After my recent letter about canvas, re-stretching, etc., there were lots of follow-ups from readers. Bill wrote: “I’ve had two false starts on a canvas where I changed my mind, gessoed over and started again. This third time I’m deadly serious and have gessoed again so it’s opaque under normal light. However, if the canvas is against a window I can see my previous efforts. What do you recommend to make it completely opaque? I will be using acrylics. Or should I not worry about it?”
Thanks, Bill. I’d worry. Transparency often comes with the cheaper cotton canvasses currently being manufactured down to a price. You didn’t tell me what type of canvas you’re working on. Linen is the most naturally opaque and generally obviates the problem. It’s by far the most permanent. Egyptian mummies wrapped in it 4000 years ago are still keeping nicely. The linen “Shroud of Turin” might be even older than the 14th century that carbon dating seems to indicate. In any case, it’s still in pretty good shape considering what it has been through.
But you’re probably talking cotton. Not only will the ghost image bother you, it may creep up and become more prominent over time. I feel these under-images (sometimes called “palimpsest”) jinx the paintings that go on top of them. I “fireplace” them rather than try to cover earlier sins. A decent burning-at-the-stake is justice for badness.
That being said, if you’re dedicated to making that canvas immortal, you need to gesso further. Sand lightly to take off some of the bumps and slubs. Carbon black and Titanium white acrylic added to water-based gesso helps opacity. Light pearly grays are excellent primers anyway. Two or three thin passes with a roller are better than one thick brush job. Before painting begins, isolate with a coat of clear acrylic medium to prevent potential creep.
You may be talking synthetic canvas. Polypropylene, nylon and polyester can be mighty transparent. While resistant to sagging due to moisture, all suffer from poor paint adhesion. Of the three filaments, polyester seems to be the best for stability, freedom from ultraviolet light degradation, and adhesion. Over-painting of precious, sullied or poor quality canvasses, even when you need the palimpsest, is flirting with the devil.
PS: “Prepared canvasses come in traditional standard sizes. For example, ‘Bishop’s Whole Length’ is 70 x 106 inches. “The ‘Kit-Cat’ size (28 x 36 inches) was originally designed for hanging in a low-ceilinged room. It was named for an 18th century London club that met in an eating house kept by one Christopher Cat, and whose members were painted by Sir Geoffrey Kneller.” (Ralph Mayer)
Esoterica: Confident painters are fussy about their surfaces — smooth or shiny for portraits, rough for more expressive brushwork, etc. Don’t just grab what’s locally available. In cotton, look for 10 or 12 oz., rather than the standard 7 oz. Online outfits like Dick Blick offer a range of Fredrix and Masterpiece cotton products as well as the spectacular Yarka Russian linen. There’s lots to love in quality, properly-prepared canvas surfaces.
Primers for synthetic canvas
by Mark Gottsegan
Your assertion that synthetic canvases suffer from poor adhesion is not true. If these products are properly pre-primed by their manufacturers, they can be very good. The synthetic fiber materials cannot be successfully primed by the average artist. The manufacturers use a heat-set acrylic dispersion binder in their primers.
Questions about linen
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
Given the cost of cotton canvas compared to the cost of gesso, paints, time, etc., I have usually found it more effective to relegate my mistakes to the bonfire or trash heap than to attempt to paint over them. That said, good quality linen, about five times the price of cotton, is more painful to discard. As a note, I’ve been having increasing difficulty in buying good quality linen locally (Toronto), until an artist-friend suggested a fabric store, rather than an art-supply store. Two questions: (1) should I be concerned about using “regular” linen (which I prefer to prime myself) and (2) while I have used “oil painting ground” to prime my canvas, I find acrylic gesso faster and cheaper: any thoughts on using this for oil paintings?
(RG note) Thanks, Brigitte. Regular sailcloth linen or linens other than specific or decorative twills will work fine when primed properly. I’m in favor of water-based primers for both oil and acrylic. Golden, Lascaux, Liquitex, Tri-Art and Winsor and Newton offer excellent products. A popular choice for the new traditionalists is the highly recommended Gamblin Oil Painting Ground. It is superior in flexibility to the traditional lead/linseed oil grounds that have unbearably long drying times.
Conversing with the canvas
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA
Having grown up with an artist mother who worked in oils on canvas, I remember that often mother would change her mind about what she wanted to do and would grab her palette knife and scoop still-wet paint right off her canvas and go on. But, when she had an area that she had let dry before she changed her mind, she would “make something” of the area of the painting. She viewed her painting as a conversation between herself, as the artist, and the painting she was creating. A good conversationalist is a good listener as well as a talker. During WWII when art materials were expensive and sometimes hard to come by, she rarely ever tossed a painting out. Even then, it was kept to “test out ideas” on. As a watercolor artist now, I live in a world of “happy accidents” and letting the water and paint do part of the work. I do have a pile of “stinkers” that I use the back of for practice, trying out of ideas etc. Yes, some works that I have over-worked way too much and are real lead-weight junkers, they hit the trash (or, if you are a slash and burner, the fireplace or woodstove).
