Exploring ACM Panels

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Tim Rees Artefex Ambassador
Aluminum composite material is a relatively new painting surface in the field of art materials.  Those who have heard of it are often aware of its nature to be more rigid than stretched canvas and not prone to the same deteriorating effects of time like wood.  In short, ACM is an incredibly long-lasting substrate, destined to last through the ages as our work is passed down from generation to generation, or is (hopefully) acquired by museums.
            While all this is true, I have found the subject of using ACM akin to the same conversation we seem to have about vegetables or exercise: we all know it’s good for us, and that it will help keep us alive and healthy longer, but that conversation hasn’t exactly turned us into a society of vegetarian fitness buffs.  When I have spoken to artists of the long-term qualities of ACM, I notice a similar mentality. I hear arguments such as:
“Most paintings of the past were executed on canvas or wood” (similar to the argument that “People of the past couldn’t always eat vegetables and they didn’t visit a gym”); or:
“My work probably won’t make it into a museum/nobody will want my painting anyway” (similar in effect to the argument that “I might be hit by a car and die tomorrow, so why change my diet today?”).
            The very nature of humans makes it difficult to persuade us to consider long reaching ramifications, so I have little intention of doing that here.  Instead, I’d like to bring to the table some of my experiences as a working artist who has had the curiosity (and sometimes necessity) of working on a huge range of painting surfaces and substrates, and highlight a variety of reasons why I continue to be drawn back to the ACM.  Perhaps you have shared some of these frustrations, or perhaps they haven’t been considered.  In any case, they should work to help inform your decision-making process.
Stretching.  Most people I have met have had one issue or another at some point with stretching canvas, but another consideration is what happens immediately following.  I once participated in a show that was in a very humid climate compared to my typical dry studio climate.  Upon unpacking the crate, to our horror, we discovered that this drastic change in humidity (no doubt combined with the vibration associated with shipping), caused all of the paintings to be hanging loosely from the stretcher bars.  While it might have been less noticeable on smaller works, with these large paintings we could see drooping rolls in the canvas.  We spent the time unframing, re-stretching, and framing them before the show.  Flash forward a month, and when I unpacked the paintings back in the studio, I noticed they had retightened, leaving the crease from the stretcher bar visible in some areas around the perimeter of the painting!  Ultimately, this does not affect how good the painting is, but the occasional dimensional crease like this can be visually unappealing.  Unfortunately, the only remaining solution now would be to re-stretch the painting on smaller bars, or to mount it to a less climate-reactive substrate such as ACM, and reframe the piece.
          The tightening of the canvas after re-stretching caused the new canvas bar crease lines to become visible in some areas near the frame.
            Another more common instance I encounter in the studio is the general slight loosening of stretched canvas over time.  Not necessarily always problematic, it can produce unflattering effects if the canvas is not stored completely upright.  Take, for example, one of my stretched lead-primed linen canvases.  It was stored flat for about 6 months, and the result was that the weight of the heavier lead primer pushed the canvas down over the middle support bar, leaving a noticeable indentation.  Because this canvas was primed several years ago, re-stretching could result in a cracked painting surface, so the best option would be to mount it to a panel, using a brayer to roll out any irregularities.  This can happen to any canvas (even those stored upright), especially after being painted on.  The more paint on the canvas, the heavier it gets, and the more likely it will be to sag.
            The biggest downside to stretched canvas for me is the care that must be taken to continually ensure that nothing touches/potentially damages the front.  I’m not like many artists I know who quietly toil away alone in a studio that is for the most part uneventful.  I share a large studio with apprentices, and we are ALWAYS moving things around.  I bring my 3-year-old to the studio with me, so sometimes Hot Wheels cars go flying.  I have a big dog that makes the occasional visit to the studio with me, and he is NOT aware of where he swings his back end.  I travel on location to open studios, to paint portraits in people’s homes, and to deliver paintings to galleries.  The fact is, every time I do any of these things with stretched canvas around, I feel like I’m rolling a dice and hoping nothing gets ruined.  Real life can be dangerous for a stretched canvas.
Wood panels.  For a while I was a big fan of wood panels.  Once sealed, they are aesthetically attractive, and they are usually inexpensive.  The biggest challenge I have had with them is continual warping.  Exposure to moisture and heat can cause this, and the only solution is to try to get the panel into a frame right away before it begins to warp.  Waiting until after the panel has warped can run the risk of the paint film cracking.  One of the reasons I found wood so appealing initially is its ability to occupy less room in the studio, so framing every painting right away negates the cost/space benefits.
          Even with small paintings, triple ply wood that began flat has a tendency to warp drastically.
Hardboard.  A solution to the warping issue is hardboard (often called by the brand name Masonite).  Generally speaking, hardboard is comprised of wood pulp that has been pressed into a board, usually using the wood’s natural glue to reconstitute its strength.  There is no wood grain and it is dense, making it less likely to warp.  Originally, I was concerned about possible additives (preservatives like formaldehyde or unknown acidic glues) that could eat away at paintings, which can often be found in hardware store hardboards.  As I worked with art-grade hardboard, though, I found an even more disheartening characteristic: the ease with which the hardboard can break, flake, crumble, or swell.  Even when sealed, an innocuous jolt to a corner can expose the wood pulp fibers, acting as a gateway for moisture to penetrate or for more stress to occur.  I have many panels that have succumbed to this fate. The solution, of course, is to put these panels into a frame right away, again negating the cost/space benefit of hardboard.  In less common circumstances, I have heard of fellow artists whose studios have fallen victim to a leak or flood, destroying numerous paintings completed on this substrate.
            The fate of many hardboard panels if they don’t make it into a frame immediately upon finish.
Gatorfoam board.  Another newer and popular substrate is the PH-balanced Gatorfoam board, often called Gator board.  Easy to cut, lightweight and firm, traveling with it is a snap.  Unfortunately, it can also snap.  Or dent.  Or puncture.  Corners have always been particularly problematic for me.  Also, there is the possibility that something could fall on it.  An apprentice of mine had just finished a beautifully executed master copy, and she had turned it facing a wall on a table to dry.  Through some incredibly uncommon occurrence, overnight, the walls shook, and a framed painting fell off the wall, hitting the back of the Gator board.  The board was punctured, and the painting was dented from the back.  Weeks of hard work were then reduced to a restoration project.  Ultimately, the convenience of the Gator board did not outweigh the damage it did.  To top it off, Gator board, being a paper base, is more at risk to the damaging effects of water than wood or hardboard.
            The frame punctured through the back of the Gator board, denting the painting from the front.
            Every substrate has its appeal or convenience.  To be honest, every once in a while I wander back to one of them for one reason or another.  The ease of making, the spring of the canvas, the availability of a material.  Almost every time I have done that, I remember why I started using ACM, and why I like it so much.  It’s nice to be able to grab a panel and not have to worry.  It’s nice to know it can store flat, save space, and be ready when I need it.  It’s nice to know that if, for some reason, my easel or tripod gets bumped or a nail or screw fails and the painting falls to the ground, it will survive relatively unscathed.
            In short, ACM has the best properties of all the other substrates (save the springiness), but it’s durable. Not just centuries-in-a-museum durable, but 3-year-old-toddler durable.

Frames, Panels and Reflecting on Materials

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Written by Nigel Robertson, founder of Batican Custom Framery.
As artists, we are living in a really interesting time. I often wonder how the old masters would fair with the technology we have at their fingertips. Would Rembrandt still grind his pigments or would he use Rublev or Old Holland? What would Vermeer do? Would they store their paint in pigs bladders still? I speculate that they would not. What about their supports? Would they still prime raw linen with rabbit skin glue sizing and then apply layers and layers of homemade gesso? I have a feeling they would simplify the process if they could. We have certainly entered into the age of painting information, and thankfully the info on how to do things the right way is right at our fingertips. George O’Hanlon at Natural Pigments has spent many years researching historical painting techniques, and figuring out exactly what works and what does’t. Without him I feel that we would still be pretty lost. I’m sure if Rembrandt and Vermeer were alive today they would be consulting with George as well.  Within the craft of painting there are right ways to do things and many many wrong ways. The “Right way” is generally synonymous with “Archival” in the Classical Realism realm of art. We have learned that the “right way” starts with the support. This is the beginning of my segue into why we should have a close look at Artefex Rigid Artist Panels.
       Artefex happens to be owned and ran by Anton O’Hanlon, son of George O’Hanlon. Artefex makes panels the right way, verified by George, and that is a huge relief for serious oil painters working in traditional methods. For the past 15 years I have been a working artist, and received academic training at The Florence Academy of Art starting in 2009. We were taught that we should know exactly what goes into our paintings, and I completely agree. We were also taught that we should make as much of our materials from scratch ourselves, which makes me feel conflicted. I truly believe we should be able to make everything from scratch, however, the time involved in research alone to do things the right way could take a lifetime. Trial and error regarding hand making all of the materials one uses as an artist could very well take a lifetime. Ask Dan Graves. I feel as artists we need to be realistic here on this topic. As a lover of the old masters, I romanticized about making everything from scratch, and I did. During my time in Florence I was absolutely enchanted with the concept. Building upon this concept I decided that I even wanted to learn to make frames, so that I could completely actualize my vision for my artwork. And so I did!  I ended up making everything I possibly could that went into my artwork with pride. I eventually got burnt out juggling all of the components of being a modern day artist utilizing old master techniques. I ended up going on hiatus from painting and solely focused on making picture frames. I like making frames, and I enjoy that there is a point where the frame is clearly finished. While building my frame business I have been collecting the “Right” art supplies with George’s guidance. Painting has become much more enjoyable, and productive. I actually want to paint more with the stigma of making everything from scratch out of the way. I chose not to be led by dogma. Now for me it is just about doing things the right way, and enjoying painting when I can. The chores of grinding paint, refining oil, prepping supports and making mediums have disappeared. I can now focus on what truly matter: Making a better painting, and not obsessing over what intricate ingredients that I am using. The ingredients absolutely matter, and we know what works and what doesn’t.
I recently started using Artefex panels, and I don’t think I can ever go back to making panels from scratch ever again. Why reinvent the wheel when It comes to supports? I say don’t. I say don’t because as artists we are certainly better off refining our actual artwork. Pushing our drawing and painting skills and refining the subject matter is going to give you far better results than spending time and energy doing it the old master’s way and neglecting the fundamentals. Your time as an artist is extremely valuable, and if you want to make a living as a professional artist, I feel that you are bound to have a hard time if much of the time you spend so much time trying to be like the old masters. It’s romantic, and it can be fun, but are you really using your time as wisely as possible? Many artists forget that the Old Masters had assistants who ground their paints and prepared their surfaces. How else could they achieve so much? What is truly important is that you do it the right way, especially if your career as an artist takes off. You shouldn’t be worried about your paintings falling apart, especually when we have so much access to the scientifically tested information about the creation of archival artwork. I feel the artist’s time is best used focusing solely on the content of their paintings while using the right materials starting with the support. If we handed Vermeer a Lead Primed Linen Canvas bound to a moisture resistant aluminum composite panel and explained it’s properties he would no doubt be overjoyed to create a masterpiece upon it. I speculate that would be his number one choice of support.
Besides the fact that the Artefex panels are done right, they’re also very easy to frame. As a framer and artist I highly recommend these panels to paint on for these reasons. The up front cost us a little more, but they will save you lots of precious time in the long run.  Stretched canvas isn’t always square, which can be a pain in the neck for the framer, and the artist when installing the artwork into the frame. I have had clients who ordered specific sizes based on the stretcher bars only to find that their canvas doesn’t fit because the folded canvas corners added a quarter inch to one of the dimensions, and this can be very stressful when deadlines are involved. Artefex panels are cut with excellent accuracy meaning an 8”x10” is going to be an 8”x10” so the fitment into the frame will be a lot less trouble. Installing the work of art can be as simple as just using framers points with a framers point gun. If a more rigid installation is desired, then “offset clips” sometimes called “Z clips” can be used. Both materials can be purchased from Amazon or your local frame shop. Artwork on deep canvases are my least favorite to frame. Finding the correct offset clip to hold the artwork in place can be a challenge, and sometimes the deep canvases require extra fabrication and creativity to safely install the artwork. One of my biggest fears about linen canvas stretched over traditional stretchers is puncturing. Accidents happen, and finding a restorer to repair a torn canvas can be a nightmare. Large format paintings should still be mounted to ACM (Aluminum Composite Materials) and if extra rigidity is desired during the painting process prior to framing, the ACM panel can be adhered to some sort of cradle with cross braces. Artefex makes custom sized panels as well so Anton has you covered. He does a wide variety of combinations of linen canvas and various archival grounds that are proven to last, so it makes no sense to me to DIY everything anymore especially regarding supports.
      There are many great framers to choose from to frame your precious works as well, and there is a number of them that I recommend. One thing I am going to discourage is using “Chop and Join” frames for oil paintings, and my reasoning is purely subjective. I personally believe that we should use handmade frames just as the old masters did because the frame is an extension of the artwork, and it should be handmade. Handmade goes with handmade. It looks great and It just makes sense! Keep it handmade and use the right materials. These are pretty straightforward guidelines to follow. If you still want to make everything from scratch because you want to be like the  old masters then more power to you! Definitely take a workshop from George on Best Painting Practices. As a Florence Academy Alumni I strongly recommend that you don’t neglect the fundamentals, and as an Artist I strongly recommend you find your intention for making art. Making oil paintings the “right way” is no longer a mystery, and you will be better off doing it correctly.

Best wishes,

Nigel Robertson

Ph. 559-708-0589

Batican Custom Framery

2178 N. Pleasant Ave.

Fresno Ca 93705

Flax Art in Fort Mason

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We are excited to introduce a new store to the Artefex family. The new Flax store is finally ready to open its doors. A great location right next to the new home of the San Francisco school of art, makes this an easy to get to store for the local artist. Flax currently carries the Rublev Oils colours, but is planing to carry other Artefex products soon. Check them out at Building D, 2 Marina Blvd, San Francisco, CA.

Flax Art