I don’t collect art. I’ve thought it’s something I could be interested in if I won a lottery and was suddenly rich enough to indulge in the hobbies of the wealthy, but that’s all. So I was somewhat surprised when a friend commented, “I didn’t know you collected art.” He was looking at pieces on my wall by Russian-American artist Vladimir Pronkin.
I stumbled across Pronkin on eBay some time ago, and I was taken by much of his imagery. He seems influenced by commedia but in a twisted sort of way, with more than a dash of Bosch — a vision hungering for a fantastic past which never existed anywhere but in our collective unconscious.
And if you like drawings of naked ladies, you’re in luck because he has lots of those for about a buck a piece (but watch out for his shipping and handling charges!).
Pronkin’s oils are what I find most impressive in his copious inventory, but those will have to wait for the lottery jackpot. However, there are still bargains to be found amongst his cheaper stuff. I bought three pieces, and he shipped them with a fourth as a bonus.
The sticker shock came when I went to Opus Framing on Granville Island to get frames and mounting stuff. I just wandered around collecting what I thought I needed. I knew custom framing was expensive, so I resolved to use pre-made frames, do my own mounting, and cut my own mats. When the clerk rang it all up, my inner drama queen was screaming “You have got to be kidding, sister!” But outwardly, being a stereotypical straight male, ever in control and always knowing what I’m doing, I simply handed over my credit card. A trained observer might have noticed the briefest stress-induced dilation of the pupils, but I think I got away with it.
When I bought a second lot of Pronkin, I determined that I would make the frames myself. How hard could it be? A frame is basically just four pieces of wood joined at right angles. However, as I grow older the sneaking suspicion that I am not infallible grows ever stronger, fed by that strict teacher whose name is Experience. I determined to do a small test piece first.
From a distance it looks not too awful; the black paint hides a multitude of sins, the greatest of which should be apparent in a close up of one of the corners.
It took a fair bit of wood filler to square that one up. I thought I had been very careful measuring and drawing 45 degree angles to cut on, then carefully lining up the saw, but, alas, I fear I may have been attempting a skill that a medieval carpenter would have apprenticed many years to master; perfect freehand 45s. Having neither time, patience, nor inclination to achieve such mastery, I headed off to the Home Depot seeking I knew not what, but it had to achieve my objective while being small enough to put away in a cupboard when done, and inexpensive.
I found it.
Beautiful, cheap, low tech. According to its label, it’s a “Plastic Miter Box” and it cost only six bucks! I’ll take you through the construction of my latest frame using this fabulous device. Note, if you have a wood shop in your garage or basement full of cool electric tools and routers and saws with guides and stuff, what follows will seem frightfully primitive, but if you don’t have such a set up, you might find interesting what you can achieve with a totally low tech approach.
First I started with two strips of oak I had left over from some other long ago project.
You can get precut strips of wood used for moulding from Home Depot or similar establishments. Indeed, a future project might be seeing what I could whip up from some of the fancier moulding.
Apply white glue along the edge of one piece…
… then clamp together.
Ensure that the two pieces are clamped evenly with no overhang where they join. You’ll probably want to do some sanding later anyway, but the less coarse grinding that has to be done the better. While you can unclamp and saw after only a few hours, probably best to leave it dry overnight.
Then we simply use our plastic wonder box to cut up our glued strips at 45 degree angles. First the right cut, then measure the appropriate distance and make the left cut. I lightly clamp the wood to the miter box for ease, and to keep the edge of the wood flush with side of the box.
Repeat four times. With regard to measuring, I worked out the dimensions I wanted for the window area of the frame, and measured against the inside (short side of the piece).
And here are the pieces.
Next, we take the pieces, apply more white glue where they join, and put them into the corner clamps.
You can see I have a variety of different clamps. The ones I got originally from Home Depot were cheap crap (the blue one in the image), so I did some time-traveling with eBay and bought some corner clamps from an era when low-tech tools were taken a little more seriously.
This is one area, like computer keyboards, where the technology is not getting better with time. You’re better off buying something second hand which is superior to what you might pay even more for new.
It’s at this phase that you can check how true your cuts are. As amazing as the plastic miter box is for its simplicity, it isn’t a precision instrument. Especially on your first attempt, you may still need a small bit of filler.
When the glue has dried, you may wish to reinforce the frame further with wee dowels. (I cut mine from bamboo skewers bought at the local market.) Just drill a hole the diameter of the dowel through the side of one corner into the attached piece, apply a drop of glue to the hole, and pop in the dowel. It shouldn’t be too loose, but, especially if you’ve had to apply wood filler, you don’t want to be hammering doweling into the frame, as it could just fall apart. If you have to tap it in, use a soft hammer of some kind. If you’re not finishing the frame with an opaque paint, the end of the dowel will show, but it isn’t that noticeable after f
Next, sand as much as you want. For this one, I wanted a smooth, golden, natural oak finish, so I put some time into sanding with different grades of sand paper: coarse first, followed by “painting” it with wood filler to fill in the rather porous grain, then medium sanding, then fine. Finally I finished it with Danish Oil, and then a coat of Renaissance Wax. But an earlier one just got a basic sanding, then was walnut stained, and finally waxed. It has a rougher, folksy sort of quality that is appealing.
If you’ve never cut a mat before, it isn’t complicated. You can get a fairly inexpensive mat cutter from an art supply store along with the mat.
The hand cutter with ruler approach is easy to screw up, so practise until you get the knack. I would recommend always using a fresh blade for anything important.
I mounted my Pronkin water colour using the hinge method favoured by conservators. You can get a small kit with everything you need from the art supply store as well. It will contain instructions, so I won’t go into it, as that’s a small article in itself.
Put all together, it wound up looking like this:
Not bad at all. I painted the mat so that it would more closely match the colour in the harness of the fish thing. Doing it oneself provides a high degree of control. And the price is right.
Of course, cheaper still would be buying a second-hand frame from a thrift shop, and cutting it down to the dimensions you want, stripping and finishing it as appropriate. But there’s a certain satisfaction in doing the whole thing oneself. The only bit I didn’t do myself (aside from the art!) was the cutting of the glass, which was done by the framing department of DeSerres. (If you live in Vancouver, the store on Broadway is great.)
In a wired world, especially since that’s my day job, it’s a great pleasure to work with low tech things. The only electric tool I used during this whole process was the power drill. Hm, I wonder what eBay has on offer by way of vintage hand drills? Think I’ll pop on over for a look.