Canvas to Print Create a canvas from SCRATCH, take it through the painting stages, photography, prepress and eventually produce a Giclee print.

Why would you roll your own?

A very good question? well in my case I am an artist who came late to the game, despite many years spent in multimedia, web and graphic design ( If you would like to see a little about my professional life visit my site below). So I am trying to catch up quickly..

Although I had dabbled with painting in the past it did not stand me in much stead this time round, so I have had a very interesting time trying to re-learn how to paint.  I choose "Pastels" for my first dabbling's (I really love this medium and if you have not tried them you should!, they are a great way to paint and get started with pure colour ), then I moved into "Acrylics" which was a challenge to begin with, especially the rapid drying times, and now Oil's which was equally challenging due to long drying times and a lack of real knowledge about mediums and mixing them for efficient layering.

By hook, crook, Google and YouTube, I managed to get to grips with these mediums and produce some reasonable results with enough decent feedback from friends and colleagues to encourage me further. I suddenly felt a strong urging and although "I should have laid down on my bed until it passed" I nonetheless decided to plunge into the unknown (always a danger with me) and I have recorded my findings here for the benefit of other like minded souls. However be aware that what follows is my own stumbling's with a few nuggets found online thrown in for good measure.

So, like a lamb to the slaughter I set out to: 1: Build my own canvas from absolute scratch. 2: Complete a large panoramic painting in oils. 3: Take my own high quality digital image and process it in Photoshop. 4: Take it all through to producing a decent quality Giclee print.

I keep telling myself that it cannot be that hard... right!!!!!!!!!!

For me, it was a chance to gain an idea of the kind of results I might expect prior to perhaps selling a few prints to cover some of my material costs.  But, I fancy a few budding artists out there might also be interested in seeing what is involved along the way (I was certainly looking for such a comprehensive article myself). So I decided to document the whole process and explain as clearly as possible how I created the canvas, the oil painting itself including mediums and methods, the photographing of the artwork, the processing of the digital file and finally the print . All in all it should be a pretty comprehensive guide for any one contemplating such a task, at the very least you will see some of the pitfalls.

1: Building the Canvas.

You can buy stretcher bars and canvas pre cut and primed, and that is what most artists (at least sane ones ) would do, but as I want to discover all aspects I am doing it the hard way. Similar to the artists of yesteryear might have done, after all online was not an option and high street shops were not always widely available so you had to make and mend from what was around. So step 1 is to build a frame for my canvas out of some wood I bought in a hardware store

Luckily, I have a logan pro frame makers saw which makes easy work of measuring and cutting the frame, but any good mitre saw will work just as well. You could even just cut and butt them together without a mitre.

I guess, I could have attached a frame makers strap (I do have one) to hold my frame until the glue dried. But for some reason I decided to pre-drill holes and after applying wood glue used a screw to tighten the joint and hold in place until set.

I don't think this is a bad method but I would either counter sink them further next time so I could apply more plastic wood or filler or better still use wooden dowels that could be re tapped later to restore tension in the canvas.

My basic frame was more or less complete. But because it was well over a meter in length it needed a middle cross bar to prevent bend when stretching the canvas.

So a cross bar was added and the final step was to sand the sharp edges off so the wooden frame so the canvas would not tear when stretching over the bars.

There are many YouTube videos of how to stretch a canvas so I wont get into masses of detail. The following graphics will hopefully explain things better than my ramblings

After cutting your canvas to size ( allowing enough to get a grip of) Fold and staple middle of one side (1). Jump to the opposite side (2) and stretch until tight and staple. Do the same on the ends (3, 4)

Start again from your first staple and stretching out and away from the middle staple both sides as in (5) follow the same procedure as previously and keep working your way around.

Continue until all sides are stretched, stapled and your corners trimmed and neatly folded and secured. Again YouTube can help with how to fold corners. You should now have a taut canvas ready for priming.

I actually had a pair of stretcher pliers handy but found my hands were sufficient for stretching, but it was a low grade un-primed cotton so may be a different story with stiffer ready primed rolls.

I also managed to tear the first canvas by trying to stretch too much so be aware of that

Well that is my basic panoramic canvas made and all seems fine so far. As always there are lessons to be learned and perhaps making such a large unconventional canvas was not the best idea for a first attempt. But the other lessons learned were:

1: Use slightly heavier kiln dried timber for such a large canvas to prevent any warping and improved rigidity.

2: I also used cotton cut from a painters dust sheet bought in a DIY store. I wanted to see if I could produce a low cost canvas. Well as the next section will show that was a big mistake

The weave of the cotton was so loose after stretching that the primer literally soaked through, so it took several coats of gesso primer to get a good finish, I even applied it with a pallet knife on some difficult areas. I had to purchase more gesso so any savings I thought I might make were lost.

