We know Matthias for being one of the most talented young painter in Singapore, whose training and focus on technical proficiency set him apart from his peers.
We approached Matthias to write about anything at all of his choosing and we're pleasantly surprised that he chooses to share an often overlooked and "unglamorous" aspect of Oil Painting.
In hindsight, it wasn't that surprising. The idea of craftsmanship and taking pride in every step of the artistic process is important to Matthias as an artist. To do things well and have a sense of ownership over paintings - From the format and size of the canvas, the texture, the grounds, the weave etc.
The techniques shared below are no longer widely taught or known anymore especially in Singapore, making this tutorial a rare gem for art enthusiasts and aspiring painters alike. We invite you to join us in this enlightening demonstration meticulously put together by Matthias Chua.
DURING MY TIME as a student at the Imperial Academy of Art in Saint Petersburg, Russia, stretching and preparing a canvas from scratch was one of the first things that was taught and demonstrated to us. We were shown during our preparatory course, how to put together stretcher bars, how to stretch raw linen, and how to size and prime our canvases.
There are many benefits to stretching your own canvas such as:
- Deciding a custom size or format for your painting, specific to your needs
- Having the option of different canvas weaves to use and experiment with
- Being able to try different types of gesso and the different properties they give you.
- Saving money by doing it yourself
- Having a superior working surface compared to store bought pre-stretched canvases.
So, if you want to learn how to stretch your own canvas, read on!
The first step is to gather all the materials you are going to need!
Part 1 (Stretching the raw canvas)
- Stretcher bars
- Raw unstretched linen roll
- Staple gun and staples
- Mallet (optional, but will help with putting the stretcher bars together)
- Carpenter’s square (Optional but good to have)
Part 2 (Sizing and Priming)
- Rabbit Skin Glue (RSG) or similar (Artists’ grade Gelatin can also be used)
- Large pot
- Spoon or similar for mixing
- Soft nylon brush
Lay out your stretcher bars in front of you, making sure each length of the stretcher bars comes in a pair, with the bars opposite from each other being the same length. As pictured, “A” should match “A” and “B” should match “B”
Begin joining your stretcher bars together at the corners by slotting the grooves of each bar into one another.You may use a rubber mallet here in order to help you put the stretcher bars togetherChecking if your canvas bars are squared up and at right angles with a carpenter’s square is also a good ideaNext, unroll your raw linen canvas, and lay down your frame onto it. Make sure that there is enough canvas around the edges to stretch with. 1-1.5 inches should be sufficient.Using a pair of scissors, cut out the required amount of canvas.Next, begin by picking a side to start stapling down the canvas. I like to pick one of the longer sides. Staple down the canvas to the stretcher bar in the middle of the bar.Proceed to the opposite side, and pull the canvas taut with your fingers. Use significant force here as you want your canvas to be stretched tightly! Whilst holding the canvas, use your staple gun to staple down the canvas, again in the middle of the stretcher bar.
“A” is stapled first, followed by “B”Repeat the process on the remaining two sides. Stretch the canvas and staple it down in the middle of each bar.Now we can proceed to work on the corners. Pull the canvas taut again, this time at a 45 degree angle away from the corner. Then staple down the canvas down. Do this for all four corners.You should be able to see the canvas being stretched tightly with a cross pattern now. The arrows indicate the direction of the tension.Now, you can begin stretching and stapling the canvas down, between each of the existing staples. Again, stretch the canvas taut with your fingers, and staple it down. Here, “A” indicates the already existing staples and “B” indicates where the next staples should be added.Proceed to do the same on the opposite side. Pull the canvas taut again, and staple at “C”.Now repeat this process on the remaining two sides. After this, you should have completely stretched and stapled around the entire border of the canvas.
Next, run your finger down the edge of the canvas with light pressure. You should be able to feel spots on the canvas where there is less tension than desired.You can stretch the canvas some more and staple it down around these areas to ensure a taut surface.Fold over the back corners of the canvas and staple down.Now your canvas should look like this! A raw linen surface ready for sizing!
