Tales of Paint and Canvas

When painters get together, we rarely talk about painting, we talk about paint and canvas. Painters tend to be unable to express in words what they express in their visual works, but we all have one thing in common, we all love to talk about the tools of the trade. We’ll talk your ear off about the trivialities of pigments and brushes, and the debates over the merits of different methods of preparing canvas and stretcher bars is a particularly hot topic. I even have a few favorite stretchers I use over and over. I’ve been known to take perfectly good paintings off of my stretchers because I like the stretchers better than the painting. Here’s an odd tale about my favorite stretcher bars.

One day I arrived early for painting class, and just inside the the door was a huge pile of bare stretcher bars, all set up but with no canvas. There was a note attached, it was a gift from the university’s grad student painting archives, they’d stripped some worthless damaged and destroyed paintings off the stretchers and donated them to the painting students. I thought it was a great idea, stretchers are expensive and I like recycling, especially when I get there first and get first pick. I looked through the pile and there was a huge stretcher, about 16×8 feet with massive crossbars, the most beautiful carpentry I’d ever seen, and it was made from solid California redwood. A storage sticker indicated it was made in the early 1950s. Today, a stretcher like that would cost hundreds of bucks, perhaps over a thousand. I grabbed it immediately. I felt like an environmental rapist, like I was cutting down the majestic redwood trees to paint on, but I figured, better my painting on such a beautiful stretcher than some other crappy art student.

My painting teacher helped me stretch the canvas, it was a lot of work even with expert help. I bought a higher grade of canvas than usual, this stretcher deserved nothing less. It took 2 weeks to prime the canvas, I wanted to make sure the surface was perfect. I laid it flat on the floor and brushed on the white gesso. About 5 minutes after I put the first coat on the canvas, the cloth became taut, and the crossbars bent and bowed out from behind, the whole assembly was shaped like a square canoe frame with a canvas cover. I didn’t see it happen, I was washing the gesso off my hands when one of the other students yelled, “hey Charles, get over here quick, you better see this!” I couldn’t believe it, I thought it would rip apart and explode into splinters at any moment. But in an hour or so, everything was settled down and flat again. The same thing happened on the second and third coats, but a little less each time. I was worried I’d stretched it too taught and bent the bars permanently, but I measured it and it was square. It was absolutely perfect, the finished canvas was as taut as a drumhead, something really hard to do with a canvas that size.

I painted on it for about a week, when suddenly one day in class, the teacher came up to me and said, “hey, the Dean wants to talk to you.” I looked up from my easel and he was pointing at the Dean, standing in the far corner of the studio near the door. I went over to talk to him, and before I could even say hello, his face got red, and he burst out in an accusatory tone, “where did you get that stretcher bar?” I briefly told him the story, and he said nothing until I was done, and then said, “oh,” and turned on his heel and walked right out of the studio without saying another word.

I went back to my teacher and asked him what that was all about. He said the Dean saw my stretcher, looked at the tag from the archives, and he thought broken in I’d stolen it. Good thing we got that cleared up, the Dean had to sign off on my degree the next semester.

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