Today we’re talking about priming or preparing your painting canvas for acrylic painting. We’ll talk about:
- What canvas I buy for acrylic art and my all-time favorite canvas for acrylic painting
- What to do if your canvas is loose
- What art supplies you need to prime your painting canvas
- The step by step guide to priming your canvas
- Some assorted Q&A all about gesso for acrylic painting
Let’s get started!
Until the next episode, happy creating my artist friends!
Hello, and welcome back to the Self Taught Artist Podcast. I’m Lauren Kristine, your host. You know, I meant to get this episode done sooner, but I had quite a busy weekend. I was on such a roll with my painting, and I think I hit a mini breakthrough. I was able to paint faster and looser this weekend and I am in love with the result, which yesterday was a beautiful floral piece.
A quick note before we begin, today’s episode is really intended for Acrylic Painters. If you’re an oil painter or a watercolor artist, you can probably skip this lesson. Oil painters might learn something new from today’s episode, but be careful because priming an oil canvas is a bit more complicated than priming a canvas for acrylic painting.
Today on the podcast we are talking about priming and preparing your painting canvas. We’re going to talk about what canvases I buy to paint on, what to do if your canvas is loose, and what supplies you need to prime your canvas properly. We’ll go over the step by step guide to priming your canvas. Lastly, we’ll do some assorted Question and Answers about Gesso. So let’s dive in!
I do most of my painting on stretched canvas these days. I buy canvases pre-stretched as I have very little interest in actually stretching them myself. I use a variety of types of canvases, ranging from the cheap value packs that I get at Michaels, to the Michaels level three professional canvases. Michaels is where I love to shop for canvases. Here in the United States at least. The big reason for that is because they do great sales and promotions. I buy in bulk during the sale times and highly recommend it. If past years are indicative of when they’re doing their sale again this year, it should be sometime around April. However, Dick Blick also has really good canvases and they have pretty good everyday prices if you need something sooner than that. I digress, back to priming your surface.
If you buy a value canvas, sometimes you might find that they come a bit loose on the stretcher bars. That means when you unwrap it, and you touch the canvas, it sags slightly and the canvas fabric is not stretched nice and tight as you want it. When that happens, don’t worry because there is a super easy fix and there’s no need for despair. Simply grab a spray bottle to wet the canvas on the back. You’re going to use the non gessoed side and just give it a nice spritz. You don’t want the canvas to be soaking wet, just slightly damp to the touch. Make sure the water soaks in a bit. I recommend rubbing it with your fingers just to make sure that water gets rubbed in. Next, grab a hairdryer and dry the canvas with heat. Canvas is made from cotton which as you probably know from shrinking your clothes in the dryer from time to time, cotton shrinks pretty easily, especially with heat. All you need to do is repeat these steps as needed to reach your desired tightness. Usually it only takes me one time to really tighten up the canvas. But if it’s super loose, you might need to repeat these steps. This is a great hack so be sure to save this to come back when you need it.
Loose canvases are just one of the many possible problems with the value canvases. The canvas fabric is thinner, they usually come pre gessoed, but it’s not the greatest Gesso that they use and it’s usually just a very thin layer. Generally the value canvases are just cheaply made so you have to take extra steps as an artist to ensure your work on a value canvas will hold up and endure the test of time. Due to the quality of these cheap canvases, I really can only recommend them for size 11 by 14 and smaller. The chance of warping and tearing really increases exponentially with the size. Despite all these potential issues with the cheap value canvases, I still use small ones because they are so great for practice due to their affordable price. However, when I use them, I make sure to prime my Canvas really well before I start painting. Priming your canvas increases longevity of your work.
Remember, your goal as an artist, especially if you want to sell your work is to make your art archival quality. This means that it will last for 100 years under decent conditions. Whether I’m using a value canvas or a level three professional canvas, I always follow the same priming process. I’m going to share step by step this entire process later on in this episode. I believe so strongly that the first coat on the canvas is critical to the success of the painting. So even if you have the most expensive type of painting canvas, I still recommend taking the time to prime it properly.
What materials do you need to prime your canvas? Well, here’s everything you’re going to need. First, a good brush. I suggest using a large brush that’s at least one inch wide. I recommend using a brush you don’t care about too much. Since Gesso can be really tough on your brush. You don’t need a fancy brush or an expensive brush. You just need one that’s big enough to spread the Gesso efficiently. Make sure to wet your brush before using the gesso and keep your brush wet after using it and in between layers. If gesso dries on the bristles of your brush, it’s probably not going to come out.
