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Mar 9, 2015

Making Your Own High Quality Plein Air Panels...

I am off to go paint in the Californian desert tomorrow morning before opening a group show in Palm Springs and I got caught short on ordering some plein air panels. (So busy, in and out, in and out. Doh!...) So I had to make some panels Saturday afternoon for this trip. Since I keep the necessary materials around for such an emergency I can make panels at a moment's notice. But usually if I have enough turn-around time I order them from my favorite suppliers. I don't find the cost-savings of making them to be enough of a motivation to do it regularly...

But hey, if if you are pinched for time like I was, here is a quick walk through. The key to doing this easily is in the adhesive.

The Materials You Need: 

1. For small panels, 1/8 or 3/16 inch hardboard (often called Masonite™). Tempered or untempered is fine. At least one side must be smooth.

2. Some pre-primed linen (For these panels I used the remainder from a 6 yard x 64 inch roll of double-primed Claussen's linen purchase at 50% off using a coupon from my local art store. A steal...) 

3. The secret ingredient: Dap Water-based Weldwood low VOC Contact Cement. (Recommended to me by Karl Bostwick last year and I have found it to easy to apply and works well in the field. I have not experienced any edges lifting or panels warping as of yet.) 

4. Disposable foam roller and shallow paint pan. 

5. Brayer or acrylic roller.

6. Sharp carpet knife. 

All told, if I disregard the time it takes to go to the hardware store to get the hardboard the shop time ran about one hour.

The Process: 

1. Cut the hardboard to desired panel size. Wipe or blow any dust off the surface you will apply to the adhesive on, meaning the hardboard and linen. Use a smooth side of the hardboard for the adhesive.

2. Cut your linen 1/2 inch over sized because it will shrink immediately after applying the water-based adhesive (Canvas shrinks will as well but not as much.). 

3. Use a disposable surface under the masonite and the linen when rolling on the adhesive because glue will drip and overrun the edges. I keep scraps of foam core around for this reason. Roll the contact cement on to both the board and the linen and let dry to the touch (about 30 minutes). Read the can for more detailed instruction.

The linen sheets will curl aggressively as the adhesive dries so keep a close eye on them. Once the curling begins gently flip the sheets over to prevent them from rolling up entirely. (If you don't do this they will roll up like papyrus.) Don't press the linen into to the surface, just let the corners raise the  sheet and this will keep anything from bonding.

4. Once the board and linen is dry to the touch, flip the linen back over (meaning, the primed-side should now be down) and carefully position the top corners of the hardboard panel inside the top and sides of the linen sheet. The corners will grab each other. Confirm there will be excess fabric beyond the edges before laying the board down on the linen. Take care with your alignment because you will not get a second chance to reposition things. 

5. Gently press the two pieces together and flip the combo over again. Use a roller on the primed side of to securely bond both the fabric and board together. Push the brayer from the center to the edges so any stretching of the linen will be uniform. 

6. Stack your panels in a neat pile and place a weight on it (That is what the Utrecht bucket of gesso in the photo was used for... Again, I was using pre-primed linen here.) 

7. After a couple of hours, flip the panels face down and use firm pressure to trim the excess fabric off the edges of the panel with a sharp carpet knife or x-acto blade. You can use the edge of the panel as a cutting guide, but please, keep an eye on your fingers. I've seen folks cut themselves pretty badly because they weren't paying enough attention and their knife slipped or jumped the edge. Do NOT cut in a direction that takes the knife across your body. Keep the direction of your cuts towards the outside of your body. If you were once a Boy Scout then you know what I mean.

8. Flip the panels over one last time and rub off any contact cement that may have gotten onto the front of your painting panel with your finger, and VOILA, you are done!

While this will be cheaper than purchasing quality commercial plein air panels making them yourself requires time and effort and you should remember that the time you aren't actually painting is worth something too. Personally I'd rather spend my time pushing paint around than making panels so I prefer buy my panels unless I am caught short as I was this weekend. And this really isn't a kitchen tabletop project unless you happen to live alone and don't mind messing up the table. Making your own panels becomes a convenience only if you make do a large batch at a time or you prefer to paint on a surface you can't get elsewhere. If I had to guess, the 9 x 12s you see here cost me about $2 to $2.50 each, but that is a rough estimate.

If you prefer using lightweight Gatorboard™ as your substrate the adhesive should work on it as well.

Of course, if you don't want to make your own high quality plein air panels you can find some here:

I am off to the low desert next!... Follow me on my Facebook page if you wish...


Would you like to improve your outdoor painting skills in Italy this next September? If so, click here to learn about my annual Plein air Tuscany! workshop. It is a fantastic experience and garners rave reviews! 

If you want even more info send me an email asking for a FAQ Sheet. It will detail where we will stay, what we will do, what we will learn, and of course, what it will cost. But wow, the US dollar is strong against the Euro right now so there may never be a better year to go than in 2015. Registration is open and folks ARE signing up!... (Seven spots left!)

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