Small World

Happy Isles Bridge Painting
My progress on my Happy Isles Bridge demonstration painting during our Monday outing.

I recently returned from a week painting in Yosemite. I live just about 20 minutes from the gates of this national park, so it’s not unusual to find me up there painting, but this week was different.

A few years ago I began volunteering a week annually, to take Yosemite visitors out to paint the unbelievable sites found there, on behalf of the Yosemite Conservancy. For those of you who don’t know, the Yosemite Conservancy is a non-profit organization, supported completely by donations. It uses the funds, collected through those donations, to issue large grants to Yosemite National Park to restore, improve or preserve. They recently granted Yosemite $20 million of the total $40 million required to carry out the Mariposa Grove project. Past donations have restored the facilities surrounding Lower Yosemite Falls and enabled electronic tracking of Yosemite bears. They’ve just begun a National Park partnership to give a new face to the facilities surrounding Bridal Veil Falls.

I donate MY time, so the small fee the Conservancy charges for participation in my outings ($30) goes into their kitty. It’s a wonderful place to spend a week painting with others and each day I meet new and interesting people, from all over the world.

Mordack's Dragon Statue Image
Sierra Online’s “King’s Quest V,” entering Mordack’s Castle.

On day one, Monday, we didn’t stray far from the Art Center in Happy Isles and I took a group of 6 out to paint the stone bridge nearby. Because it was nearby, we walked to the location, getting to know each other as we traveled (we more frequently utilize the park shuttles to deliver us to our destinations).


Porn Corp Image
Sierra Online’s “Leisure Suit Larry 5.”

One of the pleasures of my annual volunteer work is learning a bit about each individual taking the class. Often times, I’ll find at least one visitor with whom I have something in common. So was the case this day. The husband in one of the two married couples in the group, was involved in software development, a programmer. As it so happens, I spent much of my former commercial art career as a Chief Creative Officer for video game companies. My duty was to determine what games we developed, then guide teams on each product through the complete development process.

EcoQuest Image
Sierra Online’s, “EcoQuest.”

At nine years of age, this particular individual had played many of the games I developed, early in my game career, for Sierra Online. Sierra, a pioneer in video gaming, was located in the town of Oakhurst, CA, in the Sierra foothills and was my introduction to the area. My fellow painter this day was not unique in having played one of the games I’d developed, many of the younger video game team members I managed in the later part of  my career, had played these early Sierra produced games, when they were kids.

Small world!


Work the Entire Canvas

Miner's Camp Finished Painting
“Miner’s Camp,” 18″ x 36″ oil on canvas © 2014 Trowzers Akimbo

Whether you’re painting a portrait, still life, landscape or anything else, it’s important to work the entire canvas. Too often I see painters taking one area of interest to them all the way to finish, before working the rest of the canvas. To be blunt, that really isn’t PAINTING, it’s rendering.

Miner's Camp Turp Wash
Turpentine wash darks underpainting

Painting is playing one area of your canvas against the other, letting it tell you what elements in the composition need to be darker or lighter, warmer or cooler, contain more detail, be handled more loosely, etc.

Juxtaposition is a fickle mistress. You work diligently on an isolated area until you’ve adjusted the value of a particular dark to perfection, only to have your hard work negated, once you stroke in the surrounding values, which of course, changes everything. The flesh tones you’ve achieved on the live model you’re painting down the center of your, otherwise, pristine white canvas are the best you’ve ever painted, but when you add the cool background surrounding her, she’s suddenly suffering from a severe sunburn.

Miner's Camp Darks
The darks are in and some of the mid-tones

This is due to the dynamic range, or selected range of values from light to dark or colors from warm to cool,  in your subject. No given subject contains all values or all colors in the spectrum. Each subject encompasses a subset of the entire spectrum. A color or value is right only in comparison to the other colors and values in the particular dynamic range of your subject. That dark gray is perfect sitting next to the pale yellow of the dress in your painting, but choose a different color/value for the dress, say a darker yellow ochre and now the gray is too light. Every color or value is effected by the colors or values surrounding it. This is why a color may look perfect isolated on your mixing palette, but looks wrong when applied to your, in progress, painting.

