How to improve a Cheap Canvas For Oil Painting

by | Oct 18, 2016

When first getting into painting, most people buy a lot of cheap materials. I know I did and I’m still trying to use as much of it up as possible. You can even buy canvases and canvas boards in the pound shop these days and I ended up with loads of them. I’m down to my last 3-4 which I’m prepping this week so figured I’d share my process for improving them.

The problem is, although they’re technically suitable for oil painting, they’re not particularly pleasant surfaces to paint on. Even if they often boast being ‘triple primed’, which I think means they’re sprayed with gesso three times, I find them super absorbent and a bit too textured for my tastes. Of course this does come down to personal preference so if these are qualities you like in a painting surface, you’re in luck!

Rather than let the pile of cheap canvases and canvas boards I have go to waste, I decided to try and do something about it. From reading online, a lot of modern painters like to paint on a nice smooth surface, which is a little slippery. In Richard Schmid’s book Alla Prima, he talks about a desirable surface being one that you can paint on and then wipe back to the white of the canvas if you need to.


So the first objective is to make the canvas smoother. I found by adding 3 layers of gesso, with a light sanding in between, I could minimise the canvas weave significantly. For the first layer I really scrub it into the weave which fills a lot of the gaps, with subsequent layers bringing it all to a similar level surface. In my opinion cheap gesso will do (I’ll explain why in a second).



The next objective is to make the surface less absorbent and slippery enough that you can wipe paint off back to the white of the canvas.  Gesso varies (I haven’t tried many brands) but seems fairly absorbent to me, and therefore stains too much to allow you to wipe it back. I went looking for a solution and read that an alkyd oil primer might be just what I need. Jacksons do an inexpensive one here which I find very effective.



Paint on a layer of this and the surface looks like an ice rink it’s so smooth! When it dries a little texture comes back, but with a final sand you’ll find a surface that’s slippery and non-absorbent enough to allow you to wipe off almost back to white, depending on what colour paint, and therefore pigment, you’re using. This is why I use cheap gesso for this process – why spend money on the high quality gesso if you’re just going to cover it with another primer?



So this is how I make my cheap canvases much more acceptable and I find them a joy to paint on. I’ve started using hardwood panels recently and have bought some small samples of gessobord and aluminium to play around with when I get a chance. I’ll be doing another post soon with my findings.  In the meantime I hope you find this useful and get some life out of some cheap canvases you have lying around.


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