I remember the first time I painted on canvas. I was in 6th grade, so probably 11 or 12 years old, and I was taking a class in oils from an Greek painter named Niko Kredaris (I'm not at all sure of my spelling) in Athens. I'd never done anything like it before, mixing paint on a pallet, adding zinc white for "light," ultramarine blue for "atmosphere," and cadmium red for I can't recall what reason, to every color we mixed. That was Niko's technique. He explained that the farther away something is, the more blue you needed to add until you got to the most distant things. Then you painted with mostly blue, but still always with a touch of white and red: "That's why mountains in the distance look blue."
I've never come across anyone else with Niko's theory of mixing paint for canvas, but I've rarely met a painter who didn't prefer working on canvas. It was an revelation for me, a kid who had never put a brush to anything other than paper. Working on canvas made me feel powerful as an artist, like I could do anything. I had so much control it seemed, every flaw could be corrected; every brush stroke looked like art. I loved, and still do, working a single square inch over an over, blending, layering color like a chef layers flavors. Niko was mostly known for painting boats anchored in Greek harbors, so that's what we were all painting. I don't know what happened to that painting I made in the class, but the experience of putting paint on canvas that stuck with me.
I wrote a few weeks ago about a huge art supply donation that included quite a bit of canvas. It came in large pieces and I've been fretting about it ever since. Canvas! It's not something we're normally able to afford, especially in such large quantities. We needed just the right project, something special for this special medium. I've been unfurling it every day, trying to imagine banners or murals or something, until the memory of Niko's painting class came to me while fiddling around with some of the wooden boats that also came with the donation.
What the hell was I thinking? The opportunity here wasn't to do something special with the canvas. This was a special opportunity to let the kids freely explore the power of painting on the preferred surface of artists everywhere throughout history.
We ripped the canvas into squares, set out the tempera with our tiny specimen cups and let them at it.
I don't know if it was a revelation to any of them, but it was to me, watching them work, experimenting with both colors and the texture of the surface. It took me back to Niko's home.
The only thing missing, in fact, and it's admittedly a very big thing, was the smell of oil paint and the linseed oil we used to clean our brushes.
And, of course, it wouldn't be preschool without at least one of these.
We only have a week and a half left of school. We will be painting on canvas several more times. It's a rare opportunity to explore canvas. We might just use it all up on little square paintings.