The Background Work: Prepping A Panel Before Painting

Most folks aren’t aware of all the behind-the-scenes work involved in making a painting. For every painting I produce, I must first prepare a panel. This is a multi-step process that takes a few days. Fortunately, I enjoy working with my hands so find this stage of the process to be relaxing and meditative. But it takes time and labor. Understanding what goes into a finished painting may help you, the collector, further appreciate the finished product. 

First, a little background. The surface you paint on is called a “support.” Professional painters usually prepare their own supports, since that way the artist can control quality and customize the dimensions. Also, it’s cheaper when you do it yourself, an important factor when you’re in the business of making art for a living.

The support can be stretched canvas (stretched across and stapled to stretcher bars), or rigid, such as wood or Dibond (aluminum composite material, or ACM, the stuff that highway signs are made of). 

So the question becomes whether to use stretched canvas or a rigid support. Each painter has her own preference. There’s been a trend the past several years to using rigid supports, since the rigidity prevents eventual cracking of the surface of the painting once the paint hardens. I generally prefer to paint on rigid supports, both for the archival quality and because I like the feel of painting on a firm surface as opposed to a springy stretched canvas That said, a properly stretched canvas is tight like a drum and feels good beneath a brush. I’ll probably have to return to using stretched canvas if I continue to work in large scale, because the larger you go, the more weight and expense will become factors to consider. Vincent Desiderio paints large-scale works on loose canvas, taped to his studio wall, and subsequently stretches them after the painting is done. If I had the wall space I’d do this, too.

For the size of work I’m making these days, my go-to support of choice is cradled Birchwood panels. I buy them wholesale from the art supply store, and my basement is stacked with panels of varying sizes. I like using panels because they don’t require framing, which saves me considerable cost when I’m preparing work for a show. 

But the panel has to be prepped before I can start painting. Here’s what that process involves:

First, I seal the wood panel with a coat of Golden’s GAC 100, a clear acrylic primer that prevents the wood lignins and tannins of the panel from leaching into the painting. After it dries, I seal it with a second thin coat. Then I turn the panel over and do the same to the other side.

Although some painters will then prepare the surface of their panels with several coats of gesso, let it dry, sand the surface and then paint on the gessoed surface, I don’t have a place to do all that sanding since my studio is part of my living space. Instead, I adhere linen canvas to the sealed panel. I like the feel of linen beneath my paint brush, and this seems easier- although perhaps a bit more expensive- than sanding gesso. 

I use Utrecht Professional grade acrylic gesso as an adhesive for the canvas, since it has just the right amount of tackiness to work as an adhesive. This is where my bookbinding bench skills come in. Bonnie Thompson Norman of Windowpane Press taught me how to work quickly and carefully when using adhesives and large sheets of paper, and it’s the same when gluing canvas to a panel. I paint the gesso quickly onto the panel using a large cheap brush from the hardware store, working quickly before the gesso dries.

Then I carefully place the panel face down on my pre-cut canvas, flip over the panel and, with a plastic putty spreader from the hardware store, work from the center to the outer edges, smoothing out air bubbles and wrinkles.

Then I pull out every heavy cookbook, coffee table book and art book from my bookshelves and weight down the panel for twenty-four hours. Time and pressure take care of the rest. 

I do this for every single painting. 

This is a lot of work, but it produces a professional, very clean-looking product. Once I’ve varnished the completed painting, I paint the borders of the panel with raw umber acrylic, to create a finished look. 

So you see that a lot of work goes into the production of a painting. It’s more than just a pretty picture. It’s a work of art.