When you develop the entire canvas, working dark to light, you avoid this problem. Utilizing this approach, colors/values are chosen based on the whole of your painting.

Miner's Camp Lights
With darks & mid-tones in, begin to add lights & details

You also want to avoid developing detail in any isolated area of your canvas, while you ignore the rest. I like to compare the developing of detail on a canvas to a sculptor working a block of marble. The sculptor begins with large chisels, knocking off gross chunks of the block, roughing out the overall shape of her subject. Then, slowly working towards a more refined finish, she employs smaller and smaller tools, as she goes.

I approach painting the same way. In the beginning, utilizing large brushes, broad strokes across the entire canvas, roughing in the masses, then slowly refining the whole, as I progress, relying on smaller and smaller brushes, as I go. This approach makes clear to me, the areas screaming for detail and those that can left in rougher states. You want more detail in the areas of focus in your work, less everywhere else.

I’ve found this historically time-tested, all encompassing approach to be the most efficient, consistently achieving the best results. If you’re not already working this way, give it a shot. It’s just paint, what have you got to lose!

Group Painting in Yosemite

Photo of Me with Students
Me (in straw hat) instructing students from my paintbox, © 2016 Kerby C. Smith (detail)

Time is quickly approaching, when I’ll be taking visitors to Yosemite out to paint plein air in the Park, for the Yosemite Conservancy. We’ll be painting with acrylics this year from September 10th – 15th (oil paints are not allowed in Yosemite).

We begin each morning at 10am and paint until 2pm and the Park only charges visitors $20 per day (I volunteer my time). You’ll never find a more economical opportunity to receive painting lessons and you’ll be doing so in one of the most breathtaking environments on the planet. Your fee supports an organization working to keep Yosemite the natural wonder it is, now and for future generations.

I live in the Sierras near Yosemite and  travel up to the Park solo or with friends to paint in the open air, often, but this week each year allows me the unique opportunity to meet painting and natural wonder enthusiasts from around the globe. The groups during this week are generally intimate, just 5 to 10 individuals, which allows me to offer personal attention to all participants.

Even if you’ve visited Yosemite before, PAINTING this natural wonder is a very different, Zen like, experience. Remaining in one location, examining one phenomenal vista over multiple hours, your mind clears, your breathing slows, vision, hearing and sense of smell sharpen. You no longer seek out the Park, the Park approaches to you! The creaking, cracking, chirping, sloshing rushing of the wilderness, rises in your ears. Colors you never noticed were there become your focus. Local forest inhabitants show themselves, as you become a fixture in their environment.

The experience is well worth your time. Interested in joining me? Learn more on the Yosemite Conservancy website.

Hope you can join us!

Pressure Under Fire

Group Painting Photo
Photo (detail) © 2018 Kerby Smith

Working alone in your studio and among others are very different experiences from one another. When working in a group, it’s natural to experience increased tension or stress. You might think you’re the only one susceptible to this condition, but I’ve been painting most of my life, often  before others in group situations or when giving a demo and I’ll admit, it’s just not the same as painting alone in my studio. I may not feel the increased level of stress, while I’m painting in public, but when the activity is over and I return to my studio, I’m exhausted. I can paint 8 or 12 hours in my studio and never feel as tired as I do when a paint alongside others or give a demo for 2 or 3 hours. The level of stress deceases with experience, but I don’t believe it ever goes away.

This stress is there, I believe, because we all want to perform well before our peers. We want to appear accomplished. There’s that illogical nightmare running deep within us all…the fear of looking foolish…of finding ourselves in a public place in our underwear.

No matter what your level of accomplishment, you want to continue learning, pushing forward, always striving to become a better creator. There’s always more to know. Painting with others is a wonderful opportunity to learn, to pick up tips from others, to see how SHE does it, but there’s a significant pitfall of which to always remain watchful.

