Preparing a canvas is an art form in and of itself. It is necessary to keep this in mind, especially when first attempting to prepare a canvas, because it truly takes experience before an appropriate and comfortable method is found. Of course, the question can be asked, “Well why would I want to go through the trouble of preparing my own canvas when I can just by one that’s ready-to-go from the store?” My answer to this question is manifold. Firstly, you will be learning a new and unique set of skills. In learning this set of skills and putting them into practice, you will most definitely have a greater appreciation for every painting you make. Reasonably speaking, the more time you invest in a project, the more likely you are to have a strong connection with said project. Secondly, you will link yourself to the long tradition of great craftsmen/painters throughout art history. Finally, making paintings is more than just an activity carried out on a canvas. Creating a painting, like creating within any other discipline, requires of the participant a certain mindset. You should strive to be wholly invested in every aspect of creating a painting, every detail. This mindset, and only this mindset, will provide for you all of the wonderful nuances that are involved with making a painting, which will in turn lead to more thoughtful work.
Now, like any craft, canvas preparation is time-consuming and requires much persistence. There are steps that should be followed in order to efficiently and successfully prepare any canvas. What I will be discussing are the basic steps necessary for preparing your own canvas. In following the steps that I lay out, you can elaborate and refine any of them to suit your personal preferences and/or means. I will also list, at the end of this tutorial, several resources where you can find more in depth information about canvas preparation.
Stretching Your Canvas
1. Having the right supplies in the right amount is essential. Below is the basic list of supplies necessary for stretching a canvas (subsequently the supplies I will be using during the tutorial):
- Pliers – Canvas pliers are tools developed specifically for stretching canvas.
- Staple Gun – The staple gun serves to secure the canvas over the stretcher bars.
- Staples – Of course if you are using a staple gun then you will need staples. 5/16” (8mm) staples are generally the most universal in regards to the various types of staple guns and tend to be the easiest to find.
- Stretcher Bars – Stretchers bars can be purchased from an art store or made from basic 2x3” or 2x4” sized wood. When purchasing stretchers from the store, I use as my rule of them the length 36”. What I mean by this is that when stretching a canvas under 36” in length, I will use light weight stretcher bars. When any one of my dimensions is greater than 36”, I will use heavy-duty stretcher bars (which are at least 2 inches in width). When working larger, it is also recommended to use braces that stretch parallel with the smaller side of the canvas. This will keep your canvas from warping. When making your own stretchers, the most important part is finding wood that is not warped at your local hardware store. You will notice that on pre-made stretchers, the outside edge of the stretchers are raised and beveled, this is done so that the shape of the stretcher bar does not impede upon your painting surface. So, after you choose your wood, you will want to find pieces of quarter-round (commonly used at the intersection of wall and ceiling for a cleaner aesthetic), which will be nailed (preferably a nail gun) to your wood pieces. You will then be ready to stretch you canvas over the secured quarter-round.
- Right Angle or Door Frame – Since you will most likely want your canvas to be ‘square’ (perpendicular), you will need either a metal right angle to check that it’s ‘square’ or a door frame. Typically, I use both the doorframe and the right angle.
- Small Hammer – This will be used to help knock your stretcher bars together as well as hammer any protruding staples into the wood.
- Utility Knife – You will use the utility knife to both cut out the canvas as well as cut off any extraneous canvas.
- Canvas – There are two primary types of canvas material you will come across. The first type is cotton canvas. Consisting of woven cotton, it is typically white in color, and you will find it ranging from light to heavy weight. The heavier the weight of your canvas, the stronger and more stable it will be for painting on. The second type of canvas material is linen. Linen is generally brownish grey in color, and because this material is finer than cotton, it can be woven more tightly together and therefore supplies a stronger and more stable ground to work on than cotton canvas. For this reason, linen canvas is more expensive than cotton canvas.
2. After gathering all of your necessary supplies, you will need to begin to put them together. The first step in doing this is putting together your stretcher bars. For our purposes here, I have used pre-made stretchers. Hammer the stretcher bars together with the aid of a doorframe to help ‘square’ your stretchers. Following this, check each corner with a right angle to make sure they are perfectly square.
3. Next, you will want to secure your stretchers by stapling the inside of each of your corners.
4. Following this you will want to cut out your canvas. Of course you want your canvas to be as large as the stretchers you are using, but you also have to keep in mind that the canvas should stretch over the sides and onto the back of the stretcher bars. A good rule of thumb is to add the width of each one of those stretcher dimensions to the length and width of the stretchers themselves in order to ensure you will have the appropriate amount of canvas for your painting.
5. You are now ready to stretch your canvas. Begin by stapling the middle of each side of your canvas to the underside of your stretcher bars. Alternate by moving from one side to the opposite side in order to maintain an equal amount of tension on each side. Continue alternating and stapling each side by placing two staples per side (one to the left and one to the right of the center) until your staples come to the each corner.
