (I’ll explain what this size is in a second). In this next step we will size the canvas by applying a medium, whereas in the last step we cut it to size. This confused the hell out of me at first and no one cared to explain that distinction, so I thought I should! Ok, with that out of the way, let’s move on…
Although not necessary (some instructions skip this step), I decided to size the supports before priming. The purpose of the size is to coat the fibres in the support (fabric, paper, board etc), to protect it from and stop it getting in direct contact with the paint which would otherwise deteriorate the fibres over time. This is probably more of a concern for paints that have a somewhat corrosive nature, oil paint for instance will damage organic fibres over time, but it’s not so much issue with acrylic paints.
So what is size? Essentially, size is glue. Traditionally Rabbit Skin Glue (RSG) is used, but in this case I am using Multihesive which is basically a hardcore PVA glue. I’ve read of people using Shellac to size, but I haven’t used it myself. PVA is a cheap option, although there seems to be no agreement on whether PVA glue is a good choice or not if you are concerned about longevity. For longevity, the size should be acid-free archival quality, but for this purpose (mainly for experimentation and practice) I just used the Multihesive.
For the cardboard and MDF I applied one coat on each side. On the fabric, one coat was enough to sufficiently soak through it. I didn’t size the synthetic supports (flyscreen, mesh bag). When sizing, make sure to do both sides, or at least make sure it gets through thoroughly. Not only does this stop it from warping (esp for paper), but it also lessens the risk that the back of the support will get attacked by mold in the future.
Step 6: Prime the supports
To prime the supports, dip the priming brush into the paint and pull strokes in one direction only. This is important. Don’t make the paint too thick either. Just a nice even coat with strokes all in the one direction. Allow to dry.
Next, lightly sand the supports with some very fine sandpaper. Don’t overdo it. When done, blow or brush away the paint dust lightly, but thoroughly. Then paint another coat of the priming medium, this time brushing in the opposite direction so that it criss-crosses with the last coat.
Repeat the painting/sanding process, remembering to alternate the stroke direction on each coat. The number of coats varies depending on what primer you’re using, but it’s about 3-4 coats normally.
Here are my thoughts on the four mediums I used, rated in order of preference (1=best, 4=worst)
1. ‘Crommelin – AquaBlock’ acrylic sealer binder: Lovely thickness, easy to apply. Very opaque and very white. Always applied evenly, never patchy. Only 2 coats needed.
2. ‘British Paints’ Ceiling Paint: Quite thin and less opaque, so it was a bit patchy. Although described as ‘flat white’ it had a slight but noticeable yellow hue to it. 3 coats were required, and in the end it had a nice finish.
3. Multihesive: Transparent, not white. Good if you want to show the fibres of the fabric, but otherwise not good. The support doesn’t have to be primed as long as it is sized, I have read. So in this case I just applied one extra coat of multihesive, since I had already used it to size the supports as well.
4. Atelier Binder Medium: Despite being the most expensive actual art store product (the rest were from the hardware store), surprisingly this one was the worst in my opinion. The look, behaviour and even the purplish hue were pretty much like PVA or multihesive. What I found quite gross about it was that it maintained a tacky texture even after a week, which felt absolutely horrible to the touch. I can report the tackiness has now gone but only after 2 weeks.
I disliked the Atelier Binder Medium so much I gesso-ed over them all, and it gave me opportunity to make and use my own gesso too. after they were gesso-ed they were good to go though.
This was a time for me to see which supports would work and which wouldn’t. The calico curtain was excellent, as there the MDF and cardboard. I trashed the denim and black mesh bag, although a kept a couple of denim ones that seemed acceptable. The flyscreen was the most interesting.
Flyscreen of course is full of holes, but for some reason I thought the primer would sweep over and fill in the holes. No, this wasn’t the case, but instead of trashing it, I backed it with newsprint (I stuck them together with more of my favourite multihesive). I then primed it as normal, and now it is probably one of my favourite supports – it has the lightness and flexibility of canvas paper, but with a really nice rough texture.
Step 7: Stretch the fabric supports
All of the supports were now complete, except for the fabric supports, which I needed to stretch over canvas frames. For this I purchased old paintings and prints on canvas from the tip shop, making sure I only selected the really bad and damaged paintings, and left the half-decent paintings there for people to look at.
I used upholstery tools to remove the canvas and staples from the frames. I felt some satisfaction hacking into the official Hannah Montana print, although the frame for that picture was certainly the cheapest and worst made of the lot. It really bought home the realisation of how poor quality most mass-produced commercial crap actually is.
I haven’t finished stretching all of them, but the process is fairly straight forward. Pull the fabric over the frame to be as taut as possible, and staple it across opposite sides (top-bottom, side-side). Staple in the corners, and then done. A nicely stretched fabric support should feel like a tight drum skin when tapped. On the support with the binder medium I didn’t apply the gesso before stretching, I would apply that after stretching to stop it from cracking. With the other mediums I applied only 2 very thin coats to help prevent cracking for the same reason. Denim seems a bit susceptible to cracking, as it has alot of stretch.
Step 8: Done.
Enjoy your successes… or failures (or a bit of both!)