Thursday, October 29, 2009

In the Frame ~ Part Three

Some Decorative Ideas

Sometimes the frame made from a simple molding appears just a little too plain. I first wrestled with this issue when I was making new frames to display some paintings my grandfather had made some eighty years ago. I had added a linen covered liner frame and that really gave a good effect, but it was still just too quiet. I solved this by using a small rectangular grounding punch, as illustrated in (DSC02524).
A few years back, I bought some more decorative punches from my favourite tool store – ‘Lee Valley Tools’ – based in Ottawa. I put them to good use when I wanted to make a special frame for a two-hundred year old piece of silk embroidery, which had come down through my family. For this, I wanted to evoke the Regency era with some fine detail. I did this by first making a plant ‘stem’ along the molding by alternate shallow cuts with a carving gouge; (DSCN5498). Then I added little oak leaves and acorns with the punches. Feeling that the design was not yet quite full enough, I lastly added a sprinkle of little flowers. I did all this freehand. Don’t fuss with a measured layout. Trust your eye. This may look a little rough when studied close-up in a harsh light, but the final effect on the wall is exactly right. (DSCN5448, 5450).
I stumbled upon another method for making a frame more ornate when I acquired a number of lengths of decorative fillet (DSCN5528) I had been in discussion at the framing shop as to how best to display a rather special watercolour, and it was suggested that I use a double matt separated by a fillet. A selection of designs were brought out and we quickly agreed on a good treatment for the picture. But I then went on to muse out loud as to whether I couldn’t make these tiny moldings myself, and thought how they might be useful to dress up other frame moldings. The upshot was that I was offered a bundle of fillets left over from old projects in order to clear out useless stock. I chose one of these to enhance a molding design I had already used once in its simpler form; (the larger, gold coloured molding in (DSCN5470). Now, instead of running a rabbet on the inner edge, I cut a slot to receive the supporting side of the fillet. The underside of the decorated half of the fillet now provided the land for the picture; (DSCN5340). The finished result is shown in (DSCN5536).
Well now, that’s about it for the time being. In a future blog, I’d like to explain some tips and tricks I have learned for matting watercolours, prints and photos. I did not find the intricacies of this explained in the ‘How to’ books I consulted. I learned the basics from the owner of an Art Supply store, and more recently, some refinements from my Frame Store friend. That topic needs a bit of working up.
If you’ve read to the end here, then you probably intend to try out some of the ideas I have put forward. I hope that this little exposition will help you.

Mind your fingers!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In the Frame ~ Part Two

Gilding the Molding.

Disclaimer: I have no personal, professional or financial connection to any company or brand mentioned here. I have not received any gift, discount or other inducement from any source whatsoever. I pay retail price for all my art supply needs and tools. Where I feature a particular product, it is because I use it and it works well for me.

