Latest obsession: Stain painting

I had an 80cm x 100cm canvas sitting in my workroom with its back to the room for weeks. Why? Because I had totally destroyed the front of it and couldn’t bear to look at it. It hurt my eyes and offended pretty much every artistic sensibility I had. There was no re-working it. It had to go.

I had been thinking what a waste that good chunk of canvas material had been and was just going to throw it away and re-stretch a new piece across the frame, but then it struck me a few days ago that the back of the canvas was still raw and unprimed — perfect for some experimentation.

I recently came across the work of Trudy Montgomery and in her bio she lists a number of artists that influence her work, and one stood out for me: Helen Frankenthaler. How I had never come across her work before, I do not know, but wow! I LOVE it! Her use of scale, her bold choices of colour. It all resonates with me.

Frankenthaler invented the “soak-stain” technique in which she poured turpentine-thinned paint onto canvas, producing luminous colour washes that appeared to merge with the canvas, and gave rise to the Colour Field movement of the mid-20th century.

Helen Frankenthaler
Helen Frankenthaler
The Bay, 1963, acrylic on canvas
The Bay, 1963, acrylic on canvas
Cravat, 1973, acrylic on canvas

I love the idea of working with the canvas material, it being an intrinsic part of the painting, rather than just using it as a surface. I had been grappling with blending colours recently, and was really drawn to watering my paints down and applying them in washes but, of course, if you add too much water to acrylic paints they don’t bind to the (primed) canvas properly and you risk a painting literally falling apart down the line. Not good if you’re wanting to sell paintings!

So, inspired by Frankenthaler, I unstapled the canvas material, flipped it (thank god – no more ugly) and stapled it back on the frame with the unprimed cotton side facing up.

Immediately I liked the warmth of the colour of the unprimed canvas  and the fact that it adds pockets of colour where left unpainted. I didn’t have a plan for what I wanted to paint, I just went with the colours that felt right. I’ve ended up with quite a bright, spring-like colour palette with a base of peaches and pinks, lifted with the addition of hints of blue, yellow and turquoise.

When I Was Young3

I didn’t use a high flow medium first time round, but simply watered down my paints to create a watercolour effect on the canvas. I really like the softness and I’m surprisingly happy with how it’s looking, although I feel myself itching to be bolder with it, now that I’m more comfortable with this technique.

When I Was Young2When I Was Young4

I’m nearly done with this piece, I think. Once finished, I’m definitely keen to experiment further with the soak-stain method, using a high flow medium to achieve bolder colour ways.

Yay! One happy artist! Today was a good day 🙂

L x


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Amy L Sauder says:

    What a cool way to repurpose! I love this 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah yes! Except now I’m wanting to flip all my canvases!


      1. Amy L Sauder says:

        It’d be really cool to try a double-sided canvas somehow. Like paint one side, then the other side, and have it in some frame without a back so both sides are on display. Not sure how that’d work, but it’d be interesting to try 🙂 I gotta ponder that…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I love that idea! Let me know if you try it 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I’ve tried painting on the back of paintings but I never stretch them so it warped the canvas. Never even thought of painting on stretched unprimed canvas. I like to paint on unstretched, unprimed canvas but I always have to pre-shrink it or it will warp when the paint starts to dry.


    1. Hi Katerina – thanks for your comment. I didn’t know un-stretched warps so much! I’m really enjoying working on it stretched. I love that the material becomes a part of the painting, rather than just a surface.


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