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How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting: A Step-by-Step Guide

Robie is an artist who loves sharing what she has learned about art and painting in the hope that it might help other creatives.

Before you can paint on canvas, the fabric should be primed. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to prep a canvas for acrylic or oil painting.

Before you can paint on canvas, the fabric should be primed. Here are step-by-step instructions for how to prep a canvas for acrylic or oil painting.

Is Your Canvas Primed and Ready to Be Painted?

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

Material needed:

  • Canvas: best if already stretched or glued onto a rigid support
  • Sponge
  • Water
  • 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.

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.

 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.

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.

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.

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.

Canvas is sold by the yard at the art store. There are different kinds of materials and finish.

Canvas is sold by the yard at the art store. There are different kinds of materials and finish.

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:

  • Canvas
  • Stretcher bars
  • Staple gun
  • Canvas pliers
  • Mallet

Step-by-Step Guide to Stretching Canvas

  1. Assemble your bars. Interlock them by hand then tap them in tightly with a mallet.
  2. Form an even square. Check by using a square ruler. Again, tap with mallet at the corners to adjust.
  3. Staple across each mitered joint to hold the frame square during stretching.
  4. Allow extra 3-inches of canvas all around.
  5. Place your bars on the flat canvas, with the bars beveled side down.
  6. Fold canvas over and staple, starting from the center of each side.
  7. Use the canvas pliers to pull tight and keep stapling.
  8. Tuck your corners.
Stretcher bars are sold by size, ready to use. Pictured, stretcher rack at Dick Blick art materials store.

Stretcher bars are sold by size, ready to use. Pictured, stretcher rack at Dick Blick art materials store.

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

Question: What is the best painting medium to use for a beginner painter?

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: Can I purchase fabrics, such as broadcloth and upholstery fabric, from a fabric store and prep them with gesso to use for acrylic paintings?

Answer: 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.

Question: I want to use acrylic ink to create a background on stretched canvas. Do I have to use a specific primer for ink?

Answer: 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.

Question: I have never applied gesso on store bought canvases. The paintings have turned out fine. So is applying gesso really necessary?

Answer: 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.

Question: I would like to make hanging tapestries - so not stretched or mounted canvas. How would I prepare my canvas without it warping?

Answer: To be able to hang a canvas without a stretcher, I would treat it like a hanging quilt. Quilters have found many creative ways to prevent their creations from warping or become all wavy. You may want to look into what is used for backing and as a hanging device for all kind of different fiber artworks. I've never done it myself (yet), but it's totally doable.

Question: Can you paint with acrylics on a canvas if gesso has not been applied yet?

Answer: You can paint on a canvas that has not been gessoed, but it will absorb the paint a lot, making painting a little harder and edges hard to control.

Question: I bought a cheap stretched canvas and it came with a little bag of small wooden tabs. What are these for?

Answer: The wooden tabs that came with some stretched canvases are canvas wedges.

The canvas tension of any stretched canvas should be fine for painting on without the use of the wedges. However, after a period of time, the tension of the canvas could become loose. If this occurs, the tension can be regained by fitting the canvas wedges into the corner slots using a small hammer.

You can google this and find lots of video tutorials on how to do it.

Question: I want to buy unprimed canvas roll and prime it with clear acrylic medium. How do you prime the roll that is unstretched with primer. Also, what clear primer can you recommend?

Answer: All right, I'll be honest, I usually apply gesso to stretched canvas or wood panels, I have not much experience with unstretched canvas. That said, I would think that you apply the gesso - white, colored, or crear - with a brush or a roller, the same way you'd do if the canvas was stretched.

However, I would visit a local art supply store and ask them for tips. They may have better insights on what works and what should be avoided when the canvas is not stretched.

Question: The store bought canvases I buy have tiny little squares, should I sand it so these don't effect the paint or prime it? As is, it tends to make my lines crooked or uneven.

Answer: If you don't like the texture of a store-bought canvas, you can make it smoother by adding a layer or two of gesso.

Question: If I apply water or soak a new canvas, will it stretch it or shrink it?

Answer: I've never tried to soak or wet a new canvas, so I'm not sure of what would happen. However, one old trick for stretched canvases that have become kind of loose and wavy, is to spray some water on the back of the canvas, where there is no primer. Let it air-dry. This will help the canvas become tighter on the stretchers, so practically it shrinks a little, and there will be less bounce and fewer waves on the canvas.

