How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting: A Step-by-Step Guide
Is Your Canvas Ready?
Before you start a new painting on raw, stretched canvas, you need to make sure you are good to go. Store-bought stretched canvases already have gesso, so there's no need to apply more unless you want to modify the texture. However, if you're using canvas that has not been primed before, you are better off applying gesso first.
Why can't I paint on raw fabric?
Whether you'll be painting with oil or acrylic paint, priming gives the canvas a much smoother texture that's less absorbent and easier to work on that lets your brush move easily across the surface.
Can I apply oil paint to unprimed canvas?
If you're using oil paint, you must prime and seal the canvas first because otherwise, in the long run, the chemicals from the paint will rot the canvas.
Can I apply acrylic to an unprimed canvas?
You could paint with acrylics directly on unprimed canvas, but the absorbent surface would suck up a lot of expensive paint, so it’s a good idea to seal and prime with gesso before you paint.
You can apply acrylic paint to a wide range of materials and supports, often with no or minimum preparation of the surface, as long as the base is not oily or greasy. This is why you cannot paint with acrylics over oil paint (although you can apply oil on top of acrylic).
How to Prime a Canvas With Gesso
- Canvas: best if already stretched or glued onto a rigid support
- Plastic or metal stirrer
- Acrylic gesso
- 1”- 2” flat brush
- Plastic container
- Paper towel
1. Wet the Canvas
With a sponge dipped in water, lightly wet the canvas and its sides.
2. Stir the Gesso Thoroughly
Stir the acrylic gesso (in its container) with a stirrer.
3. Pour the Right Amount of Gesso
Into a plastic cup, pour just enough gesso for the task. You don’t want to end up with much extra since it isn't ideal to put it back into the jar when it’s drier.
Close the jar as soon as possible—gesso dries quickly!
4. Add Water
Thin the gesso, adding up to 20% water, as needed. Stir well. Make sure you dilute the first layer especially, since diluted gesso will penetrate the fibers of the canvas more easily and will be easier to spread.
Acrylic gesso is usually white, but you can tint it by adding acrylic paint of any color.
5. Clean Spills Promptly
Keep a paper towel handy to clean the stirrer and any spills, as acrylic gesso dries very fast and, once dry, it is not water-soluble.
6. Brush It On
Using a 1” or 2” brush, lay the gesso on the canvas with horizontal strokes, evenly spreading the gesso from left to right and back.
7. Let It Dry Thoroughly
Once the gesso is dry, after at least an hour you can start painting on it, but it’s better if you let it sit overnight.
How can I tell if the gesso is dry?
If the canvas is cold to the touch, the gesso is not dry yet.
8. Sand Lightly (Optional) and Repeat
For a smoother surface, you can sand the first layer lightly before you brush another layer on. After sanding, make sure you clean up any dust residue with a rag.
Whether or not you sand between coats, apply a second layer. As you do, apply the brushstrokes perpendicular to the first layer (so if the first one went horizontally, the next one will be vertical).
9. Optional Extra Layers
For extra layers, repeat the drying and sanding steps between each coat.
For a textural effect, skip the sanding and apply the gesso in an uneven and textural way. See video below for an example.
10. Paint Your Painting
Wait until the coats are dry before you start painting.
Don’t pour leftover gesso down the drain because when it hardens, it can seriously clog the pipes.
How to Add an Interesting Background Texture With Gesso
What If I Don't Want to Prep the Canvas?
- Ready-primed canvases are always a good option if you don’t want to prepare your own. You can buy ready-primed canvas on a roll or already stretched on light wood frames, available in many sizes at every art store.
- Canvas-covered boards are a more inexpensive option to stretched canvases. They also come in a variety surfaces, from very fine or coarse. I started out using only canvas-covered boards, but then I switched to stretched canvas because boards, which are made of cardboard or some wood derivative, can absorb moisture and deform with time, so storage becomes an issue.
What's better: stretched canvas or canvas board?
For the professional artist that wants to sell the paintings and hopefully keep them in good quality for generations to come, stretched canvas is a better, longer lasting choice.
Do you stretch your own canvas?
Different Types of Canvas
Different types of canvas will present a different tooth for the paint, and a different effect of texture on the final product. You can buy cuts of painting canvas from rolls, available in a variety of materials, weights, textures, and widths.
Typical materials are cotton and linen, with the latter being more expensive. Canvases may also contain a percentage of synthetic fibers. Fabrics with fine threads are great for detailed work, while the coarser ones might be visible through the paint and produce a textured effect on the final painting.
Can I Paint With Acrylics on a Canvas Primed for Oil Paint?