Because there’s pressure to perform well, it’s very easy to slip into a comfort zone, to rely on solutions with which you’re very comfortable, that have come through for you time and again. When you do this, you stop “seeing” what is before you and instead deliver your subject through a pre-conceived, pre-resolved approach that’s been successful for you in the past. You substitute a previous solution for an eye, for example, that you’ve been pleased with many times before, instead of communicating the eyes of the subject before you.

Don’t do it!

We always want to view our subject as if we’ve never seen anything of its kind before. Great art is less about skill with brush or chisel and more about “seeing” clearly what is before us.

If we can learn not to succumb to ego and remain focused on subject, painting with others can be a highly rewarding, educational experience.

Painting Digital

Preston Sullivan Portrait

While oil paint has to be my favorite overall medium (I relish its malleable qualities) I also enjoy working with other creative materials: watercolor, pastels, acrylics and the newest creative medium in my paintbox, digital.

Having spent much of my commercial career as a chief creative office in the video game industry, digital creative tools aren’t at all new to me. I first began creating digital images on a Commodore 64 desktop computer in the middle 80s by programming sprites in Commodore Basic. Prior to this, as an animation director, I was directing the creation of digital imagery, as part of television commercials, through a technician on high end online video paintbox systems, like the Quantel and DiVinci systems.

But I didn’t think of using any of the available digital art tools for fine art until Apple’s iPad showed up on the scene in 2010. Once I got a hold of my first tablet and a copy of the Brushes app I began fine are experiments.

Farmer Sketch
Layout sketch created on the iPad using Sketchbook Pro.

When I frequented my first Yosemite Western Artists live model session in 2013, I’d never before visited their historic Gertrude Schoolhouse headquarters and had no idea what facilities were available to artists there. So, I showed up with nothing more than my iPad, figuring I could stand and create on it, no matter what the limit of space or facilities. Working among other artists using traditional mediums, my goal was to use my digital tools (this time working in the

Soil Tiller Image
Final digital iPad portrait.

SketchBook Pro app) to create a portrait following a procedure similar to the one I employed with oils: layout drawing, monochrome wash underpainting, final development of the entire canvas with opaque color, working dark to light.

I’ve found I often get a bizarre, if not hostile reaction to my digital paintings. “It’s just Photoshopped,” is a common statement. While on face value this comment would not appear to be any kind of judgement of the work, I’ve realized, over time, that the critic is implying that I simply uploaded a photo into Photoshop and used one of the many available art style filters to make it look like a painting. While using those filters is a fun exercise and can deliver amazing results, MY goal is simply to use digital tools as another painting medium, not to cleverly process photographs I’ve taken.

Preston 01 Image
Underpainting from live model.

To squelch those doubters who don’t believe digital art can also mean original art, here are images of one of my digital paintings in different stages of development.

preston photo
My reference photo of the model.

Working on my iPad in the Sketchbook Pro app, I began with a drawing and underpainting from the live model, during one of Yosemite Western Artist Friday live model sessions. While there I took a reference photo to work from later, back in my studio, after the model session was over.

Preston 02 Image
Forms more defined, I realized his eyes were too low and moved them up.

Once I had more of the forms defined, I realized his eyes were too low, that he had too much forehead. This type of problem often goes unnoticed in the drawing and under painting stage, only showing up when the forms are more defined through the addition of proper opaque values and color. One of the great advantages of digital painting is the ability it offers the artist to easily edit their paintings at any stage of development. To correct the eyes, I simply selected them with the selection tool, copied and pasted them in their proper location and touched them up to fit with the surrounding area.

Digital tablets add amazing portability to artists. You carry a full art studio along with you in one of these devices, an unbelievable convenience when traveling.

Working digitally isn’t all advantages, though. A huge down-side is that it’s difficult to add refinement while viewing the entire painting. Instead I end up zooming into the area I’m working and then back out to see the results in relation to the whole. This need to constantly zoom in and out of your image, while you work, is a true annoyance. With analog painting using my long-handled brushes and maul stick, I refine while taking in the whole…a much nicer way to work.

