No Shortcuts! Use the Best Materials and Appropriate Techniques (Principle 3/7)

Inflation in the price of art materials has been breathtaking. Ten years ago one could make or purchase a high quality support for relatively little money. Now size and quality is a much more serious consideration. The same is true of paint and brushes. Buying high quality materials requires a much more significant investment. Exacerbating this economic squeeze is the ongoing trend by galleries and buyers to want very large work. If one is fortunate enough to sell a piece the chances are that the profit margin will be very small. On the other hand, if you respond to this situation by purchasing inexpensive materials and/or using less you compromise your work.

Some painters are responding to the cost pressure by choosing supports such as mylar or various papers. This is reasonable, as long as care is taken to ensure the work is done using good practices, so that it doesn’t fall apart in a few years. Similarly, I have sourced some less expensive panels (from Artist and Craftsman), but I reinforce them to prevent warping.

Going from linen to cotton duck is not a good idea because the cotton will eat up enormous amounts of paint. For the same reason I don’t use acrylic gesso. Lead or other oil-based primers make a much better surface. The paint bonds well, but it doesn’t sink in as much, so these surfaces require fewer layers of paint. The primers can be applied for a smooth or textured surface. For smaller work I sometimes like to use linen glued to boards. I have tried to do it myself with much frustration, but suppliers such as Source-Tek make a fine (if rather pricy) product.

Using cheaper paint is a false economy because more is needed to get a good result. The use of fillers in cheaper paint also means you will spend more time on all those layers. I love thickish, rich Surfaces, but I’d rather get the picture where it needs to be sooner with better paint.

Just as materials have to be appropriate to the task, so do the techniques employed. Technique is a tool not a goal. I don’t believe in developing a single technique and then employing it for the rest of ones life, but many painters apparently do. They work to improve but not to expand. I admire Courbet for his invention of painting with a knife, but he knew when to use it and when to use some other method. His ability to mix passages of impasto with very delicate glazes on the same canvas is astonishing.

Time and money press on painters, but it is better to take a long view and invest in quality on all fronts. Along with this we must look for new ways to achieve our ends. Economic pressure may ultimately benefit the visual arts by pushing us to develop new techniques and materials which will keep painting vital.


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