Creative art requires precision, it’s time-consuming which makes it vital for the painters that their creations last long. The lifespan is directly affected by the preparation of the project. Better preparation always equals a more pleasing art with a better archival quality of the picture.
Most paints thrive with primers but what happens in the case of canvas? Should You Prime a Canvas Before Painting?
Priming a canvas before painting is necessary because it enhances the canvas’s ability to hold paint, directly influencing how long the paint will last.
Additionally, it helps to keep the material rigid as you work wet paint into it and maintains the bright colors of the paint’s pigment. If you skip priming, the canvas will sag as you work, which will make your work difficult.
Furthermore, raw canvas absorbs color – which is the most significant cause of dull patches in paintings.
If you’ve never primed a canvas before or are not confident about performing the task yourself, you can purchase pre-primed material from your local art store.
These types of canvas come ready to use, and they are convenient, especially when you want to finish your project faster.
What Do You Use to Prime a Canvas?
We use a material called gesso to prime canvases before painting. Gesso is an acrylic primer that looks like white acrylic paint but is thinner. Manufacturers make it by combining a binder, pigment (usually white), and chalk or gypsum.
They package the primer in squeeze bottles, small jars, large tubs, or spray bottles, and you can use whichever you want, depending on the size of your project.
There are two types of gesso on the market: Oil gessos and Acrylic gessos.
- Oil Gesso was the first kind of canvas primer created, and manufacturers made it specifically for oil painting. It uses animal glue as its binder, which soaks into the canvas fibers to protect them from the corrosive nature of oil paints. Animal glue is also flexible – a trait that transfers to the canvas to prevent it and the painting from cracking when rolled.
- Acrylic Gessos are a more modern version, and you can use them for both oil and acrylic painting. Manufacturers use slightly different ingredients to make them, but they work just as well as their oil counterparts. The binder in these primers is acrylic polymer medium instead of glue, but the rest of the ingredients are similar to oil gesso.
Traditionally, gesso only referred to the mixture of animal glue and gypsum, which you had to warm before applying it to painting panels. The animal glue used came from rabbit skin which sadly involved killing actual rabbits.
Manufacturers created the acrylic versions to work similarly to the oil gessos but without the animal glue. The acrylics worked even better than their counterparts, so painters automatically started calling them gesso.
Eventually, it became difficult to know whether a buyer wanted the traditional kind or the new modern version when buying gesso.
As a result, painters started asking for “true gesso” or “genuine gesso” when shopping for the glue kind, and “gesso” became the default for the acrylic type.
Types of Gessos
Gessos come in two grades: Artist-grade and student-grade gesso. The difference between them stems from the amount of filler vs. pigment in each. (Filler is the chalk or any other mineral used to make the primer)
- Artist-Grade Gesso has more pigment than filler; therefore, it is thicker and more opaque than student-grade gesso. The thickness and opaqueness make this gesso type high-quality, and it reflects in its high cost as well.
- Student-Grade Gesso has more filler than pigment; therefore, it is less thick and opaque. The thinness of this gesso type makes it lower quality and cheaper than artist grade. For this reason, you’ll need more coats to cover your canvas better.
How to Prime a Canvas Before Painting
Step 1: Prepare the Gesso
You can prepare the gesso in two ways depending on the number of coats you want to apply to the canvas.
- If you’re applying a single coat, use the gesso just as it comes out of the packaging – undiluted. Undiluted gesso is thick, which is advantageous when applying single coats because it offers sufficient coverage.
- If you want to apply two or more coats, dilute the gesso with some water until it reaches a heavy-cream consistency. However, remember that gesso varies in thickness depending on the brand. Some are thicker than others; thus, the amount of water you use for diluting will also vary. Add a little water gradually as you stir until you achieve the desired consistency.
Step 2: Prepare the Canvas (Sizing)
Before priming, you must condition your canvas to be able to accept the product you have. It is a way of making the fabric fibers more absorbent – a process called sizing in painting.
- If you’re applying an acrylic primer, make the canvas wet before doing anything else. Brush some water all over the canvas using a clean brush – it doesn’t matter in which direction. You just have to ensure that you don’t drench the canvas; instead, make it slightly damp.