Dealing with ‘dumpster darlings’
by Pat Weekley, Clovis, New Mexico
When I paint a dumpster darling I take it off the bars and deposit it in the appropriate place and re-stretch. Sometimes there is something about a painting that I like even though the total work is not successful, so after taking it off the stretcher bars I roll it up and save it… I have quite a collection now… I never consider a painting a complete failure… I learn from each one and that lesson is quite valuable. Also I have taken a large painting and used a portion of it for a smaller work and found this to be a pleasant surprise.
Worth the work
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington, NC, USA
I use the 12oz cotton duck canvas for many of my paintings and stretch them myself using the heavy stretcher bars for larger paintings. I agree that Linen is the best, and although difficult at times to stretch and prepare, is well worth it. I have found, though, that the heavier cotton duck that you buy in rolls are dense and excellent quality and keep the light from shining thru to previous ghosts on the canvas. Also, although I haven’t tried this and I don’t know how effective it would be, (this was the first thing that came to mind when I read about this artist’s dilemma) he might try painting gesso on the back of the painting as well. Has anyone ever done this? And if so, what is the possibility that the gesso would do damage to the integrity of the canvas and the painting itself over time?
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. Yes, direct gesso could do damage to the back of the canvas. If artists insist on this idea, they need to size first to isolate the new gesso ground from the fibers. Better to leave the back of the canvas to the air and prime properly in the first place.
Palimpsest and pentimento
by Barbara Holliday, Kelowna, BC, Canada
Regarding your reply to Bill and his problem of a former attempt at a painting being visible through his new one, wouldn’t the word ‘pentimento’ be more appropriate in this instance? The Oxford English Reference Dictionary defines it as “The phenomenon of an earlier painting showing through a layer or layers of paint on a canvas, “whereas ‘palimpsest’ refers more specifically to “a piece of writing material or manuscript on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for other writing.” There are numerous examples of pentimento in the works of old masters, most famously those of Rembrandt and da Vinci. The word, which in Italian means ‘repentance,’ is one that has always delighted me — so delightfully evocative!
(RG note) Thanks, Barbara. And thanks to everyone who corrected me on that. Pentimento is of course the proper word. Palimpsest has crept into the painting business from the literary, which means, as you say, “overwriting” — more specifically in the old days when parchment was at a premium — “writing between the lines.” I am in repentance.
Harnessing the power of pentimento
by oliver, TX, USA
Why not figure out how to use this process in the final piece? Many photographers “layer” with differing densities and “opaqueness” strength or what have you to create their work.
In the ’70s and ’80s I used to do a lot of this type of work in the analog darkroom. My current approach to art is a little different but here is a couple example of the “ghost” image contributing or part of or… The final work from my often thought about but not returned to Symbolic Logic series… I will someday I think — but there are so many photographers working in surrealism and symbol manipulation and there is a great big wider world of art to explore… (Goes back to Steiglitz I guess and playing off the recording nature of a camera…) I just make ART! Why not let the under images shine through? You’ll have to remember the old compositions and symbols etc…
Real artists start afresh
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
It is this type of advice that infuriates me. If a chef is making Creme Brulee and accidentally tosses a rotten egg in the prep bowl, he doesn’t try and save it. He tosses it all out and starts again! Artists need to know their limits and re-gessoing a canvas is tacky. Not only will the other painting come seeping through, the finish of the painting will not be the same as the rest of their collection. A gallery will spot the sore thumb a mile away and so will a client. Imagine that phone call when they put the painting in a window while changing a light bulb. But most of all, the artist should know better! Canvas is cheap! Take the canvas off the frame and stretch a new one. Nothing is cheaper than an artist who doesn’t do a fresh painting. Artists need to do quality work from the word go. If the work lacks quality, the artist’s work will never get the recognition.
by Anthe Capitan-Valais, Flourtown, PA, USA
I find that not only the canvas but the paints matter. The only successful cover-up stories I have are when I have sanded the underlying paint down to the canvas and reapply gesso. The only acrylics that I find handle this and are extremely saturated with pigment are the Golden Artist’s Colors. These acrylics as well as their gessoes tend to be more opaque.
(RG note) Thanks, Anthe. I’m a Golden fan too. But I also look around and test other manufacturers. M. Graham Acrylics is a smaller firm that makes acrylics in similar quality with other desirable nuances. Recently I bought a pile of Pebeo acrylics. These come in modern, hangable tubes with snappy tops. In the “studio” version they are blindingly inexpensive. The pigments are noticeably weaker in tinting strength although, with the presence of fillers, the body is generally okay. Reading the small print I notice that these Pebeos are made in China. Further, Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, (see below) recently did an extensive comparison and found Liquitex Titanium white to be superior to all others in covering power.
