The Blank Canvas
What lies between an artist and a great artwork is often a whole lot of fine art materials. Just as a musician is unable to perform without an instrument, a painter is unable to create without canvas and paint; it’s the very stuff with which art is made.
Rowan Robertson is a painter and business owner who was frequently frustrated by the substandard art materials that he worked with. He thereby saw a niche in the market for providing high quality art materials to other artists and, so, in 2011, founded The Sydney Canvas Company. Art Almanac discussed the development and success of running an art supply business with Robertson.
Could you tell us a little about the history of the business, its operations and the services you provide?
It really grew out of a conversation I had with a friend, over a few drinks, about what it would take to import a container of cotton rolls. The phrase how hard could it be? was bandied about a bit, and I think I’d resolved to do it by the end of the session. I didn’t have a business plan or any experience running a business, which was probably a good thing, for if I did, I don’t think I would have gone ahead with it. Initial roll sales were very slow. I needed to do something, so I decided to start making custom stretched canvases and realised that this was what the business wanted to be. I put all my efforts into making them better and better. I found better suppliers of cotton, switched to a sustainably grown hardwood, refined my techniques and made the best product I could.
Can you talk us through your personal journey from training and practising as a visual artist to becoming an arts supplier to other artists?
I’ve been painting for close to 20 years now and have learnt over this time the importance of starting your painting with the best possible materials. Choice of support is an oft-overlooked step in producing work. I’m sure many painters will have experienced the disappointment of completing a work on an inferior surface and either needing to have it repaired or consigned to the trash. I produced my fair share of work in my painting infancy using poor quality supplies. This got me interested in materials and ultimately became the catalyst for embarking on this endeavour.
Can you explain to us the process involved in the production of the canvas – from where it is grown and woven to how it is primed and ready for paint?
We source our cotton duck canvas from India, where they have a long history of growing and weaving cotton. Our linens come from Belgium and Italy, from two of the finest growers and weavers of flax. And we are part of a cooperative that imports sustainably grown hardwood stretcher bar profiles, which I think are the finest on the market.
Sustainability is of great importance to me, and our suppliers need to subscribe to this same ethos. For example, our cotton duck manufacturer is a member of the Better Cotton Initiative which promotes better farming practices like improved water efficiency and soil care as well as encouraging fair work practices.
Who are some of the most interesting artists that you have worked with over the years?
I’m quite lucky as I get to make canvases for some great painters and have forged a strong relationship with many of them. I get to learn about their process and work with them to ensure we make them the perfect support for their work. It takes an understanding of how they like to construct a painting in order to determine the type of materials to use that will give them the best results. Sometimes we need to search for new, specific materials for a concept an artist is working on.
What lies in the future for your creative and business endeavours?
Well, for me, it’s to keep painting and keep learning. The more I paint, the more I engage with my materials, and the more I learn about what other painters need. My personal practice has always been crucial to the business as it allows me to quality control my materials, to see how they perform and how they change when used. All natural products are susceptible to change, so actually using them lets me observe this and continue to make the products better.
Victoria Hynes is a Sydney-based arts writer and editor.
The Sydney Canvas Company
9/79 Station Road,
Seven Hills NSW 2147