My favorite brush to use for priming a canvas is actually what’s called a chip brush that I buy from the hardware store. These are my secret weapon. They are super duper cheap. I mean we’re talking like $1 each, and they are durable. They have a straggly texture in the bristles that is just divine for painting backgrounds. Take a trip to your local hardware store and pick up a few of these. I promise you won’t regret it. I keep one inch, two inch and three inch chip brushes on hand that I use for all different things in my painting practice.
The absolute most important supply for priming your canvas is Gesso. I recommend getting a bottle of Liquitex Professional White Gesso – it’s my favorite and totally worth the money. It’s pretty liquid, so it applies really smoothly and easily to any surface. You can get Liquitex Gesso at any art supply store. Sometimes you might find it called Gesso prep medium, it’s the same exact thing. Gesso comes in white, gray, black and clear. I use a traditional white since I love bright colors on my paintings, and I find that white is simply the best color to prime my canvases with. As a bonus, white Gesso can double as opaque white paint and be very useful. An eight ounce bottle of Liquitex professional white Jesso is $11.27 at Jerry’s Artarama, I just looked and it’s totally affordable. Just that eight ounce bottle can prime a lot of paintings!
Note: Liquitex has something called Liquitex Basics Gesso that you will find is a bit cheaper. However, I find the Liquitex Basics line of Gesso to be a bit chalky, and the texture is thicker and harder to smooth down on the canvas and the professional Liquitex Gesso. It’s just a few dollars more for the Liquitex Professional, but I promise it’s worth it.
The last supply you need is an optional tool: sandpaper. Sandpaper is used to eliminate tooth or texture in your primed canvas surface. To date, I have never actually sanded my gesso. I never say never. It’s something I might do in the future. Just know that sanding your canvas is an option for those of you with very distinct texture preferences. If you smooth gesso in between layers, you can get an extremely smooth surface to paint on. One that’s more reminiscent of say, a birch panel. Cotton canvas or linen canvas always has a bit of a texture to it. I personally love the texture and think that it makes my paintings look very painterly, but it’s up to you and what you like.
So let’s go back to Gesso for a second. What exactly is Gesso? Well, historically, Gesso was made for oil painting and was traditionally applied to the painting surface to make sure that oil paint could adhere to it and stick really well. Gesso is made from a combination of paint, pigment, chalk and binder. Gesso protects the canvas fibers, it provides a nice surface to work on, and it even gives a little flexibility so the canvas wouldn’t crack once the painting was on it. The oil gesso creates a surface that is absorbent that comes from the chalk, and that also has a tooth or texture, which allows the paint to grab onto the canvas really well. Acrylic Gesso consists of slightly different ingredients. Acrylic Gesso is a mixture of acrylic polymer medium. This is a binder, calcium carbonate, like chalk, and pigment, which is usually titanium white. In addition, acrylic gesso includes chemicals that ensure flexibility and long archival life. Gesso is plaster like and it provides the best support for your painting. If you use good gesso as the foundation of your painting and good varnish on top of your painting, you have a lot of flexibility in that middle layer. Do you want to build up thick texture, or use cheaper paint to save a buck? Both of these things are made possible by using quality gesso.
I know you’re probably thinking, do I really need Gesso? Do I really need to prime my Canvas if it comes pre primed? This seems like an extra step or an optional step. I used to think that way, too. But I encourage you to think of a painting like a house, the land is the canvas and the foundation of the house is the gesso Sure, you can build a house with no foundation. But the small shifts in the earth over time will put pressure on your structure and could cause it to fall down. Especially with the elements of nature, your house may not last as long and you’ll be limited in how you actually build your house, what it looks like and how tall it can be. All of these same concepts apply with your painting. If the foundation is poor, you’re going to end up with a painting that doesn’t last and even limit yourself as a painter. I believe gesso is a must have addition to your art supply closet. The use of gesso changes the way you work with paint and ensures that paint isn’t soaked up by the canvas fabric and creates blotches in your work. Gesso helps the painting to withstand the elements: humidity, heat and cold that can warp and ever so slightly change your painting over time. You want your substrate or surface to be able to withstand all of these elements and keep your artwork looking nice. Plus, gesso is a super opaque white that can be great to use as white paint in paintings, when you really crave that opacity. I find it comes in handy for fixing mistakes as well.
