A couple of months ago Dave shared his approach to making panels. Now, I know you all think that Dave and I live in a state of blissful marital harmony, with him checking the oil in my car and me ironing creases into his boxers, but the truth of the matter is that we do have completely incompatible ideas about panel making. I confess, the darkest moments of my married life have been when Dave has coerced me into helping him make panels. Normally I try to schedule some sort of errand outside of the house so that I can be gone for a good ten hour period. And I know you all are like, hey, she jokes around a lot on the blog, but guys, I'm f***ing serious about this one. I have a couple of different ways of making panels that are different from Dave's approach and I'm going to share those with you now.
But before I get into my personal panel-making, I just want to tell you WHY you should make your own panels:
- Complete control over dimensions
- Quality control
So let's make some panels. The first step is to buy your panel material. Skip the baltic birch and go right to your local plastics depot for a 4x8' sheet of aluminum composite panel (if you have trouble finding some, call up your local sign-makers and ask them who they buy theirs from). Unlike birch, this stuff won't splinter when you cut it, warp, crack, or expand/contract with humidity fluctuations. It is perfectly rigid, though very thin, and won't need bracing, making framing it a cinch. It's also perfectly smooth. If you are completely wedded to the romance of using "traditional" materials, get a divorce. I don't care that plywood's been around since ancient Mesopotamia. Aluminum composite panel is the space material of the future, the immaculate love child of plastic and metal sent to earth to save sinning artists from creating paintings on inferior supports.
Dave and I cut the aluminum composite panel with an 80 tooth carbide tipped blade on our table saw. This often leaves a little tag of aluminum that needs to be gently sanded off with 60 grit sandpaper. I then remove the plastic wrapper and lightly sand the factory priming with 320 grit sandpaper (or finer) wrapped around a sanding block. I sand until the surface looks matte. Now, before you apply your ground, it's important to have a clean surface. So if your dog dragged his bum across your panel in that split second you laid your panel on the ground while you grabbed your priming brush, you need to clean it with some rubbing alcohol. This will remove the dust, your greasy KFC fingerprints, and the oily residue that the plastic wrapper has left on the surface. After cleaning the surface thoroughly, avoid touching it with your bare hands. Let it dry, and then dust the lint from the cotton ball/paper towel off the surface with a clean house paint brush.
|I sand in circular motions with very little pressure.|
|Clean off the dust and grease with some rubbing alcohol|
From here I have three options: real chalk gesso, oil ground, or acrylic dispersion ground (aka acrylic gesso). While Dave likes to use linen, I think this is a big fat waste of time and money. Sorry, honey, but your frivolous expenditures will put us in the poorhouse ere long. I used to love painting on oil-primed linen, but the fact of the matter is, it's all primed with zinc and titanium. Even when they say it's lead-primed, dig a little deeper and you'll find out that the base coat was zinc and only the final coat lead. I'm just flat out sick of not knowing what is in my art products, so I yanked the bandaid off and quit linen cold turkey. I also was tired of running out of linen, of finding out that that last yard was speckled with inconsistencies and was completely unusable, the turn around time of ordering a new roll, and the cost of importing, etc etc...
ACRYLIC DISPERSION GROUND
Aluminum composite panels cut to size
320 grit sandpaper
Brush or roller plus paint tray
Golden White Gesso
Saran Wrap to wrap the brush between coats. 'Cause who wants to clean that brush four times.
This is hands down the easiest of the two methods. After sanding and degreasing the factory priming, I apply four coats of Golden White Gesso with a brush. Just so you know, they are misusing the word "gesso" here, since it's not really gesso at all. When in polite society, you should always call it a "ground." I apply the ground with a brush, taking care that my brushstrokes are tidy and parallel. My first coat is horizontal to the picture plane, and the next one vertical. Repeat. The reason for this is so that the final coat, which will be the most pronounced, is vertical and does not catch light as strongly. All those horizontal strokes would cause a lot of reflections under gallery lighting. This alternation of brush stroke direction creates a very fine faux weave texture that tricks people into thinking they're looking at linen. I've had competent artists ask me where I buy my linen and how I glue it to my aluminum composite panel, so I like to think my approach creates a pretty convincing substitute for true linen texture. It's lovely to paint on, too.
|The raking light here really exaggerates those brushstrokes|
|Just wrap that brush. I've left house painting brushes like this for over a year and the paint does not dry. I wish I could do this with my oil painting brushes.|
Oil grounds have been around for longer than acrylic dispersion grounds and they too are super sexy to paint on. I've dabbled with a few brands over the years, the most recent experimentation being with Natural Pigment's Lead Oil Ground (whatever brand you use, make sure there is no zinc in it!). The disadvantages to the product are that oil grounds take longer to dry, and lead oil grounds in particular can make a bit of a mess. Panel making is a bit of controlled chaos, with smudges and drips winding up in all sorts of random places in your studio. I just feel a bit stressed when working with lead oil ground. However, the Natural Pigments product is really nice to paint on and I see why so many people do. My extremely small data sample tells me that it doesn't grip quite as ruthlessly to the aluminum composite panel and the acrylic dispersion ground does, though, so I think if I were to make panels this way regularly, I would start off with one coat of acrylic dispersion ground before layering up my oil ground with the same vertical-horizontal brush stroke effect.
