How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting Step by Step

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

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

Linen Canvas Texture
Linen Canvas Texture | Source

Canvas Types

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 for 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 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 painting it will tell you.

If you use acrylic paint on oil-primed canvas the oily surface will eventually cause the paint to peel and flake.

You can Buy Canvas by the Roll, Primed or Unprimed

Ready-Primed Canvases

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 arts 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.

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

Acrylic Gesso

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 god 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

Material needed:

  • Sponge
  • Water
  • Plastic or metal stirrer
  • Acrylic gesso
  • 1”-2” flat brush
  • Plastic container
  • Stretched canvas
  • Paper towel

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

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

3. 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. Thin the gesso in the plastic container with a little bit of water, up to 20%; this is important especially for 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, but you can make it tinted adding acrylic paint of your chosen color. Stir well.

Do you stretch your own canvas?

  • Yes, always.
  • Only sometimes. Most of the times I buy pre-made canvases.
  • No, I always buy pre-stretched canvas from art supply stores.
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5. 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. Using a 1”-2” household brush, lay the acrylic gesso on the canvas with horizontal strokes, evenly spreading the gesso from left to right and back.

7. 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.
Depending of the tooth you want and how detailed your work will be, you can sand the first layer lightly and then brush another layer on.

8. After sanding make sure you clean up any dust residue with a rug. 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. For extra layers, repeat the drying and sanding between applications.

10. Wait until dry to start painting.

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

© 2012 Robie Benve

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Comments 18 comments

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 7 weeks ago from Ohio Author

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.

Hannah 7 weeks ago

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

something that you could easily grab at home?

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 2 years ago from Ohio Author

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

ItayaLightbourne 2 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 2 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 image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

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. :)

summerberrie 4 years ago

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

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

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

carol7777 profile image

carol7777 4 years ago from Arizona

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

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

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 4 years ago from Colorado


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!


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

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

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

Cre8tor 4 years ago from Ohio

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

gamelover profile image

gamelover 4 years ago from Belgium

thanks, good stuff

Robie Benve profile image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

@ 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 image

Robie Benve 4 years ago from Ohio Author

@ 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 4 years ago

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

alliemacb profile image

alliemacb 4 years ago from Scotland

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

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