Traditionally, you would size a new canvas for oil paints with rabbit skin glue prior to priming and that may have at least sealed the weave better and helped with the gesso above.But from what I could glean from online searches it could also cause your nice tight canvas to sag, and as I did not have wedges to tap in and restore tightness (those wooden dowels would have helped ?) I opted for the modern way using acrylic gesso which is suitable for oils and acrylics as well.

I have since learned that the opposite may be the case and rabbit skin glue tightens the canvas. However I cannot verify that for sure.

I also sanded the canvas down between coats to remove any rough areas or odd bits of stiff weave . In the end my canvas was finished and looking pretty good. My worries of the canvas sagging was not realised, so all that was required next was a final coat of oil primer to help the oil paint from sinking in and dulling.

This also improved how the oils flowed on the canvas, I had deliberately left an area of just acrylic gesso to test the difference and it was markedly noticeable. Good lesson learned here.

Was rolling my own worth it?

Well, for the purpose of this project it was a great success as I learned so much (number 1 tip --don't do it again!!!!). In future I will make my own frames without a doubt, but I will buy boxes of stretcher bars in different lengths that just click together and a roll of pre-primed decent quality canvas and save myself a lot of work.

I did some basic calculations of using pre made materials and although it will involve an initial expense to buy enough boxes of stretcher bars to make 2-3 varying sizes of canvas and a roll of pre-primed cotton, this worked out at approx 8-10 pounds (GB) per decent sized canvas and still way cheaper than buying quality pre-made. However, as you would expect it is only of real value if you intend to produce a good number of paintings.

2: Time to begin painting.

So it is time to get the brushes out. I am using a panoramic photograph of Portpatrick a pretty small town and harbour in Galloway - south west Scotland as my reference ( hence the panoramic canvas ) , It was kindly donated by a friend and colleague and this is what sparked the idea of producing a print, initially as a thank you it then grew into this project.

As mentioned previously my method of painting is a mixture of my own and other borrowings, but in the spirit of digital sharing I hope you can learn something from this . Anyway, I like to paint on a coloured background for a couple of reasons. 1: it helps me with balancing my colours (skies in particular) and can also add warmth or mood that will shine through the paint layers. 2: You can safely leave areas unpainted allowing the under painting to become a part of the finished work (as long as your colour compliments your subject).

So my first step before beginning to paint was to apply a base colour of yellow ochre (warm earth yellow that compliments blues) and touch of burnt sienna, I think this may be known as a Flemish ground? anyway I mixed it with virtually pure thinner and a touch of linseed oil so it would dry quickly. Apologies in advance for some of the images, I am simply snapping them in my studio while I work so colours may vary a bit although I will take care with final image.

Step 1 was to quickly block in the basic structure of my sky. I used a combination of Ultramarine blue, Pthalo blue, Alzarin crimson, Raw Umber , Titanium White and Naples Yellow with a 80 x 20% mix of thinner to linseed oil, I wanted the impression of blustery fast moving cloud so I quickly applied my paints and used a large wash brush to soften the edges. I was not interested in working them up much at this stage. Skies are my big thing so I usually continually work them right up until the painting is finished.

Step 2: Was to begin establishing the foreground elements and strengthen the sky values. My way of painting is always a bit haphazard as I need some focal point to confirm my decisions so I worked up the waves to give me my focus.. I will begin to work on the architectural elements next before I start working up the detail. As I start to apply layers of paint on top of an existing layer I change my medium to an approx 60-40 mix of thinner to linseed oil, fat over lean is the recommended way.

This painting is more or less finished. I tried to get more depth and drama by glazing and scumbling methods using Liquin as a medium. I find Liquin excellent for applying glazes, in particular my capping of the clouds and deeping the shadow colours. I do not paint subdued colours very often as I always think! who wants reality (except when it really is dramatic) so I tend to add drama if possible. This painting is probably about as subdued as I get.

I am reasonably happy with the result despite some difficulties, In particular it was difficult to paint fine details due to the nature of the low grade cotton, but probably my preparation of the canvas was lacking ?. Also, I have never painted architecture much, especially so many buildings that were mostly white in colour with little shadows and depth, In the end I only wanted to suggest details but I was a little out of my comfort zone. I also made the cardinal sin of referring to the original photograph too often, this is a common mistake and I should have put it away once the elements were in place and let my own creativity loose a bit more.

Photographing the artwork.

So all we need to do now is take a high quality digital photograph and send it to the printer. Easy Peasy you might think!!!! ...Well, just like buying a coffee nowadays there are so many options to be considered and the first of them is lighting your subject. I have done quite a bit of research into lighting and I have tried a few of them out so here are my own findings..

1: Using natural light

Many people suggest that you can get a good result using daylight and this is very true. From my own experience you get the best result from an overcast day with an even but not dull leaden light.  Now you may be lucky and live in a climate ideal for this, if so then excellent results can be had and money can be saved. But, if like me you are stuck in the north of a windswept island where good summers happen once every 10 years and the fields are always bright green for a reason, then waiting for perfect conditions can be a long brooding sulk with your nose pressed to a rain soaked window. So I needed a more consistent alternative.

