Updated: Mar 11, 2022
I’ve just discovered that my not so new iMac comes with chess. I love chess, but rarely have anyone to play with, so I was pleased to discover that I could play against Computer. I’m not a regular computer game player, because I know how easily I get hooked. But this was chess – that’s a brain game, right? And I could brush up on my chess skills. Well, I haven’t brushed up anything yet, because very quickly, Computer was check-mating me at an amazing rate. I tell you this, because I have better things to do.
I am a procrastinator. I procrastinate about everything – whether the outcome is good, bad or indifferent. But mostly, I worry about the negative outcome. My mind churns with all the scenarios that can possibly occur if I do this thing that I’m avoiding. And in my art process, my greatest anxiety comes in finishing a piece. In total time, I spend weeks and sometimes months in creating my pieces, mostly because there are so many layers since I work with a variety of mediums throughout. So, when I get to the end, I’ve thoroughly exhausted all that I can give to the painting.
What’s left is the finishing: that is, sealing, leveling coating and varnishing the piece. I’ve discovered that all the paint, mediums and varnish add more than 300 grams to each 50x50cm board. That’s like a whole jar of vegemite spread over a canvas.
The series that I’ve been working on for over a year now are all pieces created on wooden panels and culminate in many layers which create textures. Each piece has a main theme that is clear from a distance, but there are also elements that can best be seen up close. I develop three dimensional textures, so I encourage viewers to touch the painting to feel the cracks and crevices. To preserve the integrity of the painting I need to do a multi-step finish and each of these steps presents me with loads of anxiety.
Step one: Sealing
In order for me to move on to the next step I need to lay down what’s called an isolation coat. This is a glossy, transparent, non-removable coat that I brush over the finished painting. I should also add that I wait at least two weeks after finishing a piece, to ensure that all the layers have thoroughly dried (but this is never a problem for me since I always procrastinate). I use Golden mediums for most of my work and in this case, I use a 3:1 dilution of Golden’s Soft Gel Gloss medium. The mixture is the consistency of runny yoghurt (or buttermilk if you know it). This is so that it can be brushed on without leaving brush strokes and without drying too quickly.
Using a wide, synthetic brush (and one designated for this purpose only, so that there’s no chance of paint being on the brush) is crucial for this step, because I need to work quickly so the medium doesn’t begin to dry. Over brushing can cause fogging and visible strokes. It’s always best to work quickly to cover the canvas and then if I’ve missed any spots, do a second or third coat after each has thoroughly dried. Sounds easy enough. Here are the problems I’ve run into: I have given into temptation and tried to “fix” a missed spot. And made it worse. The solution is fairly simply because a second or third coat usually covers my “fixes”. Next, because I use so many different mediums in my pieces, some unusual things can happen. Panic set in when ink begin to run, despite the ink being labelled as “waterproof” and which I’ve tested to make sure it’s permanent. I think it has something to do with the combination of what it sits on and the interaction with the isolation coat. This is a bad situation. The solution is stopping the isolation step and going over the ink areas with a varnish medium. Sometimes I just let the ink run – because it actually looks appropriate in the painting.
Step two: Leveling coat
I use a variety of mediums, from impasto to modelling paste, as well as collage papers and textiles, all of which produce a textural surface. Once the isolation coat is dry (several days), I use a leveling coat to ensure all elements are securely adhered and despite the textures that there is a cohesiveness in the entire painting. I use Golden’s self-leveling gel, which is an acrylic polymer emulsion. I use a plasterer’s trowel to thinly spread the gel across the entire canvas which creates a clear, glossy film once dry. As with most acrylic mediums, it’s important to move quickly, with purpose and minimal fussiness.
Some scary moments: I have discovered through trial and error that the easiest way to spread the gel on my 50x50cm or larger canvases, is using a plasterer’s trowel. Otherwise, I found that using a palette knife or an old credit card increased the chance of uneven surfaces and missed spots. Then there are the air bubbles. There will always be bubbles and I pop as many as I can using a toothpick. The recommend way to get rid of bubbles is spraying a fine mist of isopropyl over the top, but I’ve found that sometimes this leaves oil-like residue on the painting. These mostly disappear once the piece is varnished, but it’s still a variable I don’t need.
Once the levelling gel is on the painting, I cover it with a large box which I’ve fashioned into a sort of hood to keep the painting dust free for the next 24 hours while the painting dries. The worst that has happened is when I lifted off the cover, I discovered that one of my favourite pieces had leached painted from the bottom layers to the top. Unfortunately, this painting was ruined, because the original background colour layers had no relation to the final painting.
This is one reason why this step makes me paranoid.
Step three: Varnish
This is usually an easy albeit tiring step. I use a wax varnish for most of my paintings because I like the matte sheen the wax creates. It suits my paintings. I rub a small amount of wax over the entire painting, let it sit for 15 minutes and then using a lint free micro cloth, I rub back the wax until the painting has a lovely, consistent sheen. This can take a good ten minutes of rubbing. Sometimes I get my daughter to do it – she’s got better muscles. If the painting is very textural, I will use a spray varnish, because it’s too difficult getting into all the crevices with the wax and cloth.
Right now, I have 3 paintings just waiting to be sealed and varnished on my couch. I look at them every day and think - I’ll start the process today. Or maybe tomorrow. Or just one game of chess.