A perfect tension: the art and craft of making artists’ canvasses

Stretched canvas maker Alanah Tocker freely admits she has an obsession with timber. With more than ten years of industry experience, Alanah joined Felt a year ago to offer her high quality, fully customised painting surfaces as Stretched – a very appropriate name! Alanah starts with New Zealand first grade kiln dried pine, which is handcrafted into stretcher frames of 35 and 45mm and stretched with quality 12 ounce cotton duck canvas. The canvas is then primed twice by hand for a perfect painting surface.

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What do you make?
I make stretched canvasses, boards and blocks for artists. I often work directly with artists to ‘create’ a surface that they are looking for to complete their artistic ideas that they cannot make or buy elsewhere.

How did you get into your craft?
I have always painted, and being a poor student could never justify paying crazy prices for poor quality canvasses. I was lucky to be taught to make canvasses from scratch by David Heaphy, the technician at the School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University. David made and sold to full-time artists, so I learnt the tricks-of-the-trade from the best.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
I have a BFA from the University of Canterbury, where I studied sculpture. The art school workshop was so well appointed I was able to learn woodworking, casting and mould-making, foundry skills, welding as well as critical thinking. Following art school, I worked as a screen printer, a stretched-canvas maker for local artists, and then as an artist’s technician for Phil Price and Hannah Kidd, whilst retaining a painting practice and selling canvasses.

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Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
Wood is my favourite material to work with, it’s so versatile and I can craft anything from it. My favourite tool would be a very old wood plane of my great granddad’s, which I still use regularly. My favourite process is taking a 4×2 and a roll of cotton-duck canvas and producing a beautiful stretched canvas. If I want to paint on it I know it’s good!

What inspires you?
I love being in the workshop or studio – it’s my happy place, it brings me energy. I think I am supposed to say “my kids”… I guess they’re pretty inspiring too! I love the fact that my boys think it’s totally normal to have a mum using power tools and a builders pouch – which it should be! No surprises they want to be builders!

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Often it’s the customers that keep me focused, their feedback and gratitude for helping them translate their vision into reality, make me feel great about what I produce.

Is there a philosophy behind your work?
Simple: Locally-made and careful production will always result in premium quality products.

Describe your creative process
The creative process for crafting my artist’s surfaces involves putting myself in the artist’s shoes; it helps being a painter too! I and ask what does the ideal surface look like? What details are important and what do I need to do to achieve that. Then I build from there.

Describe your workspace
I work out of a 100-year-old workshop-turned-garage-turned-workshop again at home, in organised chaos! The fun comes when the bigger canvasses need to be walked outside, just to be turned around! It can be chilly but it makes me work fast to get warm, which is easy as I usually have lots of projects going on at once!

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Five words that describe your mind:
Enquiring, introverted, passionate, authentic, inspired.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:
“Your canvasses and rimu blocks are absolutely stunning!” Feedback from last week’s order, feedback makes me happy!

What are you currently listening to?
Tiny Ruins, a Melbourne based singer-songwriter, beautiful music to paint to.

Recommend an album:
The Lumineers by The Lumineers, always a go to for the workshop!

What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
Pottle Pig by Shirley Hughes (also my boys’ favourite!). I love the naughty pig that always gets into trouble along with the lovely illustrations, reading it now makes me love and reminisce about the farm I grew up on.

What are you reading now?
The Goose Bath Poems by Janet Frame, love her work – so honest.

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
I would have to say hero and heroine would be my mum and dad. They’ve always encouraged my love of the arts, from Dad starting me off on his tools at age 10, to Mum taking me to buy paints. They’ve supported me through art school and even now look after the kids one or more days a week so I can get my orders out. They are awesome.

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A favourite quote:
Live simply, dream big, be grateful, give love, and laugh lots.

Tell us about your pets:
One old whippet named Uma, one old cat named Meow-meow and a selection of chooks, names dependent on if they are in the veggie garden!

If you were a crafty superhero what would your name and superpower be?
Timber Woman – with the power of building and shaping anything using just her mind.

What advice do you have for those starting out in a craft business?
Start now. Get on Felt. Have a great website, and have real conversations with your audience and client base – no matter how big.

What was the last handmade item you brought and what attracted you to it?
A Mother’s Day tea towel for my mum, it also came with a hand printed card, from the Felt website of course!

What’s in store for the rest of 2016?
Starting to build our first home with my partner, wrangling a 7, 5, and 0.25 year old! And of course finding time to paint…

I have some exciting new developments for artists’ surfaces. I am working on developing a special laminated circular stretcher frame made from a mould, I also have a new ‘floating’ artists board in development and I would also like to promote some of my oil paintings on the Felt site… watch this space!

Alanah has very generously offered a marvellous prize for one lucky Felt reader of one of her new 500mm diameter x 45mm deep stretched canvas circles, stretched with a 12oz canvas and primed twice by hand. These are made from a marine laminate timber using a mould technique and have a total value of $65 plus postage, and will be available on Felt from next month.

To be in to win this absolutely unique prize, simply leave a comment telling us what appeals to you about Alanah’s story and her craft. The draw will be made on Friday 23 September and is open to New Zealand residents only.

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11 Responses to “A perfect tension: the art and craft of making artists’ canvasses”

  1. Carol Lee says:

    I love how passionate Alanah is about her craft, art and just doing it even with three children! Inspiring.

  2. Jen Sinnott says:

    Inspirational – I love Alanahs acknowledgement of her supportive parents and I’m sure she will be passing this on to her own children. There is so much good in the world, shame we hear so much that is negative.

  3. Fiona McDonald says:

    Love love love that you are making these canvasses Alanah. I agree the market is flooded with poor quality canvasses and it is hard to find the unique sizes that we need as artists. Your work looks beautiful.

  4. Rebekah says:

    I love that old wood plane! I love how Alanah values form and function. I’d love to get my paint on on one of her canvases

  5. Sarah Kilduff says:

    So nice to see quality canvases!
    I am terrible at stretching my own, so it is nice to know you are making fine work.

  6. Aynsley says:

    There is something so special about circles… just love them

  7. Sally says:

    As a painter I am looking for well made panels and canvases, so delighted this feature of Alanah has popped up. Off to check out her listings now!

  8. Jenelle Hooson says:

    Such a great story about a talented woman!Well done to Alanah on creating a great quality product whilst being a wonderful mother, daughter and partner! She makes organised chaos sound like a dream come true!

  9. Catherine says:

    Living the dream.
    Good luck to you.
    My husbands paints as his release from being a school teacher in a hard school.
    I will be hunting down your round canvas when they are available.
    I love a round window so next best thing a round painting.
    Well done to your parents.

  10. Emma Mcconachie says:

    I just love how passionate she is about what she does. I can see how she has inspired her boys to be craftsmen as she’s already inspired me to learn the craft!

  11. Lauren says:

    These canvases look great, I would love to try one! It’s always hard to know what the quality is like when buying canvases from art stores. Love the different shapes and sizes of these too.

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