2: Studio Lighting

Obviously, I needed studio lighting if I was going have consistent results when I wanted them. A number of years ago you would have to spend a good chunk of money for studio lights but thankfully today those resourceful far eastern chaps are producing some useful gear at affordable prices. I am not saying these are as good as high end products, and if you are a serious photographer you will opt for something more robust i.e. strobes and umbrellas. But as the famous saying goes "you are only as good as the man behind the camera" so I purchased a pair of soft light boxes off eBay, each with four 5500K continuous daylight bulbs for around sixty GB pounds and was nicely surprised when I opened the box and found them to be decent quality for the limited use I will give them, You can see the lights in my small summer house studio below.

Where to position your lights

In the photograph above, the lights are positioned too acutely (to allow a shot for this guide in a small 10 by 10 feet studio) so the light may bounce back from the canvas into the camera lens causing a glare. The lights should be positioned more to the sides of the canvas at roughly 160 degree angle so the light is not reflected back (see illustration below) .

This is a good set up as the light is raking the canvas not bouncing back into the camera lens

With a largish canvas like this I remove the right hand light from its stand and set it up on the workbench to achieve the correct angle. I also peg a dark grey sheet over the 2 white shower curtains ( I have not found any black ones yet) that I pull across the rear wall of my studio to protect the walls and any paintings still hanging up to dry from stray splashes of paint. This also prevents any glare from the white curtains bouncing back into the camera. The soft focus screens produces nice even lighting and you have switches on the back of each soft box to use either 2 or all 4 bulbs, so you can alter the amount of light accordingly

Camera Settings

First question that cropped up when I was researching was ISO. Now I used to do a bit of wildlife photography back in the days of real film and manual cameras, so I knew a little about ISO, shutter speeds and F stops. However, I am far from an expert. But for those that may not have any knowledge here is a basic description. ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The lower the number the less sensitive it will be to light, and a higher ISO will increase the sensitivity i.e. letting in more light. You might think this is just what you want? and in some situations it may be, but that is another story.

For example, using a high ISO might let you capture an image in low-light without a flash, but this comes at the expense of added grain (“noise”) or a lack of sharpness in your pictures. As far as I could make out ISO 100 seems to be the recommended setting for most cameras photgraphing artwork. Because I did not have much time to use the camera and my own experience was 35 years ago, I decided to use the camera in Aperture Priority mode and let the camera set its shutter speed accordingly. I was using a standard lens and was happy with an F Stop of around F8 that will allow enough light through but still achieve good depth of field (your own lens may well have a sweet spot different to this so experiment).

The only thing left to do was set the white balance, you can do this in most DSLR's and you usually have a choice of many preset options including a manual option to photograph a white card next to your subject (which is probably the ideal solution). My camera had a preset white image so I used that? so fingers crossed it was a good choice. But the auto setting I am sure will perform admirably well.

So all that was left to do was set the self timer to 10 seconds (to avoid shaking when pressing the shutter), half press the shutter to set the auto focus and off we go. The result is displayed below in Camera Raw (I first had to download a free Adobe DNG converter to convert Nikon's NEF format to DNG before my version of Camera Raw would open open it).

Editing: The fig above shows my image open in Camera Raw. There are so many tools available to you for adjusting your image but this is not the place to go into them in any detail. However, Camera Raw is an ideal peice of kit as any edits you make are non destructive including the crop tool. Only after you tweak the image using the many controls to get what you think is a result close to your artwork, and select Open Copy are the edits committed into your Photoshop copy but leaving your Raw file intact.

Boosting Pixels: You can also boost the pixel rate by clicking on the link highlighted above and choosing a different crop setting ( if available) and manually changing the default resolution from 240 to 300 pixels. I also believe it is a good idea to stick with Adobe RGB (1998) colour space

Monitor Calibration

Of course there are other matters you should consider, the calibration of your monitor. for e.g. You can get Digital Spyders which will auto calibrate for you!, but as I did not have one to hand I used the windows 10 colour calibration tools on 4 different machines (laptop and desktops) and tweaked between them it until I thought it was about right on my best screen. Luckily when my local Giclee Print House opened it up it was very close to my own previews....

You can tweak the image further in Photoshop if you deem it necessary but be aware that what you see on screen may not be exactly the same as your printed image. By nature monitors and screens are back-lit so will always seem brighter... so it really is suck it and see on your first attempts. Don't forget to save your file as a Tiff before packing it off to your printer..

It is not recommended to use JPG as it achieves compression by removing pixels and blending similar colour pixels together to fool the eye, ......(but not the machine!). Speak to your Print house If JPG is your only Option

The Finished Product, my first Giclee Print.

This is very exciting for me as for the first time i get to see my own artwork reproduced, will it be good enough quality, will I be disappointed.. Hell no the print was superb.. it was just a little darker in the shadow areas than the original but the quality was superb throughout.

A happy customer with his print

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