- If you’re oil painting, size the canvas with rabbit-skin glue instead.
Step 3:Apply the Gesso
Use a broad house painting brush to apply the gesso. Ensure that it has firm bristles because they will do a better work of pushing the gesso into the canvas fibers. You can also use paint rollers for this task, especially when painting a vast canvas.
- Apply the gesso in long vertical strokes starting from the top of the canvas towards the bottom. Ensure that you direct the strokes parallel to the canvas’s length.
- Spread the primer evenly and ensure that the coats are as thin as possible. Also, don’t forget to paint the canvas edges too.
After the first coat dries, sand it to make it smoother.
- Use fine-grit sandpaper and use light pressure, or else you’ll leave deep scratches on your canvas, and they will show on your art. Afterward, use a soft brush to sweep the sanding dust from the surface.
- If you want to retain the rough texture of gesso, you can skip sanding.
Apply the second coat of primer but use strokes perpendicular to those of the first coat this time. You can also turn your canvas 90° first, then apply the gesso using vertical strokes – they will be perpendicular to the previous ones. Like the first coat, you can sand the second one or leave it as it is.
Finally, leave the second coat to dry for about one hour, then your canvas is ready.
- As you wait for each coat of gesso to dry, clean your brushes and any other tool that touched the primer. The reason is that gesso is easier to clean while wet than when it is dry.
- Wash your house painting brushes before using them to prime the canvas. The reason is that some brushes shed bristles which would end up in the gesso and eventually the canvas. Washing removes as many loose hairs as possible before you start working.
- If you want a smoother surface but don’t want to sand, dilute a little gesso, then apply a very thin layer over the final rough coat to smooth it out. On the other hand, if you want to add texture to a smooth coat, add acrylic gel medium or sawdust to the final coat.
Here’s How to Prime a Canvas Before Painting:
What Happens If You Don’t Prime a Canvas Before Painting?
Most problems that come with not priming your canvas stem from paint absorption – primarily oil paints. Consequently, it becomes harder to paint, and even if you manage to do it, your painting won’t last. Let me explain.
The Color Becomes Hard to Control
A bare canvas will absorb oil paint, and as a consequence, it becomes harder to control the paint. It will take extra effort to spread and blend your colors – an effect almost similar to what happens when you use watercolors on paper.
Oil Will Form Halos Around the Colors
The oil from the absorbed paint crawls to the back of the canvas and pools around the colors. With time, the dried oil deposits show up as “halos” throughout the painting.
The halos appear as dull yellow or brown hues surrounding the actual color you used. As a result, your artwork will look more aged.
Paint Colors Will Appear Dull
When paint soaks into the canvas, some pigment gets absorbed as well. As a result, the paint color will appear dull than usual or, as painters call it, “cloudy.” Furthermore, the oil paint will dry faster than usual, making the paint layers crack quickly.
The Canvas Will Sag
When the canvas fibers absorb the paint, they slowly become less firm, and eventually, the whole canvas sags. Canvas is an organic fabric so imagine how a dry cloth gets soggy and light immediately you pour some water on it.
That’s the same effect that oil paint has on canvas, and it makes painting even more challenging.
Sometimes, it isn’t due to laziness when painters start their projects without applying gesso first. You see, gesso usually leaves a white background to paint on. However, some choose to paint on raw canvas for aesthetic reasons to achieve a particular look.
I recommend using clear gesso to prime your canvas if you’re such an artist. You will get all the aesthetic benefits of a raw canvas without the other physical problems.
Do I Need to Prime a Canvas for Acrylics?
You don’t need to prime your canvas if you’re painting with acrylics. Unlike oil paints, acrylics have nothing to damage the fabric; thus, you can paint directly on the canvas.
Even though priming is unnecessary for acrylics, many artists still gesso their canvases, and art stores sell pre-primed canvases because they produce better paintings.
Most pre-primed canvases have a bright white color, so it is easy to identify them. However, if you cannot recognize them by how they look, check the label because manufacturers indicate whether they’re primed or not. They even show you the type of gesso used.
Even though pre-primed canvases are convenient, they may not exactly be what you need for a particular project. You may require a different level of smoothness, or you may want to experiment with different surface textures and colors.
