Although I'm really happy with it I experienced quite a few issues. I was working inside during winter which slowed drying time and limited the space with which I had to work, and the gaffer tape method that I used to secure the plastic sheet and dust sheet down failed, so there was no tension in the canvas as I was working on it. This meant that it was warped and creased in many places. I quite like this effect in my shoots as it creates shadows and looks 'heavy', but I wanted to make another one that was crease-free, learning from the mistakes that I'd made.
THE BASE MATERIALS
I decided to start from a proper base this time, and using the (really excellent) tutorial by Philip Vulkevilch again, I gathered my supplies and built a plywood platform. I bought 3 sheets of 8x4 plywood and 6 3 metre lengths of 3x2 construction timber. I really should have put cross beams in; I made my 4 canvasses over 4 days, and by the 4th day the plywood sheets had started to sag in the middle, pushing the joins between each sheet up and creating lines whilst painting the last canvas.
The weather was set to be dry and warm (a freak occurrence in Wales) for a number of days, so I decided to work outside rather than inside. This gave me much more room to move around and drastically quickened the drying process!
Proper backdrops are made from artists' canvas and acrylic paints, but using the dust sheet and regular emulsion paint and pva glue last time worked pretty well so I decided to do the same again. However, upon purchasing the same dust sheet in Screwfix I dicovered this one had a seam running down the middle! I was gutted - I must have been lucky with a different batch last time! So I went to Selco and bought a dust sheet which was much lighter than Screwfix's. The bag that they come in are easy to open and reseal, so I was able to check that it didn't have a seam before purchasing.
I also bought a much thinner sheet of plastic this time.
The heavy gauge plastic sheet for my first canvas came packed folded, and the heavy creases showed up as I primed it. This thinner sheet was much lighter and more pliable, so wouldn't create any creases or lines in the canvas whilst painting.
I constructed the platform so that it was roughly 2.4 metres by 3 metres. This meant that it would fit 2 full and one half sheet of plywood. I cut the third sheet in half using a cicular saw. I then lay the plastic sheet down, the dust sheet over it and stapled them all the way round. I stapled to the actual timber frame rather than to the plywood top, as this would provide more tension and allow me to cut less of the finished canvas to size.
THE PAINT & GLUE
I used regular emulsion paint (house paint in USA) instead of the recommended acrylics as it is much cheaper and more readily-available. I also decided not to use the recommended gesso; instead I mixed white paint with pva glue for a similar effect. I had thought that I should use high quality paint like Dulux, but subsequent cheaper brands (Homebase's own and Crown) have proven equally effective. Maybe adding the PVA glue protects the paint somewhat.
For the fist coat of primer I followed Vulkelich's advice and mixed it 75% water to 25% gesso, so for my mixture that was 75% water to 12.5% white paint to 12.5% pva glue.
After the canvas was touch-dry I made up another mix, this time at a ratio of 60% water to 40% gesso, so 2 cups of paint, 2 cups of pva and 6 cups water. I then let it all dry outside overnight.
The next day I mixed the base coat. I had paint left over from the first canvas and I decided to go for a similar feel as that one. I combined grey with white for a light grey and a dash of pva for elasticity. Then I watered it down with around 50% water as the paint was so thick. You need a LOT of the base coat. I didn't have enough left over from the previous canvas, so I had to water it down more than I wanted to in order to make it go further.
I then let the base coat dry.
Next I mixed up 4 different shades of grey: straight Urban Obsession, straight Rich Black and two shades in between. A dash of pva and 50% water.
I then walked all over the canvas splattering the different shades till they all blended together. Again, I didn't have enough paint, so the spatters started drying quickly in places. I wished I had more of everything to saturate the canvas (as it seems Oliphant does).
I blended all of this together with the roller on extension pole till it all looked like clouds.
I didn't like this effect at all and was quite despondent. So I decided to go and get another pot of Rich black (I'd run out) to make a vignette, hoping this would improve things.
After I got back the paint had dried and the colours had darkened, looking much better.
I mixed straight Rich Black and a darker shade of grey with a dash of pva and 50% water again and applied the vignette with sponge for a change this time. I hated using the sponge - I had little control over how saturated it was with paint, so I switched to the brush. This is when things came alive! Using a 4 inch brush and a mix of swirling motion and vigorous brushing gave an almost dry-brush effect, helping to convey texture. And the vignette really pulled everything together, drawing the eye to the centre of the canvas.
The next job was to cut it free of the plywood platform. I knew I needed it to be 273cm in width to match the paper seamless rolls I have in the studio, but I decided to keep the height at 240. The working studio height is roughly 225cm, but I thought I'd better keep it too long so that I could wrap it round the timber that it would hang from instead of just relying on staples to hold it.
