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Old 11-10-1999, 06:40 AM
s mckee s mckee is offline
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Painting on the cheap

I've painted blindly for many years following all the accepted methods of preparing surfaces and applying media to ensure that my pictures will deteriorate as slowly as possible. But I've started to question some of the rules. Mainly, this is because my pictures are getting much bigger and following the rules is getting expensive.

I have two questions:

1) Is there any chemical reason why ordinary latex primer/sealer (the sort you get by the gallon in home improvement stores) could not be used to prepare a canvas in place of acrylic gesso? At least, could it not be used for a layer or two beneath a single layer of gesso?

2) Is costly Damar or Copal really necessary? What problems could arise from using a more generic sort of varnish (even polyurethane), provided the normal drying-time rules are applied? I've been told that polyurethane yellows a bit with age, but I have a 4 year old picture that I varnished with normal semi-gloss poly and unless my eyes or my memory are deceiving me, it looks exactly the same now as it did when it first dried.

I realize these are the sort of questions that can make perfectionists shiver in the spine. But I'm not a fussy colourist. A little yellowing wouldn't bother me. But as a professional I have a responsibility to make sure my pictures survive for the benefit of whoever is kind enough to purchase them. (If they fall apart for their great-grandchildren, then T.S.)

Anyway, I'd be very grateful for any assistance in this area.
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Old 11-11-1999, 06:22 PM
Theodore Theodore is offline
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1. Every professional should be concerned with making their product last as long as possible. Commercial primers are too brittle for oil painting grounds. Stick with the acrylic, which can be watered down a little bit. But even better would be white lead. It can go a long way when applied over properly sized canvas.
2. Try the pure gum damar. It comes in little crystals and can be put in a cheesecloth bag and dissolved in turpentine. It's much less expensive.
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Old 11-13-1999, 10:20 AM
Roger E Roger E is offline
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"If they fall apart for their great grandchildren...T.S." An attitude worthy of inclusion into the Leonardo school of theory!! Only joking...stick to the tried and true methods....as a professional (your words) you have a responsibility to you client!
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Old 11-14-1999, 01:58 AM
s mckee s mckee is offline
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Thanks for the replies, Theodore, Roger; I guess it was too much to hope for that you'd reveal the whole art materials trade to be a huge scam. I'll grudgingly stick with the traditional materials for the time being.

I think a lot of Modern HUGE-scale painters used commercial-grade primers and paints and a lot of their pictures are in a state of disrepair after only a few decades.

But Theodore, you mention adding water to acrylic gesso - while the little words on the bottle warn that doing so will cause cracks. Is that warning merely there to get people to buy their special gesso-thinning medium?
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Old 11-14-1999, 07:33 AM
Theodore Theodore is offline
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A quote from The Artist's Handbook Of Materials and Techniques.
"The acrylic polymer ground should not be diluted with too much water as this reduces the effectiveness of the binding resins."
(It makes more sense to stick to oil grounds for oil paintings anyway.)
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Old 11-15-1999, 09:41 PM
Drew Davis Drew Davis is offline
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You can add water to acrylic. It's already in there. The problem comes if you add "too much". Spread the acrylic molecules far enough apart, and they can't form a good film once the water evaporates. (Much the same thing can happen to oils if you use too much turps.) I'm not sure why you'd thin gesso a lot -- generally, it's supposed to be opaque -- but the reason you'd use a special acrylic medium to do so is for the absorbency and tooth. All the acrylics will bind to each other, but they can be made to have different properties (hardness, permeability, gloss, viscosity, etc).

Just about anything will last four years. Conservators generally think in time scales of centuries, so their advice does get to be a bit, well, conservative. But the real investment in a painting is not the materials, but your time and energy and ideas, which cost far more than paint.

Good quality "latex" house paints are usually acrylic. Cheaper ones have a lot of vinyls in there. But how much are you really talking about saving? A gallon of "fine art" gesso is about $20-$25 on the low end, up to maybe $40. Prices on the hardware store variety are about the same, down to maybe $12/gallon for really cheap, up to about $40 again. At 500 square feet per gallon, if you save $5 on the paint, the saving is literally a penny per square foot. Why not use stuff that's intended to last, as long as you're putting in all that time and skill anyway?
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Old 11-18-1999, 03:22 AM
s mckee s mckee is offline
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One quality of a professional artist is the production of professional quality works(excuse the cute play-on-words.) I have no intention of creating pictures that will self-destruct. But another quality of a professional artist is the ability to make a living: getting paid and keeping costs as low as they can possibly be (without, of course, the work being compromised.)

If I can save just 1% by using an industrial product over a fine-art product, I'll do it; again, provided there is no compromise. I'll take your word for it that as far as primers go, there IS a compromise and will therefore stick with the gesso.

Canadians are at a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to the cost of materials. I've visited American online art stores and wept over the prices.

So my original question goes beyond gesso and varnish. I'm just trying to keep the cost of making big pictures as low as possible.