On the bright side, “pre-primed” doesn’t mean that you must use the canvas as it is. You can apply another coat of primer to get the precise background you want before beginning your project.
Which Products Can I Use In Place Of Gesso To Prime For Acrylics?
Gesso performs similar functions to a large number of primers on the market. So it is not unusual to wonder if you can use either of them in place of gesso.
Not all primers will work well on canvas, but there are two types that you can use when you run out of acrylic gesso.
Commercial Acrylic Primers
Manufacturers developed acrylic primers for application on almost all surfaces, including canvas. They have the same consistency as gesso, so you will have to thin it before use. These primers remain flexible for a long time, and they are easy to clean. Therefore, they will offer more permanence to your work.
Clear gesso is primarily a mixture of matte medium and finer transparent particles. It makes the surface rougher than traditional white acrylic gesso, and the canvas fibers show through because it is clear.
The downside of clear gesso is that it wears out brushes quicker than acrylic gesso. Its rough texture is harsh on brush bristles, especially natural bristled brushes which are made from animal hair. I recommend synthetic brushes if you want your tools to last longer when using clear gesso.
Benefits of Painting on Unprimed Canvas
I never recommend painting on unprimed canvases for several reasons but that doesn’t mean that you can never use them. In fact, there are several techniques you can use to manipulate the bare fibers to your benefit to produce unique paintings. Below are some of the advantages of raw canvas.
Raw Canvas Is Attractive
Unprimed canvas has a light beige color which some painters find more appealing than the stark white primed canvas. You can leave parts of the canvas unpainted so that the beige compliments your piece or use transparent colors that allow the beige to show through and slightly alter the color.
Whichever style you are trying to accomplish will depend on your artistic expression, and you can manipulate the beauty of raw canvas to achieve it.
No Priming Saves Time
You need about 2-3 coats of gesso to create the best foundation for a painting. Applying these coats takes a lot of time, especially since you must leave enough drying time between each coat. Therefore, if you skip the gesso, you can begin working immediately, and you will finish projects quickly.
Paintings on Raw Canvas Look Unique
Unprimed canvas is so versatile that you can manipulate it in any way you like to create unique paintings. For instance, you can dilute your acrylics to make them thin enough to produce a watercolor effect on the canvas.
When you thin the acrylic paint, it soaks into the fibers creating a matte effect instead of the usual glossy appearance.
You can even wet the canvas instead of diluting the paint to get the same effect – which would be difficult if you were using a primed canvas.
Painting On a Plain Canvas Is Affordable
Painting on raw canvas is cheaper because you can use the cheaper acrylics without harsh consequences. The fact that you can paint acrylics directly also means that you can leave gesso out when shopping which will save you a little more money.
Disadvantages of Painting on Unprimed Canvas
Raw Canvas has Wrinkles
Canvas is a purely natural fabric, so it is not surprising that it gets wrinkled. If you paint on a canvas with wrinkles, they will show up in your painting and ruin it. Moreover, it is very stressful to paint on wrinkled canvas.
If you apply a coat of gesso, the folds will disappear. The moisture in the gesso will absorb into the canvas, and as it starts to dry out, the fibers will shrink and tighten. As they tighten, the wrinkles will smooth out.
It Isn’t Easy to Blend Colors on Raw Canvas
Unprimed canvas absorbs paint which makes it dry faster than usual. As a result, blending and spreading colors on the canvas becomes difficult. It is even more challenging to use diluted acrylic paint – its layers are thin and dry faster.
You can get better results on raw canvas if you start with diluted paint for the first two layers. The paint will absorb into the fibers and saturate them; then, the consequent paint layers will dry normally.
Unprimed Canvas Repels Water
Raw canvas has a residue that keeps it from absorbing water or any other liquid. When you sprinkle some moisture on it, you will notice beads forming instead of disappearing into the fibers.
This issue becomes a nuisance, especially when painting with thin washes of acrylics. They contain water which will bead up and roll off the surface instead of sticking. (Heavy-body acrylics do not have this problem).
You can remedy this issue by wiping your canvas with a wet sponge to remove the water-repelling residue. Remember, only wash the canvas after strapping it to the stretcher bars. Also, NEVER clean your canvas in a washing machine because it will leave hard to remove wrinkles.
