• Michael Skalka

Paint Big or Go Home

I painted thickly. I painted thinly. I scraped things off. I over painted many areas. I changed my mind several times because things did not look right. I made countless tweaks up to and including the day I delivered it for hanging.

An update on recent painting efforts: I was convinced (more like badgered) a few months ago to paint several large paintings. Large works always intimidated me. I was anxious about mixing so much paint, a ton of surface area to cover, what substrate to use and finally, would it look good. The painting I am discussing today depicts the Yosemite Valley floor with El Capitan on the left, Half Dome in the center and the Cathedral peaks on the right. The Merced River makes up the foreground of the painting.



I have come out on the other side and am no worse for wear with the exception of a few sore muscles. The 60 in. by 48 in. painting (152.4 cm by 121.9 cm) weighs in at 31.5 pounds (14.2 kilograms) including the frame. Everything had to be reinforced. It is a beast to move around and I moved it many, many times.


This was a test of my memory as well. Years ago, I made all my small paintings nearly from scratch. I stretched raw canvas on a purchased stretcher and primed it with several coats of gesso. However, this time I really started with lumber, raw canvas and determination and an armada of power tools.

I washed the cotton duck, dried it, ironed it, sized it with PVA, built the strainer, (a strainer is similar to a stretcher but it does not have keys or any means of expanding it to tension the canvas applied to it.) reinforced the strainer at each corner with braces and cross braces, primed the canvas with 3 gesso coatings, applied grid lines to the canvas, toned it, laid in the initial drawing for the elements in the painting and then, finally applied oil paint to build the composition.


I painted thickly. I painted thinly. I scraped things off. I overpainted many areas. I changed my mind several times because things did not look right. I made countless tweaks up to and including the day I delivered it for hanging.


I built the frame for the painting using 2.5 inches wide x ¾ inch thick poplar. I created a faux driftwood appearance on the wood. I have made several frames for paintings using the same construction techniques. I measure the length of the frame pieced and cut them at 45-degree angles. Next, by cutting a channel in the wide side of the frame stock with the width of the channel measured to allow a strip of ¼ inch thick by 2-inch-wide lathe to fit snugly into channel. I position and glue the lathe deep enough to recess the painting ¼ inch lower than the surface plane of the painting. This serves to give the painting some surface protection but not so deep as to cause the frame to cast any shadow on the painting. If I choose to leave a gap between the edge of the painting and the frame, I paint the lathe black so that it become invisible and creates a shadow box effect. Everything gets glued together. In some frames I reinforce the corners with biscuit joints. In other frames, I use a biscuit joiner to cut a grove in the outside corner of the frame and then cut an insert of the same wood to fill in the channel cut by the joiner. In the final step I varnish the frame and when dry, I place the picture into the frame and secure it with screws placed through the lathe that extend into the back of the strainer.


The only long-term tasks I have to do is to return to the painting in about a year and put on a protective varnish coating. Since the frame has no rabbit, I can varnish the entire piece without removing it from the frame.I applied a considerable amount of paint to build up surface texture and appearance of El Capitan. Further, I used solvent-free medium on parts of the painting and they dried with a gloss appearance. I was not quite expecting to see that much gloss.


So, varnishing the painting will even out the matte and gloss areas. I will split the difference by using a satin, synthetic resin varnish that is easily removable in the future.

In the near future I will make a section on this website to post my paintings if anyone wants to see them. I paint purely for enjoyment and have no deadlines or financial incentives that motivate me to paint. I work on both plein air and studio pictures.


I am thankful this week along with other Americans who will celebrate Thanksgiving, 2021. It has been a tough year and a half for all of us worldwide. I am also thankful for the many subscribers that receive alerts of this blog essay posting. Part of Thanksgiving is the “giving” part and I hope my essays give you some knowledge and insight into the world of art materials that inspire your or at least, make you happy.


The Syntax of Color

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