Having shown in ‘Part One’ how to make a picture frame molding, I am now going to describe and illustrate how to produce a metallic finish upon it, prior to making up the frame. This process can be used of course on a frame that’s already made up. I have accumulated a number of frames from garage sales, usually at about 50 cents apiece. It’s a good idea to strip the existing finish completely, otherwise make sure to give it a careful sanding so that the new finish will adhere properly.
The finishing is a four-step process: priming, undercoating, putting on a metallic paste, and finally varnishing. Make sure you have made plenty of molding for the size of frame you contemplate (DSCN5321). Run a minimum of 20% over your theoretical needs (50% is better). When making stock this way there will always be little anomalies that will show up during the finishing process, and it’s good to have lots extra so you can select the best. Also, you will find it difficult to reproduce the same frame molding so exactly as to match perfectly what you have already made. In my opinion, the best native wood for making framing is Basswood, called Lime in England and Linden elsewhere, but I find this increasingly difficult to find and expensive. My second choice is Eastern White Pine.
After sanding lightly, I prime the wood with an alkyd primer. The first coat of this will raise the grain slightly and leave a furry surface. Rub down with a worn piece of 220 grit garnet paper and if it needs it, apply a second coat of the primer.
Next is to put on a coloured undercoat, and this needs some thought (and a word of explanation). Because of the burnishing which is done after applying the final metallic finish, a certain amount of undercoat will show through; more or less depending on technique and the effect desired. (DSCN5364). It is therefore important that the colour of the undercoat is in harmony, not only with the metallic colour chosen, but also, to a certain degree, with the nature of the painting and the preponderant colours in it. For a rich, warm effect, a bright red undercoat with a reddish gold on top works well. Under a silver finish I might use black, grey, blue or green. You get the idea. (DSCN5109). For this undercoat I use everyday acrylic craft paint (DSCN5490). If you want a solid metallic finish, then don’t rub this coat down. The metallic paste will stick better to a slightly rough and porous surface; but if, for effect, you want to show a lot of colour through, then rub the undercoat down with a coarse cloth: the metallic paste won’t take the same grip
Now for the metallic coating. The product I use is called ‘Goldfinger’. It is a paste made by Daler-Rowney which comes in five different shades – Antique Gold, Sovereign Gold, Green Gold, Copper and (imitation) Silver (DSCN5491). Rub that on in accordance with the instructions (DSC02517). You can just use your bare finger, but I have lately taken to wearing a latex glove and using a cloth in order to try to protect my aging skin from solvents.
The instructions given with the ‘Goldfinger’ suggest that after the paste is dry (I wait overnight), you should buff up the finish with a cloth, but I have experimented with a harder burnishing and think I can offer a technique which will produce a finish more closely resembling metal foil . Instead of rubbing with a cloth, I employ homemade burnishing tools. The first ones I made were shaped from scraps of hardwoods such as ash and walnut (DSCN2834,5,6). More recently, I have been making burnishers from bone (DSCN5473). Shape them with files and sandpaper, polishing the working surface as finely as possible with 600 grit paper. Once in use, the burnisher will polish itself to a mirror finish. Traditionally, agate was used to burnish when gold leaf was applied over a gesso ground, so I bought a few little agate pebbles to try. They don’t work as well for the purpose, most especially because one cannot work them into a variety of concave shapes which is so easy with bone and wood.
So take a burnisher and gently, but firmly, rub it back and forth along the molding. By holding the work up to the light you will immediately see how a smoother, more polished surface develops. Don’t rub so hard as to remove too much of the gilt. By using tools of different concave and convex radii you can quickly achieve a polished metallic surface. Now finish off by buffing with a soft cloth.
The ultimate task is to varnish the burnished molding, using Daler-Rowney’s ‘Goldfinger Varnish’. This is one area where I have some trouble, and I should be grateful for suggestions to overcome it. The finish you have just achieved by burnishing is simply gorgeous; it cannot be improved upon. But the manufacturer does suggest overlaying a protective coat of their special varnish, made for the purpose, so I have been doing so. There are three problems with this. Firstly, the ‘Goldfinger Varnish’ is alcohol based, and so dries almost instantly. You have only time to lay it on with a full brush and sweep it once, maybe twice to ensure even and complete coverage. Then you have to stop as it will have stickied up. Secondly the flow of varnish tends to dissolve and remove your beautiful finish, so you have to employ a very gentle touch. Thirdly, the final result just doesn’t have quite the same rich sheen as an unvarnished piece. I am thinking that I should maybe not varnish a few frames now, and see how they hold up over a few years. Or else try a different varnish perhaps. Come on now. If you’ve read this far, help me out with a little experimentation and research.

In part three I’ll cover some ideas for decorating framing with special effects.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

In the Frame ~ Part One.

Shaping a Set of Molding Knives.

