Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Talkin' Priming Yet Another Canvas To Sit In The Studio Gathering Dust Blues

I’ve been priming a canvas in preparation for a painting. I’ve stretched and primed hundreds of canvasses over the years, and I never really enjoy this part of the process. I just find it boring. I’m impatient and just want to get on with painting. Yet the fact that this part takes time is probably good for me. It allows me the time to think more carefully about the painting I’m about to embark upon. The primer is the first paint that goes onto the canvas, and priming is particularly useful in giving me a feel for the scale of the painting and an insight into how I might approach it. Once primed and ready however, I do love the blank, white canvas and that exciting feeling of anticipation before starting the painting.

I read in his journals that Keith Haring often used to paint a border first within the edges of his canvasses for a similar reason; to sort of mark out and feel the arena where the ‘action’ of his painting would take place. He created nearly all of his paintings completely spontaneously which I find remarkable. I love Haring’s work. The sheer energy within it and behind it is always so inspiring. Those journals are a great read too.

Keith Haring 'Untitled'

Some artists are obsessed with priming. I once attended a lecture by painter Bernard Cohen where he talked about the joy he had in priming his huge canvasses twenty times or more, sanding between each coat. Many painters apparently do this to achieve the perfect ‘surface’. I wondered what I was missing, but also how they afforded it. The most I have primed is about six coats, and I must say I found it made little difference. I’ve experimented a lot with primers over the years, and have come to the simple conclusion that with good gesso double priming is perfectly fine, which is what I was taught on degree in the first place! Some artists on a budget also use a mixture of emulsion and PVA to make their own primer, but this is a bad idea. Emulsion is meant to be used on hard surfaces like walls or wood, not flexible ones like canvas. In time it will turn brittle and your painting is likely to flake and peel off. David Hockney famously experimented with emulsions in the sixties and many of his paintings from that period have deteriorated already. I’m getting a bit technical here so I’ll finish. I might find it boring, but good preparation is important.

Bernard Cohen 'Untitled'

I bought Bob Dylan’s latest in the Bootleg Series today, ‘The Witmark Demos 1962-64’. They sound brilliant. Their unfinished, and often sketchy quality, reminded me of all the preparation and rehearsing that goes into things before the finished product of the official recording (though Bob fans will know how much he dislikes most of his official recordings). There are some comparisons to be drawn here with painting. This can also be seen with the way the preparation, or demos in Dylan’s case, can contain more vigour and spark than the final piece. Catching the thing can often be a disappointment after the chase.

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