Question: I am looking to paint on Canvas Tote bags with acrylic paints, should I gesso the tote bags or will it ruin the feel of the fabric?

Answer: To paint on canvas tote bags I would use paint that is specific for fabric. You can find it at the craft store, no gesso needed.

However, I have painted on t-shirt with acrylic paint before, without using any priming, and I have to say they lasted a long time and several washings.

After I painted them I made them go through a cycle in the dryer to fix the paint.

Question: What is tracing paper for?

Answer: Tracing paper is a semi-transparent paper that you can use to transfer a pencil drawing to a surface, almost like a carbon copy, by placing it upside down on the canvas or paper and then rubbing the drawing so that the graphite transfers onto the surface.

Question: Does mixing emulsion with glue work on canvas as a primer?

Answer: Sorry, but I have never heard of mixing "emulsion with glue" as being a viable canvas primer.

What do you refer to as "emulsion", maybe some kind of wall paint?

To me, emulsion means a suspension of two liquids that will not mix, like an emulsion of oil and water. Also, there are many kinds of glue. If you can be more specific, it might help me understand the question better.

© 2012 Robie Benve

Comments

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on October 15, 2019:

It is generally rewarding. Heck of a learning curve. The organic pigment can be labor intensive. So, if I need decent amounts of them, I use my rock tumbler to make a dispersion. I can get 35 to 50 percent pigment in a dispersion by weight

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on October 15, 2019:

Wow Jason, you are quite a talented artist! I have never made my own paints, I bet that's rewarding and exciting. Thanks a lot for your great comment and feedback.

Jason from Indianapolis, IN. USA on October 12, 2019:

Thanks Robie! I appreciate your generosity and hard work writing this hub! I mull pigments to make my own acrylic paints to relax and relieve stress from daily grind(pun). Anyways, I had about 3 grams of pyrolle red left over from testing that I gave to my daughter. She is asking for a canvas and now I am more informed! You will see in my hubs that I paint on metals, wood and occasionally plastics. So again thanks for your help!

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on August 05, 2019:

Hello Alok, I'm sorry but I can't really help you. My experience is as an artist, not as a manufacturer. I am not sure what kind of process you need to use to create gessoed canvases from a production stand point. Sorry, but I have no experience with fabric with acrylic coating.

Alok Bhardwaj on August 05, 2019:

Hello sir,

We have coating machine and we are doing acrylic coating in fabric and sell it to in market. Customer use it in digital printing in latex or solvent machine and some customer is using it as artistic canvas.

My main concern is that is gesso is required in top coat of my acrylic coating for better result.

Please suggest.

Jasna vp on May 16, 2019:

hiii,l am a bigginners. so all the information given you are so helpful.thank you. and l would like to learn painting and be an artist for happiness and relief from my pains.so hope your and all suport

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on March 18, 2019:

You are welcome Lia, happy painting!

Lia Thomas on March 18, 2019:

Just the information I needed today about how to gesso a canvas, thanks!

Fidelis on January 01, 2019:

Thank you,very helpful informatiom

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 27, 2018:

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.

Donna on July 25, 2018:

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 (author) from Ohio on August 04, 2017:

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. :)

Redemta on August 03, 2017:

Hello,can I use PVC canvas for oil painting?

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on November 22, 2016:

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

Dennis on November 11, 2016:

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 (author) from Ohio on November 10, 2016:

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! :)

Dennis on November 10, 2016:

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 (author) from Ohio on September 06, 2016:

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 on September 05, 2016:

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

something that you could easily grab at home?

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on September 05, 2014:

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

Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on September 02, 2014:

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 Bhatti from Lahore,Pakistan on April 07, 2014:

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 (author) from Ohio on September 03, 2012:

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 on September 01, 2012:

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

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on July 02, 2012:

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

carol stanley from Arizona on June 30, 2012:

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

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on June 08, 2012:

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 from Colorado on May 11, 2012:

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 (author) from Ohio on April 13, 2012:

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. :)

Dan Reed on April 12, 2012:

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

Meskens Geert from Belgium on April 12, 2012:

thanks, good stuff

Robie Benve (author) from Ohio on April 09, 2012:

@ 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 (author) from Ohio on April 09, 2012:

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

europewalker on April 09, 2012:

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

alliemacb from Scotland on April 09, 2012:

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