Painting on Leather – Dennis Bertram

Leather is both a natural and historic material used by artists for centuries. I have been working with leather for a few years, creating messenger bags, buckles, and similar items, but I am also a painter. Paint can be used on many surfaces. I have used canvas, linen, hardboard, and wood and, in recent years, also on leather. So, when I turned to leather I knew I would need good quality and appropriately thick leather. After all, you don’t stretch leather like you do canvas or linen. It has to hold its shape particularly when placed within a picture frame, and I wouldn’t
want to use any backing that would hide the fact that the painting indeed was on leather. The leather I chose is 4mm thick or “10 ounce” in leather “lingo.” It’s not the sort of stuff you can bend easily.
Working in leather revised my long-time interest in western culture. Yes, I was one of those teenagers who made an Indian war bonnet with turkey feathers dyed to resemble eagle feathers, beadwork, and rabbit fur tassels. I selected a Native American theme for my first to-be-framed leather paintings, tepees. I began by making various sketches to find a suitable image.

With my image chosen, my next step was to transfer the image to a special type of see-through tracing paper which was then placed over a prepared piece of leather and the design traced into the leather. Leather is prepared by dampening it with water and leaving it overnight in a sealed plastic bag so that it will accept clean lines pressed into its surface. Next the lines were further incised using a swivel knife. Below is a photo of my two swivel knives. As the name suggests, these sharp little darlings swivel so that one can cut curves. For this painting, however, I only needed to incise straight lines (way easier than curves!).

After the design was incised into the leather, it was time to paint. I used not only paint created specifically for leather, but also leather dye and ink. And I didn’t paint all over the leather but left some areas natural. The ink was used for the straight lines. Below is the finished painting! It is 4 by 6 inches and is enclosed in a wooden frame.
My leather paintings are for sale at River Art Gallery and Gifts (83 Webster Street, North Tonawanda, NY 14120).

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