In the Studio with Robert Canaga
by Luke Fannin
by Luke Fannin
I’m with artist Robert Canaga in his cluttered Eugene studio, and we’re watching paint dry. Actually, we’re watching it cure — it’s oil-based, so no evaporation takes place. That may seem like splitting hairs to you or me, but for Mr. Canaga, an accomplished printmaker and abstract painter, understanding how his materials work together is among the most important elements of any composition.
So, we’re watching paint cure. And I’m not even bored. Not yet, anyway — it’s titanium white, for which the curing process can take up to 300 years, so there’s still time. Mr. Canaga keeps it interesting by allowing me to observe as he works a bit on Curve, the oil and wax piece seen above, and the progression of which can be seen in the series of images below. He shows me the different effects of mixing colors with titanium white and zinc white — the former dramatically alters the value of a color, while the latter subtly changes its tint, in case you were wondering — demonstrates various methods of paint application with knife and brush, and walks me through a half-dozen different ways to alter the texture of paint. He explains the dangers of using turpentine to thin oil paints and clean brushes, why he prefers cold wax to encaustic, and the pitfalls of gesso.
This is all news to me, but then, I don’t paint. The surprising thing is just how many painters are in the dark with me. “People just don’t know this stuff anymore,” Mr. Canaga says. “Students don’t know it because they’re teachers don’t know it. At some point this knowledge just stopped being passed on.”The problem may be evident; the reasons for it are less clear. Mr. Canaga points to modernism, and the way it challenged the established norms of painting. Any groundbreaking movement will inspire innovation and considerably broaden the horizons for all, but as Mr. Canaga puts it, “You can’t just throw stuff up and see what sticks.” Additionally, more and more people mistake marketing for expertise, assuming that expensive materials are both necessary and high quality. “There’s this whole industry built around getting you to buy stuff,” Mr. Canaga explains, resulting in artists spending a lot of money on inferior products or products they don’t need. It also leads to artists taking experimental (and cheap) shortcuts in order to avoid paying out the nose for the appropriate materials. “I’m all for experimentation,” says Mr. Canaga, “but that has to be done within the framework of what goes with what.” His advice: “Invest in the best materials and tools. Learn how to use them. After that, you only have to worry about yourself.”