Practical Magic

Art is about having visions. We all have such experiences. Artists are charged with the very special job giving those visions physical form. You have to do it by working with your materials and by mastering the craft. I like to think of being an artist as a kind of magician. Like magicians, we have to be knowledgeable and extremely practical.

There is nothing more hopeful than stretching a new large canvas. Above is a brand new 36 x 72" stretched linen canvas waiting to have its oil ground applied before I can begin actually painting on it. It's labor intensive and repetitive. It takes hours to build the wooden stretcher bars, cut the cloth to shape and staple it down, and finally apply the glue sizing. In a way it is meditative. When you are finally done you unconsciously know the terrain where your new painting is to unfold. That's why I like doing all these steps myself.

The glue that I use to seal the fabric off from the potentially damaging oils in my paint is made out of rabbits, hence its creepily poetic name rabbit skin glue. As a vegetarian I'm always wince a little when I use the stuff. But I also like the assurance it's been used by the great painters I admire so for many hundreds of years. You have to suffer for your art, some say. Apparently some unlucky rabbits do too.

I have two easels side my side, one to hold small studies at eye level and a larger heavier easel at the left to hold the really big canvases. To the left of both is my palatte table with a 24 x 36" well oiled sheet of masonite where I mix my colors. I always work standing up as it keeps my eye more alert, so there are several sheets of corrugated cardboard laid down to soften the impact on my feet as well as catch at least some of the drips of oil paint that go flying when I work fast.

Years ago I discovered how useful it is to me to leave works in progress out where I can see them out of the corner of my eye. It's a little bit of creative disorganization. Here's the corner of the studio with some pastel drawings paired with the oil studies that then followed from them. Most of these will be turned into larger studio paintings this year.

Nothing under the sun is more frustrating than running out of a particular pigment just when you get a great idea. So I stockpile the stuff. Also there is no such thing as having too many paint brushes. Here's some of my arsenal.

This afternoon I laid the ground on the stretched fine weave linen I prepared yesterday. The linen has a smoother surface than regular cotton duck canvas which is why some artists prefer it. Unfortunately it is much trickier to stretch properly and often decides on its own to suddenly get too tight in one area and go slack in another. It's also dreadfully expensive. You need to be sensitive to be a painter, true. You also need to pretend you have nerves of steel, as you sometimes have to throw the linen out when the stretch doesn't work. My wife thinks I'm way too perfectionistic about the surfaces I paint on and obsess about tiny flaws nobody else can notice. She's probably right, but I seem unable to help myself in this department.

Here's the titanium white oil pigment being pushed into the tiny valleys between the linen thread with a trowel. It gives a delightfully smooth surface that I can only liken to a new baby's behind.

Here I am under the watchful eye of a wooden cat sculpture applying the white oil ground over the linen. At the present time I don't have any real cats in the studio. Hope the wooden version can still share some of its mojo with me.


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