How to Prepare a Canvas for Painting Step-by-Step
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
- Canvas, better if already stretched or glued on rigid support
- Plastic or metal stirrer
- Acrylic gesso
- 1”-2” flat brush
- Plastic container
- Stretched canvas
- Paper towel
Do you stretch your own canvas?
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.
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.
Don’t pour leftover gesso down the drain, because when it hardens it can seriously clog the pipes.
A roller works as well.
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.
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.
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.
How to Apply Gesso to the Canvas Using Your Hands- By Sandra Scheetz Wise
Questions & Answers
- Helpful 20
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 6
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.
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.
© 2012 Robie Benve