Sometimes, you'll find a canvas that has been primed specifically for oil paint. This means it is sealed with an oil-based primer, and it’s not suitable for acrylic painting.
What happens if you put acrylic on oil paint?
If you use acrylic paint on oil-primed canvas, the oily surface will eventually cause the paint to peel and flake.
However, most canvases are primed with an acrylic primer which can be used as a ground for both acrylic and oil paints. If you buy pre-packaged canvas, read the label: if it’s compatible with acrylic paint, it will say so.
What Is Acrylic Gesso?
Acrylic gesso is a primer that penetrates and grips to the support and becomes a stable base for painting, with a good tooth that holds the paint. It's usually available in bright white, black, and clear.
Gesso can be tinted with acrylic paint to form a colored base and can usually be applied pure or diluted about 20%, depending on the effect you are looking for.
When dry, it provides a porous surface that allows a good degree of absorption but with higher resistance to water than paper. It can be used for acrylics, watercolors, gouache, and oils.
Clear gesso primer looks white when wet, but it dries completely clear, creating protection for the surface and a nice tooth to hold the paint.
How to Stretch a Canvas
You will need:
- Stretcher bars
- Staple gun
- Canvas pliers
Step-by-Step Guide to Stretching Canvas
- Assemble your bars. Interlock them by hand then tap them in tightly with a mallet.
- Form an even square. Check by using a square ruler. Again, tap with mallet at the corners to adjust.
- Staple across each mitered joint to hold the frame square during stretching.
- Allow extra 3-inches of canvas all around.
- Place your bars on the flat canvas, with the bars beveled side down.
- Fold canvas over and staple, starting from the center of each side.
- Use the canvas pliers to pull tight and keep stapling.
- Tuck your corners.
How to Apply Gesso to the Canvas Using Your Hands
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
I have never applied gesso on store bought canvases. The paintings have turned out fine. So is applying gesso really necessary?
When you buy a stretched canvas from a store, it's usually already primed, so you don't need to apply any extra gesso.
The reasons for applying gesso to a canvas are:
1. The canvas has not been primed before. This is usually true for raw canvases bought by the yard.
2. The canvas is already primed for painting but you don't like the texture, so you adjust it to your liking applying smoother or more textured gesso.Helpful 45
What is the best painting medium to use for a beginner painter?
Well, it depends. :) Any painter on any painting, the medium has been a beginner at one point. I personally think that watercolor is one of the most challenging for beginners, because it's hard to fix problems without risking to make the painting muddy. However, I know people that have painted only watercolor for years, loving it, and would not change it.
Acrylic, on the other hand, makes it very easy to change and correct things. Oil too, but since oils dry slower, it takes a few days to be able to paint over without risking the new layer of paint to mix with the one already on the canvas, creating mud.
So, in short, in my opinion, acrylics are the easiest painting medium to use for beginners.Helpful 32
Can I reuse a canvas that has a picture painted on it?
I paint over old paintings all the time.
However, you can't paint with acrylics over oils (but you could do the opposite).
Also, I never paint over a picture that has already been varnished. You could remove the varnish, I guess, but I usually rather invest my time and resources getting a new canvas.
If keeping the old picture as background makes it too confusing, you can paint a layer of color all over and unify it or, in case of an acrylic painting, you can gesso it over.Helpful 32
Can I purchase fabrics, such as broadcloth and upholstery fabric, from a fabric store and prep them with gesso to use for acrylic paintings?
Sure, you can potentially paint on any fabric. As far as the priming, you can use gesso or PVA glue, which is also archival. There is also the option of priming with a transparent acrylic medium, like a soft gel, that would leave the fabric texture and design completely viewable.
For some fabrics that may be too thin to stretch, you can glue them to a hard support, like a wood or MDF panel, using PVA glue or acrylic medium.
Keep in mind that you can technically paint with Acrylics on unprimed fabric and no hard will be dome to it. Oil paint, in the long run, can rot the canvas, but acrylics are fine. If the fabric is thin, it does not soak up all the paint - which makes your job harder - and especially if you like the pattern design, you may not want to cover it with gesso.
A word of caution for upholstery fabric: often it's treated to be stain resistant and water repelling, I'm pretty sure that would affect the priming and painting. Prewashing might help, but I'm not sure.Helpful 26
I want to use acrylic ink to create a background on stretched canvas. Do I have to use a specific primer for ink?
Acrylic ink is a superfluid version of acrylic paint, and it's ideal for under-paintings. As for any paints, you want your canvas primed with gesso before you start. The ink can be mixed with any acrylic paints and medium, and you can use it as you would any other paint.Helpful 15
© 2012 Robie Benve