When I returned to Korea in the fall of 2008 I wanted to get started painting again—picking up where I had left off in the previous spring. It had been a few months since I stopped painting. The move from Cheongdo to Geochang was broken by a 6 week stay in China and the whole process of relocating meant that painting had ended in May and didn’t get going again until late August. But painting never really got going at all. We were located in a small town surrounded on all 4 sides by an expanse of rice fields and my work at distant rural schools meant that I didn’t get home until almost 6 each day. Come the weekend, I didn’t even feel like making those hour trips out into the country. And the hilly orchards were all gone. The feng shui was all wrong.
But there was another issue. One of the first things I did on arriving in Geochang was to take a trip to Daegu to the same art store that I had used the previous year, to buy the same canvas that had worked so well, a primed linen/cotton blend. I’m not sure it I got something different or if my demands just changed. But it was the tooth that I couldn’t get used to. The pattern of the weave bothered me. I even tried to scrape white acrylic across the service with a card to fill in the little dimples. But it wasn’t just the tooth. I found that the pores were bright white but the higher part of the weave was a greyer white. This was because more primer had settled into the pores than the higher ridges. In fact, now that I think about it, this probably did created a smoothness but the pattern of the texture was still there. Regardless, I couldn’t get past this issue.
When I was preparing to go to Yunnan in 2010, I went to the art supply stores here in Chongqing, looking specifically for something that was smooth and didn’t have those dimples. What I found was a thin linen (they say there isn’t any pure linen now—but I’m guessing there is and it’s found at Utrecht and Blick stores for 40 dollars a yard!). The canvas was a thin tight weave with an almost paper smooth coat of primer on it. I used this for all of the 2010 paintings and had no problem except for an occaissional criticism from artist friends who said it was too thin for professional use. I decided that they were probably right, that lack of weave, lack of texture was silly. It was oil on canvas after all. And I had never seen anyone painting on super smooth canvas except for those old master paintings. I decided against oil paper, though I did experiement with priming watercolor paper with glue and then gave up the idea of paper-smooth canvas and started buying thicker canvas.
But in China there are so many kinds of coated canvas. Some are almost spongy and soak in the first layer. Others are actually glossy white and feel like they’re going to crack if you roll them too tightly. There’s cotton duck, linen/ cotton blends, acrylic. There’s even canvas that seems to be made out of burlap sack material. And then there are bundles of unprimed canvas of every weight and quality, usually in bundles that are piled up in a store corner. From 1995 to 1997 this is what I used. I think that at that time you couldn’t buy coated canvas, so everybody went to the hardware store to by lithopone and white glue. I thought this was some weird Chinese substitute for ordinary gesso that I only knew as Lidefen. Later I learned that lithopone mixed with rabbit skin glue was a fairly standard recipe for gesso back in the day. But I had never considered using lithopone with my small canvases because to gesso a canvas requires that it be stretched and I don’t stretch my canvases but just tack them onto a surface. Also, one must add in the time needed and the space required for doing all of this gesso. In China we don’t have garages and back yards. Living rooms are off limits.
My latest trip up into the Tibetan area was also my last disappointment with pre-primed canvas. It had a beautiful texture and almost velvety quality. The weave was tight and uniformed and it wasn’t too thick to roll up and take on trains and buses across 600 miles (turns out it was heavy as hell). And it worked out ok except that the initial coat of paint sort of soaked in. For example it I made a mistake there was no using turp to wipe it away. And if I used the muck from the turp can to tone a canvas it wouldn’t flow down the canvas surface like in the past. Second coats of paint moved across the canvas well enough, but since I don’t usually paint any second coats it was more a process of heaping more paint on in order to get a smooth quality. So I accepted its flaws and just told myself “deal with it”. Nothings perfect, right?
And then I walked into the Impressionism on the Water exhibit at the ----------- Museum in San Francisco. Were the paintings perfect? No. Impressionism is never perfect. That’s the point. Except for Monet and then only occaissionally and only in some respects. But the canvas surfaces were perfect. Cezanne, Monet, Sisley, Pissarro. All smooth as paper—sometimes smooth as wood panel. And again at the Museum of the Chicago Art Institute, more Monets, more Renoirs, more Degas paintings on surfaces that seemed like pieces of old plaster walls. With the exception of one 1898 winter landscape by Monet, I had to hunt for the texture of the canvas. And this is not because they painted thickly. In fact, I was happy to see that the impressionist painter’s “thickly” applied paint wasn’t thick at all though it must have been called grossly thick by the realist painters, and so we are told again and again how thick the impressionists painted. And now I see things a bit more clearly and want to continue painting more than ever.