How to prime a canvas

Priming for oil colour

Priming your canvas by applying a layer or two of gesso to the surface will help the colours in your work really stand out. If the canvas is poorly primed when using oil colour, the oil may sink into the canvas, leaving dull patches on the surface of your painting. Priming also gives the canvas a smoother surface, allowing your brush to flow much better.

Priming for acrylic colour

Priming a canvas is also recommended when using acrylic colour, as it will give a solid foundation for your work.

Five points to consider when priming:

  1. Tooth: Tooth is how the surface feels. The more tooth a surface has, the rougher it feels to touch. The primed surface needs to provide a grip for the colour.
  2. Absorbency: Priming limits the absorbency of the canvas and helps with the adhesion of the paint film to the primed surface.
  3. Colour: It’s important to consider the relationship between the colour of your primed surface and the colours you use in your work. Oils become increasingly transparent as time goes by, and an opaque white primed surface will reflect back the maximum light. Take a look at JMW Turner’s sunsets to see how a painting can become brighter over time.
  4. Rigidity: Primers add rigidity. This complements the nature of the paint film and ensures long term stability.
  5. Coverage: Priming needs to be adequate for the purpose. Generally, one or two coats of a good quality primer should be enough.

Oil or acrylic primers

Winsor & Newton offer both acrylic and oil primers, both of which can be used underneath oil painting. Oil painting primer – or solvent-based primer – is the more traditional option, and today it is faster drying than the very old style primers for oil colour.

It’s recommended that canvases are “sized” with rabbit skin glue first, and it should be touch dry before a primer is applied. Sizing is the process that fills the pores in the surface with glutinous material (rabbit skin glue or PVA) and helps to stop fluid leaking through. It also helps stiffen the fabric. For best results a few coats a recommended. Our guide on the differences between cotton and linen canvas gives more information.

The characteristics of acrylic primers have seen them become the preferred option for oil painting, often chosen over oil and alkyd-based canvas primers. The pigmentation of acrylic primers is carefully controlled and gives sufficient flexibility to avoid cracking, but enough rigidity to maintain the tension of the canvas, and the correct degree of tooth and absorbency to ensure good adhesion when overpainted with either oil or acrylic.

Priming with PVA

While some artists may choose this method, using polyvinyl acetate (PVA) as a primer is not recommended. It may disintegrate prematurely, leaving the remaining painting with no foundations.

Primed canvases

You do not have to size and prime a canvas yourself. Winsor & Newton offers a range of acrylic-primed cotton and linen pre-stretched canvases in both regular and depth stretcher bars. See the range here

Canvas boards

Winsor & Newton Artists’ Canvas Boards are great for students and anyone painting outside the studio, thanks to their portability. They come ready sized and primed in various sizes and can be used with oil, water mixable oil, alkyd and acrylic colours.