After publishing my first post last week, I realized I forgot to introduce myself. My name is Claire Fuller and I’m studying painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University. I just started interning here at the Smithsonian Associates in the Studio Arts department, and I’m incredibly excited about the opportunity. I think it'll be fun for me (and hopefully beneficial for you all) to be able to share and discuss some of the experiences and information I’m learning in school. One of the first processes I was taught was how to stretch my own canvas and prep it for a painting, which I think will be helpful to explain here.
In the past, I had always used pre-stretched canvases; in part because it was the quickest way to acquire a surface material, but mostly because I had no idea how to go about stretching my own canvas. I discovered that the process is actually quite simple, inexpensive, and yields a much nicer product. The quality of pre-stretched canvases is unreliable, and stretching the canvas yourself allows you to control the resistance and flexibility of your surface. When done correctly, paintings on stretched canvas survive longer than pre-stretched, preserving your artwork for many years to come.
1. Gathering your materials
The first step is to make sure you have all the materials you need. Here’s a checklist of what you’ll be using:
- Stretcher Bars – You can find these at any art supply store. For one canvas, you’ll need two bars that are the length you want and two bars that are the width you want (i.e. two 24” bars and two 18” bars).
- Raw canvas – Again, this can be found at an art supply store. You can buy a few yards and use it for multiple pieces.
- Staple Gun – This can be found at art supply stores and hardware stores.
- Staples – Because the staple gun needs its ammo!
- Gesso (for acrylics or oils, depending) - This is a mixture composed of white paint and a binder (such as chalk) that is used as a primer for paintings; it can be found in the painting section of an art supply store.
- Large paintbrush
These materials aren’t too expensive, and most of them are a good investment for future painting.
2. Assembling your stretcher bars
This next step is pretty straightforward – Create the foundation of your canvas by joining the stretcher bars to form your desired dimensions. The ends should slip together easily, but you’ll want to make sure they form right angles by pushing each corner into a door frame or window frame (if the bars aren’t properly assembled, you run the risk of having a warped final product). This step should look like the image below:
3. Stretching your canvas
Here is where the actual leg work comes in! Tear off a piece of your raw canvas large enough to cover one side of your stretcher bars and wrap around the side, without leaving too much excess. There is no right or wrong side of the canvas, but one side will be smoother than the other, so the side you paint on is your choice. Lay it "right" side down on a flat surface (I prefer the floor because I think this makes it easier to stretch the canvas, but a table will work just as well if you’ve got a little more muscle) and place the stretcher bars on top, centered. Like the canvas, there's no right side of the stretcher bars, so you can lay them down either way. Starting with one of the two longer sides (it doesn't matter which side - as long as it's one of the longer ones), hold the stretcher bars down and pull the canvas over the side of the bar. Use the staple gun to place a staple in the canvas at the center of the stretcher bar and secure its place. Then, move to the side opposite of where you just stapled (the other long bar) and pull the canvas over, making it as taut as possible and stapling it down, again at the center. Don’t worry about the crease that appears – you’ll stretch that out as the process continues. Turn your canvas 90 degrees in either direction and repeat this process on the adjacent sides. The most important thing to remember here is to pull the canvas as far as you can to ensure a flat and secure surface.
Once you have all four sides of your canvas secured to your stretcher bars, you can start moving around the surface, from the inside out, to stretch and staple down the rest of the loose canvas. I find it most effective to continue the pattern of opposite sides, mirroring each staple placement to avoid warping or creasing. As you move along the bars (again, from the center out toward the corners) and more of the canvas is secured, it will be more and more resistant to your pull. This just means you need to pull harder! It takes a little muscle at first, but it gets easier with practice. Place the staples about 1 – 1 ½ inches apart, stopping when you reach the corners. As you go along, I recommend checking the tautness of your canvas by flipping it and tapping the front side. If it resists your touch and has a little bounce without sagging, you’re doing well!
At the corners, you’ll want to fold the canvas in to create a clean edge. Use your thumb to push one side of the corner underneath the other, forming a small triangle, and adjust it so the edge runs parallel to the side of your canvas. Once it’s folded cleanly, you can put a couple staples in the canvas to secure your corner. The finished corner should look something like this:
Repeat this process on the other three corners to complete stretching your canvas.
4. Priming your canvas
Pull out your gesso brush, gesso, and sandpaper to prime your canvas. You can thin your gesso out with water if you’d like, combining up to 1/3 of the mixture with water. Paint a single, thin layer of gesso onto your surface, keeping your brushstrokes parallel to one side of your canvas. Let this layer dry, then use your sandpaper to smooth the surface. Repeat this process, this time aligning your brushstrokes with the opposite side of the canvas. You can continue these steps, alternating between horizontal and vertical brushstrokes, as many times as you want (I usually stick with three layers), but remember to sand every layer to keep the surface as smooth as possible.
5. Creating your masterpiece
You did it! Once your gesso layers have dried, you’re ready to start painting. Stretching canvas takes a little getting used to, but once you start, you’ll never go back to pre-stretched – I know I haven’t.
Try one of our painting classes, and impress your instructor by bringing in your own stretched canvas!