The Panel

May 7, 2009

The Panel:
A firm non flexible ground is necessary for painting with egg tempera.  On good linen canvas, the oil medium can sustain flexing and shrinking, but egg tempera cannot.  If one chooses to work exclusively in oil, canvas may be the ground of choice.  As I prefer to use a mixed technique, painting on panel is my preference.  Additionally, I find the smoothness of the surface very sensuous.

Of the choices readily and economically available to painters these days, my personal preference is good quality, plywood panels.  They are heavier than Masonite but in the long run, more absorbent.  They do not warp, and the fine crackles that can occur in the gesso from slight wood expansion can be avoided either by obtaining a high quality piece of plywood from a cabinet maker or by gluing a thin layer of fine linen fabric to the board before the first coat of gesso.

2 Responses to “The Panel”

  1. Pablo Tapia Says:

    Hi Ellen,

    My name is Pablo Tapia, painter from Australia. I was wondering if I please could ask you a couple of questions about making panels with traditional gesso (rabbit skin glue, calcium carbonate, titanium white).

    I use oils 99% of the time but I love the feeling of a gesso panel and sometimes I make a RSG gesso or a Casein gesso. Recently I’ve found a good provider of braced plywood panels in my area and I was thinking that for archive reasons it would be sound to glue linen or cotton to the panel before applying gesso in case the grain starts rising (normally I use hardboard therefore I have no experience with plywood).

    My question is… I was asking the people from about what glue strength I should use to mount material and they recommended 4:10 (4 vol of granules to 10 vol of water) which is roughly 4 times stronger than what you need to size material, right? The thing is… every time I glue linen or cotton to a board the glue seeps through to the front therefore I have to spread it and leave it as a size which it is in my opinion too thick to act properly as a stable layer…then I normally apply the gesso which roughly has a glue strength of 1:10…therefore I’m using two different strengths next to each other which also makes me a bit nervous.

    Have you got a better approach?…maybe my concern about the ply showing the grain later on is a bit exaggerated but doing a quick search on the net has shown that it seems to be a common problem amongst Egg tempera painters.

    The other problem I normally have is that after gluing the material and to avoid ending up with bubbles I put something heavy on top of the board to make sure the linen stays flat and in contact with the plywood in the entire surface area…but I have to be extremely careful with what I put on top as it tends to stick to it…I have found that if I use baking aluminium foil on top of the linen and then a board with some weights it seems to do the trick as the aluminium foil does not stick (or it just leaves tiny bits that are more or less easily to remove)

    Any comments on this matter too? Is there a better/simpler way of doing this?

    Thanks for any advice about these two problems…


    Pablo T.

    • Hi Pablo,

      Thanks for your questions. I’ve had similar ones.

      Regarding painting directly over a plywood panel. I’ve had mixed results.
      The quality of the plywood seems to be a major factor:

      • I’ve never had problems painting (with oil) on plywood panels that I bought from either a qualitative lumber yard or from the higher range of a franchise hardware store in America, specifically California. But then they were 1/2 thick, so the weight proved cumbersome.
      • I have had great results from plywood panels (approx 1/4″ thick) that I gessoed on directly and then painted (in oil with an egg tempera underpainting) from a (franchise) harware store in Germany. There was no discernible cracking, although it must be said that oils are far more forgiving than straight egg tempera in this regard.
      • I have had plywood panels from the (franchise) hardware store in Belgium with mixed restults, qualitatively. My thought/experience is that (generally) Germans are more interested in paying a higher price for a better, long lasting, quality product, while Belgians (again generally) are content to pay less for a product that is “pretty good” but doesn’t have to be perfect. So hardware stores stock what they can sell…

      Anyway, due to my mixed results and because I live in Belgium, I have been moving towards gluing a piece of fabric on the panel first, which brings me to your second question. Thus far, I have used a very old, very thin, cotton sheet. It seems work just fine – so far. My thinking is that the hygroscopic nature of the RS glue makes up for the difference between linen and cotton (although if my economics circumstances were different I’d use linen just to be sure). I’ll try to dig out my glue proportions (because we’ve just moved, all these things are buried somewhere), but I remember that everything I could research at the time recommended a stronger glue solution than the gesso. So that’s what I used. (I’m just not sure that the “fat over lean” thinking of an oil painter applies to layering of rabbit skin glue, so go figger)
      Like you, I have used a squeegie (a flat paint mixing stick) to squeeze out the excess RS glue. And also like you, I have used aluminum foil with book weights. It seemed to work just fine. So your inventions mirror mine.

      One last comment I have is this: surfaces of straight gesso do absorb paint differently than surfaces that have a thin layer of fabric. The fabric layer surfaces seem to be more absorbent, softer in a subtly tactile way. If you pay attention and experiment you will see the difference and also find out which one is closer to your temperament.
      Good luck to you and thanks for the questions.

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