The biggest disadvantage of digital painting is that your end result isn’t anything you can physically hold in your hands or hang on a wall. For that, you have to print the image. Acceptable quality prints require that your image be created at high resolution, at least 300ppi at the actual size you’re printing. This isn’t a problem, when working in Photoshop on a desktop computer, but it’s much more convenient to work on a portable tablet you can take to a model or plein air session. So far, most tablet art applications don’t support larger images at 300ppi, limiting your printed output to something like 8″ x 10.” The only current exception I’m aware of is the ArtRage App, which actually creates a resolution independent file of your work. While your image saving options are limited to the same small print size within the tablet application, ArtRage boasts that parring the tablet version with their $90 desktop version of application allows you to print your image as large as you’d like, at the necessary 300ppi. I don’t yet have a copy of the ArtRage desktop application, so haven’t been able to see if it truly works. I’ve also heard rumors of applications that do a great job of enlarging the small files for printing, without degrading the quality of the image, but haven’t yet tried any of these out, either.

If you haven’t given digital painting a go and have access to a desktop computer or tablet, you owe it to yourself to try it on for size!



Artist Diaries

Hockney Interview Image

First person insights on the hearts and minds of famous artists of the past are rare.

Thanks to his prolific letter writing (almost daily) to his brother, Theo, we know more about Vincent Van Gogh than any other artist throughout history. We know about his struggles with poverty and sanity. We’re privy to his hopes and dreams. We learn of his relationships with other artists and neighbors, but most importantly we have a front row seat of his creative process, on a granular level: his goals, failures, successes, and his approach to painting on a technical level. Marvelous…if you haven’t read his letters, do so…what a treat to share the journey with this troubled creative genius.

Yellow House PaintingBe warned, I initially walked away not liking Vincent as a person very much: the constant whining and complaining, his continuous begging for more funds from his younger brother, but I’ve since learned of the details of his arrangement with Theo. The paintings Vincent created belonged to Theo…Vincent shipped them off to his brother, in bundles, once they were dry enough to travel and they were to remain Theo’s, until Vincent could return the funds he’d borrowed to support his creative efforts, in full.

Young Hockney ImageOver the weekend, I viewed artist interviews on YouTube, here and there, whenever I took breaks to cool down and rehydrate during my brush clearing efforts (it’s that time of year again, up here in the Sierras). I ended up viewing a lot of David Hockney interviews and discovered how many with this artist were up there.

Hockney Middle Aged PhotoMr. Hockney is a favorite of mine, he was recognized and successful at an early age. He’s thoughtful, loquacious and, at age 81, has accumulated quite a catalog of video interviews. The sessions run the gamut of his career, he was interviewed at the beginning, in his 20’s and 30’s, across the decades, right up to the present.

Hockney Today PhotoI was struck by the similarity of this collection and Van Gogh’s letters. The videos document David Hockney’s thoughts, opinions, working methods, etc., across his career, who he was at the beginning, his evolution over the years and who he is now.

What a gift to artists! Hockney isn’t alone. Through catalogs like YouTube, you can gain incite into the workings of all the major artists of our times.

Great Time to Paint!

Bedroom in Arles Image
Vincent Van Gogh, “Bedroom in Arles.”

We’ve all dreamed of being a painter during one of the great historical art movements: Impressionism, Post Impressionism,  Romanticism, Modernism, even the Renaissance. What would it have been like to have been a guest at the Medici estate during the Italian Renaissance, to sit around a table sharing conversation over a glass of absinthe with the likes of Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Degas or to have attended a party in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso and Matisse?

As artists working in the 21st Century we’ve come to take for granted all the art conveniences we avail ourselves of each day. Painters of the past didn’t have it as good!

Take, for example, our box of paints. Not only are they highly portable (up until the middle 19th century they were traditionally stored in ram’s bladders), but the variety of available colors and the pigment’s permanence makes this a great time to be an artist.

Classic Palette Graphic
The mineral color palette of the Classic painting period, © 2018 Gamblin Artists Oil Colors.

