How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting Step-by-Step

Updated on November 7, 2018
Robie Benve profile image

Robie is a self-taught artist who loves sharing what she's learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Unprimed canvas is sold by the yard at art supply stores. How do you get it ready for painting? Step-by-step instructions on how to prime a canvas with acrylic gesso.
Unprimed canvas is sold by the yard at art supply stores. How do you get it ready for painting? Step-by-step instructions on how to prime a canvas with acrylic gesso. | Source

Is Your Canvas Ready?

Before you start painting, you need to make sure your support is good-to-go.
Store-bought stretched canvases already have gesso, no need to apply more unless you want to modify the texture.
To paint on a canvas that has not been primed before, you are better off applying gesso first.

Why Not Painting on Raw Fabric?

While oil paint requires priming and sealing of the canvas because otherwise, in the long run, the chemicals from the paint would rot the canvas, you could paint with acrylics directly on unprimed canvas, but the absorbent surface would suck up a lot of paint, so it’s usually a good idea to have it sealed and primed before you can paint on it.

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 it is not greasy. This is why you cannot paint with acrylics on a surface that has been primed specifically for oil painting

How to Prime a Canvas with Gesso

Material needed:

  • Canvas, better if already stretched or glued on rigid support
  • Sponge
  • Water
  • Plastic or metal stirrer
  • Acrylic gesso
  • 1”-2” flat brush
  • Plastic container
  • Stretched canvas
  • Paper towel

Do you stretch your own canvas?

See results

1. Wet the Canvas

With a sponge dipped in water, wet lightly the canvas and its sides.

2. Stir

Stir the acrylic gesso, still in the jar, with a stirrer.

3. Get the Right Amount

Then pour in a plastic cup just enough gesso for the task, you don’t want to end up with much extra gesso and put it back in the jar when it’s drier.

Close the jar, gesso dries quickly.

4. Add Water

Thin the gesso in a plastic cup or container, adding up to 20% of water. Stir well.

Especially, make sure you dilute the first layer because diluted gesso will penetrate the fibers of the canvas more easily and will be easier to spread.


Tip:

Acrylic gesso is usually white; you can make it tinted adding acrylic paint of your chosen 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 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.

 Apply the acrylic gesso on the canvas with even, parallel strokes, using a 1”-2” household brush.
Apply the acrylic gesso on the canvas with even, parallel strokes, using a 1”-2” household brush. | Source

7. Let Dry

Once the gesso is dry, after at least an hour - but it’s better if you let it sit overnight - you can start painting on it.

If the canvas is cold to the touch, the gesso is not dry yet.

Tip:

Don’t pour leftover gesso down the drain, because when it hardens it can seriously clog the pipes.

A roller works as well.

A colored gesso application creates a tinted ground. You can brush the gesso on or use a roller.
A colored gesso application creates a tinted ground. You can brush the gesso on or use a roller. | Source

8. Sand Lightly and Repeat

Depending on the tooth you want and how detailed your work will be, you can sand the first layer lightly and then brush another layer on.

After sanding, make sure you clean up any dust residue with a rag.

If you lay the second layer, apply the brushstrokes perpendicularly 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 between applications.

10. Paint

Wait until dry to start painting.

You can create interesting background textures while prepping a canvas with gesso and gloss medium. - See video for details

Ready-Primed Canvases Are Always a Good Option

If you don’t want to prepare your own canvas, you can buy ready-primed canvases 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 with different surfaces: very fine or coarse. I started out using only canvas-covered boards, but then I switch 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.

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.

Canvas Types

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 fabrics, weights, textures, and widths.

Typical canvas types are cotton and linen, with the latter being more expensive.

Canvases may also contain a percentage of synthetic fibers.

Fabrics with fine grain 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 is sealed with an oil based primer, and it’s not suitable for acrylic painting. 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. This primer can be applied directly on the canvas.

Acrylic primer is often called acrylic gesso and it's totally different from the real gesso, made from chalk and not flexible. 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, yet creating a protection to the surface and a nice tooth to hold the paint.

Linen canvas texture before priming with gesso or stretching.
Linen canvas texture before priming with gesso or stretching. | Source

How to Apply Gesso to the Canvas Using Your Hands- By Sandra Scheetz Wise

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Can I reuse a canvas that has a picture painted on it?

    Absolutely!

    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.

  • 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.

© 2012 Robie Benve

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    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 months ago from Ohio

      Hi Donna, usually the main reason why people gesso over pre-gessoed boards or canvases is to adjust or change the texture.

      I have added layers of gesso to canvases that had too much thread texture for my taste. I have also added gesso to boards that were too smooth. If the support is already gessoed and you like the kind of grip and pattern that surface offers, the there is no reason to add more gesso.

      Also, the only gesso that I've ever used is acrylic from the art store, I'm not sure what other kind of gesso is available.

    • profile image

      Donna 

      4 months ago

      Should i gesso over a pre gessoed board or canvas before i use it?

      And what's the difference between acrylic gesso and gesso?