So let’s get down to business here. Making moldings. What I show may not be directly practicable to many, but it may inspire you to think about finding your own way to do framing, and I think it worth documenting, as a personal adaptation of woodworking techniques first developed in the mid nineteenth century, which gradually replaced those old wooden molding planes that you still can find in the antique shops. Every cabinet maker used to have his own collection of these. I’ve owned and used them myself, but long ago gave that up in favour of a Sears Craftsman three-bladed molding head, which will mount onto either a table saw or a radial-arm, which is what I have. This naturally does a far more even and accurate job in a fraction of the time. This is still available, and cheaply. Here’s what the set looks like. You can still get it from Sears for the same price I paid about thirty years ago - $99; (DSCN1714). - Please refer to my 'Flickr' site to see all the illustrations:
Disappointingly, Sears does not seem to sell the cutter bit sets separately any more as accessories, and neither could their parts department help. Fear not, however; all is not lost. There is a company called Corob Cutters - - which offers an up-to-date molding head of the same type, and, they offer an extensive range of molding knives, which, (bless their hearts), also fit the Sears head. All this at most reasonable prices, so if you want to try this approach, and have a table or radial-arm saw, you can get into it without breaking the bank. If, on the other hand, you decide this particular approach is not for you, you can instead create a very respectable selection of mouldings using a router and some of the huge variety of bits on offer these days.
I have put my own personal stamp on framing by designing my own mouldings and then filing (by hand) sets of three cutter blades to reproduce the chosen profile. The first, and easy, step is drawing a profile, sometimes copied or adapted from one I have seen and like; (illus - ’Frame Designs 4’ - on 'Flickr'). For most watercolours I usually use a simple, slim frame moulding, for larger, more important pieces or oil paintings, I choose a wider, more ornate design.
Here’s how I made a matching set of three cutter blades to create the picture frame molding shown here : (DSCN5472). These are in High Speed Steel. In this example I start with the plain, square-ended ‘planer’ blade (DSCN1707 - 'Flickr'), though often I can save effort by modifying another ready made shape. The trick, of course, is to achieve the identical shape on each of three blades. This is not as hard as you might think. The task is made quite simple by using a stepped holder to carry the three blades at once, stacked together; (DSCN1705). The wooden holder is designed to support the blades with the bevels flush with each other, and is held in a vise so that these surfaces are level and ready to be worked on; (DSCN1708). Observe from this same illustration that quality control of the delivered cutters is pretty spotty: these three are supposed to be level and even! Remembering that the blades are going to cut at an angle of around 40º, draw an approximation of the profile on the face of one of the blades; no need to do all three. We are not going to use computers or machine tools here, just files and maybe a grinding wheel or point in a Foredom or Dremel flexshaft. I prefer filing, as with grinding it is easy to overheat the metal and lose the temper of the steel; also it is harder to attain an even shape. There will be no precise gauging or measurements here: in the end the eye will tell all. A good selection of small files will do all the work; (DSCN1710). With the blades held as described, just start filing, taking care to keep the tool as straight and level as possible; attempting to cut, in the same pass, an equal amount from each blade. You won’t achieve this without a most important next step: after removing a reasonable amount of material it is time to shuffle the deck! By this I mean – unclamp the blades from the holder and change their order: e.g. if we say they were stacked as 1,2,3, then change that to 3,1,2 for instance. When you do this small discrepancies will show up, (DSCN1711) and you take these differences out with the next filing. Repeat this step from time to time as you progress. Because of the angle of the blade when it contacts the wood, the cut moulding will be shallower and less pronounced than the shape appears on the knife, that is, you must grind the knives to a slightly deeper, more exaggerated extent to achieve the desired cut.
When the knives approximate the shape you want, remove them from the holder and dress them individually with waterstones or oilstones; (DSCN1716).
Now it is time for a trial cut. Mount the cutter blades in the molding head and mill a cut on a short length of wood. You don’t need to cut more than a few inches. Unless you are extremely lucky, you will not be pleased with the result; (DSCN2022X). Note the double ‘tracks’ shown by the middle arrows. The upper and lower arrows point out that the sides of the molding, which should be evenly rounded, are anaemic or missing. The cutters are not registering together. The first thing to do is swap the blades around in the cutter head and run a couple more trial cuts to achieve the best result. Having done this, now mark the blades across the body or edge with a file, 1,2 and 3, according to the particular slot they fill in the molding head; (DSCN2053). (I have numbered the three slots on my molding head with a small punch). From here on, always mount the knives in their own same slot. Next, turn the head by hand over the trial cut and closely examine where each blade falls. Sometimes millscale is left on the base of the blade which interferes with properly square seating, or the blade may not in fact be cut properly square. This in turn may cause the entire blade to track slightly left or right of the others. This can be corrected by a little judicious filing of the base edge of the blade; (DSCN2054). Most of the discrepancies will by now have been taken out. What remains is small differences between the cutting edges of each blade. Turning the head by hand over the latest trial cut will reveal the reasons. Dismount each blade individually and file out the problem area. A final trial should now yield a perfect profile, but one yet marked by striations caused by the filing process; (DSCN2055). Polish these file marks out now using small slipstones; (DSCN5463). Your set of cutters is now finished, and should produce a nice clean stick of molding needing minimal sanding prior to applying a finish; (DSCN2486). The rabbet to hold the picture is easily run with dado blades, the stick ripped from the board, and the back edge of the framing smoothed on a jointer.
This may all sound like a terribly long, slow, involved process, but actually it is not. The methodical approach I have just set out will be just an interesting morning’s work, and the result will be a set of knives that will be useful for a lifetime.
There are ways to further decorate plain moldings. But I’ll get into that later on.

