The Safety of Paint Vehicles
Shopping and Caring for Your Watercolors
In the Garden of Hesperides
Surfaces ReduxWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
Okay, gang, we're back for round two of Stuff We Like To Paint On. Last time we talked about paper, illustration board, and canvas. Onward and upward!
Once again, we have something called board. This time it makes a little more sense, because board is made outta wood.
You can, if you like, paint on plain ol' wood if it's been sanded smooth. (This is sometimes known as painting on "panel.") And it's a pretty damn durable surface, and it'll last a lot longer than a canvas will. It's not quite as absorbent as paper, of course, but there's nothing wrong with it under acrylic or oil. Many great paintings that have survived the ages are on panel, and there are tons of pre-made wooden panels that you can order from art supply stores, or failing that, you can always go sand a door.
And then there's Masonite. Masonite is…err…stuff. It's a product of our modern age and thus hard to describe. It's a sort of smooth plywood board, usually pretty flexible. It's a building material. It's also a perfectly good surface to paint on. However, if you get a nice thin Masonite panel, you may find that if you paint only on one side, the panel will buckle and warp a little bit. You can get around this by painting the other side with gesso-even if you can't stand to cover the whole board in gesso, swipe a big X over it if nothing else.
Which leads us to gesso. In order to make a nice surface to paint on the board, you generally have to cover your board with gesso, and then-ungggh-sand the brush marks out. Then another layer, with the strokes in the other direction, and then sand again. This is very boring, but it makes the wood a nice white semi-absorbent painting surface. But god, it's boring. If you don't sand, the brushmarks tend to show up as a texture in the painting. Various artists who hate sanding have made a virtue of this fact, but generally you're just gonna have to resign yourself to the manual labor.
Also, wear a dust mask. Gesso dust in your lungs probably won't make you chop off your ear and mail it to a prostitute, but it still can't be healthy.
Back in the day, in this day and age of better living through funky chemistry, you occasionally found that your wood had been treated with some strange chemicals which did bad things with your art. These days, though, you probably don't have to worry if you're headed down to Home Depot-this was a much bigger issue a few decades ago. The chemicals in wood have gotten pretty innocuous, and you can paint on them pretty safely. (They may still give you cancer and cause a third eye to sprout in your forehead, but the paint'll be fine.) Use caution on stuff labeled "pressure treated" but generally it's not a big deal.
I love this stuff.
Clayboard is made by a company called Ampersand, and it's wild stuff. It's basically masonite, with a layer of a fine clay-like, totally inorganic, invented-in-a-lab goop spread very finely over it.
It's really neat.
Clayboard will take practically any media you want to dump on it, from watercolor to oil. It comes in three basic types-gessoboard, clayboard, and textured.
Gessoboard is masonite with gesso applied to it. Almost exactly the same as what we've described above, except that you don't have to do any sanding, and it's a hair more absorbent and has a fine-grained texture that you're unlikely to achieve by hand. This is great for the artist who has flung their sanding block out the window and screamed "I WILL NEVER SAND AGAIN, GODDAMNIT!"
Clayboard is the wonderful magic gunk, and it's weird. It's very slick, and only somewhat absorbent, so you get lots of puddling, which can be wonderful for rocky textures. Apply a thin wash of something, let it puddle up, let it dry about halfway, wipe off a few spots, and it's practically Insto-Rock. It'll take marker and colored pencil details, and if you apply acrylic fairly thickly, it'll go on pretty evenly. I LOVE this stuff.
Textured clayboard, is a watercolor surface, it's got more tooth than the others, and it's more absorbent. You're basically getting to watercolor on Masonite. It's not bad, but the tooth makes fine detail trickier, so you have to work a bit larger than you might otherwise. Not my favorite, although I've used it effectively a few times.
The Downside: This stuff ain't cheap, and by ain't cheap, I mean back-breakingly expensive. But you can get a wee little sample pack of 5 x 7 boards for pretty cheap-like under $10-and I'd suggest giving it a whirl, because it can be a REALLY cool surface.
Yes, you can paint on matboard. If you get the museum-board, it's acid free and archival, it comes in a few colors, and it's a lot like heavy illustration board. My experience is that it works well with watercolor, but it sucks the moisture right out of the brush, so you're doing small dabs rather than huge washes. Can be groovy.
Colored matboard is also a neat surface to work on using white inks and colored pencils.
In addition to the basic, sane, normal surfaces we've covered, there's a couple of other freaks, which can be used for interesting effects.
Yupo – This is basically a sheet of plastic pretending to be a paper. It is as absorbent as glass. It makes a very interesting surface to watercolor on.
The trick, of course, is that nothing gets absorbed at all, so you're relying on evaporation to lay the pigment down, and-here's the catch-you can't touch it afterwards. The sweat on your hands will pull the pigment right off. So you lay down a wash and you leave the room. Using, for example, crumpled plastic wrap dumped onto a wash, you can get wildly cool textures, but they're very fragile. Another wash will pick them right up again.
Realism is pretty much out with yupo, but it's fun stuff to play with a time or two anyway. Some of the effects are amazing and bear little resemblance to any other surface you're likely to work on-clayboard's the only thing even remotely similar, and it's not very. Once you're done, if you hate it, you can take it into the shower, and hey, presto, the art goes down the drain. Or you can wait until it's bone dry, lay a sheet of tissue paper over it with agonizing care, and take it down to the frame shop pronto. Pick a day with low humidity.
Canvas paper – This is plasticky stuff that's been stamped out to have the square repeating texture of canvas. I see no reason for this stuff to exist, but presumably someone somewhere does.
Canvas panel – Again, this is canvas, but instead of wrapping around a wooden frame, it's stapled around a piece of cardboard, making a small hard board. I've painted on the stuff, it's not hard to work with, but the texture annoys me. If you go for this, be sure and get the better quality stuff, so that you're sure the cardboard backing is archival and won't eat through the art.
Watercolor canvas – A novelty surface developed recently, this is canvas that you can watercolor on. Wow! Amazing! Except that it's really not that amazing-slather enough gesso on something, and it'll take watercolor. This presumably has some kind of special proprietary gesso, but it's probably not worth the money, particularly when you consider that your watercolor will still need to be sealed and protected from careless sweaty people, thereby negating the one real virtue of being on a canvas in the first place. I tried it. It wasn't that exciting, but then, I'm probably jaded. You may love it.
Litho plate – You can, if you're handy with metal, paint, draw, and abuse lithography plate, and it's actually an interesting surface to fool with. It's basically a sheet of metal with a thin treatment of plasticky waxy stuff. It takes pastel astonishingly well, and you can get amazing effects with India ink. You can scratch it for texture, and paint on it, and all kinds of stuff. The downside is that you kinda have to have access to a metal shop to cut the stuff, and a drill press if you plan to hang it. For the average person, probably more trouble than it's worth. But still, if you have some litho plate just, y'know, lying around, I suggest trying it out as a drawing/painting surface. You'll probably make a hideous mess, but I knew at least one artist back in college who fell passionately in love with the stuff and began working almost exclusively on it.
And that concludes this installment of Stuff You Paint On. Once again, I encourage you to try some of these-I never would have thought I liked some of 'em, but I've been pleasantly surprised on more than one occasion.
Next month-err-something else!
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