In the early 1800s, oil painting on white velvet was a favorite pastime. This craft, known as theorem painting, uses a series of layered stencils to produce a realistic design. The final product is soft, delicate, and charming. Many original antique theorem paintings are on display at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.
Today, theorem painting is a pleasant, inexpensive art form that you can learn quickly, often through one of the many craft shops that offer classes.
The first item you need for theorem painting is white velvet. If you’d like an antique or distressed look, you can dye the velvet using tea before applying the paint. Painting directly on the white velvet gives brighter, vivid coloring. Make sure to buy authentic velvet, as any synthetic fibers may not take the paint.
Next, purchase a set of oil paints or buy individual colors. The colors you choose depends on your design and the look you’re trying to achieve.
The following colors will give you a sound basis for all types of paintings whether you’re going for an antique or modern look:
• Titanium white
• Cadmium yellow
• Cadmium red
• Burnt umber
• Raw sienna
• Yellow ochre
• Ultramarine blue
• Alizarin crimson
After selecting your paints, choose a few fine-pointed brushes of various sizes for painting delicate outlines, vines, seeds, or other intricate details. Disposable paper palettes work well for mixing colors; you also can use a piece of plastic or wood.
Next, you’ll need a transparent stencil paper. Select several sheets for creating the layers of your pattern. Make sure the stencil paper is of high quality, so the paint doesn’t seep through onto the previously painted layer.
Purchase an X-Acto knife for cutting the stencil patterns and get a piece of thick cardboard for mounting the velvet. Attach the velvet onto the cardboard using spray adhesive to keep it from moving when applying the stencils. The cardboard also provides a solid surface for framing.
You’ll need squares of flannel or any soft cloth for rubbing the paint through the stencils onto the velvet. Make sure to have enough for all the colors you’ll be using.
Once you have all of your supplies organized and ready, this is what you do:
1. The first step is to choose a design and trace it onto tracing paper. Examine the drawing and number the parts of the layout in the order you will be painting them. Make sure no numbered piece touches another part with the same number, or the stencil’s outline will lose definition.
2. Place a piece of stencil paper over the numbered drawing. Trace all the parts labeled No. 1. Remove this piece of stencil paper and put another one on the drawing. Trace all the parts labeled No. 2. Continue with this process until you’ve traced all the numbers on stencil paper.
3. Cut the numbered parts out of each sheet of stencil paper using the X-Acto knife. Be careful while cutting because each flaw will show up in the final painting.
4. Cut a piece of velvet to the desired size of the picture and mount it on cardboard. Press evenly on the velvet to remove any wrinkles.
5. Place the first stencil on the velvet. When it’s in position, make a mark at the corners by which to line up the rest of the stencils. Tape the stencil at the corners and edges, so that it doesn’t move while painting.
6. Decide on the colors for the first pattern, and mix them on the palette. Wrap one of the cloth squares around your index finger and dip it into the paint. Rub it gently onto the palette to remove any excess paint. Too much paint will run under the stencil. The fabric should feel somewhat dry with a scant amount of paint. You can always add more if the color isn’t as dark as you’d like. Use lighter colors first, then darker for the shading. Shading is critical in theorem painting for creating an authentic-looking design.
7. Once the first stencil is complete, remove it and carefully place the second stencil onto the velvet. If the paint is still too wet from the first stencil, you might have to give it more time to dry. Follow the same procedure as you did for the first stencil. Continue this method until you’ve finished using all the numbered stencils.
8. When you’ve removed the stencils, check the painting for any gaps, and use one of the fine-tipped brushes to fill them in. You can also use these brushes to add outline definition, vines, fruit seeds, or other embellishments.
With practice, you can progress to designs that are more complicated or create your own. Try looking in wildlife and flower magazines, photos and still-life arrangements for design ideas. Coloring books are a great source for designs and easier to trace than a photograph. Theorem paintings make wonderful personalized gifts and conversation pieces.
Ultimate Guide for Learning Theorem Painting from Scratch
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