How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting Step by Step
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
Typical canvas types are cotton and linen, with the latter being more expensive. 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, and it’s available in a variety of fabrics, weights, textures and widths.
Canvases can be made of linen or cotton, and 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. Make sure you choose the right texture.
Can I paint with acrylics on a canvas that was primed for oil paint?
Traditionally canvas that is to be used for oil paint is sealed with an oil based primer, and it’s not suitable for acrylic painting. More recently factories started selling canvases primed with an acrylic primer which can be used as ground for both acrylic and oil paints. This primer is bright white and can be applied directly on the canvas. Acrylic primer is often called acrylic gesso that is a totally different thing from 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.
If you use acrylic paint on oil-primed canvas the oily surface will eventually cause the paint to peel and flake.
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.
Acrylic gesso primer penetrates and grips to the support, and becomes a stable base for painting, with a good tooth that holds the paint.
Gesso primer 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.
Semi-absorbent gesso primer - When dry, this gesso 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.
You can create interesting background textures while prepping a canvas with gesso and gloss medium. - See video for details
Don’t pour leftover gesso down the drain, because when it hardens it can seriously clog the pipes.
How to Prime a Canvas with Acrylic Gesso
- Plastic or metal stirrer
- Acrylic gesso
- 1”-2” flat brush
- Plastic container
- Stretched canvas
- Paper towel
1. Wet the Canvas
With a sponge dipped in water, wet lightly the canvas and its sides.
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.
Acrylic gesso is usually white; you can make it tinted adding acrylic paint of your chosen color.
Do you stretch your own canvas?
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.
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.
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.
Wait until dry to start painting.
How to Apply Gesso to the Canvas Using Your Hands- By Sandra Scheetz Wise
© 2012 Robie Benve