By Haley Bassett, December 18th 2020
Hello dear reader, in this series I will be offering some handy tidbits that will help take your painting practice to the next level. Some points may seem obvious, while others might surprise you. That said, there is no one way, or “right way” to paint, and everyone has their own way of doing things which is completely valid. These are just some tricks that have helped me to improve as a painter that I would like to share.
The “Dollar Store” Canvas
Oh Dollar Store canvas, so convenient and economical, but with everything, you get what you pay for. Generally, you shouldn’t use a cheap canvases for important projects or commissions. Your clients deserve quality work on stretchers that are not warped or flimsy, which is a common issue with inexpensive, pre-made canvases. However, they do have their uses. They can be refurbished to up their quality, or they can be used for smaller studies or experiments.
Firstly, if you want to fix up your budget canvas, you should check for any warping in the stretcher bars before moving forward. If the stretcher bars are anything but straight, there is no point in putting the extra work into it. A tight, straight woodgrain is best. You should also keep an eye out for knots in the wood, which is an indication a warped stretcher bar.
Additionally you should check to see if your bars are even lengths to make sure your stretcher is square, as in the carpentry term, not square-shaped. You can check to see if your canvas is square by measuring diagonally from corner to corner. If each diagonal is very close to the same length, then congratulations, your canvas is square! If not, you can adjust it accordingly.
Nifty tip: you can take apart the stretcher bars and reassemble them with different lengths from other canvases to make custom shapes!
You can ensure that your canvas stays square by stapling the corners and reinforcing it with gussets. Gussets are triangular pieces of ⅛ inch masonite, or a similar material that can be glued to the corners on the back of the canvas for extra support. You can get away with just gussets for smaller canvases, however canvases two feet by two feet or more in size should have at least one cross brace as well as gussets to prevent bending during the stretching process. You can order stretcher bars, gussets and cross braces online, or you can make your own.
You should always restretch a cheap, premade canvas. Most times, the canvas is loosely stretched over the bars causing it to look sunken in, which will distract from your beautiful painting. You can remedy this by pulling the canvas off the back of the stretcher, and restretching it. I suggest using pliers to pull out the staples, because the canvas can tear easily. You can find a handy, instructional video on how to stretch a canvas on the Opus Art Supplies Youtube page, or you can click here. You can stretch your canvas further by inserting the canvas keys (you know, those odd little pieces of wood that come with the canvas) into the corners of the stretcher.
Once you have stretched your canvas you will likely have some creases leftover from its previous position on the stretcher. You can take these out by filling a spray bottle with warm water and spraying the back of the canvas. Once the canvas has dried the creases should be removed. This is a handy thing to remember if you take a painting out of storage and find that it has gotten wrinkled.
Or better yet, you can set that piece of canvas aside and save it for studies and experiments, and replace it with a new piece of raw canvas. You can order lengths of raw canvas from Opus Art Supplies, Delta Art and Drafting Supplies, or DeSerres. Cheap canvases tend to have a loose, prominent weave, which will distract from your painting. While canvas ordered in bulk is much higher quality and better value.
If you chose to stick with the original canvas, you can compensate for that loose weave by adding additional layers of gesso. Just because a canvas comes pre-gessoed doesn’t mean it’s gessoed enough! Depending on the look you want, your canvas should have a minimum of three to five layers of gesso, but more is always better. Some professional painters do a minimum of twenty layers of gesso, while the old Masters like Rembrandt were known to do up to 100 layers to get that perfect, mirror-smooth finish. Mind you, they also had assistants to do that for them.
Gessoing and prepping a painting surface is a whole other can of worms that I will have to explore in a separate article. In the meantime, I will once again direct you to the Opus Art Supplies Youtube page here for tips on gessoing.
There you have it, after refurbishing your affordable canvas, you have a professional quality result, and managed to save a few bucks in the meantime.
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