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May 2012

Peter Wileman's Recipe for Priming

I've mentioned Peter Wileman's book (along with Malcolm Allsop), Painting Light in Oils, before, and I want to share my experiment with his process for preparing painting panels, with my own modifications.

I like to work on a hard surface - either mounted linen or panels - and I have been looking for a good way to make my own custom sizes and surfaces - especially for the Mountain Series.  Initially I experimented with thin hardboard and luan - but neither gave anything close to satisfactory results.  So I was interested in the advice Peter Wileman gives in his book and dvd, and gave it a try.

I found 24 x 29 inch sheets of 1/4 inch MDF board for under $7 at a local home improvement store.  So - no big deal if the project failed.  Following Wileman's recipe, I purchased a can of acrylic (water based) primer/sealer.  Pollyfilla - the secret ingredient - is not marketed in the US, and through research I discovered it is similar to dry spackle.  But other research, particularly through The Artist's Handbook of Materials and Techniques, by Ralph Mayer, discusses the old method of making gesso first detailed by Cennino Cennini, of slaking plaster of Paris (a process that involves soaking in water) and mixing with rabbit skin glue. 

Ok, so as I stood in the home improvement store looking at the two boxes - plaster of Paris and spackle - I opted for the plaster of Paris to use because, after all, this is somewhat of an experiment, and spackle has always seemed gritty and prone to cracking to me. 


The primary caution regarding plaster of Paris is that it tends to crack when used on a flexable surface like canvas, but on wood panels the substrate is stable.  I used only a scant amount of plaster of Paris - approximately 1 teaspoon to 3 cups of primer, poured into a mixing container - about the consistency of yogurt.  Mix thoroughly and brush on to your pre-cut panels. 

You can see in the photo above that this mixture is rough on your household paint brush, so work quickly, brushing in multiple directions to give a more textured surface.  At least two thin layers, and allow to dry thoroughly between coats.  This gave good coverage, but there were a few panels where I used three coats and didn't  have any problems. 

You could certainly seal your board first using an acrylic product like GAC, but this seems to be overkill according to some resources.

I tried mixing marble dust in the mixture and found that the result was too rough on my brushes and I quickly tired of removing hogs hair from the surface and seeing my rounds demolished within minutes - so no marble dust in subsequent mixtures.


Here are the panels drying - allow ample time and don't stack until you are sure they are dry - trust me, they will stick together and you will have to repaint spots using your mixture.

Wileman also tones the panels as a next step, using acrylic paint.  For the Mountain Series I do use either a pink or a blue toned ground, and then add additional texturing before I begin to paint.  I have found this surface to be perfect for palette knife work as well as the rubbing and staining that I use - I don't worry about the panels warping as they dry - and my sizes range upward to 12 x 29 and larger without any problems as long as you store them flat and not on a slant.  Gravity wins out then, no matter what, unless you add a cradle. 

With oil paint, the paint is absorbed and becomes part of each layer, linked chemically, so the purpose of the plaster of Paris is to increase this tooth or absorbency.  I dislike some of the oil grounds that I've tried( too slippery) and many times commercial gessos also make it diffricult to lay down the paint - I have actually learned how to use these different qualities to create some of the textures in my work, applying some grounds that are more absorbent than others. 

All this points to the benefits in researching and experimenting until you find materials that work the best for what you are trying to do. 


Don't settle for what you can find commercially if it isn't working for you. 




"I could sure hear you in the book, very upbeat and encouraging...I also loaned your book to my Tucson art teacher and she let another friend of hers read it, too.  She’s already doing most of what you suggested...she hates self-promotion like most of us do..."  TB, Tuscon, AZ

Book - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Kindle US Store  - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Kindle UK Store - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

The Greatest Single Factor in Creative Work

There has been a continuing thread on many of the blogs that I read, regarding the value of individual artistic thought, so today's post comes from an excerpt from my book Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist. I believe this is an important conversation for artists to have, particularly those who are in the early stages of growing into their personal voices and are looking for direction. But also, a member of my immediate family is facing a significant health crisis that will monopolize much of my time and I still want to post to this blog.  So there may be times when I rely on excerpts, but most of the time I will continue to post new content because I value the sense of community that has grown up around Ancient Artist readers. 



    Today I learned that originality only became important around the eighteenth century, manifesting in western culture as an outgrowth of the Romantic Period.  That's according to a Wikipedia article.  Prior to that time people tended to like things that looked the same, which could explain some of the practices during the Renaissance, when master artists ran studios filled with laboring apprentices, leading to art history references like "in the manner of" and "from the workshop of," and my personal favorite, "from a student of."  I'm not sure if my terminology is correct - "from a student of" - but there are plenty of folks still attaching themselves to their teachers.  Personally I think this is too much influence from academia, where you list your professional provenance on everything you do.  But for the artist, well, I've always wondered why you would tell someone, "I was a student of such-and-such famous artist," when the obvious outcome is that this person will immediately compare said famous artist's work to your own.

