Material change

Twenty-eight years ago now I acquired a copy of Ralph Mayer’s “Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques”. The fourth edition, the last one he wrote before he died. (There was a fifth edition that was still mostly Mayer but was updated by other people.) It was my go-to source for anything relating to the craft side of painting, and for several years afterward when it came to things like stretching canvases or making painting mediums, I did them the Mayer way.


After a while I got pretty good at stretching unprimed linen, tacking it to the frame with #4 carpet tacks, sizing it up with the rabbit skin glue, and priming it with lead white. It sounds pretty straightforward, but there are some tricks to it. Most importantly, you have to get the tension on the linen right. The hot glue causes the linen fibres to contract; if you’ve stretched it too tight the contracting fibres can cause the chassis (aka stretchers) to warp. I had a couple of canvasses come out looking like potato chips before I figured that out. But when it works, it’s magic: your canvasses are tight as a drum, in a way that’s impossible to do with canvas pullers.

I’m back to stretching canvasses again, after a number of years when I painted only on paper. Except now I find everything has changed. We’re not supposed to use rabbit skin glue any more; even after it dries it continues to absorb and discharge atmospheric moisture which, over time, can cause your paintings to crack. Lead white primer is pretty much impossible to get, as lead-based pigments have serious toxicity issues and are heavily regulated and even illegal in some places. (In Mayer’s day you could buy gallons of the stuff at your local paint store). Even carpet tacks are difficult to source now, although I eventually located some at Capital Iron. The stretcher bars and linen are still available, although some folks figure we shouldn’t use stretchers any more, either.

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Leger and others

Some good paintings, drawings and lithographs are on display at the AGGV right now as part of the exhibition “Through the Looking Glass.” Fernand Leger is one of my heroes so it was great to see three of his lithographs I’d not seen before, and there are some fine, if minor, works by a number of his contemporaries including Calder, Magritte, and Picasso.

The show is drawn from the AGGV’s permanent collection and in addition to a few imports it features a lot of well-known BC artists from throughout the 20th century. I like most of ’em, but I’ll single out for mention a couple of paintings by BC Binning, because he’s one of my favourites on the home team. He was one of the only locals to work consistently in the constructivist tradition, which I like to think I belong to as well.

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