Sunday, October 08, 2006

Preparing Canvases

My husband taught school for 30 years and he always told me how much he loved to teach, but he never liked getting ready to teach. I think the same applies to painting. I love to paint, but I'm not crazy about getting ready to paint. But it's a necessary part of the painting process.

Like building a house; you have to have a good, strong foundation. If you don't, it doesn't matter how nice the carpet is or what color the walls are. And when it comes to walls, it won't matter what color paint you use if the taping and texturing underneath wasn't done correctly.

Liken this to a canvas. It's your painting's foundation. And depending on your style, like the color of the walls in your house, it needs a certain texture. This method certainly isn't for everyone, but it works for me. I have a background in drawing and I like smooth surfaces.

Because of my background in drawing I'm a detail painter. I use many coats of paint in my larger works; applied thinly. I use fine sable brushes for applying the paint and blending it in. If I don't have the right texture on my canvas, I'll tear up those brushes in a hurry. And they are expensive. Plus, I love being able to draw on the canvas when I start the painting. It's hard to draw if there's a lot of texture, almost like fingernails on a blackboard, if you ask me.

So creating the right texture is a chore, and always a workout. I wish I had an apprentice to do all the preparatory work! What I really want to do is just paint! Warning, this is not for anyone with a weak back! I work out with weights and it's still a big job. Back to what I said originally, I love to paint, but I'm not that fond of getting ready to paint. But because someone has to do it, it might as well be me.

Also, I learned how to prepare canvases like this from an established artist whom I really admire (Pamela Green). She paints in the Old Master's style that I continue to learn about. Many of the early painters worked on boards that were satiny smooth. As I continue to learn from Pamela and practice the techniques myself, I understand how every step is part of the whole. This first step.

Now - on to the specifics. I use both store bought canvases, and canvases I stretch myself. Here's what I do/use when I prepare a store bought canvas. Note: this technique can also be used to prepare wooden panels. In fact, I use it to prepare my small daily-painting panels The picture above shows me sanding two of these.


  • store bought cotton canvas, any size (I use gallery wrap style and prefer Masterpiece or Art Alternatives brands), or wooden panels
  • acrylic gesso (I use Golden brand)
  • 1 or 2 inch flat housepainting brush

  • glass jar full of water for cleaning brush

  • shop towels (I buy in bulk at Home Depot)
  • latex gloves (I buy in 100-pack at hardware store)
  • baby powder (for keeping the gloves from sticking)

  • 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper

  • Spray bottle full of water
  1. Pub on the gloves. If they stick dust your hands with baby powder. Using the flat housepainting brush, apply three coats of gesso to front of the canvas. Don't need to go around the gallery wrap. Let each coat dry a minimum of 4 hours. Stroke in a different direction on each coat.

  2. After the third coat is dry, spray the canvas with water from the spray bottle. Tear 320 grit wet/dry sandpaper into little squares. Sand the canvas using circular motions. Sand the entire surface several times. After each time, wipe dry with a shop towel and examine for smoothness. The canvas will get smoother each time, but some of the cotton texture and gesso strokes will still be visible in good light. It usually takes 3 sandings in this stage. If the sandpaper drags, spray more water. It should be really wet while sanding. This is a messy process. I wear old clothes and protect the floor.

  3. Apply 2 more coats of gesso, stroking in different directions each time.
  4. After the second coat is dry, spray the canvas with water from the spray bottle. Tear 400 grit wet/dry sandpaper into little squares. Sand the canvas using circular motions, as in step 2. By the time I've gone over the whole canvas several times, it should be really smooth, with all texture and gesso strokes removed.

  5. I usually stop at this point because the canvas is smooth enough. But sometimes I apply another 2 coats of gesso and sand using the 600 grit wet/dry sandpaper if desired. This will give a satin smooth canvas with no texture, almost like paper.
  6. If I apply two coats of gesso in one day, I don't clean my brush each time. I just plop it into the jar of water until the next coat. If it's an overnight dry, I wash the brush clean with water and dish soap.

If I'm doing a large canvas, like the 36" x 48" canvas I used for White Iris, I have to divide the canvas into quarters and sand one section at a time. I break this up over a week's time so my back and shoulders don't give out!

You may wonder why I go to all this trouble when most artists just walk into an art supply store, buy a canvas and begin painting on it immediately. Or why I go to all the trouble of removing the texture that many artists prefer. I guess it's just a matter of preference, and a continued interest in the Old Master's style and the effects I can get with a smooth canvas. When I explain my painting process (in a future post) you will see why the smoothness is beneficial.

If by chance you are really adventurous, you can always stretch your own canvas. I often do and use a 10 lb. unprimed cotton duck and heavy duty stretcher bars from Art Media. Once I stretch it, I apply 3 coats of gesso, sand according to step 2, apply 3 more coats of gesso and sand again according to step 2. Then I proceed to step 3. You can see that preparing an unprimed canvas is a little more work. If you stretch with primed canvas, you can skip that extra step, But I don't like to stretch primed canvas. It's too stiff and hard to work with and I can't get it as tight as when I use unprimed cotton.

Although you can buy portrait canvases that are fairly smooth, I haven't found any canvas manufacturer that produces a canvas as smooth as this method. Most people don't want to go to all the trouble of gessoing and sanding. My thought is that the canvas becomes part of the painting, and because I've invested my heart, soul and a good deal of muscle into it, once the painting is finished it's a part of me. Like if I built my own house. Good luck!

PS: if you're not sure about this whole process, try a small canvas, maybe 8 x 10. It will give you a feel for how it works, and you can decide for yourself whether you want to invest all the time and energy it takes.


sheila miles said...

I only use two coats of acrylic gesso, sanding in between first and second coat but I then apply an oil ground such as Gamblins oil ground or Daniel Smiths Oil Gesso. I apply with a 6" wide putty knife and work into canvas. A brush dipped in Turpenoid to finish off and smooth the knife marks. If desired a second coat can be added. Much easier and I love the results.

Izabella said...

These have been fabulous information. I am back to painting and am just beyond frustrated by the texture of the canvas. I want it smooth! It's practically impossible to paint all these tiny details with all the bumps.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marie and friends

I'm planning to make quite a large painting on a large square of free canvas rolled out on the ground.

I'm using a roll of preprimed basic canvas..
So my query is as i'd like to thicken it out with extra primer of some sort, making it stronger yet quiet malleable to roll.

I would like to make this light enough canvas almost weighed and aged by the application kind of like the feeling of an old wax jacket. It doesn't necessarily have to be a oil finish, as im not sure if im going to be using oil or acrylic yet.

Im planning to paint on the ground in public and it will take a lot time to finish so ill be rolling it up and out many times, taking it out and bring home everyday, therefore these extras layers will make the large sheet of canvas just more substantial as in durable also.

If anyone gets the kind of feel for how i want to process this pretty flimsy large rectangle of canvas, before i take it on to the street then Please let me know what i should do, or any suggestions would be appreciated greatly thanks.

Regards from Berlin,

Niall D.

Marie Wise said...

Good luck with such a large canvas! If you are using oil paints you won't be able to roll it up every day, as the paints won't be dry. I suggest acrylic instead. Water clean up will also be easier on such a big project.
Have fun!

Edward Devraj said...

Hi Marie, gone through to your post its really nice and helped lot on painting.....
I want to do charcoal on canvas and I am a realistic artist, please help me out how to prepare canvas or what is the way to work with charcoal on canvas to get hype realistic work.

Thank you