Thursday, February 4, 2016

Priming and Surface Preparation

Felice House, a painting professor at Texas A and M, says: "Just today a student came to me with a question about how you prime your surfaces. We looked through the blog but couldn't find details. If you can fill us in that would be really helpful."

OK, Felice. Let's talk plein-air oil first. Before I leave home to go painting, I prep a bunch of panels in advance. That way the priming is dry when I'm ready to start. 

I use Masonite or wood panels. The wood panels are typically birch plywood panels with canvas glued to them. I start with a coat of gesso. Then I cover that with a Gamblin oil ground. With its alkyd resin binder, this oil priming takes a day or two to dry. Putting a couple drops of cobalt drier speeds the drying time.

Typically I'll mix the oil ground with burnt sienna or English red oil to give it a light brown or pink tone. Here's a study where I left the priming. Sometimes I'll tone a panel to a cool color—bluish or grayish. I often choose to prime the board the complementary color of the landscape I expect to paint. 

For those who aren't familiar with oil priming, it presents a more impermeable surface to the paint you apply in the field, so the paint floats on the surface more. Oil priming is rather slick and shiny, though, and doesn't take well to pencil or charcoal, so I just do my drawing with the brush.

In addition to Gamblin oil ground, there's Williamsburg oil ground. Both use titanium white for the pigment. Some artists prefer a lead white ground, which is OK as long as you're fully aware of the health risks.

Many people prefer to paint over acrylic gesso priming alone, without the oil ground. This allows for a pencil or charcoal underdrawing. But for field sketches, I find gesso too absorbent, which is why I like the oil priming.

When doing a painting in the studio, such as a smaller Dinotopia painting or a science illustration, I'm working in oil, but I have to start with a very careful pencil drawing on illustration board. For larger Dinotopia paintings I do the drawing gesso-primed canvas covered plywood panels. The gesso priming reduces the canvas texture so that it's not so insistent.

After doing the pencil drawing, I need to prepare the surface for subsequent layers of oil, so it has to be sealed first. Otherwise the turpentine would melt the pencil.

I use workable fixativeand acrylic matte medium to provide that impermeable layer. It's also possible at this stage to pre-texture the surface with acrylic modeling paste to give the paint more surface texture, even if the oil is applied thinly over this priming. This is my secret for using oil on jobs that require short deadlines.

I demonstrate this method of priming on my recent tutorial: Tyrannosaurs: Behind the Art.

You might want to check out my previous post about the Dinotopia priming technique. Also, my book Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist covers many of my technical methods. And please have a look at my earlier posts on Constable's Oil Painting Materials and Warm Underpainting


HNK said...

may i ask you which illustration boards do you use for painting in the studio: and did you use the same boards to paint concept art on location?

James Gurney said...

HNK/Nicolas — I use a brand of heavyweight 100% rag illustration board that's no longer made. The brand is Columbia 1776.

HNK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Hart said...

Love this post. It's full of great information. Do you make your canvas panels, or buy them? If the latter, is there a favorite brand? (I like a brand called Pintura that I bought a number of years ago, and I'm close to the end of that supply. But I think they're on a Masonite-type material.) said...

I noticed you talked about a two day drying time for the alkyd primer. I always thought it needed a longer cure time, but the truth is I’ve never used an alkyd surface so fast. Have you noticed differences ? I.E. absorbency?

James Gurney said...

Stephan, I think it all depends on how thick you apply it and whether you use any driers. Just a drop or two of cobalt drier makes all the difference.

yvonne said...

As usual this is great information. Thank you for the generous sharing of your information.

Michael Pianta said...

I have a question, actually - you said when you do those detailed illustrations, you seal the drawing with fixative and acrylic medium right? I'm an oil painter and I also do pretty detailed drawings sometimes - but I paint over oil primed linen, and I'm sure you can't put acrylic medium over an oil primed surface. Is there any alternative to acrylic medium that would work on oil primed surfaces? I was watching Donato Giancola's Joan of Arc DVD and he does the same thing you're describing (acrylic gessoed panel, detailed drawing, acrylic medium to seal it). I can see the benefit of sealing the drawing in this way for sure, but I haven't been able to think of anything similar to acrylic medium that I could use on my oil primed linen.

Love the blog, and your books and your instructional videos, sir! Thanks for what you're doing.

Atelierjan said...

Great information, but I have 2 follow up questions. First, what do you use to glue the canvas to the panels? And second, do you gesso the sides (edges) and back of the birch plywood panel as well. Thanks!

Roberto said...

@Michael Pianta… “I can see the benefit of sealing the drawing in this way for sure, but I haven't been able to think of anything similar to acrylic medium that I could use on my oil primed linen.”

Thru my decorative, scenic, and sign painting… and with my multi-media fine-art work, I have encounters with all kinds of different and difficult media and materials interactions. A good solution to this problem, I have found, is an industrial vinyl coat.

It is used in the sign industry as a clear top-coat for vinyl letters (and oil-based lettering-enamels) and hand painted signs. It protects the vinyl letters from sticking to them selves when rolled etc., and as a flat-finish it also functions as a ground for lettering-enamels (which are essentially oil colors with dryers and hardeners added). I have used this as a clear-coat over canvases, wall murals and signs painted with oil-colors, oil-enamels, water-based enamels, and acrylics. And I have used it as a ground for oil-colors, oil-enamels, water-based enamels, and acrylics. It is quite durable, flexible, fast drying, non-yellowing, and water soluble. (Its NOT good for Gold-leaf work.)

I’m not sure about the archival and or restoration status of this product but I’m pretty sure its better than Mummy-choose. (I might hesitate to use it on a portrait of the Queen, or anything I would send to the Louver.)
Are there any Chemists/Archivists/Restorationisters out there?
I hope this is help full-RQ

Michael Pianta said...

@Roberto That's very interesting, I wouldn't have thought of something like that at all. Thanks for the info!