Monday, October 26, 2009

In the Frame ~ an Introduction.

This blog would be best read with reference to my pictures on ‘Flickr’, where the article will be fully illustrated. You can easily find a particular illustration since I refer below to the photos by number. Sorry I couldn’t figure out a way to enter them in the form of a concise ‘link’. All the relevant photos are together in a set called ‘In the Frame’. Here is a link to that set: The story is in three parts, which I hope to put up over the next few days. Here is an introduction.

The cost of having pictures properly mounted and framed can be a big issue. I have often heard the subject raised amongst artist friends. So it is natural that as an amateur artist myself and also a woodworker, awhile back I began building all the frames for my own paintings. As I gained experience in this, I have developed some techniques that might be of use to others, or at least of interest. I am illustrating my points on ‘Flickr’ in a new set entitled “In the Frame”.

Let me immediately reassure you that I have no intention of boring everybody by reiterating all the usual methods of frame-building that can be found in any of dozens of “How to…” books. Not at all. What I will set out is a narrow view of a few techniques which I have worked on over the past few years. This blog will be in three parts: firstly, a somewhat archaic and labour intensive way whereby I make my own picture frame mouldings; secondly, I’ll set out a really easy way to produce a fine metallic finish on those mouldings. Thirdly, a short section setting out some easy ways of enhancing picture frames with decorative touches.

Now I’ve told you what this is about, half of you may wish to tune out ~ that’s you artists who are actually selling your work. You are excused. If your work is good enough to find a consistent market, then maybe you shouldn’t be making picture frames. You may do better financially, and get more pleasure out of using the time to paint another picture. No, the people I’m talking to here are those like myself, who paint for their own satisfaction and find it hard to justify the expense of framing their work. I understand this even better now, since I recently went in to talk to my friend, the owner of a framing shop in the nearby city of St. Catharines. He told me that one of the frames I had just brought in to be glazed would cost roughly $400, framed and matted in the way I had done it. My total costs were roughly $50, thanks partly to him for furnishing me with matting, glass and foam core at reasonable prices.

The Joys of Aubergine.

We could get frost any night now, so yesterday being a nice mild day, we picked the last of our eggplants and hot peppers and, with the sun on our backs, enjoyed some gardening. The eggplants weren't growing anymore, but at this time of year they keep well on the vine, we'd already had lots and weren't in a hurry to harvest the rest.
Later, I set to to make one of my favourite recipes ~Eggplant Parmigiana ~ and ended up with enough for three dinners! We were given another eggplant recipe recently also: Scalloped Eggplant, which yields the most delicious and tender vegetable side dish you can imagine.
I thought it would be nice at this time of year to share these two recipes, so here they are.

