Tuesday, September 9, 2008

They're Like Windows

“They're like windows,” Sarah told me through the window of my truck as the left turn light I'd been waiting on finally turned green. I'd just missed her arrival, after spending the afternoon installing my canvases at the New World Deli & Café that she and her husband Greg run here in Austin, at 41st and Guadalupe. Nuts. I would have liked to have heard more, but I needed to show up at my office and get in at least an evening of work.

Several months ago, Sarah offered me the month of September to show my canvases at the café, and I'd enthusiastically accepted, having raised the possibility myself more than once over the previous year. I then spent a month agonizing about what new material to print, and then getting that material ready to print. At the last minute in that process, my computer's monitor died, once and for all. So an emergency monitor purchase was made, and, after calibrating the new display, I had the prints ready only a day later than intended. With the material ready to upload, I contacted the people who'd printed and mounted my first set of canvases for the show at the Wildflower Center last October. They'd already said they could handle the job, but when it came time to actually handle it, they flaked-out. That left me scrambling to find other people who would print photos using giclée on canvas. Archival grade, of course.

A call to an artist/architect couple I know provided several useful recommendations, and before long I was dropping off the digital master for one of my panoramas to test one firm's work. A week later it was ready and it looked great – until, that is, I arrived home and had a chance to remove it from the protective clear plastic bags in which was wrapped. Only then did I realize that the canvas – all eleven square feet of it – had no protective coating and that the middle of its was baggy due to the lack of a vertical reinforcement at the midpoint of the six foot long spreader bars. I took it back the next day, expecting that the reinforcement would be added, and a protective coating would be applied so that the print would match the smooth, glossy texture of the exemplar hanging on their office wall.

To their credit, the printers acknowledged the problems, but explained that they had applied a coating to that canvas, but just one layer of spray-on coating - not the many coats they'd used on their exemplar print. To my surprise, they insisted on re-printing the image on a different type of canvas. So, a week later I was reviewing that unmounted re-print of my panorama. This time, they'd used Museo Maestro glossy canvas to get the smooth, glossy texture I'd expected from the original print. However, they were adamant that no coating was necessary this time. They seemed to view the coating as strictly an aesthetic matter, where I viewed it as both an aesthetic and a protective one.

The print looked good, and I was too short on time and disposable income to risk sending test prints to other printers, so we proceeded with the printing of the other three panoramas, and four smaller images.

Unfortunately, I could not shake the idea that giclée pigments sit on top of the canvas, rather than soaking into it like a dye, and therefore could be damaged. (Conversely, their colors are far more stable over time than are the colors of dyes.) The printers even demonstrated that, by pushing a finger very hard onto such a print, and twisting it, the pigments could be damaged. But they were certain that no print would encounter such forces in practice. I wasn't convinced, but there's a point at which nothing can be gained by arguing further (especially after offering to pay extra has had no effect), and it was clear to me that we'd reached that point.

So I started researching canvas coatings compatible with the giclée inks we were using. I called the other places in town that I knew did this sort of printing, and learned that none of them sealed their prints, so they had neither sealants to sell me, nor recommendations to offer about what to use. Calling the local art supply stores was just as useless. Eventually, I called the canvas manufacturer and received a number of very useful recommendations, from which I selected the Clear Jet Fine Art product. Once again the local art supply stores proved useless, but it turned out that a place in town that specializes in selling supplies for wrapping cars in advertisements carried it - why, I have no idea.

With some difficulty, I acquired three cans of the spray from them, then set about cleaning my garage for the first time, ever, in order to create a clear area large enough to build a clean room in which to apply the coating to the canvases. One night of frantic cleaning doesn't make a profound difference to a garage cluttered with ten years of junk, and all the leftover materials from the major repair/remodelling that my house underwent three or four years back. Nonetheless, a clear spot was created, and most of the drifts of dirt and sawdust were evicted. I let the dust settle for a day, then bought a lot of plastic painter's tarps, and taped together a plastic room with a ceiling, floor and three walls. Ideally, it would have had four walls and positive pressure supplied by air blown in through a series of filters, but there was no time to go that far – September had just begun, and the canvases should already have been hanging at the Café.

