Making Small Paintings

This section is added to when I have new information; it is a page that’s permanently “in progress”.

The usual demands today are for BIG paintings, but working small has many advantages for the artist. Less paint used, cheaper to produce and cheaper to frame, for example.

For my little pieces I may work on mdf board, treated with a sealant and then a layer or two of acrylic gesso. In fact, I’ve got the best surfaces by putting on three layers, with a light sanding of the surface in between and not touching the top layer when dried. Quite often I don’t even sand them. Oh yes and don’t forget to gesso the edges! I use mostly 3mm board. There are arguments that mdf isn’t reliably archival, due to the glues and other substances used in manufacture. It’s unlikely that I’ll be using a large piece of mdf for a “masterpiece” so this issue doesn’t worry me too much.

I buy sheets from the local DIY, 3 feet by 2 feet (90cm x 60cm) if I can get that. I then band-saw off the pieces that I require, putting the remainder aside for another day and different sizes. If you don’t want to cut them up yourself then usually the do-it-yourself store will offer the service, since the sheets do produce a lot of dust.

Using small panels like these is convenient for working on a table-top easel, a pochade box, or even a knee-easel (of which I’ve seen only one, made from a wood panel and supported by a small cushion).

In addition to mdf, I use Ampersand gessobords. The beautiful smooth white surface invites one’s very best efforts. There is nothing to prepare, just remove the wrapper and start painting. The early applications, if done thinly, can be rather like watercolour.

Finally I also use Arches Huile paper. Specially treated to cope with the solvents and oils, this paper allows paint to glide on smoothly and also permits easily-spread washes. When working small, a single sheet will provide quite a few individual supports…a 30×22-inch sheet will, for example, provide 16 7×5″ panels, plus some thin strips for colour-testing.

You can use whatever size brushes you like, but I keep about half a dozen that have had their handles cut short in order to fit them in a pochade box.

Paintings on gessoed mdf board can retain the brushmarks very well, if that’s what you want. The application of paint goes on smoothly, which might not suit some people who prefer the “bite” of canvas-tooth. After the work is finished, put it aside to dry, just like any other oil-painting; and varnish after six months or a bit less if you don’t paint very thickly.

Acrylic will also go on this surface but I have never done much work in this medium on mdf boards to form any in-depth opinion. The nearest I have got is with this piece, quite a miniature size, done in acrylic with some very small brushes. I found that the gessoed surface was still a bit rough for such a detailed piece and would probably make further efforts on either smooth watercolour paper or an Ampersand board. The mdf board would have been ok if I had sanded it down a lot more.

Garden Folly: acrylic on gessoed mdf board, 4×3 inches.

Ampersand gesso boards are all ready to go, out of the wrapper. Again, a smooth silky painting surface. Treat it in much the same way as the cheaper mdf board; set aside to dry and varnish later. The example below shows how much clarity of colour you can get on these boards; and also the brushstroke markings.

Snow on Ben Lawers, Perthshire: oil on Ampersand board, 7×5 inches

Arches oil-paper is a relatively new product and offers the painter a lightweight alternative to canvas on stretcher-bars. It has been specially treated to withstand the negative effects of the oils on paper fibres. There are a few things that new users might like to look out for.

a)The paper is quite absorbent. Early thin layers will dry very quickly.

b)It is possible to paint thinly just like watercolour but not so easy to remove any colour from wrong positions. This thin-wash characteristic can be used to effect, in contrast with thicker paint, if desired.

c)Thicker paint can be applied with a palette knife; the paper may absorb some of the earlier oil quite quickly but new paint can be added easily on top.

d)Combinations of paint and linear markings such as pencil can be easily combined on this paper surface.

e)The paper does not need stretching and does not usually buckle with the first applications.

f)The maker says both sides can be painted on. My own view is that one side is rather more difficult to achieve the effects I wish to have. I therefore choose the paper side that shows the Arches watermark the “wrong way round” (as if read in a mirror). If the watermark reads normally, that (for me) is the wrong side.

Clouds at Loch Tay, Perthshire: oil on oil-paper 12×9 inches (sold)

The above picture was painted in some parts with a small painting-knife. In particular the orange-brown hillside, where neat paint was laid on and squashed against the paper. The absence of canvas-texture means the paint-strokes can stand alone with their own characteristics.

Finished works are usually framed under glass, like any other paper artwork. Some people have managed to mount the paper on board, varnish the surface and frame the whole thing without glass. It is a personal choice.

So far I’ve covered three surfaces that I choose to use. There are others, such as canvas-board, which can be pretty good unless the manufacturer has been skimpy with the primer. When this happens, the oil from your paint is sucked out and down into the board, leaving a dried-out and very dull colour. Subsequent layers may continue to be drained down. I have found the better boards to be Winsor and Newton, Amanco, Gerstaeker and Daler. You can get boards as small as 4×4 inches (10x10cm) in the Gerstaeker range; and 7×5 inches in the others.

Some companies make canvas-textured oil paper which personally I wouldn’t use for anything other than splodging about. It has a mechanical-looking surface and can be rather harsh.

There is potential with ordinary gessoed watercolour paper. If oil is painted directly onto paper fibres, they will rot in time, unless specially treated (as with Arches oilpaper) or protected with some kind of barrier. A good quality and weight watercolour paper (140lb/300gsm) can be coated with several layers of acrylic gesso, to completely cover the surface and act as a physical barrier. When dry, oil paint can be applied. It’s important to try and ensure all the paper dimples are covered, to make an effective barrier. The finished work should be placed under glass.The life-span of such a work will probably be quite long, but I’ve never tested it.

I haven’t mentioned hardboard. Yes this can be used but it is best to sand the smooth surface to take off the shine. Use a fairly fine grain sandpaper otherwise the board will get sharp cuts. Having done that, seal the surface with a proprietary product or coat with Golden’s GAC100 which helps to guard against substrate-induced discolouration. When dry, add two or more brushed or rollered-on coats of acrylic gesso.

It is tempting to use the toothy side but it needs a very good coating of sealer and primer first. It provides a regular, mechanical-looking surface which might not suit everyone.

Hartland Rocks: acrylic on hardboard 24×12 inches

The picture above isn’t. admittedly, a small one but I rarely use hardboard and this is one of only two pictures that I’ve ever done on such a surface. The rocks were built from moulding paste before being painted.