Do You Need To Paint A Canvas White First Before Painting?

Some artists that are used to creating artworks on papers and sketchpad eventually grow interested in making pieces of art using a canvas.

Canvas painting may seem like an intimidating prospect especially when you are used to making art on a different medium.

A canvas is one of the classic artist support that offers a lot of advantages compared to using paper. It is durable and can make sure that your wonderful art piece will last through the years and can be part of your home as a decorative piece or in an auction as a selling piece.

First Decide If You Want To Paint On Linen Or Cotton Canvas

Before you decide on starting a canvas painting, you must be able to determine the two different types of surfaces that canvas has to offer which are linen and cotton.

Linen is the most expensive surface between the two. Many professional artists often add “on linen” on the title of their paintings since this would suggest that this is costly and the artist is successful. Linen is more forgiving as a painting surface but many argue that it is not worth the additional cost on its price tag.

Unless you know you are getting paid or planning to sell the canvas artwork which would ensure the collector that you are using the top materials when creating the art piece, this will not be recommended for artists who only do this as a hobby.

Both cotton and linen use the same primer so both do not have a difference when it comes to durability. So knowing all of this, it is safe to conclude that neither one is better than the other. It is up to the artist to choose which type of surface they would prefer. 

Why Should I Paint My Canvas First? Prepping the Canvas

In order for you to have a good result when painting on canvas, it is essential to prep your canvas properly.

If prepared properly, you will notice the drastic changes in how your painting can improve. If you have time to spare, preparing your own canvas surface can help you save some expenses. If you want to use linen or cotton, you can personally buy it by bulk and cut it to your own preferred size then glue them to wooden panels or you can also opt to buy a pre-stretch canvas from the store instead. 

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Before you start painting on a new, raw, stretched canvas, you need to make sure that it is ready. Some store-bought canvases typically have gesso on them already, so there is really no need to apply more unless you want a different texture.

Apply Gesso If the Canvas Has Not Been Primed Before

However, if the canvas you are using has not been primed before, it is better to apply gesso first. There are actually two options that you can do to modify the texture of your canvas.

You can paint sections that are cut out from a roll which may take some work or you can gesso your own surface. There are some artists that prefer to gesso their panels than pasting canvas since this process would typically take a shorter time compared to having to paste cutouts.

There are also a variety of ways that you can gesso your surface. You can use a flat smooth gesso that has no texture that is perfect for paintings that require finely detailed portraits. There is also a mildly textured gesso that can leave pointed lumps and will work best with dry brushing which is often used to stipulate greenery and grass for landscape paintings.

You can also use a gesso that can leave a heavily textured surface that can show landscape textures. The type of gesso you use will depend on what your painting needs.

Remember that when applying gesso, you are imitating the actual color pigmentation so you can pretend that you are actually painting. Having smooth and textured areas will help your main points stand out. Allow the gesso to dry first for a couple of days before you start applying the paint. 

What color should I use to tone the canvas?

First of all – let us have a look at the dos and don´ts.

  • Always use a ground color
  • Do not leave the canvas white

The worst way to start a painting is to not use a ground color. The color you choose to tone a canvas will depend on what mood do you want your painting to give off. A huge mistake some of the artists do when starting to paint is leaving the canvas white.

It is important to cover the white canvas with one solid color which is commonly called the toned ground. This is will act as a harmonizer which will eventually show when you are creating brush strokes on your canvas and will create a visually pleasing effect.

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White is the brightest and purest shade you can place on your canvas, so using white is generally the last step used to bring back the pop of brightness. This is exactly why you should avoid using white as the toned ground.

Since white is very bright, this will change the saturation of the colors you will use on the canvas which might make the colors look duller than what they should be. Your colors will have no chance when competing against the bright clear white.

Use Colors Like These For The Toned Ground

When painting, artists usually start with thinner paints and then work their way up to a thicker application which means that when applying the paint on the canvas – the thinly applied paint will not be enough to fully conceal the texture bumps on the canvas and that stark bright white will show through the paint you applied that might give your painting an amateur, unfinished result.

Using white will take a lot more layers of paint to shield the glaring stark white that will lead to a lot of frustrations and bad results. 

Using a colored ground is simply applying a flat color across your canvas and allow to fully dry before starting your painting.

After it is dry, you can go ahead and start painting on top of the colored ground. This can help you judge the colors and tone better since the colors you are using are not competing against the brilliant white.

Whatever color you use as a toned ground will shine through the paint layers which can help add dimensions and a professional feel to the painting, so it is an important step and should be carefully thought-out when choosing the colors.

However, your toned ground does not have to be a flat color. Especially when doing an abstract painting, the ground can be an initial layer with the sole intent of covering the white canvas.

Generally, when choosing what toned ground to use, anything but white to use is great. It is suggested to use the complementary color to the main color you are planning to use in your painting is basically the general idea. This can help you achieve balance and increase the intensity and saturation of the colors you are using.

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You can also opt to use the opposite temperature of your painting like using warm tones under a cool-toned painting. But some artists prefer sticking to earth tones all the time like soft browns and ochers because the neutral tone can match any color scheme. This can also add a subtle unity factor throughout all of the artist’s works which is one of the reasons why artists prefer this way.

Just experiment with different color schemes and see what works best with your art style. However, always remember that whatever color you are using, use the unsaturated version.

Avoid using super intense greens and neon pinks since that will cause the same problem that white causes. This rule only applied to life and landscape portraits that have an actual subject matter. Abstract painting basically does not follow any of these rules.

What Kind Of Paint Should I Use To Paint Over An Existing Painting?

Artists before were more finicky compared to artists today. So, there are more ‘failed’ paintings concealed and covered up than ones put out to be displayed.

Many popular paintings were found to be the same, where there were signs of a previous attempt to paint over the ‘mistakes’. Linseed oil on paints was pretty much the pigment used for oil paintings which could easily be lightly sand given that there was no thick varnish glazed over, then cover it again with a new subject.

These days, a canvas painted with acrylics should only be painted over with acrylic or any medium compatible with it, since incompatible mediums may destroy the whole painting unless the acrylic paint is thinly painted on and can be scraped away to ensure that the paint painted over that will have a good connection.

It is never a good idea to paint over an oil painting with acrylic paint and vice versa. When painting over an existing painting, you have to block out the old subject or the subject you want to cover up.

Make sure to let the underpainting dry completely before painting over and make sure that you are able to get rid of any trace of the old subject and it is indistinguishable unless that is your goal.

This will result in making your painting thicker and have more textures. So unless you like the textures built when layering different kinds of paint, it is better to buy a new piece of primed canvas and paint again. 

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