Paintings on Raw Canvas Don’t Last
The fibers of a canvas are organic and will undergo the process of oxidation as it ages. As a result, the canvas will start to darken and become brittle. Without a barrier between the canvas and the paint, whatever happens to the canvas also happens to the painting.
When the canvas fibers start darkening, the colors of your painting will also develop a darker hue which may not be an effect you will like. Also, the artwork will begin to fall apart when the canvas becomes brittle.
It Isn’t Easy to Draw on Raw Canvas
Raw canvas has a lot of texture. It looks like it has ridges where its fibers weave into each other for the most part. If you paint by drawing on the raw canvas before adding in the colors, you will experience many problems.
For instance, your pencil point could get caught between the fabric fibers and break, plus the lines will be lighter.
The usual remedy for this is priming the canvas. The gesso will fill in the ridges on the canvas allowing your pencil to move unencumbered across the surface.
If you must paint on raw canvas and want to start by drawing, I recommend using graphite instead of regular mechanical pencils.
They come as sticks with a broad edge; therefore, they will not get caught between the canvas fibers. If you prefer to use a pencil, ensure that its point is well-rounded to prevent it from breaking.
Do You Need to Prime Canvas Panels?
All ready-made canvas panels come with a pre-primed canvas, so you don’t need to prime them again. However, you can still apply another layer of gesso if you want to alter the color or texture of the canvas.
If you choose to make a painting panel from scratch, you will have to prime your canvas at some point. If you’re not confident about priming it yourself, you can purchase pre-primed canvases instead. You can also leave the canvas bare if you want the aesthetic of raw canvas.
Making panels is more affordable and convenient than purchasing the ready-made versions. The ready ones come in different sizes, but sometimes it is challenging to find one that exactly suits the kind of painting you want. You may find that the panels you get are either an inch too big or small.
You can cut your rigid board to whatever size you want with homemade canvas panels. Moreover, you handpick all the materials you need, including canvas and the type of board.
The process is straightforward and reasonably quick; therefore, you can make as many panels as possible in just one afternoon.
How to Prepare Canvas Panels For Painting
Things You’ll Need
- Rolled Pre-primed Canvas
- PVA Glue
- Spray Bottle
- Old Paintbrush
Place the hardboard on a large flat surface. I recommend placing it on the floor, or you can use a large table if you don’t want to bend.
Roll out your canvas on top of the hardboard, allowing some material to hang over each side. Leave at least three inches hanging if you have a cradled board and 1 inch for the thinner ones. Afterward, cut the canvas from the roll with scissors and place it aside.
Spritz some water on the hardboard, then spread it around with your hand. It is best to do this before applying the glue because it makes the task easier.
Pour a liberal amount of PVA glue into a bowl, and thin it with some water until you get a fairly runny consistency. Thinning the glue will make it easier to apply with a brush.
- Dip the old brush into the mixture, then apply it all over the surface and make sure that you don’t leave any spots uncovered.
- Next, lay the canvas carefully on the hardboard and ensure that all sides have canvas hanging.
- Use your hands to gently push out bubbles from under the canvas to even it out. If you’re making a large-sized panel, use a paint roller instead.
Let the PVA dry for 30 minutes to 1 hour, then flip the panel and glue the hanging sides to the back of the hardboard.
After everything is in place, let the glue at the back dry for 30 minutes then your canvas is ready.
Priming is the most emphasized method of preparing any surface for painting. It evens out the surface and makes it grip paint better. However, there always seems to be a grey area when it comes to a canvas, so the burning question of most painters is
Should You Prime a Canvas Before Painting?
Painting a canvas is necessary to enhance the durability of a painting and keep the paint colors popping. However, you can choose to paint on raw canvas if your painting style demands it.
The product we use to prime canvases is called gesso, and it gives canvases a blank white look ideal for painting. You can apply the gesso with an old paintbrush (recommended) or a roller or use the spray-on versions.
If you want to avoid priming altogether, you can purchase pre-primed canvas because they come ready to use.
I hope this article answers your question thoroughly. Feel free to share any information we might have missed or ask us for clarification on anything in the comments section.