    I much prefer artists who say "my teacher was so-and-so and he would always say..." because this is more participatory.  Perhaps I'm splitting hairs here and at the end of the day it doesn't really matter to most people whether you think of yourself as a student or of having a teacher.  But in my mind, continually thinking of yourself as a student is like refusing to graduate and step out into the world on the risk and strength of your own ideas.  It's a little too cautious where real growth is concerned.

    All this seems to point out how difficult it can be to come up with an original thought, to make art that is fresh, innovative, and creative.  The usual argument -- that cave painting, line drawing, drip painting have all been done before -- might be true on one level and an excuse for laziness on another, a shrug of the shoulders and metaphorical "Oh well."

When I first started painting I bent over backward trying to be original, and then I quit.  I realized that as soon as I became conscious of how original I was, my brain started pointing out images from other artists that looked exactly like my own.  It's similar to the children's game where you start looking for a particular car and suddenly you see them everywhere.  I can't think the word "originality" because what flashes into my mind are all the images of what was original when some other artist thought of it: Frankenthaler's huge acrylic paintings created with squeegees, Pat Steir's dazzling light waterfall paintings - you see what I mean? And while I understand what Edgar Payne meant when he said "individuality in thought is, without a doubt, the greatest single factor in creative work", it was so much easier when people all liked the same thing.


    The discussion I was having through this excerpt is centered around the way we construct our ideas about how to "be original."  Some of this vagueness comes from the way we are exposed to Art - with single artists lionized because they came up with an idea that may or may not have been exclusive to their work at the time.  Certainly ideas along this line, that artists must search out new methods of expression, drive various interests within the arts.  But does this become an impossible task, or an approach that relates to fewer and fewer arts enthusiasts, because it drives the work into the obscure?

    Other pressures come from the popular arts culture, which has narrowed down drastically through this recession to reflect only the tastes of the art markets that are thriving.  The pressure to compete in this shrinking market drives the work into a certain homogeneity - making it far more difficult to engage with collectors caught up in image overload.

    So what do you, as an artist, decide to do?  Where is your comfort level?  What would you tell younger (experience-wise) artists to do if you were asked for advice?




"I could sure hear you in the book, very upbeat and encouraging...I also loaned your book to my Tucson art teacher and she let another friend of hers read it, too.  She’s already doing most of what you suggested...she hates self-promotion like most of us do..."  TB, Tuscon, AZ

Book - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Kindle US Store  - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Kindle UK Store - Ancient Wisdom Emerging Artist: the business plan (not just) for the mature artist

Do We Paint for the Scientist, or the Chicken?

Passion is important.  Passion is what drives the artist but there are times when passion gets in the way.  I remember an early design class.  We were instructed to paint a value scale, and in my enthusiasm I created one of the loveliest, longest value scales ever seen in class - when the intended goal was to create a precise set of ten steps moving from white to black.  My passion was caught up in the wonder of it all, the tiniest gradation, the way the white, when mixed into the black, could be nudged ever so slightly one way or another.  I bent to my task like a child with her first set of crayons.  Artistically, this idea captivated me, and continues to captivate me today.  How the slightest adjustment can nudge a gray one way or another. 

Of course this fascination is more suited to the scientist than to the artist, who must deal with the recreation of a visual reality that is based on contrast and relationships.  The scientist, while looking at some bit of flotsam through a microscope, studies the subtle variations.  The artist might do better to remember the chicken experiment from the psychology department.  Apparently chickens can be trained to look for their food on a light colored square when it's placed beside a darker square.  Once trained, it doesn’t matter what the shade of gray or the color combination.  As long as one square is lighter than the other, the little hen-brains can distinguish between the two and immediately find the food.  This is based on a learned relationship – lighter means corn, darker means nothing.  As long as the chicken can discern the important lighter/darker relationship, it remains happy and well fed.  But when the gradations are too close together – like my magnificent value scale – the poor birds are likely to starve to death.   

This is the main lesson artists learn when studying values: there must be significant contrast for the human or animal eye to discern the difference between one form and another, or the positive and negative space.  This idea of pattern and contrast is how we navigate our world. However - the human eye has an amazing ability to infer relationships.  We can account for distortions to interpret correctly what we are looking at - the Impressionists grew famous exploring it, all those dabs of color and value, seeing just how far they could reduce form in sparking light and still retain a readable image. 

And so there is the conundrum.  Do we paint for the scientist, or the chicken?  Is it simply safer to recreate a photograph, a ten-step value scale, a set of lighter/darker squares designed to appeal to the hen-brain?  Where does artistry come into play?

This is the sort of stuff I like to think about and which I don't recall being mentioned in that design class. Sometimes, in the studio, I find myself abstracting down to the barest level and then back-tracking to appease the hen-brain.  I found this short snippet video by Clyde Aspevig where he addresses this idea of where to appease the hen-brain and where to paint like the scientist.  I'm sure most of you have already watched this video as it's been around since 2007, but if you watch it again, notice when he talks about the silhouette of the trees.  Then think about this in terms of hen-brain and scientist - contrasted shapes and layers of nuance and texture. 

So what do you think?