Baked Aubergine
-Eggplant Parmigiana-

1kg/2lbs aubergines
olive oil
35g/1½oz/or one third of a cup finely grated parmesan cheese (we use Romano).
400g/14oz./2 cups mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated.
salt & freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce:
60ml/4tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
450g/1lb tomatoes, fresh or canned, chopped, with their juice
salt & freshly ground black pepper
a few leaves of fresh basil or parsley

1. To make the tomato sauce: First, peel the tomatoes. (Place in a large bowl, pour boiling water over them and allow to stand two minutes. Then the skins will come off). Heat the oil in a medium saucepan, add the onion and cook over medium heat until it is translucent, 3-5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and tomatoes; (add some tomato paste to thicken if desired).. Season with salt and pepper. Add the basil or parsley. Cook for 20-30 minutes. Purée if desired with hand-held blender or food processor.

2. Slice the eggplants lengthwise. Heat a tablespoonful of olive oil in a large frying pan. Cook the eggplant in batches over low to moderate heat with the pan covered, until they soften. As they brown lightly, turn once and cook on the other side. Remove from the pan, set aside, and repeat with remaining slices.

4. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/ gasmark 4. Take a wide shallow baking dish. Spread a layer of the tomato sauce in the bottom of the dish. Next, put in a layer of eggplant slices. Spoon on more tomato sauce, then add a layer of mozzarella and a sprinkle of parmesan.. Then a little more tomato sauce. Build up the layers until the ingredients are used up, ending with a covering of tomato sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan. (Add some olives or sautéed mushrooms to the mix if desired).
Bake for about 45 minutes.

This recipe as originally given to us called for the eggplants to be sliced, coated in salt, and left for an hour. Then they were to be wiped with paper towel and coated in flour before cooking in the pan. We changed this because , a) the resulting dish was too salty for our taste, there being enough salt in the cheese; and b) we didn’t think the eggplant needed the flour coating. You may wish to experiment with these variations.


This recipe was given to us by Joan, who says ~ “This is one of my all-time favourites! Can be prepared early in the day.”


1 medium eggplant, or two small, to total at least 1½ lbs.
3 tbsp butter (or margarine).
3 tbsp flour.
1 medium onion, finely chopped.
3 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped.
1 tsp salt.
1 tbsp brown sugar.
1 cup grated old cheddar cheese.
½ cup dry breadcrumbs.


1. First, make the tomato sauce as follows:
- In a medium saucepan, melt the butter, blend in the flour, and stir over low heat to make a smooth paste.
- Add the onions and tomatoes, stirring into the butter mixture.
- Sprinkle with the salt and brown sugar, and continue cooking over low direct heat, stirring constantly until the mixture is smooth and thick. (Take your time on this step to make it nice and smooth). Set aside.

3. Peel the eggplant and dice it into one-inch cubes.
- Cook in boiling water to cover for 10 minutes.
- Drain thoroughly in a colander and transfer to an 8 cup casserole; (buttered if desired).

4. Pour the tomato sauce all over the eggplant in the casserole. Combine the grated cheese and breadcrumbs, and sprinkle on top.

5. Bake at 350ºF until bubbly and brown; about 30 minutes.


Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Little Watercolour Box

This blog is more fully illustrated on my ‘Flickr’ site:

This summer I foresee the delightful prospect of a whole week devoted to sketching and painting ‘en plein air’: I have the wonderful opportunity to spend this time on holiday in Switzerland, incorporated with a family visit.

