January 27, 2011

Preparing Painting Panels

I spent most of the day today preparing a batch of panels for painting. I find it most efficient to make 6 or 7 at a time, a low tech assembly line. I've had this small table saw in the studio for years, rarely using it, but with this current body of work it's become essential. Since I like to adjust the size of the images I'm going to paint until the last moment, it's easiest for me to cut the panels myself. A few months ago when I showed a knowledgeable friend how I was using the saw, she was appalled. I really had no idea of proper technique, so got an invaluable table saw lesson from my friend and contractor and now I feel moderately comfortable using it. And, my panels are fairly square!

I use 1/2 inch birch plywood for the panels. Here's a 4 x 8 sheet cut up into manageable pieces, with my goggles, which I always wear while using the saw, and a view facing west to the snowy landscape.

I work from photographs and figure out the sizes of the images on my computer screen, then print them out to see if they work. Sometimes I make them bigger, sometimes smaller. I use the color photo to give me a clue as to color, which I then change and adjust. This is why I prefer to look to a black and white image for information.

To see the process of stretching parchment over the panel, go to this post, in which I show, step by step, putting acid-free paper on the panel and then stretching the calfskin.

Here are two calfskins that I will use for the panels. I've already cut some parchment from the top one. They have a luscious smooth surface, which I fell madly in love with when I first painted on parchment. I buy it from Pergamena, in the Hudson River Valley of New York. Their skins are locally sourced and they are wonderful to deal with.

My final step in preparing the panels is to glue a piece of flat wood molding to the back and drilling a hole for a nail. It took me a little while to figure out how to display these tiny paintings; I prefer my paintings unframed and this bit of wood allows the panel to float a little off the wall. Now I am ready for the next few weeks of painting.


  1. Thanks so much for the informative post. I love visiting your blog.

  2. p.s- I can nearly always prepare a perfectly wonky square. I'll have to get a machine like yours!

  3. thanks, undercover. I was for years very sloppy in my carpentry, but I'm trying to do better. The saw I have is definitely a hobbyist variety, very small. It wasn't expensive at the time and has certainly come in handy.

  4. Altoon, Your posts have a way of sinking in deeply. This one is a like tutorial that makes me think of the medieval/renaissance period of craftsmen, apprentices and artisans. In that time, each phase in the process of creating a piece of artwork was valued and given its place (although the people working on it were not necessarily fairly remunerated). In showing us the parchment preparation and panel preparation, you are re-marrying craft to art in a way that we need to see more of.

  5. When sawing indoors, ear protection is important, too.

    Have you ever painted directly on the wood? Think the tooth of the wood surface would resemble that of the parchment?

  6. Hannah, I'm not generally a very patient person in anything other than my painting, so doing this craft part of the process has forced me to slow down and enjoy it. Previously I painted on gessoed panels, and that is also a fairly labor intensive activity. I do enjoy the aspect of painting images of contemporary machinery using antique methods and materials.

    Richard, thanks for the tip on the ears. Painting on wood would be nothing at all like parchment, which is silky smooth and sensuous and is absorbent enough that the paint adheres to it. Also, the wood grain would rise and crack when the water of the paint soaked into it. I tried using birch plywood for gessoed panels but I got minute cracks in it, so only used MDF.