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Old 11-20-1999, 11:42 AM
Drew Davis Drew Davis is offline
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How does mail order work from Canada?
Lots of good web sites from which to order. Would that help on prices? I imagine customs still finds some way to stick you with GST and PST, but it might help with the underlying price.

I suspect fine art materials manufacturers to be guilty of not greed, but simple inefficiency. Sherwin Williams sells four billion dollars of paint a year. What's that, 200 million gallons? Golden or Grumbacher or Winsor&Newton just don't have their economy of scale, never mind Old Holland or Williamsburg. On the other hand, SHW can make a lot of money by cutting even little corners. Skimping just a bit adds millions to the bottom line, whereas it won't matter much to the smaller outfits, where fixed labor and overhead are a bigger part of the costs.

The cheap stuff is certainly inferior. (Look at the Liquitex Basics "cadmium orange hue" acrylic, since it comes in a conveniently clear tube. What is that goop? It's not cad orange!) But I'm still skeptical of the prices on the really high-end stuff. Is a $200 sable really that much better than a $30 one, or even a $10 synthetic? Some people say so. But while increased prices on the stuff I've tried has generally proven to supply at least some noticable improvement, I haven't dared the really expensive stuff, either.

The cheapest way, of course, is to make the paint yourself. See

http://www.kremer-pigmente.com/homee.htm
http://www.sinopia.com

US$16 for 100g of cad red deep, $10 of CP linseed oil, and you get about two tubes of paint for about $13 each. Certainly beats the heck out of $28 Old Holland tubes. (But then, the cost of goods being 50% of the retail price is not at all a bad ratio even for more mass-produced goods. It doesn't look like they're necessarily cheating us. Rather, I start wondering about the $16 tube from W&N. How did they get their costs of goods down to $8? Or do they just run on that thin of a margin?)

The drawback is that you're trading painting time for paint-making time, and that will cut into your overall production. Time is money, and it might be cheaper to pay someone to make your paint than to produce less product. There's also some health, consistency and QC issues, not to mention learning a whole new craft. (What was the Turner quote, when Winsor suggested that he use a more colorfast yellow? "Your job is to make the colors, mine is to use them"?) But it could be a worthwhile tradeoff. And of course some people simply like to make their own materials anyway.

Ultimately, it comes down to how much the cost of materials really affects the selling price of your work. Divide a year's cost of goods by the number of paintings; what does that come to? (That covers the "R&D" of experiments, and the works that don't sell, too.) And, of course, there's two ways to improve the profit margin: cut the costs, or increase the price.
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Old 11-21-1999, 04:29 AM
s mckee s mckee is offline
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I have a few Canadian mail-order places bookmarked, but I've never used them as they don't offer anything I can't get locally and their prices are no cheaper.

The American sites, on the other hand, are loaded with stuff. But the problem with ordering is not just the GST. Shipping costs are greater (and to rub this in, I've noticed some American sites offering free UPS in the Continental US), the border duty takes a bite, and - worst of all - the exchange rate is 60 cents on the dollar. In the end, the prices can double - and then some. So much for free trade!

I'll check out the paint-making stuff - I'm intrigued by the idea of smooshing up my own colors. Thanks for the info!
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Old 11-21-1999, 07:23 PM
Drew Davis Drew Davis is offline
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Haven't been able to find much on the use of polyurethane as a varnish for oil paintings. There's a newer type ("aliphatic" polyurethanes) that are supposed to help the yellowing problem. They have some use in places where the art gets some physical abuse, such as floor designs, since they're so hard. The biggest drawback I've seen mentioned is that it's not removable. Usually "cleaning" a painting involves stripping off a sacrifical layer of varnish, and re-varnishing, but you can't do that with urethane. (There's one message over at palimpsest.stanford.edu where someone is plaintitively asking how to remove polyurethane from an oil painting, to vast silence.)

Rather technical newsletter summarizing recent conference results on varnishes:

http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/waac/.../wn17-208.html
http://palimpsest.stanford.edu/waac/.../wn17-107.html

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Old 11-25-1999, 12:44 AM
s mckee s mckee is offline
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Drew, those WAAC articles are a first-rate find. Thanks for digging them up!
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Old 01-04-2000, 01:30 AM
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Michael2 Michael2 is offline
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I don't understand why certain brands of paint, such as Winsor and Newton, cost outrageously more than other brands, such as Grumbacher (and there are less expensive brands than Grumbacher).

I can't tell the difference at all between W&N and Grumbacher.
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Old 01-04-2000, 06:14 AM
Painter Painter is offline
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Permanance! Boy what a bugaboo. Walter Murch, one of my teachers, said about that, "If you make something they want to keep, they'll find out how." I still seek it in my work, and believe that it is irresponsible not to.
I'm torn between alkads, sold by Winsor, etc, and the paints by Archival. I suspect the alkads will last longer.

Also, has anyone tried the "Polyfax" canvas from Fredricks? I figure that, since my audience does'nt exist yet, my works need to be able to hang around until the audience comes. Murch's comment still haunts me.


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God Blesses!
Ched
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