Creating Perfectly Smooth Canvas for Painting By AD Cook

Canvas and fine art go hand-in-hand. But readily available off0the-shelf canvas really isn’t tailored for airbrushing. Even stretched and “prepared” canvas that is marketed to airbrush artists has a lot of weave texture in it. I prefer a much smoother surface “ something a bit closer to hot-press illustration board. To achieve that, I’ve developed a process that allows me to paint on canvas that is smooth and forgiving, and yields an incredible surface to work on.

It’s fun to experiment with these canvas-conditioning processes. The one I outline below works for me, and yield a surface I like to work on. You may want to try different squeegees or even different sanding techniques to see what works for you. For example, if you want to prepare a canvas with a finish that more resembles cold-press illustration board, you can make adjustments in the priming by putting down more paint, stippling it to give it a slight texture, or changing air pressure to manipulate the spray. You can even vary the textures if you like “ smooth in some areas, rough in others. The possibilities are endless. In the end, you’ll create a surface that is beautiful unto it, and ready for your art to further enhance it.

Why go to the effort to prepare a canvas when other surfaces are available? For several reasons:

A properly prepared canvas is a perfect surface for acrylics and airbrushing.

The finished painting is relatively light weight compared to the same work on a board or metal surface.

The process of painting on canvas is pleasing. It is flexible, forgiving and versatile medium.

Art on canvas appeals to people as “fine art”, which correlates to greater value among collectors.

Canvas can be purchased or stretched to just about any size, enabling you to work on target pieces 20 feet or more than usually afforded by illustration board.

Canvas is durable, and paintings on them can last for centuries.

Canvas artwork does not have to be framed under glass like works created an illustration board. So, having made my case for canvas, let’s get to work and create the perfect ultra-smooth canvas for airbrush.


Here’s what you’ll need, in order of use: A stretched canvas (Buy a goodquality, pure cotton canvas. Gallery-wrap canvases-the ones without any visible staples can be displayed nicely without a frame by simply painting the edges. For a custom-sized canvas not available in the art-supply store, staple the canvas to the stretcher bars from the back, essentially creating the gallery-wrap look yourself. Even if you plan to frame the finished painting, negating the need for hidden staples, there is a bonus feature to a gallery-wrap canvas-it tends to come stretched on thicker stretcher bars, which is good for the workout you’re about to put it through.)
Acrylic gesso

Squeegee (3-by-5-inch, like those used by sign shops to apply vinyl)

Small bucket

Wet/dry sandpaper

Sanding backing pad

Clean cotton rag

3 M Scotch-Brite scuff pad (gray one, equal to 400-600 grit sandpaper)

Dust mask

Tack cloth Now follow these steps:

Step 1:


Support your canvas on something vertical, like the wall or a sturdy easel. Scoop the gesso (don’t skimp on this product “ I prefer the Golden brand Acrylic #3550-8) directly from a 1-gallon tub and apply it straight to the canvas with a squeegee. Don’t scoop too much out at a time. Using long strokes and very thin layers, actually push the gesso into the canvas’s surface; the goal is to level out the rough surface and get the gesso to become part of the canvas. It’ll take five to 10 coats to eliminate the canvas’s textures, and this process can take a few days. Allow each coat to dry thoroughly before applying the next one, rotating the canvas between coats. Rotating helps produce a more consistent surface and allows you to spot areas you might have missed in previous coats. Try, as much as possible, to avoid creating ridges when you apply the gesso. Continue to add layers of gesso until there is no visible canvas texture.

Step 2:


The gesso has eliminated the canvas texture, but the squeegee process had added other texture “ streaks of gesso buildup and other imperfections which you’ll now remove through wet sanding. This process, usually practiced in the automotive industry, enables you to achieve a smoother surface than normal, dry sanding can produce. Make sure the canvas has cured (dried) for a day or two. First, allow your 320-grit wet sandpaper to soak and soften for 15 minutes in a bucket of warm water. While the sandpaper soaks, place a clean cotton rag in warm water and wring it out until it’s slightly damp. Wrap the sandpaper around your backing pad (sanding block) and begin lightly wet-sanding the canvas, focusing on areas with rises and imperfections.

Keep the canvas vertical, keep the sandpaper wet, and use the damp cloth to wipe off any mess as you move along. Don’t be too aggressive; you don’t want to penetrate the gesso and damage the canvas material. Continue to rotate the canvas. To find the imperfections, it is helpful to look across as light reflects off its surface. You can also run your hand along the surface to feel for any imperfection. Continue sanding until the canvas is glass-smooth everywhere. Then wipe the canvas down with a clean damp rag and let it dry and do some additional wet sanding if necessary. Add gesso, and some more, until you are satisfied the surface is perfect.

Step 3:

You now have a beautifully smooth surface, but one on which most paint won’t stick. To fix that, you need to scuff. Don a dust mask, and in a well-ventilated area begin to move your Scotch-Brite scuff pad lightly across the entire surface, providing an even tooth. The objective here is to have a relatively texture-free surface, with enough tooth for paint to adhere to. Use a tack cloth at this stage to remove any dust.

Step 4:

The canvas is not quite there; you need to prime it. Using on Iwata RG-2 spray gun with a fan nozzle, you can prime in any color, but a good idea is to apply the lightest color you plan to use in the painting itself, if you intend to use white in your painting, employ straight white as the primer so that when you apply more white (or derivatives).

It’ll match the background and not look out of place. Spray multiple light coats rather than one or two heavy coats. Apply each coat in a different direction “ the first pass could be horizontal, the second vertical, the third diagonal, etc, - to provide on even finish with no visible strokes or patterns in the completed surface. Allow the surface to thoroughly dry for at least 24 hours before drawing or painting on your ultra-smooth canvas.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Airbrush Action Magazine's March - April 2016 Issue is now available -- Print and Digital Edition!

AIrbrush Action Diamond Collection: All Issues from 1985-2013