GESSO (the real stuff)
Aluminum composite panels cut to size
320 grit sandpaper
Stirring stick or spatula
Container, preferably with lid
Orbital sander plus 220 grit paper
This method is more work than the former, but I believe that that is only the case because I'm still mastering it. I'm certain that a couple of batches from now, I will have this down pat. I use Easy Gesso by Natural Pigments. It's even easier than the name implies. They should call it Baby's First Gesso. I think that if you want to try out gesso to see if it's for you, you cannot go wrong with this product. The instructions are basically: Measure out gesso. Add water. Allow to sit. Reheat. Apply. You don't need a double boiler or anything. So if you want to take gesso out for a spin to see if it's for you, go ahead and skip the insane and complicated recipes that you'll find on the various artist forums, and skip the scavenger hunt to find a double boiler and a thermometer and a Bunsen burner and an RV and a secluded stretch of New Mexican desert. Just fish an old yoghurt container out of your recycling and make a batch of Easy Gesso.
It's hard to know how much surface area your batch will cover, so have a bunch of panels ready to use and play it by ear. Lay down some newspaper to make clean up easier. Four to eight coats, stirring gently each time before applying. The first coat will go on very thinly, but each subsequent coat will feel meatier. You can sand in between layers if you're sanding by hand, but it's far easier to sand at the very end with an orbital sander (trick: rest the sander on the surface of the panel before turning it on. Derp). I use 220 grit paper. If you sand by hand you will have to use something finer, like 320, and you will have a remarkable deltoid in your dominant arm by the end. And just so you're prepared, there will be a lot of dust. There will be about ten times more gesso dust coming off those panels than you put in the damn gesso mix to begin with. You will sand and sand and sand away until your tears of frustration drip onto the panels and give the sandpaper the moisture needed to do that final wet polish. Or at least that is my experience. Periodically you should hold the panel up to oblique light to check for ridges or imperfections. I find that a bright sunny day is the best time to sand gesso. Nothing beats a bright sunbeam coming in through a window for laying bare any irregularities.
Once the surface is smooth, I brush or wipe off the loose dust and seal the surface to reduce absorbency. You need to do this last step because gesso is simply too absorbent to paint on otherwise. Besides being an unpleasant paint surface to work on, the oil in your paint will get sucked into gesso, leaving your pigment resting underbound on the surface, and resulting in a weak paint layer (underbound means a paint does not have enough binder in it to make a strong paint layer). To reduce absorbency, you have a lot of different options--you can use any drying oil, or a resin like Canada Balsam. Personally, I use shellac, which I make with flakes from Natural Pigments prepared according to their instructions.
Anhydrous alcohol or methyl hydrate (the former is safer)
Make up sponge
Place a given amount of shellac flakes in the bottom of a jar, level them out, and mark the height of the shellac on the jar with a permanent marker. Next, fill up the jar with methyl hydrate or anhydrous alcohol to a level that is twice as high as the height of that mark. This a is a quick and dirty way to get the right ratio. It should be left overnight to dissolve, after which you should filter it. I use a coffee filter tucked inside a funnel made out of half a water bottle (this later goes right in the trash). After filtering it, I keep it in a very narrow mouthed jar, which makes it easy to wet a make up sponge with it. Apply it quickly and lightly, in rows. Two to three coats does the trick for me. Observing it in the light you will see how satiny or shiny the surface becomes. If you should decide you've put too much on, you can always sand a bit off. The panel is ready to work with immediately, although I usually tone it first. To tone a panel, I mix up some paint--usually raw umber and a bit of lead white, dilute it with OMS, and apply with a large brush. It will need a day or two to dry.
|Caper jars are the best for storing your shellac. The shellac flakes have not yet dissolved in this picture.|
Gesso is pretty challenging to paint on. Because I'm still trying to figure out the perfect amount of shellac to create an optimum level of absorbency, I haven't done any major paintings on a gesso ground yet. All of the major paintings you have seen on my blog this past year have been painted on acrylic dispersion ground. Meanwhile, all of the studies and oil sketches were painted on gesso grounds.
Alright, you may go now.
ADDENDUM: Aluminum composite panel has many brand names. Your local retailer might carry Dibond, or Epanel, or Alupanel, or Omega Panel, or something else entirely. Most suppliers seem to carry 3mm panel. In a panel three feet across or so, you will notice a little bit of flex. Once framed, the frame will act as a brace, but you could also avoid this problem by using a thicker dibond (4mm or 6mm). If flexing is major (something I haven't experienced first hand yet because I don't work very large) you might want to consider avoiding a fragile ground like real gesso, which will crack, and stick instead to a lead oil ground or acrylic ground.
UPDATE 2017: I've gone through and made some small improvements to this article. I'd like to admit that I've dropped chalk gesso entirely (it was a fun experiment) in favor of the acrylic dispersion ground, which really can't be beat for ease and turn around time. I can get a couple dozen panels completed in a few hours spread out over one or two days in a big panel prep marathon and it's super easy and doesn't make much mess. Who could ask for more.