Oil Painting Canvas

An oil painting canvas can be bought ready-made, but for larger canvases it's better to make (or assemble) it yourself. First I'll talk about ready-made canvases. They're available in different kinds of sizes, materials and primers. The primer is usually an acrylic gesso, which is not the most suitable carrier for oil paint - but you can mend that by priming over the canvas one more time, with a mixture of caseine and acrylic gesso (check here to request free recipe sheets).


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Before buying an oil painting canvas, check the backside of it. Are the corners fit together, without hardboard corners tacked onto them? That's good, because then you can stretch them some more whenever you need to, by inserting slices of wood in the corners - even years after finishing the painting. There are even very advanced pre-stretched canvases available (click on the picture up here) that have an after-stretching mechanism on the back. But with most oil painting canvases and stretcher bars, slits were left open on the inside corners. These can be used for afterstrechting. More on that you'll find on this page about stretcher strips.

Primers: universal or oil preparation?

Universally prepared canvases are primed with acrylic gesso. They're said to be for oil paints too, but in time the oil paint will come loose again. To prevent that, you can give them an extra priming layer with caseine-gesso (here you can request free recipes. Caseine can help the oil paint adhere much better to the gesso, and the gesso will become more flexible (thus, less cracking) by the caseine. On a canvas like this, you can do an underpainting in egg-tempera, or acrylic-caseine paint if you like. Acrylic paint with added caseine is also an option for underpainting.

Oil primed canvases are primed with oil paint, they're meant for painting with oil paint only - not for an underpainting with egg-tempera or acrylics. The good thing about oil primer is: the oil-paint stands on it really nice, your first layer will keep its shine and texture. If you work alla prima (in one go) in oils, it's best to use an oil-prepared canvas.

Cotton or linen canvas?

For the look of your canvas, this choice is not really important - unless you want the back to look like a 'real' oil painting as well (then, choose linen). Linen is the traditional material, and most durable. Cotton is cheaper. But linnen canvases need restoration only after 100 years, cotton canvases need it sooner (20-50 years). Cotton canvas is usually light colored and rather fine, if you want a rough structure, you need to choose a rough linen. Fine structure is good for detailed portraits, and roughness creates an equalized look (it hides little 'mistakes').

Free oil painting recipe sheets

Free recipe sheets for oil painting techniques

In these sheets you'll find recipes and a product list, for both modern and traditional primers and underpainting materials. The sheets are a part of my ebook on oil painting materials. The products were selected to be least expensive, but still deliver quality. Like in the supermarket: it's not about shiny packages, it's about knowing what ingredients are worth. Check here for more about the e-book (76 pages) on oil painting materials.

The sheets are free to download when you subscribe to this website.

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Making your own oil painting canvas

Some reasons for making the oil painting canvas yourself:

  • You can have any particular (odd) size you want.
  • You can add texture or color to the priming layer. A colored primer saves you a lot of paint.
  • Making your own gives you a chance to experiment with the old-fashioned process of boiling hide-glue, making glue-chalk-painting grounds etc.
  • For big canvases, it's cheaper
  • Ready made canvases often have staples in the corners, in places where they shouldn't be (blocking the corners so you cant restretch them)
  • When you buy ready made stretcher strips and canvas rolls, it's not much extra work.

Check here for more info on stretcher strips, and canvas materials

Canvas rolls

A canvas roll is a large roll of prepared canvas, that you can cut to the sizes you need. Working on prepared canvas that you stretch afterwards has another benefit: you can adjust the dimensions of your canvas later, if you want to. You can work on a loose strip of canvas, and decide what to do with it while the work progresses. But sometimes, that gives too much undecided factors. Sometimes it's good to start painting on a defined frame (eventually, with the help of masking tape). But I have been in situations, where the canvas needed to be bigger than I planned beforehand, where I was glad to be working on a loose sheet of prepared canvas.

A loose sheet of prepared canvas can be stretched as well (to keep it from warping). Tack it to a sheet of plywood, or directly to the wall - if you prime it over after that, with acrylic-gesso, it will shrink a bit and keep nice and straight.

Preparing an oil painting canvas from scratch

When you stretch your own canvases, you tack on the untreated fabrick (cotton or linen) to a stretcher frame, and size the fabric with a glue or binder. After that, you prime it. If done well, the back of the canvas will look like clean fabric - no 'wet' places from glue, no cracks, and no primer coming through.

Rabbit skin glue is the old-fashioned material for sizing and making an absorbent chalk-glue primer. Sizing can also be done with an acrylic binder (mixed with caseine binder) as well - check the free recipes. The sizing is a transparant layer, that blocks the primer from going all the way into the fabric. More details you'll find in this oil painting guide - it has the necessary info on canvas preps, using rabbit skin glue, underpainting and oil paint pigments.

For sizing with hide-glue: stretch your canvas loosely, and size it with hot glue. The canvas will shrink to fit. This is an important feature, the main reason for the popularity of rabbit-skin. Important: don't use too much glue, because it will cause cracks in your painting later. Too much hide-glue will cause circular cracks later.

When you use an acrylic binder: only when you add caseine, the binder will have some shrinking power. With pure acrylic binder, you need to stretch your canvas as tight as you can - it will not shrink much.

More on canvas stretching

In this oil painting guide you'll find more about canvas stretching, along with a lot of other information on oil painting materials - including on how to make your paintings actually as durable as the old ones.

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Priming with gesso

If you use acrylic primer on your oil painting canvas: add caseine to it. If you like your ground very absorbent: add some chalk powder to it. By the way: that could also be 10% of earth pigment - then you'll make a colored primer, a good basis for underpainting. Apply a few layers of gesso, and let them dry in between.

For more exact info and recipes: check this oil painting guide.

Half-oil ground

For canvases, only use a half-oil ground - a ground made of chalk, pigment and hide-glue is too brittle for a canvas. This kind of primer is good for panels and boards. A half-oil ground is flexible enough for a canvas, and it still has some of the capacities of the cremser white oil ground. A half-oil ground can be painted over in two weeks.

A half-oil ground is also very suitable for making colored grounds. That saves you a lot of paint. Here you'll find an oil painting guide with all the recipes and necessary info. A colored ground can also be done with egg tempera. Best do it with an earth pigment: raw umber, yellow ochre or burnt umber (check here for info on underpainting colors. It gives a good basis for your painting. It dries fast, and you'll need less oil paint.

Oil painting primer

In the old days, painters used pure lead-white (cremser- or flake white) for priming. If you want to do this, use W&N's foundation white, or Old Holland's cremser white. It gives a beautiful non-absorbent painting ground, in which you can make a relief-structure to prepare you painting. A relief can make all kinds of special effects. The downside of it: it has to dry for six months (!), and it can be put only on stiff boards. There's an alternative, made by Gamblin, with similar properties, that dries within a week, and one of W&n, that dries in 24 hours. The latter contains alkyds, and can be put on a canvas. Still, with a new material like that, no records can be provided on durability. To find out more, check it out at http://www.dickblick.com/ - search for "oil painting primer".


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