Art In History Art Blog
One of the main choices I have made as a plein-aire painter is to work primarily on masonite panels rather than on canvas. I find that I like both surfaces in different ways; what is certain is that they require a very different application of paint. But for working in the field, panels have great advantages.
First, they are inexpensive and easy to prepare. I really do consider this an advantage, because you should not feel the need to make each outdoor sketch a winner. I buy masonite by the 4' x 8' sheet, and will prepare 20 to 30 panels at a time in a range of sizes and shapes.
Second, they are very durable, much less vulnerable to damage than a stetched canvas. My panels travel everywhere with me, under a blanket in the back of my Forrester. All kinds of stuff gets carried on top of the blanket, including wood chips, firewood, furniture and luggage. When I need them they are ready to go.
Masonite comes in two basic varieties: standard and tempered. The standard has one advantage: you do not need to sand it before applying gesso. However, its is becoming hard to find, and is less durable; the corners can be broken off. Tempered masonite must be rough sanded before it will take the gesso; I use two coats. It also raises the question of whether the chemicals with which it is impregnated will eventually affect the painting. I can say I have seen no ill effects in 20 years.
Once I have gessoed my panels, I add a tone to each one. The tone differs from panel to panel, a mixture of cool and warm tone that are never too vibrant, and the tone is left not fully blended. If you paint thinly as I do, the tone will continue to be a part of the final effect.
Why paint on tone rather than on white? First, it was the norm rather than the exception in European art for hundreds of years until the late 19th century. Artist went to a white ground when they were trying to reach to full intensity of pure colors. This can only be done on a white ground, becasue oil paints are never completely opaque; the ground tone will always affect the final colors.
This is a major reason why I paint on toned grounds: the ground tone helps to harmonize the painting by pulling the colors together. It makes sense especially for painting from nature, since in nature colors are seldom unmixed.
The second reason is that I can establish my relationships in the picture much faster on a tone. If the tone is close to the final average tone of the finished work, then even the first values and colors I apply to the panel will take their proper place. If I put them down in a field on white, then until I cover the white I can't see how they will finally look. This allows me to complete a painting on site in well under an hour.