How to prepare a canvas before painting

How to prepare a canvas before painting. Today we are dealing with a ‘hot’ topic dear to painters, a theme around which many say and will say, have been said. In this post, we will illustrate some techniques to prepare a canvas before painting in oil to make our painting – in straightforward terms – more beautiful and more resistant. And yes, everyone, in this case, has their own opinion. As we will see the pictorial canvas and we can buy it on the market – as in our online shop of fine arts – it is not always perfect ‘as it is.’ Sometimes, our linen, cotton, or polyester blend support needs a preparation for particular needs, which is called priming. But what is primer?


What is primer?

The term imprimatur derives from the verb ‘to impress,’ from the Latin ‘imprimĕre,’ and therefore ‘to press on.’ In the world of cool drawing ideas, this term refers to the technique – or all the techniques – to prepare a canvas for painting using different substances, such as plaster, glue, lime, linseed oil, lead white, etc. It should be emphasized that there is not just one type of primer. Still, indeed, there are several: looking around online, in fact, you may discover that everyone has their favorite method for preparing a canvas, which differs in one or more steps from the techniques of others. But do not worry: today, in this post, we will offer you a brief overview of the main methods of preparing the pictorial canvas. Before starting, a small note: some call the primer ‘mystical, referring both to the activity of preparing a canvas and to the substance used for this purpose.


What is the primer used for?

How to prepare a canvas before painting

Suppose we wanted to answer in a dry and decisive way. In that case, we could say that preparing a canvas with a primer has the purpose of facilitating the very act of painting and guaranteeing a longer duration – and a more marked inalterability – of the result. But this, more than an explanation, is an encyclopedia definition and does not reach our goal: we don’t just want to tell you what primer is, but we want you to understand why every painter must be able to do it practically with his eyes closed, before knowing the how, therefore, you must know why to adopt the most suitable preparation technique for your pictorial canvas from time to time.


First of all, preparing a canvas with the primer means affixing a ‘friendly’ layer between the support and our brush strokes, thus making our background more likely to retain our oil colors. The primer also allows us to preserve the brilliance of our oil painting for a long time, which, otherwise, could end up fading. We must not forget that, if done well, the primer gives elasticity, avoiding those hateful cracks that can irreparably ruin a job.


Why do you have to learn how to prepare a canvas for painting?

A more than the legitimate question: why should you waste time preparing a canvas before painting if canvases on the market are both beautiful and ready? Simple: the primer of the purchased support is not always such as to satisfy our needs. If it is true that the canvases you can buy are already equipped with a universal preparation, it is equally valid that that preparation cannot satisfy everyone. Some canvases may absorb too little oil, others too much, causing the painting to turn towards an unsatisfactory opacity immediately. And this, it should be emphasized, sometimes also happens with quality canvases. 


If instead, you went to buy low-alloy canvases for painting, you would find yourself colliding with supports with a fragile veil of primer, more like a coat of white than a layer of plaster. In short, no one forces you to re-prepare the already primed canvases: it all depends on your needs for each different oil painting! Therefore, learning to prepare a pictorial canvas means being able to express the full potential of your oil colors from time to time without letting yourself be influenced by the original characteristics of your support. A whole other discussion, however, must be made about the rough canvases. In that case, the preparation of the support is mandatory.


How to prepare a rough canvas

Let’s assume that you want to try, once in your life, starting from a rough canvas, on which no essential priming has been made. Therefore, you will find yourself in front of a genuinely raw canvas with completely evident texture: starting directly with the primer, or even worse with oil colors, is unthinkable! What we need is an excellent dressing so that we can then quickly spread our primer. All you need is some vinyl glue, preferably with a neutral pH, to avoid damaging the canvas itself. Therefore, you will have to dilute the glue with water and mix well until they are well blended. Well, now your canvas is ready for the actual primer.


How to do the primer

Most people, having bought an already ‘prepared’ canvas, start from this point, not having to undertake the dressing. As mentioned, not everyone primes in the same way. Many do not do it right: some do not do it because they are pleased with the canvas purchased, others avoid this procedure out of laziness, and others lack time. In short, the zero degrees of priming corresponds to not doing it at all. Where possible, however, it is always best to prepare the canvas before painting with oil colors. There are painters who, undecided between doing it and not doing it, choose the compromise, spreading an acrylic color background on the canvas, proceeding with two or three layers in crossed layers.


Much, much better to rely on natural and ready-made primers that we can find on the market, such as the very comfortable white acrylic plaster. Preparing the canvas before painting, in this way, is easy, fast, and effective: it will be enough to spread the plaster with a spatula, let it dry, and lightly sand, using fine sandpaper. After removing the residues of chalk dust with a brush, you can decide whether to add another layer of chalk or start painting: in general, 2 to 4 or 5 coats of chalk are applied to get a perfect canvas.

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