I recently prepared nine canvases the way I used to, with rabbit skin glue and oil priming. Because the process is rather time consuming, I had gotten away from this kind of preparation after my son was born. But the surface you prepare yourself is the best surface to paint on. And I probably waste time in the long run by painting on prefab materials of one kind or another. Returning to the oil priming process made me think of a chapter from my unfinished novel, in which the main character is preparing his own canvas and the work is described in detail. I stopped working on this novel about ten years ago, but never finished an entire draft, and most likely I never will, even though I still think about it now and again. But I am going to share that passage about the craft of stretching canvas here:
Harry takes the pan he never cooks food in, fills it with a quart of water, and sets it on a burner to heat. He takes the cup he never drinks from--it says world's greatest golfer--and measures into it six tablespoons (with the tablespoon he never measures sugar with) of rabbit-skin glue crystals. The crystals are almost as fine as confectioner's sugar. When the water just reaches boil, he will remove it from the heat and begin to slowly stir in the rabbit-skin glue crystals until they are all dissolved into a dirty yellow solution. With a soft housepainter's brush he will work the warm solution into the weave of a freshly stretched canvas and the glue will size the fibers by saturating them, and when the canvas dries, the glue will stretch it tight as a drumskin across the wooden stretcher bars. He will sand the dry surface lightly with a very fine grain sandpaper, and apply another sizing of warm glue. After that dries, he will not sand it again, but will apply the white oil priming that will be the ground of the painting. In two weeks, he can paint on it.
He has a friend who works as an art mover, driving a truck to deliver and pick up art and furniture from artists' studios to museums, galleries, and private homes. This friend gave Harry a beautiful set of stretcher bars made of poplar wood. They were from the studio of a famous artist who was going to throw them out, so the friend took them for Harry, and all Harry would need to do is assemble them into a stretcher frame. They are like architecture, these stretcher frames, more beautiful and better made than any of Harry's furniture, for god's sake. Only slightly less tall than he is, and with little metal bearings and rods that act as keys in the mitered joints--to buy stretchers like these made to order would cost most of Harry's rent.
While the water for the glue slowly heats, Harry pulls the assembled frame into his bedroom where the floor is clear. He carries the frame by the horizontal crossbar, and he leans the frame against the doorway while he spreads raw cotton duck canvas on the floor. He lays the skeleton of the stretcher frame face down on the canvas and cuts the canvas to fit, leaving a good six, seven inches to tack the canvas around the back. He uses a pair of pliers and a heavy-duty staplegun to tack the canvas back, gripping the material with the widemouth jaws of the pliers, the head of the pliers shaped like the head of a hammerhead shark. He starts from his knees, with a staple in the center of each side, first the longest side then its opposite, third one end, and last its opposite, moving around the stretcher frame slowly, standing and crouching, pulling the canvas taut so that a diamond shape is created by the folds in the canvas. Then moving back to the first staple, he pulls up the slack just right of center and tacks it two inches from the first. He moves to the opposite side and repeats. Moves back to the first side and this time tacks two inches to the left of the first tack, moves to the opposite and repeats. He tacks again the same way, the same order, on the two shorter sides until each side now has three staples and the diamond shape has pulled a little wider.
He continues tacking the canvas in this order, always pulling one edge against the opposite, crawling outward from the center and meeting force with opposing force, moving around the rectangle like a ritual performance, punctuated by the hard, loud punches of the staplegun, as the canvas skin grows tighter and tighter, inch by inch. He likes this careful work that precedes the painting, the rhythm of it, the dance of it, the thoughtlessness of it and the detail. The way the wood bites into the canvas and the wooden structure is slowly revealed as it is covered, as it begins to be something new. As he moves outward to the ends, one line meeting the other in the corner, he gives special attention to the careful folding of material at the corners, folding it under itself and pulling it tight before moving to the opposite corner to repeat. When the four corners are folded and tacked tightly, he flips the canvas so the painting surface faces the ceiling, lightly drums the center to check the tautness, brushes away the dirt from the floor , and inspects the edges for ripples. Satisfied, he goes to the kitchen, opens the pint bottle of beer, removes the pan of water from the heat, and begins to stir in, slowly, not too fast, the rabbit skin glue crystals, a fine, pale powder. The warm glue gives off a strange smell as it dissolves, musty and thick. When the crystals have all dissolved and the new liquid is yellowish and opaque and steaming, he takes a swig of his beer before he takes pan, beer, and soft housepainter's brush back to the canvas on the floor.
He works the hot, fluid glue into the weave of the canvas, stroking it this way and that, starting in the center and moving to the edges. As more and more of the raw canvas is sized with glue, he can already feel the surface shrinking taut against the wooden skeleton. When the entire surface is sized, he puts his brush in a bucket of water to wait for the second coat. It will take about half an hour for the first sizing to dry, and by then this batch of glue will be too cool to use; you can't re-heat it--that damages the binding strength of the glue. He'll have to dump what he didn't use--not quite half a quart--and make a fresh batch. He'll wait for the unused glue to solidify and then he can bag it and throw it out, rinse the pan and start again. So he sits with his beer until there's a knock at the door and then he carries the beer with him to answer it.
Through the spyhole he sees the bonehead chick from 5-E, distorted spherically in the fisheye glass, echoing the bends of the hallway like an expressionist picture. He watches her stand there, watches her knock again with a giant fist, fingers studded with rings. Harry takes a sip of beer, watches her some more. Well okay, he thinks, why not? And flips the deadbolt back and flips the door lock back and pulls his door open and there she is, life size and breathing. Jesus, that smell, she says, you got something dead in here?