Sizing it up

Today I spent the day preparing my stretcher bars & canvas for a new painting.  If you’re like me, you’ve tried dozens of procedures for preparing painting surfaces.  I’ll spare you the grizzly details of what I’ve tried, why it worked or didn’t, etc.  Instead, I’ll just tell you what I’ve found that I like best and why.

If you want a smooth texture, but not the ultra smoothness of a gessoed panel, Utrecht Belgian Linen #66J is fab.   It is thick and heavy and tightly woven, even though it is only single weave, and best of all, it comes UNprimed!  While that may dismay some of you, who, like myself, were persuaded to use Clausen’s double oil-primed linen right from the supplier, and felt daunted by the thought of multiple stages necessary to even get ready to paint, I can assure you that the end result is worth every bit of the effort.

First, buy the heavy duty Utrecht stretcher bars if the painting will be very large (mine will be 36″ x 40″ and I knew the typical art store variety would warp or bow–I have had that happen and I can tell you it is NOT fun!).  They are so well made and solid!  Then stretch and staple the linen to the bars as usual.

But here’s the best bit–ever had a beautifully stretched linen canvas nice and tight when you start to paint, only to have it bag & sag when it’s finished & hanging on the wall?  Or in a show?  And no amount of restretching will fix it?  Well!  Here’s the secret–instead of sizing the stretched canvas with rabbit skin glue, as the Old Masters did, use Gamblin’s PVA Size, , which completely takes the worry out of working on linen!  Even though the label says it won’t tighten the linen after application, it DOES!  It should be as tightly stretched as you can get it, then, once the PVA size is applied–ZAP!  It’s as tight as a drum!  And it STAYS that way!  Gamblin says it’s ok to paint right over the size, if you like the color of the linen, or proceed to the gesso.  We all know that the constant bagging & tightening of the linen is really bad for the paint film once the paint is dry.  That’s why so many artists like panels, as they eliminate this problem.  But the PVA Size prevents the linen from bagging & sagging, and let me tell you, that alone will have you jumping for joy!

I recently had an occasion to test two linen canvases at an outdoor event, on a day that was beastly hot & humid.  One painting on linen was sized with rabbit skin glue, and the other with Gamblin’s PVA Size.  The sagging ripples across the one with rabbit skin glue were evident to all, and reappear even inside on rainy days.  The other canvas was tighter than tight!


9 comments on “Sizing it up

  1. PictureS says:

    Thank you for the advise. I’m currently experimenting on modern replacements for Rabbit Skin Glue Size. I’ve tried PVA on un-stretched canvas which I later glue to a panel if required for framing.
    P.S.: Great paintings.

    • Hey Liam! Thanks for the reply! I hope this works for you. I have tried applying the size to the linen, directly onto a panel, but the linen shrinks. I haven’t tried doing it your way, but it sounds logical.

  2. RCImball says:

    I found that if you size the canvas before stretching will guarantee your canvas staying tight as a drum.

    • Jen Olwig says:

      Hello! So size the linen first with one coat of PVA. Then stretch onto stretcher bars. If I want to maintain the natural look of the linen, I can paint directly onto the sized and stretched piece at this point if I want to use acrylic paint? Thank you!!!

  3. michael says:

    Aside form the fact that rabbit skin glue hurts rabbits, history has shown it to be a poor sizing material, prone to brittleness and cracking.

  4. Deb says:

    Thanks for your post. I just prepared a couple of canvases using Utrecht 66J too and applied Gamblin PVA size after stretching. THEN I read the instructions on the bottle saying I should apply the size to the linen before stretching it. Your post encourages me to think that when I walk into the studio again, I won’t have a disaster on my hands!

  5. Jen Olwig says:

    Hi Deb! So do you stretch the raw, unprimed linen onto the stretcher bars first, as tight as you can, then use ONE coat of PVA all around to size the piece? I want to keep the natural color of the linen and plan to paint over the PVA with acrylic paint. Do I need more than one coat of PVA? Do I need to thin the PVA down with water? THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!! Jen

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