How to Get Your Canvas Primed and Ready

By Julio Reyes


1. Stretch the Fabric

Pictured here is twill-weave Belgian linen. This tough fabric, made from the very flax plant that linseed oil comes from, is especially resistant to humidity and, because it’s woven in different directions, it doesn’t pull in any one direction (of course, you have to stretch it properly to preserve this). I also think it smells delicious, which I’ll admit may seem a bit odd.



2. Size the Canvas

I built these stretcher bars from scratch—one of the benefits of a little know-how and a good wood shop. When making panels, I’ll usually work with a Baltic birch plywood and add pine crosspieces to the back. The size of these particular pieces demanded a thick wood stock.

I usually use Robert Doak rabbitskin glue (RSG) to size the canvas, but lately I’ve been working with a neutral pH, PVA (polyvinyl acetate) size by Linenco, which I thin with 10 percent water for the desired viscosity. The RSG glides on more smoothly, but you must diligently cover every inch. When using RSG, I apply two or three very thin coats, sanding lightly between layers.



3. Apply Lead Ground

After the size has dried, it’s time for the lead ground. A good lead ground is tough to find. The characteristics I look for are good adhesion and just the right absorbency. I use Natural Pigments lead oil ground applied with a large window wiper, and I make sure I keep the layers as thin as possible. My final surface is smooth yet reveals some of the weave of the linen.



4. Add Finishing Touches

I touch up the sides of the canvas with two to three thin coats of lead ground. The surface needs no sanding. There are ways to sand oil lead primer on unsupported canvas (canvas on stretcher bars, unsupported by panel), but the processes are difficult and involved—especially for a canvas of this size.



5. Allow Time to Cure

In hot weather, the last layer of primer cures in only three days. Here are two canvases ready for the next step.



Award-winning southern California artist Julio Reyes is represented by Arcadia Fine Arts in New York City. Visit his website at

Learn more about Julio Reyes and his work in the May 2011 issue of The Artist’s Magazine.


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