I used a straight-edge and sharp knife to cut all the way around it.
It lifted off the plywood easily, and the plastic sheeting was bonded to it. I decided not to peel it off. I rolled it on itself loosely and took it up to the studio, unrolling it and leaving it to dry out further until the morning.
It really did look great in the studio environment. I stapled it to a 3 metre length of 3x1 and wrapped it round till it was reduced to the height needed. The timber would then hang from joist hangers on the studio walls. Here's a shot from a test shoot I did with my family; if you look closely you can see the timber the canvas is stapled to and wrapped around, hanging from the joist hangers. The canvas is just dark enough without being too dark, the textures work well without being distracting and the vignette frames it nicely.
2nd & 3rd BACKDROPS
I hate being wasteful so I decided to make use of the dust sheet that I'd bought in Screwfix with the seam down the middle, and create two more canvasses, painting both halves different colours!
I followed the same procedure as above, but for the blue/grey one I put less water in with the paint and pva and splattered it everywhere then brushed and scraped it in. I'm not too keen on this one; I'm not sure if it will fit in with my style of portraiture, but I'll use it on a couple of shoots and so how it goes.
On the olive one I decided to go back to the heavily watered down paint. I made 4 shades of olive and walked over the canvas dropping blobs everywhere. I then blended them in with the brush (instead of roller). I found that I had more control than with the roller, and it was easier work as the canvas was half the size of the first one! A roller on extension pole is quicker for larger canvases as it enables you to maintain an overview of your work.
I think I finally nailed the secret ingredient to getting the balance between blended and textured, and that was to WALK BAREFOOT all over the canvas whilst it was still tacky. By carrying a spray gun of water with me I could control the level of tackiness, blending any obvious footprints in with combination of my feet and brush. The longer I stayed in one spot the more layers of paint my feet would remove. It's difficult to describe how to do it, but it's quite an organic way of blending the paint!
The next day I decided to do ANOTHER canvas as I felt like I was on a bit of a roll! I wanted this fourth canvas to be a light grey. I didn't think I'd have need for another large one so I decided that I would split this one in two, with one half being quite muted and blended, and the other more textured and grungy. I primed as before and used a white base coat so that subsequent layers would remain quite light.
I mixed 4 different shades of grey and heavily wartered them down. I walked all over the canvas randomly splashing the different shades.
I then used the roller on the extension rod to roll, brush and 'scrub' everything together.
On the muted side I started walking all over it straight away, mixing everything together with my feet.
On the more textured side I used a tile grouting tool to scrape through the different layers and 'scratch' through to the white base layer.
This just didn't feel right to me. I think for a more textured look you really do need to work with thicker paint. I also noticed that one of the joins between the plywood sheets had started to rise because of the lack of a crossbeam to support the sheets, and this was creating an ugly straight line through the paint. I decided that instead of cutting the finished canvas in half as intended I would discard the textured part and keep as much of the blended side as I could. I ended up keeping about 2/3ds of the canvas.
So, again, it seems that it's essential to work with heavily diluted paints to get the soft, blended look and I'm pretty happy with this one. Here's a shot from another test shoot with my eldest son; it's much lighter than the first one and I'm not really feeling it yet, but it may grow on me...
And here are soem photos from shoots I've done using both the olive and blue backdrops.
COSTS AND CONCLUSIONS
The total cost of creating these backdrops is hard to calculate as I had all of the tools and a lot of the paint and wood already. But as a guide if you were to buy everything from new it would probably work out as follows (everything here is available from Selco, Screwfix and B&Q):
3 12mm plywood sheets - £52.17
6 3 metre 3x2 timber - £25.20
Screws - 75mm for the frame, 38mm to secure the plywood to the frame £9
9x12 dust sheet £9.66
Plastic sheet £8.82
Paint roller and tray £9.99
Roller extension rod £7.99
4 inch brush(es) £4.99 each
4 buckets (or more if you want to create more shades of colour) £5
Dulux Pure Brilliant White emulsion paint 5 litres £16
Dulux Rich Black emulsion paint 2.5 litres £16
Urban Obsession Grey emulsion paint 2.5 litres £16
PVA 5 litres £9.99
Staple gun and staples £27.99
Circular saw £40
Long straight-edge £22.99
Sharp knife (such as a Stanley knife) £5.49
Tape measure £7.49
So a total of £294.77 to make a grey canvas. At this price I would seriously recommend that you just buy a Gravity Backdrop. A similar size to this one is about £700 and when you factor in the time involved to paint your own the decision to buy new becomes easier! But if you have all of the tools and materials already and are keen to make more than one canvas then the cost is dramatically reduced and it's an enjoyable and creative project over a few days. All in all, the 4 backdrops I made cost me around £230 in total, which I'm very happy with.