What supports are used for oil painting
The word “support” here means the panel or canvas an artwork in oil is pained on. All supports for oil painting can be divided into two big groups – rigid and flexible. Not much changed in this respect since the time of the Old Masters. However, the variety of supports has grown tremendously. There are many types of ready-made canvases, canvas boards and panels for painting you may find in different art supply shops. Which one to choose depends on personal preferences, price, quality and purpose.
Every support has its pros and cons. Many masterpieces by the Old Masters were done on wooden panels. Such choice was for a reason. Carefully prepared panels can hold their shapes for hundreds of years, saving the piece from deterioration. This endurance comes with a high price-tag, not to mention the heavy weight of a board. Contemporary manufacturers partly solve this issue by producing slimmer canvas boards and light-weight composite metal-plastic panels for painting. Although being cheaper and lighter than high quality wooden panels, such rigid boards still tend to be more expensive than flexible supports.
The next choice by oil painters for hundreds of years was and still is a stretched and primed canvas. An artwork on canvas is much lighter in weight, can be done in any reasonable size, is easily transportable, especially when rolled up, and not as expensive as rigid supports. Flexibility of such support is also its disadvantage because it can be easily damaged, the paint layer may also crack with time due to expansion and contraction of the canvas under weather and humidity. Two most common types of canvases are cotton and linen, the second being superior, but more expensive.
When the price is an issue, a cheaper alternative is paper. High quality archival paper made of 100% cotton or linen may last for hundreds of years. Wooden pulp papers are prone to yellowing and will disintegrate with time. Aldo, an acid that is used for manufacturing cheap papers may affect the paint layer. Nevertheless, paper is an ideal support for disposable oil painting exercises that are not meant for exhibition purposes or long keeping.
You mays consider the following types of supports:
- Stretched canvas – for artworks you may want to keep or even exhibit
- Unstretched canvas – for tasks that require authentic canvas feel, but will be stored in folders to take less space
- Paper – for disposable exercises you may or may not decide to keep
In any case, you have to learn how to prepare a good support for oil painting.
Paper support for oil painting
Let’s start with paper. On the market, you may find ready-made oil painting paper in different sizes. High quality paper is usually 100% cotton, 300gsm (140lb), with some tooth (surface texture). You don’t have to buy it, unless you want to test it. It will be more useful if you learn how to prepare you own paper for oil painting. For this purpose, you can get any heavy-weight paper, for example 300gsm (140lb) drawing paper, which is considerably cheaper and prepare it for painting in oil.
You will need:
- Big size paper sheets or rolls
- Big wooden board or wooden stretchers (the same as for canvas)
- Staple gun
- Rabbit-skin glue or granulated gelatin
- Gesso for priming a canvas for oil painting
- Flat brush (hog, 1,5” or 2”)
How to stretch paper:
- Assemble wooden stretchers or get a wooden board. Pre-cut paper to be at least 5cm (2”) bigger on each side than the board or stretchers.
- Soak one side of paper in water, applying it with a flat brush or a sponge; wait for a few minutes for paper to expand in size.
- For heavy-weight papers (300gsm or heavier) you may need to turn the sheet over and soak in water another side as well. Wait for paper surface to become “satin”, which means that paper absorbs water and is not glossy anymore.
- Accurately place a board or stretchers on top of paper, exactly in the middle with equal margins on all sides.
- Start stapling the longer edge of paper to the reverse side of the board from the middle. Three staples will be enough to hold the sheet in place.
- Staple the middle of the opposite side of paper.
- Staple the middle of the short paper side.
- Staple the middle of the remaining paper side.
- Continue stapling paper sides towards corners.
- When you reach corners, you may fold them and staple as well.
- Turn the board paper-side up and let it completely dry for several hours or overnight.
The sequence described above is not the only way to stretch paper.
You may try the following:
- Wait for paper to absorb water (when its surface becomes satin) and start stapling the longer paper side from the corner to corner in one go. Place staples at about 5cm (2”) distance from each other.
- When one side of paper is fixed to the board, do the same for the opposite long side.
- Continue with the short side, stapling it to the board from the middle, going towards corners.
