A Week in the Studio and Some Painting Basics
February 10, 2004
Rhea's Journal 6

Rain and 40 degree weather isn't the ideal environment for painting outdoors from a small boat. It wasn't difficult to talk myself into spending the week working in my warm and dry studio. My "normal" work week is painting for five or six days late into the evening hours. As this wetlands adventure unfolds and entails more and more time, my studio time decreases. While I can begin a study from my boat, I always translate that into a larger canvas from the "dry ground" of my studio.

I spend almost as much time preparing for a painting as I do in execution. While pre-stretched canvas in various sizes is readily available, I prefer to construct my own starting with selecting four wooden stretcher bars in the right sizes for the painting I envision. Stretcher bars are available in different "grades," and I like to use the heavy-duty bars because they do not warp easily. After pushing the pieces together to form a rough square or rectangle, I use a carpenter's square on the corners to bring them plumb to 90 degrees. If you have a plumb doorway that is large enough, the stretcher frame can be aligned or "squared" by tapping it into place inside the open doorway.

I next decide whether I will paint on cotton or linen canvas. Cotton canvas is less expensive but also less flexible than linen. In comparison, painting on cotton is more like painting on a harder surface. Linen has a nice "bounce" that results in looser looking brush strokes. I cut the canvas a few inches larger than the dimensions of the stretcher bar frame. The excess or overlap depends on if I plan to paint what is called a "gallery wrap" - that is, paint not only the front of the canvas but also its sides or edges that are stretched completely around to the back of the stretcher bars.

The really tricky part is getting the canvas stretched taut and stapled onto the bars without wrinkles or puckers -- the larger the canvas, the harder that is to do. I begin by laying the canvas upside down on my work table and centering the stretcher bar frame on it. I begin stapling at the center of each side, stretching the canvas until it forms a rough diamond-shape. Beginning from a center staple, I work outward to a few inches of each end. As I finish one part, I move diagonally across the canvas to the other side - sort of like how one would tighten the lugs on a tire. I leave the last few inches of corner space for last to fine tune the stretch and to make the corner folds.

Canvas in rolls can be bought both "raw" and pre-primed. Raw is cheaper to start with but likely just as expensive if you factor in the cost of the priming medium, labor to do it with several coats and cleaning up the inevitable mess. So, I generally select pre-primed canvas. Before stapling the canvas to the stretcher bars, I check each piece I cut to make sure there are no flaws, small cuts or tears that might later ruin a good painting.

Once the stretched canvas is ready to paint, I undercoat it with a color. Because when painting wetlands I like to convey an emotional response to Louisiana heat, I generally select a "warm" color - usually a red tone. Once the canvas is undercoated, I then begin planning the composition. I look at my earlier studies, sketches and photos, gumbo all that in with memories and decide what might be the most interesting way to bring that to life on canvas. When I'm satisfied that I have a strong composition in mind, I begin to lay on paint. I pray when I paint, asking God to take my hands, eyes, heart, and mind and to let me use them to paint something that is pleasing to Him. Needless to say I'm energized by the creative journey. It isn't unusual for me to start out with one thing in mind and end up somewhere very different - and that is the joy of painting.

I have a passion for the beauty of coastal wetlands and for me, only bold colors can adequately convey what I feel and see in my mind's eye. I'm not interested in painting a realistic view. I leave that to C.C. and his wonderful eye and camera. What I want to convey in these paintings is my emotional response to the subject in balance with the emotional response of the viewer.

When Marsh Mission was only a concept, my husband asked how I could paint 30 or 40 paintings of the wetlands for a book and not have all of them look alike. True, there is a whole lot of flat marsh, but each area I visit is, on close examination, quite different having its own special secrets. After each trip to a different place along the coast, I return to my studio with a vision for a unique painting.

For most of this week, I worked on a large painting from the trip down Bayou Dularge. It was a windy weekend with mostly gray winter sky. Just as we were leaving the dock for home, the sun broke through the gray, and high billowy cumulus and streaky cirrus clouds rolled in over the yellow and red marsh grasses. I decided to place the horizon line low on the canvas and focus on the dramatic cloud shapes and the bright sky colors breaking through. The marsh grasses danced easily enough in the wind so now all I have to do is make them dance on the canvas.