Stretchers or Strainers

Screws and Nails.jpg

About ten years ago a friend told me during a phone conversation that I was using the term ‘stretcher’ incorrectly. We were talking about painting and I mentioned I was excited because I had four newly built stretchers — a stretcher being the wooden frame that canvas, or linen, or whatever, is stretched over. He said, “the proper term for what you built is a ‘strainer’. Technically stretchers have expandable corner joints and strainers corners are fixed.” Adjustable corners allow for the expansion and contraction of the canvas and the wood in humid, or less humid, environments. Sometimes hardware is built into each corner of the frame and at other times thin wood shims are inserted into the mitered corner joints to expand the frame. Regardless of the technique, they’re like unicorns because I’ve had a number of painting professors in my life and none of them ever used the word strainer. They all called them stretchers, even if what we built were technically strainers. I googled the term recently too and read a number of different articles about them — it all seemed a little hazy to me. Plus the word strainer is confusing anyway—strain what? So the take away for me is that even though there’s a difference, most people say stretchers, including most painters when referring to both types of frames. I did see an actual ‘stretcher’ in an art supply store once, on display like it was a trophy, or a rare artifact from Italy, mounted on a stick and basking in its own technical glory. I’ve never seen a painting in the real world that used expandable corner joints, in museum storage or a gallery, or even in any documentaries about painters.

Maybe if you’re a painter in a tropical climate like Cambodia during the rainy season and then have to ship your paintings to the high dry desert for an exhibition, you might detect a change in the surface tension of the canvas—maybe then a stretcher is a good idea. Maybe if you’re commissioned to make a painting of a significant historical event for the Smithsonian, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the painting is immense and it needs to last forever—maybe then a stretcher is required. Maybe if you airbrush highly detailed western landscape imagery on linen and also forge your own hardware from scratch in your garage because the novelty is the most important thing to you—maybe then a stretcher seems necessary. Maybe if you’re a genius like Gerhard Richter, Susan Rothenberg, Georgia O’Keefe, Julian Schnabel, or a myriad of other amazing painters and you have assistants to build things, and your paintings are purchased by collectors for hundreds of thousands of dollars, maybe millions, then maybe you use actual ‘stretchers’. That isn’t most painters though; it’s certainly not me. Stretchers with expandable joints are a technical fetish. I’m not that interested in how you hand forged the expansion hardware for your stretcher, or that you milled expandable dovetailed miter joints. That’s cool and everything; I don’t know how to hand forge anything and I’m far to impatient to mill dovetail joints. I’m more interested in the other side; the painted side.

So until the day that a museum curator, or an expert conservator, pulls me aside and tells me otherwise, every frame is a stretcher, even if the corners are overbuilt, overscrewed, overnailed and slathered with super glue.

© C. Davidson