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      16 months ago from Ohio

      Oh boy Redemta, that's a great question and honestly one that I don't know the answer to. I have never used a PVC support to paint, either flexible (canvas) or rigid. I have always used natural fiber canvas, gessoes, or masonite boards, also gessoed.

      I don't know if the PVC might create problems on the long run, as far as the paint peelig off or any other unwanted effect. Maybe you can size it? I'm not sure. Sorry but I can not help you with this. If anyone else knows the answer to "can I use PVC canvas for oil painting?" please write it here in the comments, I'd love to know it to now. :)

    • profile image

      Redemta 

      16 months ago

      Hello,can I use PVC canvas for oil painting?

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Sounds like an awesome project Dennis, good luck to you and have fun doing it! :)

    • profile image

      Dennis 

      2 years ago

      Thank you, I'm planning a landscape 8 feet wide by 2 feet tall with the MIA from Michigan in Vietnam with information on the person along with the longitude and latitude where they went missing. They will be standing side by side looking at the sun rise on the Sea of China. I think a watercolor will work best to get the proper emphasis.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Dennis, usually wrinkles disappear with the tension after you stretch, but you can iron before hand if you want. I would not wash - unless it's very soiled, then you may want to use your own judgement.

      If some wrinkles are left after stretching you can spray the back of the canvas with water and let it air dry. This helps tighten up the canvas fibers. I hope this helps. Happy painting! :)

    • profile image

      Dennis 

      2 years ago

      Hello, I have my canvas, and the frame work made, before I staple the canvas to the wood do I want to wash and iron it? Thanks. :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      2 years ago from Ohio

      Hi Hannah, I only heard of people using white glue (that is acrylic based anyway) as canvas primer, maybe mixed with baby powder, but to be honest with you I have never tried any other canvas primer than acrylic gesso. Great question! Now you got me curious to explore. There probably are much cheaper ways to prime a canvas than gesso! However, I would also check on archival qualities of any other material you are going to use.

    • profile image

      Hannah 

      2 years ago

      hello! what could be the quick alternatives of acrylic gessos?

      something that you could easily grab at home?

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      4 years ago from Ohio

      Hi ItayaLightbourn, holding the gessoed canvas to the light is a great tip to check you you've missed a spot. Thanks! :)

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 

      4 years ago from Topeka, KS

      I have stretched my own canvas and it is definitely a big job. Making sure the gesso has completely coated the canvas is important. You want to make sure that you've put enough coats on that when you hold the canvas to the light, there are no spots you missed. Great article.

    • uzma shaheen profile image

      Uzma Shaheen Bhatti 

      4 years ago from Lahore,Pakistan

      very informative and useful hub, you explained it very well. Gesso is very expensive and it is very hard to find here in Lahore I searched for it on many stores. I wish there would be an alternative for gesso.

      great hub, well done.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Summerberrie, with the cost of ready-made canvases getting more affordable, stretching your own canvas seems to be a rare thing nowadays. I sure like the convenience of the store-bought myself. :)

      Thanks for stopping by. :)

    • profile image

      summerberrie 

      6 years ago

      I remember stretching canvases in college. Have not done it in a few years. Great resource for artist!

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Carol, Thanks for reading, I'm glad you found it interesting. :)

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      I paint with acrylics and this brought out some really good points.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      Hi wayseeker, sounds like you really have your hands full, and they are all creative activities, so I'm sure that as soon as your agenda will have some gaps, you'll find the way to fit painting in and you'll do just great!

      I think I'll take your suggestion to add some of my paintings to the art hubs, thanks! :)

    • wayseeker profile image

      wayseeker 

      6 years ago from Colorado

      Robie,

      This makes me want to retire! (Just another fifteen to twenty years or so, and I'm good.) I love all things artsy and I've always wanted to get an easel and some paints and brushes and see what happens. My problem at the moment is that I have my hands into too many other things--music, acting, drawing, sculpting...oh, and writing--to have the time.

      Still, the time will come, and now I have a wonderful source of numerous ideas and helpful hints to get started. Thanks for these great hubs!

      wayseeker

      P.S. I'd love to see some of your paintings come through on these hubs sometime.

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      gamelover, I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

      Cre8tor, thanks to you and your friend for the kudos! It always great to receive good feedback from the experts. :)

    • Cre8tor profile image

      Dan Robbins 

      6 years ago

      Great hub! My friend (art degree and teacher) read this and is very impressed. Voted up and useful.

    • gamelover profile image

      Meskens Geert 

      6 years ago from Belgium

      thanks, good stuff

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      @ europewalker: Of the many video I viewed on priming a canvas this was the one that stroke me for its clarity and professionalism, and it has the extra twist of creating texture that I found appealing. I'm glad you enjoyed it! :)

    • Robie Benve profile imageAUTHOR

      Robie Benve 

      6 years ago from Ohio

      @ alliemacb: priming your own canvas can be an intimidating task, I'm happy to hear that I made it sound easy. Thank you! :)

    • europewalker profile image

      europewalker 

      6 years ago

      Useful hub. Enjoyed the video. I checked out of more of Joe's videos on You Tube. Thanks!

    • alliemacb profile image

      alliemacb 

      6 years ago from Scotland

      You've made this really easy to understand. Voted up.

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