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Basic Information: Smooth Canvas Texture & Paint Texture

July 4, 2010

A friend of mine has become art-curious and has been noodling with acrylics on an economy canvas-covered art board.  He’s hating the texture of the canvas.  Here are a few words on canvas texture and how to make smoother paintings.  And by a “few words” I mean a big, rambling article.

Canvas comes in different flavors (cotton is cheaper, linen costs more) and has coarser or finer weaves.  This is like the thread quality and thread count of bedsheets.  So canvas, being woven, has a texture from the threads; this appears as a cross-hatch pattern which is visible on pre-primed canvases even through the white primer coating.

The canvas texture acts like the “tooth” of drawing and pastel papers: the texture is variable in roughness and serves to pull the media from the paint brush onto the surface.  (Pastel artists often like a rough, toothy paper that feels similar to sandpaper if you run your hand across the surface.)  Canvas entered into painting as a substrate / surface because it is light, so you can make larger paintings more readily.  Canvas is flexible, making it amenable to wet climates such a Venice, where wood panels were prone to crack apart; thus canvas emerged as a big deal in the Renaissance.

Preservation is variable.  I have seen centuries old canvas and wood panel paintings that were either cracked up or looked like they were painted recently.  I would say that process is a factor in addition to the climate of your area.  A lot of Matisse canvases are cracked like crazy even though they are not very old.  Both of these issues are off topic, though, so back to canvas texture.

There are two ways to handle the canvas texture.

You can buy a pre-primed canvas and doctor it to be smoother.  To work the surface you want white gesso, a high quality 2” hardware store brush, and medium and fine grit sandpapers.  I make all of the brush strokes in one direction with the gesso on the canvas, let it dry, sand it smooth.  I then make all of the brush strokes in the opposing direction, let it dry, and sand it smooth. You can keep going until you are happy with the texture of the canvas.  I have found that many thinner layers and careful sanding work the best to achieve a smoother surface.

The second solution is to skip canvas and go in for wood or Masonite paneling.  You can buy your own wood or panel and gesso it in the same method as described as above.  I like doing this with free blocks and scraps of wood to make miniature oil paintings.  I raided the heck out of the wood shop scrap bin at school and have quite a stash.  You can buy art store boards that are pre-primed and smooth as glass.  These are usually good for oil or acrylic paintings, some are devised with a papery surface for watercolors or multi-media.  These art panels cost more, but if you want the smooth as glass surface of a pre-primed, ready-to-use art board, you need to pony up the cash.

Canvas has often driven me up the wall because of it’s flexibility.  I don’t like that the surface moves, flexes when pressure of a paintbrush is applied and is otherwise “bouncy”.  This has been an impediment to smooth, sleek applications of paint.  I stuck to the affordable canvas stretched boards because I liked their rigidity; the rigidity helped me paint smoothly.  Also, the cheap canvas boards are thin and easy to pop into a frame, which I’ve sold for nominal amounts and used the money pay for more materials for class.  It looks nice, people like it and I always need more money for paint and supplies.

My preference for canvas boards drove one of my teachers batty, and he advised I buy canvas by the roll, gesso it well, staple it to a garbage particle board or plywood, paint it to my liking, then remove the finished painting from the wood backing and stretch it properly.  A canvas has more fine art street cred than the canvas boards, considered more for students and little kids, and they tend to bend or bow in the larger sizes.  I have seen that canvas boards over 16” x 20” become curved and look rather bad.

For smoother applications of paint, experiment with using thinner layers of paint.  This may mean you will need to do multiple applications.  It’s been my experience that you can have smooth paint applications, or you can have fast paint applications, but it’s awful hard to have both.  A lot of the historic paintings that are sleek, like many Renaissance favorites, were done over the course of years with great lengths of drying time in between layers.  Oil paints thinned with mineral spirits flow and spread very well and make for wonderfully smooth applications; this is my preference for making sleek paintings as opposed to acrylics, which can be much stickier and have less pigment / opacity when thinned.  I sort of view acrylics as tubes of liquid colored plastic.  With acrylics, I have decided each work is a singular, handmade painting -not a computer print out or manufactured item- so I am intentionally working on canvas and including roughness as an intentional element of the current Pop Art series I am doing.  (Early Pop Art as a hand made process as opposed to later, “High Pop Art” which was mechanical, i.e. Warhol’s silkscreens.)  Instead of controlling the media tightly, I’m going with what acrylics do well, which is thicker applications that dry fast.

Don’t let me discourage you from trying to paint smoothly in acrylics, I have seen many people use acrylics in smooth applications that rivaled any oil painting.  This is their preference and they have no idea why anyone would want to work with the slimy, slow drying oil paints of the past.  I have seen enough examples that show acrylics can be handled as well as oil paints in sleek surfaces, and I have found thinning them with water or mediums helps a lot.  Different brands have different body, flow, thickness or other properties.  For me, the rougher handling of acrylic paints ties into a larger issue of where to draw the line between perfectionism / craft / skills and expression.

If you are going for a sleek, smoother surface on your painting, this is helped by using brushes with smooth bristles; boar bristle brushes would be a bad choice because they have a hairy, rough texture.  You do not need to buy red sable or other expensive natural hair brushes, the synthetics have caught up to and surpassed these.  See my earlier blog post on an affordable brand of brushes that have smooth bristles because these perform well:


I hope this helps you; keep working to get a feel for your style, preferred media and how you individually handle paint.  I agree with many instructors that painting is not necessarily quickly learned and requires a lot of hand-on experience to master.  Painting classes are often like drawing classes, teachers can give you tips, methods and tricks, but you need to do it to learn it.  The time you invest in working with paint is very important to building your skills.

Categories: Painting, Uncategorized
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