- Finish fixing paper to the board by stapling the remaining paper side from the middle towards corners.
Because wet paper holds its shape on the table-top, and is fixed to the board while it is lying horizontally, there will be no diagonal distortions or wrinkles. There is no need to pull paper to stretch it. When it dries, it will shrink, resulting in a perfectly stretched surface. If you pull paper when stretching it might break while wet, or even split when dry due to overstretching.
Even though stretched paper resembles canvas, it cannot be used for oil painting without sizing and priming. Oil will penetrate fibers of paper, damaging it and making it brittle when dry. Also, it will be very difficult to paint on such support because of oil absorption.
How to size stretched paper for oil painting:
- Soak 1 part of dry rabbit-skin glue in 10 parts of water for several hours or overnight. It will soften up and expand. You may use granulated gelatin (the same as for cooking) instead of rabbit-skin glue if you wish. It is also animal glue, but stronger than rabbit-skin and therefore only 0.5 part of this glue will be enough for 10 parts of water. The amount of glue depends on the area of paper you want to cover. 10 grams of rabbit skin-glue (or 5 grams of gelatin) will be sufficient to size 1 square meter of paper.
- Dissolve the solution in a double-boiler pot by heating it up to 57° C (135° F). Do not overheat! Animal protein destroys at temperatures higher than 65° C (150° F) and loses its gluing properties. Constantly stir the solution when heating.
- When the solution is fully dissolved, let it cool a bit and keep an eye when it starts to jelly. Now, it’s time to size.
- Apply loose jelly (which might be slightly warmer than the room temperature) to paper in a single thin layer with a wide flat brush. Let it dry for several hours or overnight.
One layer of sizing is enough. If you apply several coats of sizing, the thick glue layer might crack when paper if flexed.
Animal glue sizing is water soluble and thermally reversible, which means it will dissolve if you wet and heat it up. However, it is not dissolvable in oil and will protect paper fibers from oil paints.
How to prime stretched paper for oil painting:
The next step is to prime paper. Priming is required to give tooth to the surface for oil paint to adhere to.
Use ready-made gesso for oil painting; simply apply it with a wide flat brush in one thin layer and let it thoroughly dry. If gesso is too thick, you may add a bit of water. If the layer of gesso is too thin, you may give a second coat when the first one is fully dry.
Once again, do not overdo gesso coating. Paper should remain very flexible. Otherwise, ground layer will crack or absorb oil from the paint layers, making them dull. If too much oil is absorbed by the ground, the process of painting will become very difficult.
The Old Masters were making their own gesso from animal glue, white chalk powder or marble dust, and various plasticizers. Because the Old Master Academy’s motto is “Learn how to paint like the Old Masters using modern materials” we will not get involved into making art materials according to the ancient recipes, which are often contradictory, require a lot of time for preparation. Also, some materials used for painting in the past were toxic, exotic and not available today.
If you wish to learn how to make your own grounds and paints, you are welcome to search art books and internet resources to get an information from.
The method of sizing and priming described above can be used to prepare not only paper, but any support you would like to use for oil painting – wooden boards, cartonboards, canvases, etc., which brings us to the topic of how to stretch, size and prime canvas.
Canvas support for oil painting
How to stretch canvas:
Use the sequence of steps as demonstrated in the video above.
You may want to stretch several canvases to have some stock for future art tasks.
At the beginning, we mentioned two types of canvases – stretched and unstretched. “Stretched” canvas is a support that will remain on the stretchers. “Unstretched” canvas is one that has been initially stretched, sized and primed, but then cut off or taken off the frame to be used as a loose sheet. You may want to prepare both stretched and unstretched canvases for future use.
How to size and prime canvas:
The recipe for sizing and priming canvases is exactly the same as for paper. Simply use rabbit-skin or gelatin glue for sizing and gesso for priming.
Also, if you buy a ready stretched and primed canvas, you may want to give one thin coat of gesso to test what surface you like the best – as it comes from the shop or primed by you. It is down to personal preferences, but many artists find ready-primed canvas tooth inferior to one they are able to make in the studio.
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