How to prep a canvas for faster painting


It’s new canvas day in the studio. One of those days when a number of new canvases arrive, and I spend the day getting them ready for the paintings they shall soon hold. I love having all those little blank windows laying around. It’s like looking at a the surface of a cool lake on a hot day, or leaning into a deep freezer filled with potential meals – just the imagining of what can come or happen is enough to get you excited.

These kinds of days used to be very long and labor intensive, as I was determined to build my own stretchers to size and then stretch the canvas myself. This was in fact quite a bit more than a day’s process, but rather one that took quite a few days even weeks. But in response to lack of time, and a genuine fear of future arthritis, I have since taken to purchasing pre-assembled and stretched canvases.

This of course saves me a great deal of time allowing me to simply focus on painting, but it doesn’t mean that I have nothing to do with these new canvases. I still have a bit of work to do to get them ready.

I like having a very slick surface on which to paint. I hate when I am trying to move quickly and I start to feel a friction-filled drag on my brush. There are times I can literally feel the tooth of the canvas fighting me when I work, and for me to feel great about a painting I need that surface to be slicked up and ready for quick changes and unhindered brush movement.

In order to get this I prepare the canvas with the following method.


First, I apply another medium coat of gesso. I generally use an acrylic based gesso (very often Utrecht brand), and by medium I mean that I am using it with the consistency of heavy cream – so not straight out of the bucket, but also not thinned too much. My thought here is that I want to fill some of the toothy edges still on the ground. So I apply this coat, and let it dry all day.


The second stage is the sanding. Perhaps my least favorite stage of anything I do with painting. But it’s because I don’t like it, that I imagine it to be the most important stage. I use a medium grain sanding sponge to work over the whole surface. I generally do small circular movements with my right hand, following along with my bare left hand to ensure that it all feels smooth. When I am done I take a dry rag and wipe down the surface, followed by doing the same with a damp rag.

Next is the key component. I pull out my bottle of gloss medium and apply a medium layer to the whole canvas. This is the slickening agent of the process. Its quick drying, and as easy to apply as paint. I carefully cover the surface at first with a thinned layer, and then followed with 2 progressively less thinned layers. Usually this is a watery layer, a creamy layer, followed last by a full strength layer.


Applying this gloss medium really sort of switches on the canvas for me. A few layers transform the surface from toothy and slow to a high-speed zone in which your brushes can now move much more smoothly and quickly.

Of course gloss medium is just one option.  I have experimented with many brands and types of acrylic medium and each provides its own benefits. It is definitely something to play and experiment with, so you can find a surface that fits you. I realize some painters, especially beginners bend over backwards to accommodate the materials they have pulled from the shelf somewhere. I think it’s important to remember that you aren’t just in control of the paint, but every tool, process, and material that makes up the painting.

So by all means experiment, and let me know what you find.