When most people think of painting surfaces, they think canvas! If a painting isn’t on canvas, it can’t be a real painting, right?
Well…actually, canvas may not be the best surface for oil paints. If you were to paint directly on raw canvas, the canvas would rot and the painting would fall apart. That’s why artists add a coating to the canvas. If you’re hard core, you coat it with rabbit skin glue (yes, it’s made from rabbit skin) and lead white. It’s a lot of trouble and not something you want to do with poor ventilation. But done right, it’s supposed to give a very smooth surface, perfect if you like working slowly with tight detail.
If you’re not a super duper professional, you’d probably coat your canvas (or buy canvases already coated) with acrylic gesso. That was my standard coating for many years, and still is when I paint on canvas.
The past couple years, I’ve switched to painting on panel. They’re more easily transportable, and inexpensive. I used to buy them, but the cheapskate inside of me bristled at paying 3-4 bucks a board. Now I make my own for like 90 cents each, and they work great.
I love watching YouTube videos by other artists. One of my favorites is Stefan Baumann. I can’t recommend his videos enough. They’re incredible informational about the technical parts of painting, as well as inspirational. He deals with every aspect of painting, including the Golden Mean, composition, lighting, plein air, supplies, color, subject matter, abstraction, realism, etc., etc.
The reason I bring him up is that he also has terrific videos all about canvas and panels. Stefan’s the one who taught me that acrylic gesso is basically little more than common housepaint in composition. If you’re going to paint on panels, then there’s any easier method to coat them. I’ve posted his videos that explain all this in detail at the end of this entry, but I’ll summarize how I make my panels here.
First, I go to a local hardware store with a lumber yard and buy a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of 1/8″ thick MDF board. (I’ve read untempered Masonite hardboard works too, but my lumber yard only carries the tempered type, which isn’t supposed to work well.) The reason I choose the 1/8″ thickness is because that’s the thickness my pochade box and my drying box hold.
The lumber yard offers cutting services, so I have them cut a couple 16” x 20” pieces from the sheet. Then from the rest of it, I have it cut up into 11” x 14” boards. I take home any of the scrap and cut them up later at my house with a common saw. I usually walk out of there with over 2 dozen panels.
Inside the hardware store itself, I buy 3 cans of basic primer spray paint. I usually buy a red, brown, and green paint. When I get home, I lay a huge tarp in my garage and spray a coat of the spray paint on each board. I paint some brown, some red, and some green. When they dry, I give them a second coat. When that dries, they get a third and final coat. Sometimes, I mix colors between coats. This gives some interesting neutral colors. If the spray paints in your store aren’t a color you like to tint your panels with, then you can always spray paint them white and tint them when they’re dry with whatever method you prefer.
By painting the panels in color, I not only give the panel a coating to paint on, I already have them tinted. I tint all my panels and canvases for three reasons:
It’s easier to judge my colors on a neutral background. A dark color looks too intense on a white background. A light color is hard to see. Since painting involves playing a color against another for effect, it’s easier to see the correct color if it’s on a neutral base.
It looks amateurish to have spots on your surface that’s unfinished when you’re done painting. But, if it’s tinted, you’re guaranteed of having paint on every part of your surface.
Sometimes, artists purposely let the undercoating show a little bit all over the painting. If you have a red tint on the surface and paint a lot of green trees, the red that shows through can add energy and sparkle to the green. Plus the bits of red all over the surface can add harmony and unity to the color scheme.
Another good tip I learned from Stefan Baumann is to pick one size of panel and stick with it. For plein air, I almost always paint 11” x 14” panels. I purposely bought an easel that accommodates it. I have a drying box that also accommodates 11” x 14” panels. I can carry unused as well as finished paintings with it when I’m on a painting vacation. I don’t have to worry about transporting wet paintings, like I would if I had different sizes. It also makes it easier when buying frames.
Don’t I ever paint on canvas? Sure, if I work large. Panels don’t work well larger than 16” x 20” because they’re too heavy and can tend to warp if you don’t attach braces to the back. Rather than deal with that, I’ll go for a nice canvas from the art supply store or even stretch my own. In that case, I do use acrylic gesso. Since this entry deals with plein air specifically, I won’t go into any more detail on that right now.
What I will do is end this entry with Stefan’s videos. If you like them, feel free to comment on his YouTube channel and let him know who sent you. It’s not like he knows me or anything, although I would love to take a workshop from him one day.