I let the dust settle again for a day, then used the one small canvas I had as a test to see if I could apply the spray properly. It worked well enough, so I then set about coating one canvas every night. The sealant required 24 hours to dry, and with only one "clean room" they'd have to dry where they were sprayed. One canvas per night was top speed.

The next night I sprayed the first panorama – and blew it completely. Getting a consistent coating on the small canvas the night before turned-out to be an entirely different matter from putting a consistent coat on an eleven square foot panorama. For one thing, you have to walk the can back and forth across the length of the canvas - arm motion alone can't cover it. And a combination of arm motion and walking is no good. Maintaining consistent speed and distance just isn't possible that way. Also, I learned the hard way, that hiding overspray by heavily spraying the areas around it, doesn't work. The absorbency of the canvas varies depending on the pigments sitting on it, and spraying anything nearby inevitably adds more material to the adjacent oversprayed area, so the initial problem just keeps getting worse. Similarly, applying some spray to a clean microfiber cloth and rubbing the oversprayed areas does not reduce the amount of spray deposited on those areas (the spray's own solvent seems to have no effect on it, once it has dried), and neither does that rubbing take any of the shine off.

Thoroughly depressed, I called-up my artist friend the next day and reviewed what I'd done, and she reiterated recommendations like not spraying from any closer than 12 inches, no matter what the can says, and keeping my arm flat and the elbow bent.

That night, with great apprehension, I tried again on the next panorama. That one went well enough, with the main problem being maintaining the consistent distance. The next night I cut a long, thin piece of wood and taped it to the bottom of the can, projecting 12 inches in front of it. That solved the consistent distance problem by providing a reference that couldn't be ignored. That night's panorama went better as a result. But I realized that I was still making a mistake by beginning to spray with the can pointed at the canvas – those starting points created slightly too-heavy coverage in small areas. If you try this, remember to begin spraying completely off of the side of the canvas, then walk the spray onto and across the canvas in one steady motion. Walk it right off the other side, and then walk it back on as you spray each subsequent row. That and the stick seem to be the key tricks for me.

In the end, I rendered one panorama unshowable (though there might yet be a way to save it), and had three nerve-wracking, but successful, sessions with the other panoramas.

A night of attaching hanging hardware and signing the canvases left me, only a week late, ready to install the canvases at the café. That was taken care of this afternoon, with the invaluable assistance of one of the cooks, whose name I entirely forgot to ask. Yes, I'm an oaf at times.

I still haven't finished, unfortunately – the printer still owes me three small canvases that a failed computer has rendered them incapable of printing. Why on earth a business would let a profit-making printer sit idle while they try to get a PC fixed, is beyond me. Computers are still made. I know this for a fact. If one can't be fixed more or less immediately, just go buy a new one, and let it and the printer start generating prints and profits again.

Also, I still haven't finished writing-up descriptions of the canvases that are on display, and therefore I also haven't had them printed and mounted, either. So, the canvases are hanging, but without an iota of information about their subject matter, their creator, or their purchase prices. Clearly, that is not optimal.

But this has been an expensive, month-long stress-fest, and tonight I'm not going to worry about anything, if I can manage that. The canvases are hanging. People are seeing them. And, Sarah said they look like windows, which is an interpretation that had never occurred to me. But I like it a lot. They are like windows - on different times and places that, thanks to careful camera work, archival grade everything, and a lot of nerve-wracking spraying, will persist in all their vividness long after the memories of those times and places have faded away. I'm going to call that a win.


  1. Anonymous10:30 AM CDT

    Found your post from JayLake.

    One of my first factory jobs was spray painting plastic ash trays for various vehicles. If you've ever been the back of a Chevy Mini-Blazer, circa 87-89, you've seen my "work".

    I learned how to create a seemless coat. As you learned, you start spraying off to one side so you get an even coat. We had a rack that sat on a swivel. I suspect even experienced spray painters would be challenged by an 11 foot piece. I would guess you might have more luck if you cover half the canvas and work on half at a time, being careful not to alter speed and distance from the canvas so both sides look the same. I suspect most spray painters would have some sort of rig to apply an even coat on an object that size.

    Shading was something I also had to watch carefully. Though I don't pay attention to it much anymore, I started to notice how the interior of your average car had lots of subtle shading differences between the parts.

  2. Congrats! I lunched over there today so as to finally see your panos on canvas. They look great! And all the nicer, knowing the finish work that went into them. :)