Question: One of my biggest personal painting struggles is my tendency to tighten up and lose spontaneity. I would like to try painting on unstretched canvas and/or gessoed paper to save money and help the gestural aspect of my work. On page 27 of your Landscape Painting book you talk about painting on unstretched canvas. If the painting is a keeper, how do you handle this? Does one glue it to a masonite panel? If so what type of glue? – Robin
Answer: Whenever I talk about painting on unstretched canvas, I am inevitably asked this question. What do you do if you want to frame it? It may come as a surprise that a painting done on unstretched canvas can be stretched later. It can also be mounted to a panel or matted. For the benefit of those who may not have heard of painting on unstretched canvas, I’ll first outline the advantages, then I’ll discuss the various presentation options.
Note: Unstretched canvas does not mean unprimed! When I mention “unstretched” canvas, it means pre-primed canvas. My preferred brand is Fredrix.
The advantage of painting un unstretched canvas or paper
Freedom. There is a certain preciousness about stretched canvas. You may have taken considerable time and effort to prepare the canvas or, if you bought it ready-made, spent a sizable sum. A pristine stretched canvas can be intimidating. It says, “You’d better not mess this up!” You may not want to commit to the trouble and expense of stretched canvas until you know the painting is working out. Unstretched pre-primed canvas (or gessoed paper) is, by comparison, very low cost. As Robin’s question suggests, working on an inexpensive and “unprecious” surface may encourage you to be freer and more experimental.
Portability. Stretched canvases can be cumbersome, especially for plein air painters who must travel light. When I paint outdoors, I carry around several pieces of gessoed paper and unstretched canvas in an envelope. I simply tape the individual pieces to a lightweight panel. It adds almost no weight to my pack.
Painting on canvas that is to be stretched later
If you plan to stretch the canvas later, be sure to leave 1.5 – 2 inches of extra canvas around the image area to wrap around the stretcher bars. (See below.) Also be sure to measure your work in increments of whole inches, so it will conform to the standard sizes of stretcher bars.
Framing options for paintings done on unstretched canvas or gessoed paper
1. Stretching the canvas after the painting is finished. Stretching the canvas after the painting is finished is certainly possible, but it’s not easy. I don’t recommend doing it yourself unless you are very skilled at stretching canvases. If budget permits, I recommend taking it to professional framer. If you do want to do it yourself, here are some guidelines.
- You do not have to stretch pre-primed canvas as much as you would unprimed canvas. You only need to stretch it enough to make it gently taut, enough that the canvas has no buckles or ripples. That said, stretching pre-primed canvas is definitely harder than stretching unprimed canvas. Pre-primed canvas has much less give.
- Even if you have the tools and the strength to stretch the hell out of the pre-primed canvas, don’t. Although oil paint does have some flexibility, there is a point at which you could damage or crack the paint layers, especially if the painting has been drying for several years.
- A painting that is being stretched undergoes lots of handling, so you must take extra care not to damage the surface of the painting in the process.
2. Mat the painting. If you like the look of a mat or liner around a painting, there is no reason you can’t mat a painting done on paper or unstretched canvas. A small piece of canvas will lie very flat under a mat. A larger piece may not lie as flat, in which case mounting or stretching may be called for.
3. Mount the painting. You can mount canvas or gessoed paper to a panel or mat board. Like stretching a painting, mounting can be tricky. It requires a lot of skill and must be done right if it is to remain flat (unwarped) and be truly archival. I recommend taking it to a professional framer, who knows how to do it and has all the necessary tools. Complete step-by-step instructions for mounting are beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in doing it yourself, here are a few points to be aware of. Also see the comments and suggestions by readers below. As with any studio technique you are trying for the first time, don’t try it on your “precious” painting. Always experiment on scrap canvas or paper first.
- Use an archival glue intended for mounting such as Yes Stikflat Glue or Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA). See Gerry’s comments below about stabilized PVA and shelf life.
- Before mounting paper, seal the back side of the painting with a coat of gesso. Tape the painting facedown on a clean surface before gessoing. This will to allow it to dry flat without any buckling. Canvas does not need to be gessoed on the back.
- Proper mounting requires complete adhesion. You must use enough glue to form complete contact between the back of the painting and the panel, and spread the glue very evenly using some type of spatula. Too little glue may result in areas that don’t fully adhere, trapping air beneath the surface of the painting.
- Proper mounting produces a completely flat panel without any warping. Immediately after glueing the painting to the panel, it must dry flat under significant pressure, and be allowed to dry completely (approximately 24 hours). Full adhesion and drying under pressure are the keys to a panel that will dry completely flat.
- Mount onto good quality material. I have found the masonite available at lumberyards to be very poor quality for art purposes. Their pieces are usually warped. I recommend spending a few extra dollars for an artist-grade panel, like those from Ampersand or archival foam core.