How to Prepare a Canvas to Paint

I spent the day prepping canvases. So that means I’m between paintings right now. I have several ideas in various stages of development and for me, that is the perfect time to get ‘er done–while I’m still in the thought and sketch mode.

I know many beginning artists dislike prep work. They want to get on to the good stuff with the brushes and pigment. But, if a canvas is not prepped properly it can ruin an otherwise beautiful painting. I didn’t like it at first and tried to create shortcuts, but they never worked out and my art suffered for it.

Somewhere along the line, I made peace with it and can honestly say I enjoy it now. How much prep your canvas needs will depend on your own preferences and sometimes on the technique you choose to use. For instance, if you were painting impasto, which is a technique using thick, textured paint (think Van Gogh), you could get by with just applying primer and sealer. But if you are anything like me, you’ll want a smooth canvas with hardly, if any, weave showing.

There are many products out there and many ways to prep canvases, but I’m going to tell you what works for me. Since I like a very smooth surface, it takes time and it’s easier to prep a number of canvases at once. Prepping will take several days.  I encourage you to comment with your favorite or unique way to prep surfaces, if they differ. The more information available the better it is for beginning artists.

First, I use a medium length palette knife to scoop out a large dollop of DecoArt  Acrylic Gesso and spread it over the canvas.  If the canvas is large, I may use a drop or two of DecoArt Traditions Extender and Blending Medium to keep it pliable longer. Then I use the knife to smash the gesso into the weave of the canvas, scraping the excess as I go.  I wipe the excess onto an area not yet covered and smash and scrape again. Continuing until the whole canvas is covered with a thin layer. (Some prefer to use an old credit card or a paint spatula, instead of a palette knife for this.)

Don’t try to fill and hide the weave with one layer. This is a multi-layer process. Each layer must dry thoroughly and then be sanded before the next layer is applied. If you apply another layer over a layer that has not dried completely, you risk cracking the gesso. But it won’t happen right away. It may wait until you have your beautiful artwork on it.  For that reason, I give my canvases a long dry time. Pending on the season, I may dry then in the shade outdoors. Some use a hair dryer, but I don’t trust that a dryer is getting below the surface.  This is why it takes me so long.

Okay, let’s talk about sanding. I use a fine sandpaper that is meant for wet sanding. Get the sandpaper wet and move lightly over the surface. I use a circular motion and spend extra time on any areas that appear thicker than the rest or any ridges. I take my time to make each layer as smooth as possible. Then I use a clean shop towel to wipe it clean.

I usually use 3 or 4 layers in all. When the last layer is dry and sanded I seal with DecoArt Traditions Multi-Surface Sealer. I let is cure for 24 hours before I would start painting on it. I’m probably over cautious, but hey, I want to make sure this baby’s good enough for my finest work.

Well, that’s the nuts and bolts of prepping. If you found it helpful, share it with your friends. And if you have an even better way to prep, please let me know.

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6 thoughts on “How to Prepare a Canvas to Paint

  1. Sheila Landry

    These are great tips Lynette for those of us who are not familiar with painting on canvas. It is so different than painting on wood! I shy away from it because I don’t really like the texture, but I think that is probably because I didn’t prepare it properly. Maybe I will give it another try. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience so we all can learn. Sheila

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    1. Lynnette Post author

      Thanks for commenting, Sheila. Yes, it takes a little more effort to prep a canvas, compared to wood, but sometimes the best surface option is a canvas. I also like to paint on gessoed boards and clayboards because they are so smooth. Those I seal with DecoArt Traditions Multi-surface Sealer, dry thoroughly and then lightly sand with an ultra fine artist sandpaper or a piece of brown paper bag.

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  2. Sue Tate

    Do all artists do this? I love the texture of canvas and have never done this. I love to do a lot of dry brush and the texture has always been my friend. I am self taught so have never heard of this. Of course no one will ever accuse me of being professional.

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    1. Lynnette Post author

      That’s a good question, Sue. Most artists I know prep their canvases. They may use more or less layers of gesso than I do. It is a personal preference. You’ll find that one layer of gesso will seal the canvas while still leaving the texture you want.

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    1. Lynnette Post author

      It takes a little practice. When you smash push it across the canvas at the same time. It’s sort of like frosting a cake but with more force and a lot less frosting.

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