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Recently my dad came for a visit and after a few days of unbearable idleness and numerous comments that a house without work opportunities is unacceptable, he demanded to be put to work in the studio. I pointed out a pile of stretched canvases “gone wrong” and asked if he could remove the canvas from them, intending to reuse the stretchers. The next day I came to the studio there was a neat pile of straightened old canvases, another neat pile of painstakingly removed staples and another pile of stretchers. When I told him that the canvases are going into garbage so he could have just ripped them out, he was shocked and was very disturbed for having had something to do with this. For him, disposing of canvases was unreasonable, wasteful and foolish — he disapproved repeatedly all through the remaining days of his visit. I took his complaints into consideration and painted a few acrylic paintings on top of re-gessoed canvases. But there is just something about it that I don’t enjoy — it reminds me of doing something unhygienic.
Paintings in need of ‘history’
by Deb Strong Napple, Cheltenham, PA, USA
I often recycle failed canvases or panels by painting over them with the scrapings from my palette (I paint in oil, so gesso won’t do the trick over an old work.) Sometimes I sand down the especially bumpy parts, but usually I leave the brushwork. Rather than “jinxing” the painting as you said, I find that the remnants of the old painting offer another layer of interest to the new work on top. The bumps and scrapes add great surface texture, and remind me to stay loose as I paint. Sometimes bits of the previous image are visible; when they are they can bring surprising new ideas to integrate into the new work. I like that the paintings now have a feeling of “history” behind them.
Let sins show
by Kathryn Wiley, Bethesda, MD, USA
I like to let small parts of my sins show. Of course everyone’s style is different, but I’ve had some success just painting over an earlier effort, without gessoing it into oblivion first. It starts as an exercise in ignoring what’s already on the canvas, useful for learning to focus on the work of the moment. Some of my best paintings show bits and pieces of the previous painting’s colors or shapes, and the effect can be quite intriguing. A number of friends do this and find it works for them as well. The technique can be used on either abstract or representational pieces.
My Valentine Roses
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Carsten Groa of Denmark who wrote, “I do not like your advice about solving bad painting success by “fireplacing” the canvas. You must think about what happens when burning paints and when we have rests of paint to get rid of. Not all pigments are safe to handle that way if any at all.”
And also Anne Drewry who wrote, “There is also colored gesso which, if coated with acrylic medium, should solve the problem. The red, which has an orange cast to it, is a great color as a surface as the glow it produces shines through.”
And also Laurel Johnson of Canada who wrote, “I once drew a picture on a canvas with a red Sharpie felt pen. That ink would bleed through anything. Avoid it at all costs.”
And also Karen Cooper of Spencer, IA, USA who wrote, “I just read the burn-at-the stake phrase. I am pretty sure I could also read between the lines that Bill should pull the canvas off the stretcher before the incineration episode, so that he could re-stretch the frame with a new piece of canvas. I think it gives a bit of freedom to know that if (when!) I screw up it’s only the canvas needing a good torch job, not the stretcher frame.”
And also Karen Weyandt of Atlanta, GA, USA who wrote, “It’s interesting that you used the word ‘sins’ (in ‘Covering up your sins’). ‘Pentimento’ is the word that refers to the trace of visible images beneath the surface painting. It translates in Italian to ‘repentance’.”
And also Alex Nodopaka of Lake Forest, CA, USA who wrote, “When I was young and more foolish than I am now I thought of making my early mistakes at painting invisible by all sorts of manners and saving the costs of replacing canvases. With advancing years and some minimal wisdom I rationalized that future generations might be interested in my process of development and discover with the help of X-rays my masked attempts under layers of gessoes. Now that I am almost brimming with wisdom I suggest to selectively torch used canvases with the help of Vodka but to photograph the process. When finished, varnish the results. You might now have a REAL masterpiece.”
And also Hannah Pazderka of Edmonton, AB, USA who wrote, “My parents have a painting (of a brook in a clearing) in their entry way. In a particular light you can see the outline of a house where the main tree now stands. Strangely, rather than devaluing it, it makes me like the painting more!”
And also Claudia Roulier of Idledale, CO, USA who wrote, “Try Kilz, it’s guaranteed to stop creep of everything.”
And also Peter Maher who wrote, “Like a lot of painters I frequently restart paintings but I never worry about any of the previous paintings showing through. I find that vestiges of previous efforts give the finished final piece a sense of history. I know of some painters who actually make conscious efforts to get this effect! Some of us like to show everything, warts and all!”
And also Sherry Shelton who wrote, “Could you address verdaccio? I want to share the information with my students.”
(RG note) Thanks, Sherry. Cennino Cennini (1370-1440) mentions verdaccio in Il Libro dell’Arte. A mixture of burnt sienna, ochre, lampblack and chalk, it had a neutral or greenish brown colour similar to raw umber. It was used by the early Italian fresco and tempera painters for outlining, shading and underpainting.
Enjoy the past comments below for Covering up your sins…