If anyone reading this blog is curious on how to start plein air painting and/or painting with a knife, I thought I’d share some tips I’ve gathered since I took it up. If you’ve never attempted plein air painting, I hope these entries will give you information and inspiration to start. If you have done plein air painting, I welcome any comments or feedback on your experience that you’d like to share. The tips will concentrate with painting in oil or acrylic paints.
Since they’ll be your most expensive investment, I’ll start with easels. When going out to paint outside, you want to use an easel that’s easy to carry, easy to set up, and, most importantly, easy to take down. You never know if Mother Nature will force you to stop painting and head quickly for shelter. Your easel should be sturdy. It should be able to easily accommodate your favorite sizes of panels or canvases that you like to work with. It should have an area to accommodate a palette with paint. It should be easily adjustable so your painting surface stays level and easy to reach, whether you like to stand or sit while you paint.
Perhaps the easiest type of easel to find in an art supply store is the French easel. They’re like mini wooden suitcases with legs. They can sometimes allow the artist to transport one or two wet canvases when you’re done. The main area often has room to carry your paints, knives, and other materials. The outside section has handles that allow you to carry it like a suitcase, and sometimes come with straps that allow you to wear it like a backpack.
Hard at work on painting, using my bulky French easel. Photo taken by artist Sharon Ross Cullen.
The biggest disadvantage, however, of the French easel is its weight. Mine weighs around 13 lbs. when it’s empty and a lot more when I fill it with supplies, which makes it difficult to carry for a long distance. When I’m in the mood to hike a mile or more for a beautiful location, I find it an unpleasant experience to lug this wooden thing. It’s also not that quick and easy to set up or take down.
You can get a cheap version for a little less than $100 on sale. I’ve read many accounts of how the cheap versions break down easily. They say, if you’re going the French Easel route to make sure you get a Jullian brand. They’ll cost a lot more, but may break less often.
That may be so, but I bought the Dick Blick version on sale, and it hasn’t broken for me yet, aside from a screw— and that was just an easy replacement at my local hardware store. In fact, I bought a dozen spare screws and wingnuts for them, and keep them in the easel’s main compartment just in case. Because of its reasonable price, it was my first plein air easel for 3 or so years. After painting alongside plein air painting veterans, I noticed they used lighter, more professional setups.
A lot of those artists swear by their Soltek. It looks like a lighter, smaller aluminum version of a French easel. It has the legs attached to a small compartment. The compartment is where you store your palette and paints. You carry most of your supplies in a separate bag. It’s seems quick and easy to set up and take down, but I’ve read reviews of how the legs can sometimes give trouble if you get sand or dirt in them. I’ve never worked with one, so I have no strong opinion on it either way.
Most artists like to use a pochade box that affixes to a tripod. I’ve read terrific things about Open M, Alla Prima, and Strada versions of poached boxes. Guerilla Boxes look sturdy, but they also look too heavy. The pochade box usually has a metal plate on the bottom that clamps easily onto a typical photographer’s tripod. The inside of the box carries the paints and supplies, and/or a palette on the bottom for mixing your paint.
My lightweight, easy to use EasyL Pro pochade box with tripod ready for me to paint on it on a beautiful winter day at the tip of the MIssion Peninsula, MI.
The one I settled on was the EasyL Pro. It’s very lightweight, reasonably priced and even comes with a tripod, which attached to the metal plate installed onto the pochade itself. The EasyL Pro allows me to carry two 11” x 14” wet panels on its side. It doesn’t have as much room as my French easel for supplies, but it’s so lightweight, I don’t mind carrying the rest of what I need in a backback. The bottom wood surface in the inside can be used for a palette, or you can glue a piece of glass inside of it with caulk. I use a separate board for my palette. The only criticism I have is that the tripod that came with the pochade box is too large to fit in my backpack. I’m thinking of buying a good tripod in the future that folds down small enough for the backpack.
There are many other brands of plein air easels and pochade boxes, and I highly recommend you search reviews about the different types. Figure what’s most important to you in terms of features. If you don’t like to paint large, don’t buy the largest version out there. There are lots of great pochades that can fit, along with your paints and supplies, in a basic backback. Talk about easy to transport! (I can’t emphasize enough the importance of packing as light as you can.)
If you’re ready to commit to plein air painting, buy the best you can afford. If you’re wary of the investment because you’re not sure plein air painting will be your thing, some artists have built their own painting systems with wooden cigar boxes or even pizza boxes. With YouTube and Google, there’s no excuse on obtaining a good easel that works for your needs or budget.
If you have any questions or comments, please let me know in the comments section and I’ll address them in a future blog. Next time, I talk about painting surfaces.