Why Priming Is Key When Painting Canvas

Priming your canvas is the key to delivering the best painting surface and preserving your artwork’s life and appearance. It creates a barrier between the canvas and the paint, ensuring the latter sticks to the surface tightly.

The primer delivers a waterproof surface, allowing your paint to spread uniformly across the canvas. Further, you can effortlessly achieve this result by applying an acrylic medium, oil pricing white, traditional hyde glue, and acrylic gesso. 

In addition, gesso helps the paint retain its color intensity while protecting the surface from natural corrosion caused by the formula’s acidic attributes. Therefore, skipping the priming process would save you time but compromise the overall project.

To help you out, here is a detailed discussion on priming canvas effectively, using the least time and resources while delivering a successful outcome. So, here’s why priming is key when painting canvas…

Primers are key as they help prepare the canvas surface for painting. Here’s how you go about the application of primer to canvas.

Start at the canvas center with a square by brushing the formula with horizontal and vertical strokes. Next, follow the material’s natural weave and evenly spread the primer toward the edges.

Also, spread the primer quickly to ensure every brush stroke lightly overlaps with the previous damp ones.

Working from the center outward ensures a uniform coating without doubling the primer application in a spot. Otherwise, you’ll have inconsistencies in the finish. Then, lightly sand down the primer layer before adding the next coat.

Thankfully, we have multiple options and techniques for priming canvas surfaces. Read this article until the end for the best practices and answers to various concerns for canvas painters.

What Is a Canvas

Canvas is a durable, plain-woven cotton, hemp, or linen fabric. It is a famous painting surface when stretched across lumber frames and coated with gesso to keep paint from directly contacting canvas fibers.

Moreover, the material is sturdy and heavy-duty as it blends cotton with synthetic fibers to deliver a water-resistant or waterproof surface. As a result, you can use it for outdoor applications.

Canvas has been popular in artwork since the early 14th century, with French Madonna with Angels being the earliest oil on the material.

However, it came to common usage during the Italian Renaissance with Venetian painters in the 16th century.

Today, cotton is the standard material in most industrial canvases. The surface is easy to stretch and less susceptible to cracking and damage.

Furthermore, manufacturers weave cotton using a plain weave to increase strength. But the artist can determine how tight they want the canvas, depending on their project needs.

After weaving, the manufacturer wraps the canvas around wooden stretchers and prepares it for paint using gesso. However, you can purchase a pre-prepared canvas to save time and energy.

Nevertheless, preparing canvas locally allows you to determine how much canvas weave will be visible and the desired texture.

Canvases come in various forms to accommodate your project preferences, application, and budget. You can opt for the following.

  • Stretched Canvas

This option is perfect for artists without tools to stretch the material. Further, stretched canvas undergoes stretching over a stretcher and is strapped to a thin wood frame during purchase.

Using this canvas version reduces the risk of damaging your artwork as it remains intact during the operation. In addition, the manufacturer stretches the material using cutting-edge technology, not by hand.

However, this aspect makes stretched canvas more expensive than other options. Therefore, consider your budgetary requirements before buying.

  • Canvas Panels

This material is a high-quality, more affordable alternative to stretched canvas for beginners. In addition, it comes from primed cotton canvas mounted onto a rigid board, giving you a suitable platform to find your niche in the art world.

Canvas panels are lightweight, making them easy to carry and ideal for students transporting their art to and from university or workstations. Besides, they are excellent for practice and compatible with acrylics, oils, and alkyds.

  • Canvas Pads

This version comprises primed canvas sheets bound within a book. It is perfect for creating while moving from place to place, as you can stretch or mount the layers later.

Moreover, canvas pads do not age well and are thus suitable for practice.

  • Canvas Rolls

This option is perfect for preparing and stretching canvas or creating a large painting. Further, canvas rolls are made from linen or cotton and are sold by the meter to accommodate various project needs.

Uses of Canvas

  • Accessories and Toys

These textile products are completely safe for skin and saliva contact for infants and children under three years old. In addition, you can create a beautiful plushie or a sensory book from this durable material.

You can also print decorative elements and graphics on the fabric, significantly speeding up the book creation process.

As such, the project will be excellent memorabilia from childhood, even after many years.

  • Pet Mats or Beds

Organic cotton canvas is perfect for a cat play mat or a soft pet bed. The leftover materials from creating sensory books or cubes can make a lovely mat for your cat.

Divide the material into four sections and insert a cellophane between the fabric layers to make the mat rustle. Then, fill the next element with pillow filling, adding a little catnip and sewing strings and ribbons on the edges.

  • Picnic Blanket

Stuff the printed cotton canvas with pillow filling to create a soft, quilted pike blanket. You can use it at home as an additional bedspread during winter. However, remember not to throw the blanket into the washing machine or spot-clean it by hand.

  • Book or Planner Covers

You can use printed cotton canvas for book covers, especially for hardcover notebooks, or soft, stitched organizers with elastic bands for carrying books and notebooks.

Alternatively, create a textile, sewn book cover, and attach an eraser to protect the volume from dirt and creases in a backpack.

  • Custom painting

You can print illustrations, typography, digitized engravings, and digital art from cotton canvas. In addition, stretching the printed work on the canvas is possible over wooden frames.

Pros on Canvas

  • Durability

Coton canvas is incredibly durable since the woven fabric features a plain-weave pattern, forming a robust material. Also, you can compare it to denim in terms of thickness and durability.

  • Water-Resistant

Canvas is naturally water-resistant, thanks to its thickness. Besides, you can reinforce it by adding a finishing coat, making it suitable for indoor and outdoor applications.

  • Low Thread Count

Most canvas fabrics have a low thread count. Thus, you’ll notice fewer threads protruding as you cut it and observe the edge.

Furthermore, the canvas gets a softer texture by increasing the thread count. But it needs to sacrifice its durability and thickness.

  • Affordable

Most art supply companies have ready-made stretched canvases and panels for artists. They give numerous options at different prices to accommodate various users.

  • Familiarity

Stretched canvas is user-friendly to many artists. Moreover, most are accustomed to painting on these surfaces and know what works for their projects.

  • Customizable Texture

Thankfully, stretched canvas comes with pre-built texture alternatives. Therefore, you do not have to prime it to your desired texture. You start painting as soon as you get it.

Cons of Canvas

  • The Material Loosens

Unfortunately, stretched canvas becomes loose and needs restretching over time. But you can get high-quality stretched materials. They are more durable and do not disrupt your painting process.

  • Weakness and Changes in Surface Tension

It is easy to puncture stretched canvas. Even worse, most artists work with perforated canvases until they get a replacement.

Vibrations, temperature changes, and other factors also impact canvas surface tension.

  • Mounting Issues

Some painters and artists struggle to mount stretched canvases on the stretcher bars. Further, positioning everything is challenging and needs some muscle.

What Is a Primer?

A primer is a preparatory undercoat on surfaces mostly applied before painting. Besides, it increases the paint job’s durability, guarantees excellent paint adhesion, and protects the finish.

Also, the formula seals porous surfaces that otherwise absorb the first few paint coats. Thus, you get a consistent and uniform finish.

However, always clean the surface thoroughly before using a primer. Otherwise, it won’t adhere to the surface properly. In addition, sand the surface to remove imperfections and bumps for a professional outcome.

We have three primer versions: oil-based, latex-based, and pigmented shellac. Each product has benefits and drawbacks and works best in particular circumstances and with certain materials.

  • Oil-based Primer

These primers are versatile and applicable to multiple workpieces as they are compatible with oil and latex-based paints. In addition, you can use them for interior and exterior paint jobs and expect a durable result.

Oil-based primers kill stains and prevent them from showing through a new paint finish. Further, they block ink, water, and nicotine stains on your surfaces.

But these formulas are slow-drying and release high VOC amounts, requiring you to allocate enough project time and work in a well-ventilated area. They also need harsh thinners and solvents during clean-up.

  • Latex-based Primer

These primers are perfect for preparing unfinished drywall for painting. Besides, they are water-based, more versatile, fast-drying, and less brittle than their oil-based counterparts. As a result, you can expect less susceptibility to peels and cracks.

Latex-based primers are water-soluble and have low or no VOCs: thus, they are easy to clean and safe to use for indoor projects. Also, the formula covers and seals minor smoke, crayon, and lipstick stains.

  • Shellac Primer

These primers are the best stain blockers on severe water and smoke damage on surfaces. In addition, they prevent rust, water, wood tannins, and smoke stains from bleeding through the topcoat.

However, shellac primers produce more fumes, requiring you to work in a well-aerated space. Also, they need denatured oil during thinning and cleaning applicators.

Uses of Primers

  • Interior Walls With Stains

Interior walls with stains, water damage, or extensive patching and repairs need spot-primming. These stains mostly come from smoke, wood tannin bleeding, mildew, and water.

Therefore, an oil-based stain block primer is handy for neutralizing these stains. But remember, priming can only do so much. You’ll have to replace the wall in case of moderate or significant flooding damage.

  • Gloss Finishes and Oil-Based Paint

Priming is mandatory for surfaces previously coated in glossy topcoats. Otherwise, the new paint finish will not adhere properly.

However, you do not need a primer when coating over latex paint as it readily receives the new coat.

  • Significant Color Changes

Prime surfaces when moving from darker to lighter shades. Besides, high-build acrylic latex formulas conceal vivid wall tones like red and yellow.

Also, plan for two or three primer coats, as darker surface colors are challenging to cover.

  • Surfaces With Mildew Or Mold

After cleaning the surface, use a solvent or oil-based primer to kill the remaining mold and mildew spores. The formula also prevents future mold from forming and guarantees lasting beauty.

Pros of a Primer

  • Fewer Primer Coats Needed

Porous surfaces like wood and drywall are porous, meaning they absorb paint like a sponge. Moreover, although this aspect is pleasing to a painter, it requires them to use more paint coats to deliver the desired color.

Thankfully, a primer seals the material, allowing it to absorb the topcoat consistently and uniformly.

  • Accentuates the Surface’s True Colors

When painting over previously coated surfaces, a primer gives you a ‘clean slate.’ Furthermore, it showcases the paint’s color regardless of how dark the previous color was on the surface.

The formula prevents the original color from bleeding through the current color. As a result, your surface adopts the intended color flawlessly.

  • Durability

Slick, damaged, or old surfaces are challenging to paint as the formula does not adhere properly. Therefore, use a primer to increase adherence and guarantee a perfect paint job that stands the test of time.

Cons of a Primer

  • Time and Energy Consuming

Priming the surface requires more time as you must adhere to the correct application procedures. In addition, various primers have different drying and curing times depending on the manufacturer and existing weather conditions.

Therefore, allocate enough time for the painting project and only apply the topcoat after the primer dries.

  • Mistakes More Likely

Priming adds an extra step to the painting project, making it more complex and increasing the chances of making an error.

Worse still, mistakes made during priming can affect the final finish. For instance, the paint will soon peel off if the primer does not adhere to the surface.

How Do You Prime a Canvas for Painting?

Always apply a primer before painting canvas and sizing glue for oil paints. Further, primers like gesso stiffen the surface, making it more textured and allowing the colors to stand out.

Priming canvas is straightforward, even if you haven’t done it before. In addition, the application is a breeze once you get the right gesso and sizing glue for your workpiece.

Step One: Choose the Right Gesso and Sizing Glue

  • Apply Sizing Glue to the Surface

Generally, sizing glue is a liquid adhesive applied on the canvas to prevent oil finishes from seeping into the fibers. Apply it with a small brush in short strokes and let it dry for 12 hours.

You need to size your canvas workpiece before using oil paint before priming. But this process is optional for acrylic paints.

  • Select a Compatible Primer With Your Paint

Simply put, choose acrylic gessos when working with acrylic paint and oil-based ones when painting with oils.

Further, most acrylic gessos are compatible with acrylic and oil paints. Therefore, you are safer using an acrylic formula for your project.

Fortunately, these gesso types are available in art supply stores and have clear product labels to guide you on what paint to use.

  • Use White Gesso for a Lighter Finish

The white gesso background subtly shows through the painting’s color, making them look lighter and softer.

Even better, you can make the painting lighter by painting the gesso when it is wet.

Usually, white gesso is the most famous color variety for canvas, as a white background is easy to paint.

  • Choose Colored Gesso for Sharper Colors

Colors look more brilliant against a dark background, especially when painting a still-life image or portrait.

In addition, the gesso’s color depends on the mood you want to strike. For example, consider an earthly color like dark blue or amber when painting a landscape.

However, remember that colored gessos are more pricey and sometimes harder to find than conventional white ones.

Thus, you can locally make colored gesso by mixing a standard white primer with acrylic paint. Also, vary the paint added to the gesso to alter the final color.

  • Use Student Grade Gesso if You Want Cheap, White Primer

Although student grade gesso is more watery than the artistic grade, it delivers a satisfactory outcome for simple painting. The formula is cheaper because it contains more filler and less pigment.

Also, these gesso are only available in white, making them the best bet for white painting backgrounds.

  • Use Artist-Grade Gesso if You Want Higher Quality Primer

Typically, artist-grade gesso gives the painting a ‘toothier’ surface, meaning it is more textured and feels rough. Further, most colored gessos are artist-grade, requiring you to spend more for a colored background.

Step Two: Ready the Canvas

  • Clean the Canvas

Use a clean paper towel dampened with alcohol to clean the surface. Also, splash one teaspoon of isopropyl rubbing alcohol on a clean rag and rub it across the canvas in long vertical motions.

This way, you remove built-up dirt and dust on the workpiece. But press lightly to avoid accidentally tearing the fabric.

  • Wear Protective Clothing

Wear a dust mask to avoid breathing in chemicals. Gesso and other oil painting products are toxic when inhaled for a long time.

So, have a dust mask when working indoors without a window.

Alternatively, work in a well-ventilated area, such as outdoors or in a garage. Also, open doors and windows when working indoors.

  • Position an Artist’s Tape Strip over the Side of the Canvas

Tear off four tape pieces roughly the same length as the four sides of the canvas. Then, position them on the edges with the tape’s edges aligned with the back of the wooden frame.

Alternatively, you can use masking tape. But it sticks to the canvas less closely than an artist’s tape.

Step Three: Applying the Primer

  • Stir and Dilute the Primer

Stir the formula thoroughly and dilute it with some water. Then, scoop the primer into a cup or bucket and add water at a time while stirring it until you get the desired consistency, say a heavy cream.

The gesso may be very thick, making it necessary to dilute it. Otherwise, the formula will be hard to apply and smooth out.

In addition, it is better to add less water since if you add too much, you’ll ruin the gesso and have to start over.

  • Apply the Gesso

Use a broad brush and apply the formula in vertical motions. Go from top to bottom, stroking parallel to the canvas’s length. And cover the workpiece completely while spreading the primer evenly and thinly. 

Create a flat surface with the primer and use a stiff brush with firm fibers to deliver a professional result.

Alternatively, use a roller brush when working with pretty large canvas surfaces. But ensure you paint the workpiece’s edges as they are hard to hit with vertical strokes.

  • Allow the First Coat to Dry

Give the primer coat time to dry before sanding it. Fortunately, gesso does not need much time to dry, as an hour is enough for a successful outcome.

Next, use fine sandpaper and avoid applying too much force. Otherwise, you’ll ruin the canvas’ texture.

Also, you can skip sanding if you do not want the canvas to have a smooth texture. It all depends on your project expectations.

Lastly, brush off the sanding dust from the surface after rubbing the gesso. Then, clean your brush carefully, as leaving the formula on the bristles results in a difficult clean-up.

  • Apply a Second Primer Coat

Repeat the above step when adding another gesso coat. However, use perpendicular strokes and turn the canvas 90 degrees. This way, you’ll deliver a more textured and detailed workpiece.

Further, you can add as many primer coats as you like, but most painters go for two. In addition, one gesso coat gives the canvas a rough finish.

  • Sand the Gesso After Drying

Wait for the gesso to dry and lightly sand for a smoother surface. Generally, give the last primer coat an hour and use light pressure and short back-and-forth strokes to avoid scrapping it off.

Finally, wipe the sanding dust and get ready to paint the surface.

Here’s How to Prime Canvas:

How Do You Know If a Canvas Is Primed?

Look at the product label on the canvas you are purchasing. It may have something like “Titanium Acrylic Gesso Primed,” meaning the manufacturer applied bright titanium white gesso.

As such, you do not need to prime the surface before painting.

Nonetheless, you can still apply gesso to primed canvas to deliver different textures and colors.

Can You Prime Canvas With Acrylic Paint?

You can prime canvas materials with acrylic paint. However, the formula does not work well like gesso, especially for painting newbies. In addition, it requires skill and patience to deliver a professional outcome.

Nonetheless, acrylic paint is a suitable primer for canvas with the correct application techniques.

Generally, the primary purpose of priming canvas is to create a buffer between the surface and the paint. So, below is a step-by-step procedure for priming canvas using acrylic paint.

  • Clean the Surface

Use rubbing alcohol or a wet cloth to clean the unprimed canvas. However, ensure the fabric does not drip wet. Otherwise, it will take too long to dry. Also, wipe the workpiece gently to avoid leaving marks.

  • Mix the Paint

Pour the formula into a bowl or container and mix it thoroughly. Further, you can add an acrylic medium or solvent to increase the paint’s thickness.

Alternatively, dilute the paint with water. But remember, you’ll need more paint layers to deliver a satisfactory hue.

  • Apply the Paint

Use a broad paintbrush to apply the paint to the surface. Then, consider firm, vertical motions and good priming techniques to cover all the canvas corners. This way, you’ll deliver excellent coverage.

Also, cover the paint during priming to keep it from drying out, compromising its viscosity.

Paint the workpiece’s edges with new paint layers. But remember that the first coat is essential to form the base for subsequent coats. So, apply more primer on the edges to avoid missing any spots.

  • Allow the Canvas to Dry

Give the primer a 20-to-30 minutes drying time as you wash the paintbrush. Moreover, the coat may take longer, depending on humidity and temperature. Hence, give it another hour or two.

Next, sand the workpiece to control the primer’s smoothness. But sand gently to avoid damaging the canvas.

  • Apply a Second Primer Coat

This layer should be thicker than the first and applied in the opposite direction. Also, let the surface dry and sand it as you did during the initial application.

You may need more acrylic paint layers to get your desired finish. So, repeat the process until you are satisfied with the result.

Can I Prime My Canvas With Mod Podge?

Mod podge is versatile and works well for various projects, including priming canvas. Although it is not the same as actual gesso primer, it delivers a satisfactory result and ensures the paint coat lasts.

Further, you can use mod podge to adhere fabric or paper to surfaces. But ensure it works before starting the process to avoid wasting time and resources.

Below is a summary of how to use mod podge as a primer for canvas applications.

  • Get the Correct Formula. Consider a mate finish, as it does not deliver a smooth finish: thus, you get a perfect surface for painting. In addition, it dries fast and is ready for painting in an hour.
  • Clean the Canvas. Ensure the surface is free of dust, dirt, and other debris. This way, you’ll get a smooth painting instead of a bumpy one. Moreover, the process increases adhesion, helping the mod podge to stick better on the surface.
  • Apply the Mod Podge. Experts recommend thin, even coats to fasten drying and prevent wet spots. Hence, apply at least two coats, and add more when necessary. In addition, primer the canvas’ sides for complete coverage.
  • Apply Each Coat in the Opposite Direction of the Previous One. For example, the second coat should run side to side if the first one goes from top to bottom. Further, alternate until you deliver the desired number of coats.
  • Let the Mod Podge Dry Before Painting. Avoid painting on wet mod podge. So, check the manufacturer’s directives on the accurate drying times. This way, you reduce guesswork and deliver a durable painting job.

What Is the Most Common Primer for Painting On Canvas?

Gesso is the most common primer for painting on canvas. It combines chalk, binder, and paint pigment and prevents paints from seeping or bleeding when used on panels, paper, canvas, and other substrates.

Gesso was originally a chalk or plaster and glue mixture, but it is currently a bright white calcium carbonate solution and acrylic polymer medium.

The chalk or plaster compound makes gesso absorbent, ensuring moisture wicks evenly from the paint coat without bleeding.

While we have various primer types, including latex, gesso is the best alternative for acrylic and oil-based paints. Besides, the calcium carbonate mixture is compatible with these formulas, ensuring a better application.

Experts recommend priming the pre-stretched store-bought canvas with gesso before painting, even if the manufacturer says it’s primed.

This way, you will retighten surfaces with minor dents and deliver a refreshed and bright background.

Gesso comes in three grades: student, artist, and professional. The difference among these products is the gesso concentration. For instance, professional-grade gesso is highly concentrated and needs thinning before application.

Conversely, artist and student-grade gesso are less concentrated and suitable for use right out of the container. You can apply gesso with a sprayer or brush. Only ensure you use light strokes and alternating motions for each coat.

Also, after drying, gently sand the surface until it is smooth.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do I Need to Prime a Canvas Before Painting?

Although many artists think priming is a lot of work and unnecessary, the process offers various benefits to paintwork.

Priming improves how well the topcoat sticks to the canvas and prevents bleeding. In addition, it gives your paintbrush a smoother workpiece to handle.

Therefore, you need a primer to cover the canvas before applying oil-based paints. Otherwise, the formula chemicals will eventually destroy the workpiece. Worse still, you will notice pale patches indicating you ignored a primer.

  • Can I Apply Acrylic to an Unprimed Canvas?

Applying acrylic to unprimed canvas is possible. Besides, the formula works with various materials and supports, often with minimum or no surface preparation as long the base is not greasy or oily.

Although you can paint an unprimed canvas with acrylics, the absorbent surface sucks up more paint. Thus, seal and prime the workpiece with gesso before painting.

  • What to Do If I Do Not Want to Prep the Canvas?

Generally, ready-primed canvases are perfect if you do not want to prime the surface locally. Further, you can purchase ready-primed materials already stretched on light lumber frames.

Alternatively, you can get canvas-covered boards. They are a more affordable option for stretched canvases and come in various workpieces, from fine to coarse.

  • Are There Best Tools & Practices When Priming Canvas?

Ensure you have a mixing stick and a broad application brush. In addition, gesso dries into a waterproof state. So, clean your tools between coats and after priming to keep them in good shape.

Work quickly as gesso dries quickly. This way, you apply each coat evenly before adding the next.

Also, primers have plastic compounds, creating a protective layer between raw canvas and environmental inconsistencies like humidity and heat.

Alternatively, you can use a transparent acrylic medium with a clear and matte basecoat or pre-tinted gesso for an entirely different look.

Lastly, use a damp cloth to wipe down the gesso containers before sealing. This way, you keep the formula moist while preventing the lid from gluing itself shut.


Priming canvas by adding one or two primer layers helps the paint adhere better. It also gives the paintbrush a smoother surface, delivering an effortless operation.

Moreover, unprimed surfaces absorb paint unevenly, leaving dull patches on the painting. Thus, the primer accentuates the paint’s colors and ensures consistent and even coverage.

However, cleaning the surface is advisable before adding the first primer coat. In addition, dampen the wiping cloth with rubbing alcohol. But ensure it is not soaking wet lest the project takes longer to dry.

Also, check the above discussion for more guidelines and tricks to guarantee a successful canvas priming session.

Why Priming Is Key When Painting Canvas

First, pour the primer into a shallow container and dip a broad paintbrush. Then, brush a thin coat with consistent patterns or horizontal and vertical motions.

Give the project 20 minutes to one hour to dry, then touch the surface. If the gesso lifts, it is not dry and needs more time.

Next, sand down the primer layer but do not apply much force. The formula breathes color clumps during sanding, making the process easy and friendly.

Finally, you can add another coat to deliver a more textured surface. But it boils down to your project preferences.