I spent a few days teaching at the end of last month at The Florence Academy of Art’s branch in Gothenburg- one of the most comprehensive materials workshops I’ve done to date. These students were particularly hungry for information, asking questions that kept us going into lunch or after class each of the three days.
As a student, one of the more immediately gratifying aspects of learning to paint was finding out more about the materials; it changed the way I looked at pictures. To put it in simple terms, it gave me a heightened sensitivity to paint textures and canvas types, glazing, scumbling and scraping. It’s stayed with me- now that I have far less time on hand to make my own materials, it’s still given me a better sense of what I want out of a tube of paint, how to deal with sinking in, or ‘simply’ how to fix a big hole in a painting (the holes I’ve fixed recently thankfully have not been on one of my own). I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to study all this materials business in depth starting years ago, and in turn it’s gratifying to share what I’ve learned with a group of hungry art students.
Schools like the FAA are intense. There’s a lot of pressure on the students to produce work across the board at a very high level consistently; and I remember how much pressure I myself felt when getting to the end of a term. I was happy to see the class well attended, full of students willing to get their hands dirty on their very last day of the trimester no less.
It was a lot of work; exhausting- both for jetlagged me and the students, and the students did literally get their hands dirty.
These days, traditional painting materials are an (unfortunately) overlooked aspect of a student’s education. Part of this is because of the ubiquitousness of modern, mass-produced materials- why make gesso when you can buy something in a tub ready made that’s called gesso (the answer is that those two products have very little in common, and that traditional, homemade gesso is actually far easier to manipulate). The other issue is that even at schools like the Florence Academy, where the founder (Daniel Graves) is implicit in the importance of learning to exert control over your materials during his technical lectures, time is limited. People feel there just isn’t enough time to make paint yourself.
Much like how in learning to cook, your perspective about making materials changes with some practical experience. Making your own food seems like a positively Sisyphean task until you’ve learned how to properly chop vegetables, organize your workspace and clean up as you go. This is no different.
The truth is though, I’ve found that running this as a hands-on workshop to be the most effective way for the students to internalize the information, retaining it far better than lecturing and taking notes alone. Also, as a perk, the students all get to go home with panels or canvases, handmade paints, and carefully cleaned linseed oil. Everyone likes that part.
Below, I attach a rough outline of the material we covered over the course of the workshop. Should give an idea of what one of my classes is like- It was an huge amount of information- the materials the students made in three days I made over the better part of a year when I was learning this stuff.
I start with a long talk about why hand-made materials are relevant in our modern time. We talk through the differences between the vegetable oils that are used by the oil painter, the way they behave differently based on their distinct characteristics. Some discussion on pigment history and basic discussion of the desirable archival qualities of an oil painting. Lecture is ~2 hours.
•I mull a small amount of yellow ocher and ultramarine blue to show the individual rheological characteristics of each pigment in oil
•We begin the process of ‘cleaning’ 2.5 liters Cold-Pressed Linseed oil
•Demonstration of how to make paint ‘feel different’- we make paint longer, shorter. Discussion on ‘branding’ and common fillers used by modern paintmakers.
•Together, we began making Titanium White and Ultramarine Blue. More talk on paint behavior, and how to stabilize pigments in oil so they don’t separate in the tube for storage.
•Demonstration of how to properly tube oil paints for storage
Here are students and faculty discussing the washing of the linseed oil
Above is one of our batches of Ultramarine Blue (commonly thought of as one of the trickier pigments to ‘grind’ by hand)
This day’s morning discussion is focused on Supports- advantages of rigid vs. flexible supports whether linen/cotton/polyester/jute or panel. Preparing paper for painting or drawing. Discussion of metal supports, mounting canvas to board. How to properly cook and test strength of rabbit skin glue. Some discussion on mediums and varnishes.
•Continued group ‘cleaning’ of 2.5 liters Linseed Oil
•Cooking animal hide glue. Discussion on the differences between natural hide glues and modern replacements
•Discussion of differences between different types of canvas/panel, when to use either type
•Demonstration of sizing Linen stretched on stretchers, sizing paper with glue or varnishes, and sizing wood panels
•Demonstration of mounting unprimed Linen to panel with size
•As a group, we begin cooking a batch of traditional gesso – discussion on the difference between traditional gesso and the acrylic stuff that is commonly called ‘gesso’ these days
•After demonstrating technique, the students begin applying their first coats of gesso to their panels
•Throughout the day, continued mulling of large batches of Titanium White and Ultramarine Blue, ~1kg each
our animal hide glue
Here I’m demonstrating mounting raw linen on stretcher bars
Mounting raw linen to panel
Dry-mounting pre-primed (or painted) canvas to panel
Shorter morning discussion on finishing our gesso panels and paint. Some discussion on varnishes and mediums. The students and I come up with a plan for their finished batch of
•Finishing ‘cleaning’ our batch of Linseed Oil
•The students do the final coats of gesso on their panels
•Demonstration of application of gesso ground on our mounted linen panel
•Making Oil Grounds – Application on our stretched canvas
•The students finish mulling our large batches of oil paint
•Demonstration of dry mounting primed linen to panel, mounting unstretched paintings to board
•Together we use the leftover gesso ground to make a gesso-oil-emulsion ground by emulsifying bodied linseed oil into our ground. Demonstration of application of this semi-flexible ground on stretched canvas
Here’s a shot of us making our oil-emulsion gesso ground: emulsifying sun-thickened linseed oil into a half-congealed gesso ground
We made nearly 50 panels and canvases, around 15 tubes of ultramarine blue and the same of titanium white, 2.5 liters of carefully washed linseed oil, and plenty of leftover grounds and canvas.
If you’d be interested in having me come to teach a hands-on materials workshop at your school feel free to contact me using the form above.