With this in view, I have had to scramble a bit to complete the assembly of a suitable kit, making sure I have everything I need for watercolour work in the field. I haven’t done much ‘plein air’ work so far, perhaps half a dozen little pieces, and I certainly haven’t been properly equipped for it! After managing to paint several small works whilst standing up I concluded the first thing I needed was a camp stool! I found that item, together with a light knapsack for which it forms the frame, in an art supply shop in Bath. Other items were soon added, with the help of advice from my friend David Gilmore (‘Gilmopix’ on Flickr). Until now I have not been using a watercolour ‘travelling’ box, since most of my work has been done in my studio and I have always bought my paint in tubes. I decided to buy the small Winsor & Newton ‘Cotman’ box to carry around. This however, only holds twelve pans, and I do find that very limiting. Now, I know that I should work harder on limiting my palette, and there is a school of thought too, which holds that one should mix as many colours as possible from a small range of pigments. Whilst respecting that point of view, I find that really doesn’t work for me. I do love pure colour, and I can’t resist buying lots of them. It seems to me that if a certain pigment offers that colour of itself I like to use it, though certainly with modification when required. What I am saying is – I like to pick the colour as close as possible to the hue I need and mix in as little as possible to bring it to what I want.

All that is to explain why I embarked on the enjoyable project which I have just finished: I have built myself a watercolour box. Why build; you say? – when there are so many ready-made boxes available? For several reasons. I couldn’t easily find a box that would hold as many colours as I wished, and I wanted it to be as small and light as could be, consistent with that requirement. Further, whilst I am not particularly price-sensitive, I did find that my eyebrows went up a bit at the price of an empty box. Also, art supply stores around here are scarce, and I haven’t yet found an online supplier here in Canada. So a couple of weeks ago I set to work.

Now it never does to be in a hurry, especially when designing a delicate piece of work. But sometimes there is a deadline and you must go for it. This box could have been made better, but it does the job. I already had a small plastic mixing palette, which I decided to build into the lid of the box. This roughly determined the overall size. I had also bought plenty of plastic pans and half-pans in anticipation of this work. I planned the interior to hold four rows of pans. Each row would hold eleven half-pans or six full pans.

The first design problem to be solved was how to make sure all the pans of paint would stay in place without having those useful metal strip spring clamps to hold them. The answer came to me in one of those happy wakeful moments in the night, when I allow my mind to range where it will: (my form of meditation). – I would divide the rows with wooden strips onto which I would glue a thin cork facing which would be springy enough to compress slightly and grip the pans. I had the cork – several small sheets, about 2mm thick, acquired for fifty cents at a garage sale a couple of years ago. I knew it would come in handy one day!

I began by making a frame to hold the lid, and another with dividers to hold the pans. I made sure they were identical in outside dimensions. Before I assembled the lower (box) frame I cut the tiny dadoes in the end pieces to space the dividing strips. This spacing was critical. When I measured the plastic paint pans, I found that the full pans were fractionally smaller than the halves, though nominally and supposedly identical. I built this slight difference in, so that one row is specifically designed to hold the full pans, the other three hold half pans. I had to adjust one row (where the fit was a bit sloppy), by adding a layer of thick paper to the wall under the cork facing.

Next I glued on thin sheets of Baltic birch ply to form the top and bottom of the box. I matched the two halves up and sanded them so they were perfectly fair, then fastened them together with a small piano hinge. The front side is fastened by two tiny (20mm) filigree brass latches. (Small box hardware from Lee Valley Tools.) The pans are a ‘push fit’ in the rows. Lastly I applied a number of coats of varnish (it’s amazing how that plywood drinks it up), so that when it gets too messy with accidental paint marks I should be able to wash it off.

I found it difficult to settle on an arrangement for the colours. Partly I tried to be guided by the way Winsor & Newton have ordered the hues on their colour chart, but the need to choose a layout which would as far as possible make it easy for me to find my colours instinctively took precedence. I had arbitrarily decided to reserve one row for full pans, thinking that these should be used for ‘weak’ colours and/or those I use a lot of. I’m sure this preliminary placing will be changed as I find out what works best. Before loading the pans I made sure to label each one with the colour it was to contain, so if I can’t remember what’s what I just have to extract the pan and read the side.

Yesterday I got the box loaded up with thirty-nine paint colours. It is all ready to go. It measure 20cm x 11cm x 2.5cm overall, and weighs exactly 250 grams (just under nine ounces), fully loaded with paint!

So, on to the next task – decide what different watercolour papers to take: what sizes, types, which sketchbooks?

They say that anticipation is half the fun.