6. This is the tricky part. When you come close to the corners of your stretchers you need to leave about 2” of room on either side of the corner. You will then pull the excess canvas straight out, fold the canvas under on a 45-degree angle, and then pull the remaining canvas over top of the fold, even with the corner of the stretchers and finally over the back of the stretchers. Staple this excess canvas down and then take a break because you deserve it.
Priming Your Canvas
To preface this section some, what I will be discussing is the traditional method of priming a canvas at its most basic. I will follow up this section with different variations of canvas priming that can be employed to achieve different and varied painting surfaces.
1. Once again, your first step is to gather your materials.
- Bucket – This will be used to mix the gesso with water in order to thin its consistency for a more efficient application.
- Palette Knife/ Scraper – This will be used to both mix the water and gesso as well as apply the gesso to the canvas.
- Sand Paper – Fine grit sand paper will be used in between gesso applications to keep the painting surface consistently smooth.
- Canvas Sizing – This will seal your canvas fibers so that your gesso spreads more easily and is able to weather more varied environments than unsized canvas.
- Utrecht Artists’ Grade Acrylic Gesso – This will serve as the painting ground.
- Gesso Brush – This will be used to brush the sizing and the gesso over the surface of the canvas. Generally, nylon brushes from 2” to 4” in width are used.
2. Apply the canvas sizing over the entire canvas surface, making sure that your brushstrokes are all in the same direction. You should be relatively generous when applying the sizing while making sure that it does not pool (puddle) in any area. It is generally understood that about 8oz. of canvas sizing covers about 10 square feet of surface. Allow the sizing about 1 hour to dry.
3. Using a fine grit sand paper (between 150 and 220), sand the surface lightly using a circular motion.
4. Repeat the process in step 2, but brush the sizing in the opposite direction. Do not forget to allow the sizing about 1 hour to dry, and do not sand the surface again.
5. Using a bucket and palette knife, mix water into your gesso to thin its consistency.
6. You are now ready to apply the gesso. Begin by using your palette knife to spread the gesso over the center of the canvas. Lightly scrape and spread the gesso and then brush it over the surface, making sure your brushstrokes follow the same direction. Continue applying and brushing in this manner while working out from the center and alternating sides. This method of alternation allows for a nice even and consistent spread. When finished, allow the gesso about 1 hour to dry.
7. Using a fine grit sand paper (between 100 and 150), sand the surface lightly using a circular motion.
8. Repeat step 6 while making sure that your brushstrokes all face in the opposite direction. Allow about 1 hour for the surface to dry.
9. Lightly sand the surface again, using fine grit sand paper (100-150) in a circular motion.
10. It is of course optional, but you may want to apply one more coat of gesso for a maximum level of consistency in surface. If you do decide to do this, you can just repeat the application and sanding steps listed above.
• Another option to keep in mind is whether or not you want to gesso the sides of your canvas. If you plan to paint the sides it would beneficial to gesso them. I personally enjoy nice clean sides, so I do not gesso them. In order to gesso the sides, just follow the same procedures listed above.
Now you can sit back and admire your overwhelmingly white canvas (satisfying yet daunting, isn’t it). A few things should be taken into consideration if and when you decide to prepare your own canvases. First and foremost, put on some enjoyable music because canvas preparation is long and hard work. Secondly, it may be to your benefit to prepare several canvases at once, especially during the priming process. Since the drying time between gesso applications is so long, it would be to your benefit to prepare several canvases at once so that you get more for the time you’ve invested.
Alternative Practices and Ideas for the Classroom
While the methods for canvas preparation discussed above will result in a nice smooth surface for painting, they certainly aren’t the only manners in which you can prepare a canvas. Some artists have used shapes that aren’t perpendicular (Frank Stella); these are known as ‘shaped’ canvases. You can also experiment with different types of gesso application. This experimentation can be quite fun and will often yield wonderfully unexpected results. Take the time to experience for yourself the difference between sized and unsized canvas, primed and unprimed canvas, as well as a combination of both.
What type of textures can you get?
What if you only primed a section of the canvas, leaving the other section unprimed?
What is the difference between unsanded gesso and sanded gesso?
What other possibilities are there?
Perhaps using a traditional prompt such as the landscape or the figure can be a point of departure.
- With the idea of landscape or figure in mind, develop a painting using traditionally primed or entirely unprimed canvas.
- Develop a painting using various levels of texture.
- Perhaps your work will utilize several of these 'preparatory' methods.
- How have your ideas about the relationship between the preparation of your canvas and the actual painting on your canvas changed?
- What artists can you think of employ different strategies during the preparation and painting of their works??
Helen Frankenthaler (stained, unprimed canvas)
Frank Stella (shaped canvas)
Mark Rothko (raw canvas)
Gerhard Richter (rich textures/ smooth surfaces)
Anselm Kiefer (rich textures)
These artists are literally the first five that came to mind when thinking about the canvas surface, and I know for a fact that there are an innumerable amount of artists who deal with the canvas surface with great variance. Perhaps you can list the first five that come to your mind.
- On Canvas Priming:
- On Canvas Sizing: