How To Prepare Canvas For Acrylic Paint: Your Guide To Superior Artwork

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If you’ve been wondering how to prepare canvas for acrylic paint (or, if you even need to do this step), this article is going to answer all of your questions.

Along your painting journey, you’re going to hear a lot about priming, pre-priming, gesso, mediums, and a whole bunch of other chit-chat about the proper way to start an acrylic painting. But, is it even necessary? What are the benefits? What if you don’t have any gesso?

Today, we’re going to go over what priming is, how to do it, why you should consider it, why you may not need to, and everything in between. I’m also going to share with you my own observations, some issues I’ve run into over the years, and what I’ve done to fix them. Let’s dive in!

Pre-Primed Canvas vs DIY Priming

You may be wondering why you should know how to prepare canvas for acrylic paint when you can just go out and buy one that’s pre-primed and ready to go. The best way to make an informed decision, in my opinion, is to weigh the pros and cons.

Pre-Primed Canvas: Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Saves Time
  • Consistent Results (pre-primed canvas provides a consistent, even surface)
  • Affordable (pre-primed canvases are typically less expensive than raw canvas plus the cost of primer)
  • Durable (less prone to deterioration compared to raw canvas)

Cons:

  • Limited Choice (texture of surface is pretty standard)
  • Poor Quality Gesso (It’s impossible to know the quality of the gesso used to prime the canvas so you could run the risk of the paint not adhering properly)
  • Lack of Control (how much “tooth” your canvas has is a personal preference that is already decided for you with a pre-primed canvas and is hard to estimate since most pre-primed canvases are covered in plastic packaging)
  • Environmental Concerns (if environmentally friendliness is important to you, the pre-primed canvas may also include toxic chemicals with no way to know which ingredients were used)

Priming A Canvas Yourself: Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Customizable (you can completely control the texture and absorbency of the surface)
  • Quality Control (you can make sure that the primer is of good quality and properly applied)
  • Environmentally Friendly (find and use the absolute best ingredients with no question as to what’s in the gesso)
  • Versatility (You’re no longer limited by the availability of canvas in your local art store because you can make your own)

Cons:

  • Time Consuming
  • Costly (you’ll probably have to purchase large quantities of gesso, more brushes strictly for gesso, etc.)
  • Uneven application (if you aren’t experienced in priming canvas you may have trouble with inconsistencies which could lead to issues with painting)
  • Damage Risk (you could end up damaging the canvas or brush)

Ultimately, whether to prime a canvas yourself or use a pre-primed canvas depends on how comfortable you are with the priming process and if you want to spend the time including it in your art practice. Both methods have their own advantages and disadvantages, so just do whichever feels right for you.

My bottle of white gesso on a whitewashed wood background.

Supplies Used To Prepare Canvas For Acrylics

To prime a canvas for acrylic painting, you will need the following materials:

  • Canvas Fabric
  • Stretcher Bar Kit
  • Acrylic Gesso
  • Brush or Roller (you’ll probably want a couple of different sizes since it will depend on the size of your canvas)
  • Palette Knife (only if you want to create texture on your canvas)
  • Distilled Water (to be used to thin down the gesso if needed, tighten the canvas, and create dampness for better blending)
  • Water Misting Spray Bottle (for better control of water being used on the canvas)
  • Palette or Container (for holding the gesso while applying)
  • Sandpaper: around 240 grit (to smooth the gesso after it’s dry between layers)
  • Protective Gloves (to protect your hands from any chemicals)
  • Apron (to protect your clothing)

Make sure to work in a well-ventilated area and protect your work surface with a drop cloth or newspaper. Additionally, using a mask while sanding is a good idea.

How To Prepare Canvas For Acrylic Paint: Raw Canvas

Preparing raw canvas for painting with acrylics is a crucial step in the painting process. It provides a durable base for the paint to adhere to and also helps to protect the canvas from damage.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, it’s important to understand canvas. Canvas is a woven fabric that’s usually made from cotton but sometimes also linen. The canvas that you typically see on pre-primed canvas is cotton.

What do we know about canvas as a fabric?

  • It’s known for being durable
  • Versatile
  • You can find canvas in everything from tents to tote bags to shoes
  • Can be blended with synthetic fiber to make it water-resistant and even waterproof

When it comes to buying canvas for art purposes, you’re going to come across “duck canvas” and, no, this does not mean it comes from a duck. The word “duck” comes from the Dutch word “doek” which means “cloth”. Duck canvas is just a sturdier form of canvas that holds its shape better. So, don’t worry, no ducks were harmed in the making of artist canvas.

Some artists buy rolls of raw canvas and either buy or make their own stretcher bars. The reason could be as simple as they like being able to make very large pieces of art or they appreciate being in control of everything used during their art process.

In fact, one of my very dear artist friends buys canvas rolls because she does huge abstracts and finds it much easier to pin the canvas to a blank wall to paint before attaching it to the stretcher bars.

A long rectangular white canvas laying on top of crumpled up paper. When learning how to prepare canvas for acrylic paint an easy tip to be able to tell whether you're looking at a pre-primed canvas or raw canvas is the color. Pre-primed is white while raw is off-white.

Now that we have a bit of background on what it is, let’s talk about how to prepare canvas for acrylic paint if you’re starting with raw canvas.

Step 1: Clean the Canvas

Before starting to prepare your canvas, it is important to clean it thoroughly. This will remove any dust, oil, or grease that may be present on the surface of the canvas. You can do this by wiping the canvas down with a damp cloth and don’t forget to dry the canvas thoroughly before moving on to step two.

Step 2: Apply Acrylic Gesso

The next step is to apply acrylic gesso primer evenly to the entire surface of the canvas. Gesso is a water-based primer that is specifically designed for use with acrylic paint. You want to be sure to get an even layer so make sure to use a good quality brush to apply.

Step 3: Let the Gesso Dry Completely

Once you have applied the gesso, it is important to let it dry completely. This may take a few hours, depending on the thickness of the gesso layer and the humidity and temperature of the room. You should not start painting on the canvas until the gesso is completely dry. If you start painting too soon, the paint may not adhere properly, or the gesso may become discolored.

Step 4: Sand the Surface Lightly (if necessary)

Once the gesso is dry, you may need to sand the surface of the canvas lightly to make it smooth. This is particularly important if you have applied the gesso in several thin layers, as this can sometimes lead to a slightly rough surface. You can use fine-grit sandpaper for this and should sand the canvas gently until it is smooth to the touch. A 240-grit paper is a good bet.

Step 5: Repeat the Primer and Sanding Process (if necessary)

If the surface of the canvas isn’t smooth after the first layer of gesso, you may need to repeat the primer and sanding process. You can repeat the process as many times as you like but make sure to sand between layers so you get the smoothest surface possible. Also, make sure to give yourself enough time to dry each layer completely before starting the next one.

How To Prepare Used Canvas For Acrylic Painting

If you want to paint over an old painting with acrylic paint, here are some steps you can follow:

Step 1: Know What You’re Painting Over

The very first step is to make sure the old painting is NOT oil. Although you can paint oil over acrylic paint, you can’t use acrylics on top of oil. It’s that whole water and oil thing so if you try to paint over oil with acrylics, they won’t stick and will eventually peel right off.

Step 2: Clean It Up

Clean the surface of the old painting with a soft cloth or sponge to remove any dirt, dust, or debris.

Step 3: Sand It

Sand the surface of the old painting lightly with a fine-grit sandpaper. This will help the new paint adhere to the surface (don’t forget to clean the surface again to get rid of the sanding dust).

Step 4: Apply Acrylic Gesso

Apply a layer of acrylic gesso over the old painting using a brush and let it dry completely.

Tips

  • This is going to sound weird but to figure out if a painting is acrylic or oil, smell it (oil paintings will have a distinct smell as opposed to acrylic paintings)
  • If the old painting is very textured or has a thick layer of paint, you may need to remove the old painting entirely or sand it down more extensively before applying the gesso layer
  • You can try spreading a gel medium evenly over the surface to level out the texture (kind of like using drywall compound to fill nail holes and cracks)
An old painting that has two layers of gesso and an underpainting in light purple that shows green paint seeping through all the new layers.

Bleed Through Of Paint Colors On A Used Canvas

If the old paint colors bleed through the new layers of paint, there are a few things you can try to fix the issue:

  • Apply a sealer over the old painting before applying the gesso. The sealer will create a barrier between the old paint and the new paint, preventing bleeding or discoloration (you should probably count on adding a couple of layers)
  • Try applying multiple layers of gesso over the old painting to create a thicker barrier between the old paint and the new
  • Use an opaque underpainting in a color that is similar to the final painting (this will help to even out the color value from the old paint)
  • Sand the surface of the old painting more extensively to remove as much of the old paint as possible before applying the gesso

Tips

  • It’s important to note that even with these techniques, there is still a chance that the old paint colors may bleed through the new layers of paint
  • Before beginning a new painting over an old one, it’s always a good idea to do a small test area to see how the paint will behave (this will help you to determine if any additional preparation steps are necessary)

Preparing Canvas For Acrylic Paint Q & A

Can you use acrylic paint on canvas that hasn’t been gessoed?

Technically, you can use acrylic paint on canvas that hasn’t been gessoed, but it’s generally not recommended.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The colors may not be as vibrant: Canvas that hasn’t been gessoed may be more absorbent than gessoed canvas, which can cause the colors to appear dull or washed out
  • The canvas may deteriorate over time: Gesso provides a barrier between the canvas and the paint, which can help to protect the canvas from deterioration over time. If you paint directly on a canvas that hasn’t been gessoed, the paint may seep into the fibers of the canvas and cause it to degrade more quickly

Overall, while it’s possible to use acrylic paint on canvas that hasn’t been gessoed, it’s generally recommended to prime the canvas with gesso first. This will provide a better surface for the paint to adhere to, and it will help to protect the canvas from deterioration over time.

Is there anything else you can use if you don’t have gesso?

  • Liquid Acrylic Mediums – you can use a liquid acrylic medium to prime canvas if you don’t have gesso. Acrylic mediums are designed to be mixed with acrylic paint to modify their properties and can also be used to prime canvas

There are several types of acrylic mediums, including matte, gloss, and satin, each with its own properties. To use an acrylic medium to prime canvas, you will need to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for the specific medium you are using.

  • Acrylic Paint – acrylic paint can create a smooth, absorbent surface for the paint to adhere to. Apply in thin layers with a brush or roller and allow it to dry completely before adding additional layers.

Tip

  • Using an acrylic medium to prime canvas can provide a smooth, even surface for painting, and it can also help to enhance the adhesion and durability of the paint. However, it’s important to note that acrylic mediums may not provide the same level of protection for your canvas as traditional gesso. When in doubt, reach out to the manufacturer. Both Golden and Liquitex have excellent customer service and are always ready to help

Can you make your own gesso?

Homemade gesso can be a cost-effective alternative to store-bought gesso, and it can work well for many types of acrylic painting projects. However, it’s important to note that homemade gesso may not have the same properties as commercial gesso, so it may not be suitable for all projects.

In short, I think it would be fine to use your own gesso for a piece you’re planning to keep for yourself but I wouldn’t chance using it on art that you’re planning on selling or gifting. At the very least, not until you’ve had a piece done with homemade gesso hanging where you can keep an eye on it and make note of any changes over time.

If you’d like to try your hand at making your own gesso, CLIVE5ART has a recipe you can try. In this short DIY gesso tutorial, Clive shows you how he makes an inexpensive gesso using common ingredients. He also warns against using certain popular ingredients that can become unstable over time.

Make sure to subscribe to the CLIVE5ART channel!

Can you use Mod Podge to prep a canvas?

Mod Podge is a type of water-based sealer, glue, and finish that can be used for a variety of crafts and DIY projects. While Mod Podge can be used as a sealant or topcoat for acrylic paint, it is not recommended as a substitute for gesso.

Using Mod Podge as a substitute for gesso may not provide the same level of protection or adhesion as traditional gesso, and it may also affect the durability, absorbency, and texture of the canvas.

Can you use house paint to prime a canvas?

As an artist, you can experiment with anything your creative heart desires. However, house paint has a limited shelf-life, even on walls, and it’s particularly susceptible to humidity (ever notice your paint peeling in your bathroom?). It can chip, crack, and also yellow over time. For these reasons, I wouldn’t be so quick to use house paint as a sub for gesso especially if you’re giving the painting as a gift or plan to sell it.

What’s the downside of skipping the gesso when prepping a canvas?

There’s nothing that says you can’t paint on raw canvas but there are a few significant downsides to doing it:

  • Lack of Protection: Gesso provides a protective layer between the canvas and the paint, which helps to prevent the paint from deteriorating the fibers of the canvas over time. If you skip gesso, your painting may not be as protected against damage or degradation
  • Poor Adhesion: Acrylic paint may not adhere well to an unprimed canvas, resulting in poor coverage, streaks, or unevenness. This can be especially true if you’re using thin or transparent paints
  • Absorption Issues: An unprimed canvas may be too absorbent, which means that the paint may be quickly absorbed into the canvas, making it difficult to blend or manipulate the colors as desired. This can also lead to a painting that appears dull and lifeless

So, yeah, it’s possible to skip the gesso step when painting on canvas with acrylics. However, it may not provide the best results, and your painting may not be as protected, long-lasting, or visually appealing as it would be if you primed with gesso.

Troubleshooting Pre-Primed Canvas

Let’s face it, the majority of us are going to stick to using a canvas that is ready to go so we can get straight to the fun part, painting our next masterpiece.

That said, you still should take some precautions to make sure your painting journey goes as expected.

There are a couple of issues I’ve run into over the years with pre-primed canvas and I’m going to share them with you and how I went about fixing them so you know what to do if it ever happens to you.

  • There’s chalky dust on the surface: Sometimes, you’ll remove the plastic from a brand new canvas, run your hand over the smooth surface, and realize that your hand is covered in a light dusting of white powder

Whether this white dust is faulty gesso or some type of mold/mildew treatment, it’s best to clean the canvas with a damp cloth and give it time to dry.

  • The paint won’t stick in a certain spot (and it’s not due to over using water): Even if you don’t see a layer of chalky powder on the canvas when you run your hand over it, you may find that there are spots of this white dust clinging to your canvas in thicker amounts

If you’re already well into your art project, you can still fix it. Just wait for any paint to dry around the chalky area, lightly sand the spot and then use a damp cloth to wipe any debris off of the surface. Allow this section to dry thoroughly before painting. Repeat the process until the paint can adhere properly.

Two canvas wrapped in plastic and with arrows pointing to the label that states that both are triple primed.

Extra Tips For Prepping Your Canvas Before Painting

Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned artist, these extra tips for prepping a canvas can help you create a strong foundation for your artwork and take your acrylic painting to the next level.

  • Gesso comes in white and black and also clear
  • You can tint gesso any color you want
  • You don’t have to sand between coats but it does make a lovely smooth surface when you do
  • Try mixing gesso with acrylic gel medium or sand to add texture to your painting
  • To make your first layer of acrylic paint stay wet for longer (blending, etc.) mist your canvas with water and spread the water evenly with a paintbrush
  • If you find that the canvas isn’t tight enough (should almost feel like tapping a drum), you can lightly mist both the front and back and allow to dry (this will tighten the canvas nicely)
  • Make sure any canvas you buy has been triple primed and don’t forget to check it for uneven spots and dust before you start the painting process
  • You should have a dedicated brush for gesso since the grit in the gesso can be a bit hard on your brushes

Final Thoughts on Canvas Preparation for Acrylics

So, now you know how to prepare canvas for acrylic paint whether you’re using a raw canvas that you want to gesso yourself or you’re using a pre-primed canvas.

Either way, we’ve learned that there are steps we need to do before starting on our next masterpiece.

Using a gesso primer you can ensure that your canvas is ready to receive the paint in the most efficient way possible causing less waste and saving money on supplies in the long run.

In the end, you don’t have to use a primed canvas but, let’s face it, it’s pretty easy to see that it’ll save you a lot of worry and possible hassle in the long run.

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