Monday, January 21, 2008

Birch Panels

Through There, 2007, Oil on Panel, 18x24

Ok, last week, several people, including Michelle, Janet and Kim, asked about my panels, so I said I would write about them in a post. However, the whole topic seemed familiar and so I looked through my archives and found two posts that discuss switching over to birch panels, after having used gessobord panels for quite some time. At first I bought several large ones to work on, you can read about my panic attack concerning the scale here. And then last year I began to exclusively use the birch panels and I wrote about that here.

And with that bit of background info I will explain why I have my panels made for me, rather than buying them at a wonderfully low price in a Home Depot. Mostly it's because rather than framing my work, (I do not think my paintings look good with a frame) I prefer the cradled panels. Which leads me to reason #2: In many ways I am a full out girly-girl. While technically I know my way around a woodshop, I really prefer not to have to actually do work in one. The dust, the noise, the possibility of losing a body part, ick. Um, and I don't have a workshop anyway. AND there is no way that I could ever possibly have enough time to build nearly 200 cradled panels each year either. Even if I did have enough time, I have about a million other things I'd rather do. In theory, I'd like to be that self-sufficient but instead, I must comfort myself with the knowledge that I am helping to keep others afloat in their professions and so most of my panel business goes to Soho Artist Materials in New York City. They have been great to work with and I can't tell you how exciting it still is to get a batch of new panels from them. They are so beautifully finished and so full of promise! As I said they are a bit pricey, for example an 18x24 costs $40, but since I don't have any framing costs, that price becomes much more reasonable, and my time involved in painting the cradles and putting the hangers on etc, is fairly minimal. However the prep is kind of a pain in the neck. I apply two coats of clear polyurethane to the backs and two coats of wood primer on the front and sides, sanding between each coat. And then I apply a coat of gesso to the painting surface. If I really keep at it I can do a table full of panels in a day, but more often it gets spread out over a few days or even a week sometimes. My son is going to work as my assistant next summer and prepping panels will be his very first job!

So that's my panel story and I am sticking to it. And to follow up on the painting that the 48x60 panel became in the post linked above, the image was a barn and was not hung in the show that it was intended for, as the gallery director didn't like it. It then went to another show where it didn't sell and proving that third time is the charm, it finally did sell last summer at yet another show. The other large panel sold last summer as well, as a sort of commission. I feel like I dodged a bullet by getting those two huge panels sold and out of the studio!


Unknown said...

Wow, that is a lot of prep work. But you have mastered it!

I'm sticking with the gessobord stuff for now. You're right about just painting the sides and wiring them up. Frames cost a lot and get dinged up so easily.

I'm glad you're posting pictures of your work again. Have a great 2008!


Andrea and Kim said...

Thank you so much for this information, Tracy. It really helps to also understand your process and why. I am saving the link to SOHO Art Materials, too. It is a lot of prep work, but the quality of the materials sure makes a difference. It would be sad to have this terrific painting and crap materials. I am with you on the frame issue, too.

Thanks again for this post.

Stacey Peterson said...

Thanks for the info Tracy. I'm lucky - when I work on birch I just have my hubby saw up a big piece of 1/4 inch since I have to frame thei pieces anyways. I use 1/8 inch for smaller pieces, but do find that it warps - I bet if I prepped it as well as you, I wouldn't have that problem! I just throw on a few coats of gesso and go. Am I going to harm my paintings forever by not putting a primer between the wood and the gesso?

I've been working on birch and amersand for most of the past six months, but I'm still doing large paintings on canvas to keep the weight down. How much do those large panels you use weigh?

Making A Mark said...

Great info Tracy. Is your son going to build his own conveyer belt first?

Tracy Helgeson said...

Jayne, thanks and believe me, I dislike every minute if that prep. Can't wait to hand it off to my son! Anyway, even though painting on the birch is heavenly, secretly I yearn a little bit for the gessobord-great surface, no prep, cheap, lightweight-ahh, those were the days:)

Thanks Kim, glad it helped. I should have also added that I was pretty intimidated by the cost of the panels when I switched over-all I could think of for a few weeks was how much the panel cost and here I was probably going to really muck it up with a bad painting....I finally got over that, but it took some time!

Stacey, The panels really aren't very heavy, a 30x40 is about 8lbs, and a 24x36 is about 5lbs. Even the really big ones I used weren't heavy, just big.

Up until I switched to the birch I always simply gessoed the surface, with out using any kind of primer. But Steven LaRose told me to use a primer first, and since I do whatever he says, (kidding) I did that. I have read in a number of forums that gesso doesn't really seal the wood like primer does, since it is more of a painting surface.

You may want to ask around a bit or do some googling. Also you will have fewer problems with warping if you seal both sides of the panel. Sad, but true.

Thanks Katherine, haha! I am sure my son would prefer to building a conveyor belt to prepping panels. Who wouldn't?:)

Steven LaRose said...

Before I read your title I tilted my head around and squinted at this painting and wondered how such a dangerously balanced composition could work and I eventually decided that the deep space was like an iris and it kept doing this funky popping forward so when I read your title "Through There" I smiled and nodded m head in approval.

As far as the panels and priming go, I am glad that my pitch has been backed-up. I'd like to also add that theaters have been using the birch panel or "flat" system for years and it works great.

Thanks for the plug sister-super-under-painter.

Tracy Helgeson said...

Thanks Steve, I always love to hear what you think of my work, you have such a unique perspective on things.

Yours truly,

Laura McCall said...

Tracy, your work is beautiful. I can understand why you would use the cradled panels. I get my panels from a local company here in MI. Their name is ArtFX Panels. They have been doing really well by word of mouth and will be selling online by next week. I do have to gesso the panels but that is all. The best thing about them is that they are all one other words they have no seam on the sides. They are absolutely beautiful. I use the 2 inch cradle the most because I don't have to frame. If anyone would like info on this company send me an email at and I can send you a picture of one of the panels and forward your name to them if you like. I think you would really be impressed with the panels.


peters said...

I would love to order some of these panels in 8X8 inches for fund raising and I can't fomd them. Could you help me?

Great painting by the way.

thank you, Lauroe