PART 2: Sizing and Priming
To prepare your rabbit skin glue size, you will need:
- Rabbit Skin Glue (Here I am using RSG from Natural Pigments Rublev Colours)
- A large metal bowl
- A measuring cup or spoon
The proportions of Rabbit Skin Glue size to water is 1 part RSG to 10 parts Water.Pour the 1 Part RSG into the bowl, followed by the 10 Parts of water.Mix thoroughly and allow the mixture to sit for a few hours. If the RSG size you have uses larger granules, instead of the fine granule one pictured here, allow the mixture to sit overnight. This will allow the RSG to absorb the water thoroughly.After the mixture has been sitting for a few hours, we can proceed to putting it on a double boil. Fill your large pot with water and place your bowl with the RSG on top. Turn on the stove to a low-medium heat and stir until the RSG granules completely dissolve. Do not let the mixture come to a boil as this will destroy the RSG’s adhesive qualities.After the double boil, let the mixture cool down to room temperature. From here there are two methods I’ve learnt on how to apply the RSG size to your raw linen canvas.
Method 1 - Apply the size as a liquid
Method 2 - Apply the size as a solid
I have tried both methods and they both come to the same results. In the academy in Russia, we used Method 2, whereas I’ve come across Method 1 in books I have read on materials.
For Method 1, simply brush on the liquid mixture onto the canvas, making sure to thoroughly cover the entire surface. Leave the canvas to dry overnight, and repeat the process covering the entire surface again. Check for missed spots or holes by holding your canvas up against a light source.
You may also want to sand the surface between and after each application of the RSG size to create a smoother finish.
Pictured: The linen surface fully covered with RSG Size.While leaving the canvas to dry overnight, you will need to store your RSG size in the fridge to ensure its freshness. The RSG will set and turn solid while being refrigerated. Don’t worry! If you want to continue using Method 1, simply scoop some of the solid RSG into your pot and proceed to double boil it again, until it has turned liquid.
However, if you would like to try Method 2, read on!
You will need to scoop up some of the solidified RSG size with your hands and squeeze and break it up over the linen surface.Proceed to rub and massage the jellied RSG, making sure to work it into the weave of the linen. Do your best to try to cover the entire surface. It will be hard at first but as you continue to work the size into the surface, the warmth of your hands will ensure that the size becomes more malleable and easier to spread.Your surface should look like this after covering the linen with your RSG Size.Now, proceed to scrape off the excess size with your palette knife. You can use this excess size to cover any spots you may have missed, or remove it. You will need to scrape the entire surface down to ensure a smooth finish.
Again, leave the canvas to dry overnight, sanding it after it has dried if desired.After the canvas has dried overnight, we can now begin with the gesso! Here, I am using a white acrylic gesso. You can also try other kinds of gesso like an oil based or lead based gesso. (Always stay safe and use the proper safety equipment when handling lead based materials)
You may also thin out your acrylic based gesso with water first to increase fluidity and help application. Oil based gesso can also be thinned out with turpentine.Use a medium sized soft nylon brush to cover your canvas. Refer to your product instructions on when the second layer can be applied. Some gesso’s can be applied after the application has dried to the touch, but it is best practice to let it dry overnight before applying the second coat.Here is the finished linen canvas surface after two coats of gesso! If you have stretched the linen well, the surface should behave and sound almost like a snare drum when hit. It should be responsive to your brush pressure and give feedback to your hands as your paint.________________________________________________________________________________________________________
ABOUT THE ARTIST:
Matthias Chua graduated with distinction from the prestigious Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in St. Petersburg in 2019. He is currently based in Singapore.
He draws inspiration from the fleeting moments of beauty in everyday life. His pieces, which celebrate the richness and complexity of life, are in private collections in the USA, China, Russia, and Singapore.