Preparing your surface for painting | Getting Started with Painting

15 December 2021

Preparing your canvas or painting surface is an important part of the painting process, and we’re here to help demystify it for you! There are a variety of options to choose from as you prepare your canvas that give you artistic freedom in textures, colours, and surface choices. Learning to prime your own surface means you won’t be restricted to just pre-primed canvases, but can turn vinyls, matchboxes, wooden boards, and more into a surface ready for your next artwork!


Why prime a surface before painting?

Priming a surface for painting makes it easier to work on, protects the surface, and gives texture and tooth to the surface to allow for an overall better painting experience! Tooth will assist with colour adhesion to the surface and playing with the texture of a surface can give some fun results. Many canvases available come pre-primed to help you get started on your painting faster, however some artists will even sand back these pre-primed canvases in order to add texture or create a smoother finish by applying their own gesso or primer layers.

Raw fabric and canvas are very absorbent when unprimed or unsealed, making them hard to work on with paints. You’ll also find that as the paint is absorbed by the fabric or surface, the edges of your strokes will become less sharp as the paint seeps into the weave of the fabric.

Additionally, when working with oil paints, the chemicals in the paint will rot your surface over time if it’s unprimed and unsealed. To ensure a durable artwork that will last over time, you’ll need to seal and prime any surfaces you wish to use for an oil painting.

There are plenty of product options to choose from at Eckersley’s when preparing your surface to accept paint, from traditional gesso to more fluid gesso, and even the supplies to make your own! Have a look at our Surface Preparation range to find something that will suit your painting style and chosen medium!

 Surface Preperation

What is gesso?

Gesso is the most common ground for preparing your surface to paint on. It can be applied to almost any surface, and will stiffen the substrate as it dries, readying your surface to accept paints! Acrylic gesso is the most common kind, and is suitable for painting with both acrylic and oils – though for oil painting you will also want to size or seal the surface prior to applying gesso.

The most traditional, and common, gesso is white gesso which gives artists a bright, neutral surface to begin their painting from. Also available is clear gesso, which is a great option if you’re looking to create your own custom tinted gesso by adding acrylic colour to the mix. For more atmospheric artworks, you may prefer to start with a darker surface, which is where black gesso can come in very handy!

Consistency and texture may also vary between gesso, which will influence the tooth and texture of your surface for painting. Gesso such as Liquitex Super Heavy Gesso Primer is great for creating sculptural effects on your canvas, especially when applied with a coarse brush or palette knife. Conversely, a gesso like Atelier Liquid Gesso Primer will help achieve a smooth surface for painting as you apply thin, even layers to your surface.


Priming a surface for acrylics

Priming a surface for acrylic painting is simple! The first step is deciding what texture and colour you want your surface to be, as this will affect your choice of gesso and whether you tint it with acrylic paint or not.

If you’re using fabric, you’ll want to stretch and staple your canvas onto stretcher bars to ensure a tight surface for painting. The gesso will tighten your surface as it dries, so don’t stretch your material too tightly to begin with. If you’re using wooden panels or boards, you won’t need this step!

Next, you may want to thin your gesso a bit with water if you are after a smooth and even finish for your surface. Check the instructions on the label for the water to gesso ratio you can work up to for this, as over-thinning your gesso can create an unstable ground. Alternatively, you might purchase a liquid gesso you can use straight from the container if you want this smooth finish.

Now it’s just a matter of applying the gesso to your surface! Use a soft-bristled brush or roller for smooth, even applications of gesso, covering the entire surface evenly. Alternatively, for a more textured finish on the surface, you may choose to apply the gesso with a palette knife or coarse brush.

The number of gesso layers you apply will depend on your preference for texture. Applying a second coat may help you cover any areas of the surface you may have missed on the first coat, and additional coats can help increase the protection of your surface as well as build further texture. For an extra smooth finish, gently sand the dried gesso in between coats before applying the next layer.


Priming a surface for oils

Priming your surface for oils is similar to the method above for acrylics, with one small difference. If you are preparing a fabric surface (such as linen or cotton canvas), it is recommended that you first “size” the surface. This is a process that fills holes or ‘pores’ on these more porous surfaces to stop fluid leaking through. It is especially important when painting with oil colours, as the oils can rot your surface over time if they come into direct contact with the material.

Sizing a surface with rabbit skin glue is the traditional method, however there is also PVA size available. Sizing your fabric surfaces will also help stiffen them, making it easier to paint on. Sizing will primarily act as a sealant for your canvas or material surface. Once your size has dried, you can apply a ground (or gesso) on top to create texture, provide a uniform base colour, and alter the level of absorbency of your surface, as well as giving an extra layer of protection for your surfaces. 


Get painting!

As you can see, preparing your surfaces for painting is a relatively simple process that can result in more freedom of expression for you as an artist! Not only that, but a properly prepared surface will ensure your artworks endure for years to come.


At Eckersley’s, we have a whole range of surface preparation products ready and waiting for you - pick some up today in store or online and get creative with your next painting.