How To Prepare A Canvas For Oil Painting

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There are many fine canvas manufacturers and the majority of artists tend to purchase pre-made, ready to use supports.

These have been sized and stretched and are ready for a base coat of gesso. Cost and quality vary, as well as dimension. They can be cost effective for the artist as well as saving a great deal of time and effort.

However, if the artist wants specially sized supports, or is planning to paint canvases of epic proportions, he may decide that preparing his own canvases may be worth his time and effort.

Many hobby artists and those with limited time prefer purchasing ready-made canvases, but the ability to control the size, shape and texture of the canvas as well as the cost reduction makes the do-it-yourself method an attractive alternative.

Various techniques may be used throughout the process of constructing and preparing a canvas. Artists have different preferences on which type or method they prefer, and no one type is better for every application.

The Fabric Of Our Lives

The fabric used to create a support is generically called canvas. However, this is a misnomer as the fabric used is generally either cotton or linen. Any tightly woven fabric may be used to create a canvas and the type of fabric used will be based on the painting style of the artist and his pocket book.

Linen is the more costly fabric, although it is the traditional fiber used throughout the millennia. Both cotton and linen are a pale, beige or tan color in the raw state. Unprimed cloth is the least costly, but requires that the artist learn the art of priming and applying ground to the fabric. Primed canvas is widely available and reduces the time required to produce a support.

Stretching It Out

The canvas needs to become a rigid surface to hold the paint in a manner that prevents it from cracking or flaking off the surface. A structure is built to hold the canvas firmly and consists of four wooden bars produced specifically to construct the frame. These are generally tongue and groove construction with mitered corners. The framework must be sturdy and have 90-degree angles. Very large frameworks may have additional cross-members to support them, but this becomes an engineering feat that requires further advice.

After the framework is constructed, spread the canvas on the work surface and place the frame on top of it. The next step is to cut the canvas, leaving enough extra material around all four edges to bring up and over the framework to staple on the back. This is generally two or three inches of material.

Staple the canvas to the framework, using iodized or coated brass staples. Work from one side directly across to the other side of the frame, keeping the tension consistent. Use pliers to keep a tight grip on the canvas and keep it pulled tight while stapling the fabric. Work from side to side and then from top to bottom, keeping the fabric very taut. When the fabric is securely fastened to the framework, it is time to prepare the canvas for painting.

Doing The Groundwork

Priming the canvas with sizing and a ground are the next things that need to be accomplished before the artist can begin actually painting.


Sizing is traditionally rabbit skin glue that is mixed with water and heated until it dissolves. When it has cooled and taken on a jelly like texture, it is ready to be applied. This is painted on the surface of the canvas, making sure to paint all corners and edges. This is needed to seal and protect the fabric from exposure to oil, which over time will degrade and destroy the fibers of the canvas. This should be applied in two thin layers in preparation for the next layer.

Organic Gesso

The ground is the layer that prepares the canvas to accept the oil paint. This is gesso and may be organic, made of rabbit skin glue and chalk or plaster of paris. This is applied with at least two layers, the first layer brushed in one direction and the second brushed perpendicular to the first. When the ground has dried, it should be sanded to the texture the artist wishes to prepare it for paint.

Acrylic Gesso

There are also ready-made acrylic gesso products that work very well and are worth the convenience they offer. Gesso is available in different consistencies, colors and is water based for ease of use and clean up. It is important the brush be cleaned thoroughly when using gesso. When it dries, it is almost impossible to remove and the wise artist will set aside brushes to use only for this purpose.

Gesso should not be diluted excessively, as too much water compromises the integrity of the substance and cracking can result. The quantity of gesso and number of layers an artist uses to prepare his canvas will vary as his needs change.

The type of painting the artist intends on creating will determine the amount of gesso and sanding done to the surface. If the artist plans on working in detail, he should take care to use several coats, sanded well between layers, to assure a smooth finish on which to work. If the piece in question is to have texture, the artist may elect to leave brush marks and other imperfections.

Modeling Paste

If the artist wants to work in the impasto method, he may use modeling paste to build up his canvas before continuing. This is applied directly on the gesso and should dry thoroughly before painting.

All this time and labor-intensive work is the reason that so many artists hop in the car and dash to the nearest craft store to purchase ready-made canvases. Making supports is quite a production, and it makes sense to generate a whole batch at once if the artist decides to undertake this chore.

When an artist chooses to devote the effort required for this little side journey into the art world, he will be rewarded by visions of tiny dollar signs as he surveys his newly created cache of canvases.

He is able to produce custom-built supports, made to his own specifications at a reasonable price.

He has a stockpile of supplies so he can work uninterrupted for some time and he has the satisfaction of learning a new skill that makes him more autonomous in his artistic endeavors.

2 thoughts on “How To Prepare A Canvas For Oil Painting

  1. Hi,
    I have gone through your website about stretched canvas manufacturers, and it’s wonderful.
    Thank you for the additional information about stretched canvas manufacturers.

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