Take a look at the mineral color palette to which artists of the Classic period (through the first half of the 19th Century) were limited (thanks to Gamblin Artists Oil Color for all these palette graphics).



Impressionist Palette Graphic
Colors added to the Impressionists palette, © 2018 Gamblin Artists Oil Colors.

Driven by a need for pigments in commercial industry,  the Industrial Revolution developed abilities to fuse inorganic materials, such as cadmium, cobalt, and chromium together at high heat, greatly widening the spectrum of available colors for artist. The permanence of these new highly intense colors was not always great. Here’s a comment from Vincent Van Gogh about the problem, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, “All the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable. […] all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”*

20th Century Palette GraphicOrganic chemistry, in the 20th Century brought  new pigments into existence (Hansa Yellow, Phthalo Blues and Greens, Napthol and Perylene Reds, Quinaquidones, Dioxazine Violet, Hue and Permanent versions). The new colors may look similar to those from the industrial revolution, but many boast better permanence and the new colors retain their chroma when changed in value, through mixing with white or other colors, which is not the case with older ones, they lose chroma as their value is changed.

While we’re on the subject of new colors and color substitutes, have you ever wondered what the descriptive “Hue” meant on a tube of paint, such as in Cerulean Blue Hue? The Hue versions are generally much less expensive than the original. This is because Hue versions have substituted multiple, often less expensive pigments to simulate the color, rather than using the traditional pigment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as often the Hue version will use more permanent or less toxic pigments in this simulation. Read the available information about the color, understand the details before you buy.

All things considered, we’re living in a great time to be a painter!

* This emphasizes the importance, today, of understanding the permanence of the pigments you’re using. That information is usually available on painting manufacturer’s websites, is available behind the “pigment info” tab accessed by clicking the paint color identifying number on the Dick Blick website and if all else fails, at the end of a Google search. More stable substitutes are available today for many of the less permanent colors, such as Alizarin Crimson Permanent in place of Alizarin Crimson.

Turning Pollution to Paint

Reclaimed Earth Violet Photo

Through Gamblin Artists Colors I learned of a fascinating new project they’re involved in with artist and activist John Sabraw and Ohio State University. I found out about this new project in the Gamblin newsletter. I’ve been transitioning to Gamblin oil paints over the last few years, since I learned of all they’re doing to make painting materials safer for the artist and the environment.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gamblin, I suggest you become familiar with them. You can visit their website at, but here’s a brief overview of their founder, Robert Gamblin and his company.

Mr. Gamblin began his career as a pigment creator, working for the Smithsonian. He’d been hired to recreate paints for the organization’s art restorers that matched the formulas of the pigments originally used on the works they were bringing back to life. This led to a thorough investigation of the makeup of artist colors through history. I’m guessing he was shocked by the toxic ingredients of many of these historical pigments and surprised by the fact that today’s modern artists colors weren’t all that much better.

At any rate, after his time with the Smithsonian he decided to start a company to make artist’s materials and, in turn, their studios a safer place. Gamblin Artist Colors has accomplished much towards this goal with many of THEIR versions of traditional colors free enough of toxins to be packaged without the traditional warning labels. Their turpentine substitute, Gamsol, is virtually orderless and much less toxic than Turpenoid. They’ve developed a line of solvent free painting mediums and to help keep toxic pigments out of the landfills, they suck escaping pigment dust from the air during the paint making process, turn it into paint and give it away free, as Torrit Grey, a grey made up of all the colors of the rainbow (a bit different with each batch).

Now Gamblin is working on a Kickstarter project with John Sabraw and Ohio State, where they’ll take water polluted by toxic coal mine drainage, which kills aquatic life in streams and waterways worldwide (1,300 miles of these polluted waterways in Ohio alone), remove the toxins from the water, neutralize it and turn the product into pigments and paints. With the sulphuric acid and heavy metals removed  the clean water is returned to its original location where it can now support aquatic life.

During their process the captured heavy metals are reduced to iron oxides. This now non-toxic orange colored iron oxide is set aside to be dried and ground for use as a pigment. They’ve found if they heat the pigment 1000 degrees, it becomes a deep red. Heat it 2000 degrees and it become a beautiful red-violet. It’s this red-violet that Gamblin is turning into a limited edition artist oil color they’ve named, Reclaimed Earth Violet.

With our federal government currently relaxing pollution regulations for coal miners to reanimate this dying industry, this project seems well timed!

A Couple of Painting Myths

Corey D'Augustine Photo
Art historian, fine art restoration expert and painter, Corey D’ Augustine, host of MoMA’s “In the Studio” YouTube videos.

A few months, maybe a year ago, a painter friend, Diane Stewart, turned me on to the “In the Studio” series of videos presented by the “Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)” on YouTube. They’re  hosted by Corey D’Augustine, an art historian, art restorer and painter in his own right.

Mr. D’Augustine hosts a series that brings all his talents to force as, before your eyes, he creates paintings in the style of major figures from Modern painting movements, explaining what they were attempting to achieve, their materials of choice , how they used them and much, much more along the way…fascinating! Every so often, he takes a break from painting to answer questions sent in by viewers. There’s much to be learned during these sessions.

Two things I recently learned from Corey turned things a little upside-down for me: information about varnishing a painting and working with acrylic paints.

I’d always accepted that varnishing a finished oil or acrylic painting  was necessary to protect it from ultraviolet light damage, the elements and pollution and that a removable varnish should always be used. This way if/when a painting became dirty, it would be the varnish layer, not the painting surface itself that collected the dirt. At that point the varnish could be removed, restoring the quality of the painting’s original surface appearance and a new, clean layer of varnish could be applied to continue the protection. I’ve even mapped out the proper contemporary methods for applying that varnish to both oil and acrylic paintings, for readers, in this very blog.

Mr. D’Ausgustine sunk the varnishing myth, sharing that it’s just as easy for an art restorer to remove dirt and grim from a painting’s actual surface as it is from a protective varnish layer. In fact, since the varnish layer has to be carefully removed, before any restoration of the actual painting surface can be preformed, the varnish layer just puts another time obstacle in the art restoration expert’s way. His recommendation was to only use varnishes (gloss, matte or in-between), if you desire the aesthetic effect it produces, not as protection for your painting. Picasso always demanded that additional varnish never be applied to his paintings, that they left his hands exactly as he wanted them to look…shinny where he wanted them shinny and matte where he wanted them matte.

The other alarming bit of news Corey passed on was that the jury is still out, as far as the archival qualities of acrylic paints are concerned. He mentioned that art restorers are today dealing with adhesion loss and other problems in acrylic paintings that were created immediately following World War II, when the paint was introduced. He went as far as to say, if you’re concerned about longevity in your paintings, you should use the time proven medium, oil paint and follow the recommended methods for preparing your canvases and applying your paints (thick over thin…fat over lean). This guy restores multi-million dollar paintings for the Museum of Modern Art, so I tend to believe he knows what he’s talking about.

Gauguin Paintings
“Day of the Gods,” Paul Gauguin.

While I’m busting myths, here’s a truth I discovered years ago, that I can’t resist sharing. Many artists and non-artist alike have lusted after Gauguin’s famous lifestyle. His paradise existence in Tahiti, painting the beautiful native people in their highly colorful environment, living off the abundance that the island provided in a shirt (even clothing) optional climate. I hate to destroy the fantasy, but the reality was that after a months-long journey through stormy seas, filled with violent attacks of sea sickness, Gauguin arrived on Tahiti to discover that the native people had been highly westernized decades prior to his arrival. They long ago abandoned their native dress for European styles, their open air bamboo and straw villages for western style homes and apartments and that Tahiti now ran on cash. To survive Gauguin accepted a job as a map-maker, working at a desk in the corner of a large shipping warehouse.

The artist had to hire individual native citizens willing to disrobe and dawn their native costumes, posing for those beautiful paintings of a time long past. He never made enough money to buy passage back to Europe, dying on the island from an advanced case of syphilis, which he’d  acquired earlier, in the brothels of Europe.


Building Canvas Stretcher Bars from Scratch

Stretcher Bar Frame Photo

I’m all for the convenience of buying a commercial pre-stretched canvas at my local art store. I’m ready to start painting as soon as I get it home. I don’t have to spend days, buying the lumber at the lumber yard, fabricating the stretcher bars, stretching the canvas and, if I’ve chosen raw canvas, sizing and priming the canvas, with multiple coats of acrylic gesso (sanding each coat), before I can actually put the canvas up on my easel.

There are occasions/arguments, for building your own canvas from scratch, however:

  • You want to be sure the canvas has been sized & primed following proper archival procedures. To achieve this you’d only need to stretch the canvas. You could buy and assemble commercial stretcher bars.
  • You need a non-standard size canvas. Commercial stretcher bars are only available in one inch interval lengths (12,” 13,” 14,” 15″…etc.), not fractions of an inch.
  • You need a larger canvas. Your local art store is unlikely to carry commercial stretcher bars in long lengths and I’ve never seen them available anywhere beyond 7′ in length.

I’m facing one of the above situation right now. I’ve got a commission for a mural-sized painting on canvas for a children’s hospital. The canvas needs to be 4′ x 7.’ I’ve found a source for commercial stretcher bars in the 7′ length, but I’d still need to figure out how to cross brace it, to prevent warping during the stretching process, and the 7′ lengths are pretty expensive to purchase and ship. I’ve decided it’s just as easy to build my own stretcher bars from scratch and I’m going to take you along on the ride.

1 x 2s Photo
Pine 1″ x 2″ s

I’ll use 1″ x 2″ common pine for my stretcher bars. I prefer the more expensive kiln dried clear pine, but that’s very difficult to find. The first step is to determine how much lumber I’m going to need. I begin with a free-hand layout of my stretcher bars, including the cross-brace supports and dimensions.  You need cross bracing every 2′ – 3,’ both vertically and horizontally to prevent your stretcher bars from warping, when you stretch the canvas over them.

Sketch Photo

From my sketch I can determine how much lumber I’ll need and in what lengths. Lumber yards usually sell lumber in lengths based on 1′ increments, but your local hardware store or big-box hardware center may only provide lumber in fixed lengths (often 8′), so if one of the later two is going to be your source, check lumber availability out ahead of time.

For my 4′ x 7′ canvas I’ve decided I’m going to need six, 8 foot 1″ x  2″ sticks. They break down like this:

  • Two 8′ sticks provide two 7′ stretcher bars
  • Two 8′ sticks provide one 4′ stretcher bar & one 4′ brace each
  • One 8′ stick provides the 8′ brace
  • One 8′ stick provides two 4′ braces
Quarter-Round Photo
Quarter-round trim.

I’m also picking up three 8′ and one 9′ length of 1/2″ quarter-round trim. I’ll explain what this is and why I need it later in this post. I’m also purchasing a small piece of 1/4″ masonite or plywood (if they have a scrap, that will be fine) to make corner triangles to hold my finished stretcher frame square.

Back home with my supplies, I’m ready to begin. We’re going to build our stretcher bars with the lumber standing on its narrow 1″ side (actually about 5/8″), so when complete, our stretcher frame will have a side depth equal to the 2″ side of the lumber (actually  about 1 7/16″).

Butt Joint Image
Butts are staggered as you travel around the perimeter from corner to corner, for added strength.

I start by measuring and cutting the stretcher bars (as opposed to the braces). We’re going to butt the corners of our stretcher bars together, as indicated at left. This means we’ll need to subtract the thickness of our sticks from the 7′ and 4′ length to arrive at a finished canvas that is exactly 4′ x 7.’ Since our 1 x 2s are 5/8″ thick, I subtract 5/8″ from my 4′ and 7′ total lengths to arrive at 3′-11 3/8″ and 6′-11 3/8″ respectively. Make your cuts straight across (at 90 degrees). You can use a hand saw or power saw (whatever you have available) to accomplish this.