Finally, let’s get into the steps for actually gessoing your canvas and priming it really well. Step one, shake the container very, very well. Step two, decide whether you’re going to apply one coat or a few coats of gesso. One coat gives a rougher finish and shows more tooth of the canvas material. Two coats are what I recommend for a really nice overall finish. Number three, you can add a little bit of water to Jesso if needed to smooth your application. I find different brands of Jesso has have very different viscosities. You may find that you need to add more or less water depending on the brand of gesso you were using. Don’t add too much water, you really don’t want to dilute it too much. Again, I recommend the Liquitex Professional white gesso because it is so easy to smooth. I actually do not add any water to my gesso application when I use the Liquitex Professional Gesso.
Next, make sure you’re using a clean brush and apply the gesso directly to the stretch canvas in even long strokes. Work from one side of the canvas to the other in parallel strokes, one after the other. Keep strokes even and try to make it as smooth as possible. Unless you want texture in your final piece. Of course. I’d like my gesso to be really smooth with no visible brushstrokes, so I’m very careful when I apply it. Remember, any lines in your gesso are going to show up later on. So make sure you like the texture of the gesso as you apply it. Don’t forget to paint the edges of your canvas to with each new layer of gesso. That’s easy to forget, but you want really even and smooth coverage. When you finish your first coat, let your first layer dry for a few hours. You may want to move your painting slightly at this point so it doesn’t become stuck to anything underneath it. I actually recommend getting something to rest your canvas on so it’s elevated and flat. My trick is to go get four cans of soup from my pantry. I put one at each corner of the canvas and rest the stretcher bars on there so it can dry. Of course, do not forget to wash your brush out immediately with soap and water. Once the gesso has dried on a brush, it won’t come out, remember. Even though you only have some time in between layers, or perhaps you’re gessoing multiple canvases in the same morning, make sure you wash your brush in between.
When the first layer of Gesso has dried completely (that means it’s no longer wet to the touch), you have the option of sanding it lightly with fine sandpaper if you want a smoother surface. Again, this is totally optional. If you’re applying two coats, apply the second coat in the direction perpendicular to the first coat. The second coat can be thicker than your first coat. Once you’re done with those long smooth brushstrokes, and you’re happy with how the texture looks, let the coat of gesso dry and then sand it again if you want a very, very smooth surface. Again, sanding is completely optional. At the end of this process, don’t forget to clean your brushes yet again.
At this point, you’ll have two coats of gesso on your canvas, which I think is a good amount. If you want, you can add another layer of gesso if desired, the choice is absolutely yours. With this third coat, you could even add a little acrylic paint to your gesso if you want to add a hint of color to your background. This is called a Toned Ground on which you can do your painting. Sometimes I will do this and I love to start with a magenta base layer or an ultramarine base layer of color, depending on if it’s going to be a warm or cool composition. More traditional painters like to use earthy tones for their toned ground, such as burnt sienna plus white, raw umber plus white, or yellow ochre. These are all very popular base layer colors. Other times when I don’t put down toned ground, I like to just start and put down an under painting directly on the white gesso. I think having a toned ground is something that they’d encourage you to do in art school. I say, try out the technique and see if you like it and see if it works for you. It will certainly make your colors both look different to your eye and apply differently to the canvas.
I get a few common questions about gesso, so I’m going to discuss those now. First, can you use gesso to paint other things? Yes, you absolutely can. One fun thing to do with gesso is to prime glass, for example, glass wine bottles, or a glass olive oil bottle. All of those can be painted with acrylics, and they look lovely and fun on your kitchen counter. On the other hand, do you need to gesso paper if you’re painting on a paper substrate? No, not really. Acrylic paint will soak into the paper just fine and it won’t damage the paper. You can gesso if you want to, perhaps to achieve a desired texture effect, but I don’t do it myself. When I paint acrylics on paper, I just paint directly on the paper itself with no prepping. While I love painting on paper because it’s so cheap, there’s no better feeling than putting paint on a stretched canvas, in my opinion.
Do you have any lingering questions about gesso or priming your canvas that I can help you with? Reach out to me on Instagram at LaurenKristineArt or you can find my email on my website www.LaurenKristineArt.com The links are in the show notes. That’s it for today’s episode, but let me know also if you have a topic you want to hear me talk about on the Self Taught Artist podcast. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today. If you are enjoying the Self Taught Artist podcast the best way to show your appreciation for all these art tips I’m sharing is to please leave a review for the podcast. I can’t tell you how much it helps to boost the show in the rankings and the search engine and reach more self taught artists out there. Until next time, my friends. Happy Creating!
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