How To Prime A Linen Canvas For A Beautiful, Long-Lasting Oil Painting

Canvas is a plain-weave fabric, originally made from hemp, which is where it is believed to have got its name (the Greek ‘cannabis’ meaning ‘made of hemp’). Nowadays, cotton or linen canvas art supplies are readily available to buy unstretched and unprimed, or ready for use in the form of canvas wrapped around a wooden frame or on a cardboard backing.

Linen is spun from the fibres of the flax plant, and the thread is plain-woven into a canvas material. Flax is native to Western Europe and needs to be picked by hand, which makes linen canvas more expensive than its cotton alternative, which can be mass-produced easily.

Linen’s durability and unique woven texture made it the perfect surface to paint on with oil paints, but it is much more difficult to stretch than cotton canvas, so bear this in mind if you plan on preparing the canvas yourself. If you don’t want to spend the time stretching and priming yourself, you can always purchase linen canvas art supplies ready-made.

Read more about the differences between cotton and linen canvas here.

Let’s read on to learn about how we can prepare a linen canvas for a beautiful, long lasting oil painting.

What Is Oil Painting?

Oil painting is the process of painting with oil paint, a paint made from pigments in a drying oil such as linseed oil or walnut oil. It is an art form that has been around for centuries, with the first know oil paintings believed to have been painted in the 7th Century AD.

Oil paint was originally used to paint woodwork and statues in the 12th Century AD, but over the following centuries it began to be used more for painting landscapes and portraits, thanks to its popularity in Northern Europe.

During the Renaissance, oil wood panel painting was on its way to replacing egg tempura painting as the most popular medium, due to its added thickness and versatility. The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous (and expensive) oil paintings painted during this time, painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

In the present day, oil painting is used by artists all over the world to create realistic paintings that will stand the test of time. Paintings are commonly produced using oil paint on linen or cotton canvas, or natural wood surfaces, although other surfaces such as paper, cardboard, metal and man-made wood are also commonly used.

Do I Need To Prime Linen Canvas For Oil Painting?

While priming linen canvas is not essential, there are certainly a few advantages to doing so.

Firstly, priming for oil paint on linen with the correct primers will ensure that your colours remain true and stand out on the canvas. Inconsistencies in the linen canvas may mean that some pigments are absorbed more than others, leading to dull patches on your painting. Giving your painting an even base ensures that the colours do your painting justice.

In addition to this, priming your linen canvas will allow your brush to glide over it more smoothly, making for an easier time applying the paint and blending colours. If you’re applying the oil paint on linen in layers, like many artists do, then having a nice, smooth surface as a starting point is a great idea.

Priming for canvas also has the oil paint on linen advantage of making sure your paints don’t lose their sheen, and are more likely to stand the test of time. In addition to this, priming protects your canvas from being degraded by the oil in oil paints over time. After all, you can’t have a painting without the support it rests on!

How To Prime Linen Canvas For Oil Painting

Method One

This method is more time-consuming but gives great results.

1.      Apply Acrylic Polymer

‘Sizing’ is the process of using acrylic polymers such as PVA glue or GAC-100, or rabbit skin glue, to fill in the tiny holes in the surface of the linen canvas. Its purpose is to ensure no oil paint seeps through the canvas, and to make it more rigid so that it is easier to work with. Many acrylic polymers can be purchased with other linen canvas art supplies at art stores, or online.

The step is usually done while the linen is being stretched onto a wooden frame or by using stretcher bars, and a few coats may need to be applied to get the desired rigidity.

2.      Sand

Once the linen canvas is completely dry, it should be sanded to smooth out the surface and get rid of any excess polymer.

3.      Apply Oil Ground

The ground is the layer that physically separates the paint from the canvas. Its purpose is to make sure the canvas takes the oil paint on linen properly and evenly, and provide additional support and durability. Ground is applied after sanding, and should be painted on evenly with a brush. Beware, it could take up to two weeks for the oil ground to dry completely.

Once the oil ground is dry, your canvas is ready for painting!

Method Two

This method takes significantly less time and so is ideal for beginners.

Apply Acrylic Gesso

Acrylic Gesso is a two-in-one product. With it, you don’t need to size the canvas with acrylic polymer or rabbit skin glue, or apply several layers of oil ground. It comes in different shades of black, grey and white, so you can pick the best primer colour for your oil paint on linen. It is readily available from linen canvas art supplies stores, and online.

The only step in this method is to apply the gesso to the linen canvas using a brush. Each layer of gesso will take only a few hours to dry, but it is recommended that you give it three days to dry down completely before painting on top of it.