Triangle Photo
Corner right triangle

Next  I’ll cut my  4 corner right triangles from the masonite or plywood I purchased. For a canvas this size, I’ve decided to make my triangles 4″ on the 90 degree sides. For smaller canvases you can create smaller triangles.

With the parts cut, I’m ready to assemble. I nail each butted corner of my 1 x 2s together.

Nailing Triangle Photo
Nail the two triangles along their longest sides.

With the outside of the stretcher frame now nailed together, I need to square it (make each corner a true 90 degrees). I start by placing two of my four triangles in corners diagonally opposite each other. I nail the two triangles along their longest side only. Next I measure diagonally from one corner of the frame to the other. Then I measure the distance from the other two corners diagonally located across from each other. Both distances need to be exactly the same. If they’re not, I’ll adjust the square of my frame, moving one of the corners left or right until they do measure the same. Once both measurements are the same, I nail down the other sides of the two triangles. This will lock my stretcher frame square. I nail the remaining two corner triangles in place along both of their respective sides.

Squaring Corners Graphic

If you have distances of more than 2 1/2′ along any side of your stretcher frame, you’ll need to add supports. Support should be added at least every 2 1/2.’ Stretching canvas over your frame creates a great amount of tension on the frame. Without the braces, the frame will bow/warp.

Vertical Brace Image
Braces in place for the long sides of my frame.

My 4′ x 7′ stretcher bar frame requires 3 braces for the long side and 1 for the 4′ side. I’m starting with the 3 braces that will support the long sides. I subtract 1 1/4″ from my total 4′ length to compensate for the thickness of outside frame on each side (5/8″+5/8″ = 1 1/4″) and cut each (3) of the braces to a length of 3′-10 3/4.” I then nail the braces in place at equal intervals along the 7′ length.

Horizontal Braces Graphic
Stretcher frame with staggered horizontal brace in place.

Now I’ll move on to the horizontal brace. I’ll cut this long brace into 4 pieces (one for each space created by the vertical braces) and stagger them along the horizontal center line to facilitate easy nailing. I take an accurate measure of each horizontal space and cut my braces to length accordingly. I then nail each brace in place.

I built frames just like this for many years, but always had to gingerly step around an inherent problem in the design. Since the stretched canvas made full contact with the frame and braces, their edges could telegraph onto the surface of the canvas, as I was painting, if I wasn’t careful. Rotating the braces 90 degrees, so their widest side faced the back of the canvas and positioning them in the exact middle, front to back, of the frame prevented their telegraphing, but this allowed the frame to warp on the front or back edge, when the canvas was stretched over the frame and still left me with the edges of the perimeter frame telegraphing.

While visiting our property in Taos, NM, an artist friend living there showed me the new custom canvases he’d just had built. They were a little deeper than the ones I’d been building myself and, on examining the backside, I discovered a great solution to my telegraphing problem. Here’s where the 1/2″ quarter-round trim we purchased at the lumber yard comes in (and you thought I’d forgotten about that). By nailing the quarter-round trim, curve side facing in, along the top of the perimeter of our stretcher bar frame, we raise the canvas 1/2″ above the  framing lumber. Because of the curve, the canvas only makes contact with the quarter-round on the outside edge of the trim, completely eliminating the telegraphing problem. Eureka!

Quarter-Round Cuts Graphic
Quarter-round cutting guide.

To do a professional job with the quarter-round you need to invest in a basic miter box  and the box saw that works with it, to cut accurate 45 degree corners. I measure my quarter-round to exact lengths of my stretcher bars (in my case two 7′ and two 4′ pieces). This is the top or outside measure of my 45 degree cuts. I make my cuts accurately, then butt my strips at the corners, making sure the edge of the quarter-round aligns with the outside edge of the stretcher bars. I nail the quarter-round in place (one nail about every 8″).

Quarter-Round Corner Photo
Finished, butted quarter-round corner.

That’s it! A lot more complicated to describe than do. I’ll walk you through the process of stretching canvas over the stretcher bars, as well as how properly prepare the canvas for painting, in a future post.