Never Say Never

Apply gesso, let dry, sand. Repeat ten times.


“I’m never going to….”

Fill in the blanks yourself. I’m never going to sound like my mother. I’m never going to wear ugly shoes like that. I’m never going to cheer for the Canucks again.

But you know what happens. One day, you’re yelling at your kids and you realize you’re channelling your mom, word-for-word. Or you’re at the shoe store, and you realize that comfort is now more important to you than sexy legs. Or the hockey season starts again, and there are promising players and a nice new team president, so you set the PVR and shake out the car flag.

I’m trying really hard never to say never again. But it’s tough, because I’m a person who makes snap judgements. And latest example of that occurred way back in art school, about seven years ago. My painting instructor was Jordan Bent. He was a young painter and new to teaching, so he tried really hard to challenge our painting process. He brought in car body parts for our still life class. He assigned us to do large-scale self-portraits in the style of our favourite painters—I did a Basquiat and discovered how much of his art was linked to his own appearance. And Jordan invited us to his open studio to get a feel for life after art school.

His studio was in a large, dilapidated factory building which has since been demolished. At the time, Jordan did large abstractions, and he was using giant squeegees to pull paint across in a dreamy geometric pattern. In particular, I remember him explaining his preparation. It involved painting and sanding layers and layers of white gesso before he even began painting. He rhapsodized over creating the perfect painting surface. And while he was talking, I was thinking, “Really, Jordan? Because you know Opus sells pre-primed canvas, right? Why go to all that work for something that nobody will notice?” And then I fatefully vowed, “I would never do that in a million years.”

Sigh. Well, you know where this is going to end up.

It started so innocently. I loved painting on the smooth surface of a wood panel, but I hated the brushstroke texture that occurred when I painted gesso on them. Then I read about an artist who was using a spackle knife to apply gesso. That’s brilliant, I thought. I could apply gesso and have it be all smooth and nice.

Of course, it wasn’t that easy. My small spackle knife was leaving ridges everywhere, and I had to sand them down. So I got a bigger knife, and there was less sanding. But more layers created a smoother surface. And I keep trying to perfect my technique. I ask workmen that I meet for tips, I search YouTube videos on plastering walls, and I was the only person at the art museum in Sydney who spent ten minutes watching the guy prepping the walls for the next exhibition. Luckily nothing is too weird for an art museum.

This past week, I have again been sanding and applying gesso to a two big panels in my studio. I don’t count the layers, but I would estimate them to be seven to ten deep, much like my layered paintings. My recent jellyfish paintings were done on such a surface.

I know the surface is done when it achieves this beautiful smoothness: it’s cool to the touch and silky soft. And when I apply ink to this surface, it flows beautifully. However the ink marks are permanent, as the gesso is porous and nothing can be erased.

Jellyfish, 16" x 16". 

It’s a ton of work, but very worthwhile. And if Jordan Bent were here, I’d apologize to him. And vow never to say never again.