How I prepare my canvases for pastel:

For a few years now, I’ve been painting pastels  on canvas which I’ve prepared with a water base primer to help smooth out the canvas texture so it won’t eat up my pastels as quickly as the rough canvas would without any added primer. Several years ago I researched glassless pastels (how to paint pastels without needing to frame under glass) and this is the technique I’ve come up with, after a lot of experimentation, of how to prepare my chosen surface – pre-stretched canvas.

Canvas before primed with FSC-88 WB

This is what the canvas looks like before I’ve brushed on any primer – lots of texture!

FSC-88 WB primer Jana uses on her canvases

This is the primer I use. It’s water based, and I discovered how well it works while helping prime foam letters for my husband’s sign business.

Canvases

Canvas

Here are some canvases with a couple of coats of primer. I usually put 3 coats of primer on the top and sides of each canvas, waiting for them to dry before painting on the next layer.

Primer & straining more primer

The primer is quite thick and occasionally has bits of dried primer or other debris which I can’t stand having to pick out while I paint, so I use paint strainers to remove any garbage in the primer, and will thin it to about the consistency of thick cream with water before I strain into a yogurt container. I can then seal that container and it will keep indefinitely.

Straining primer

Straining primer

I then just use a nice house painting brush, or if I’m doing smaller canvases a smaller fine bristle brush to paint on the primer as smoothly as I can, trying not to leave any brush strokes.

Strained primer and paintbrush

Jana priming her canvases

After the primer has dried completely – usually overnight, or several days if I get distracted… I then wet sand them all to eliminate any brush strokes, rough spots and to make them even more smooth.

Primed Canvases

Jana sanding primed canvases

I’m fortunate that I’m able to use my husband’s sign shop for these task. He’s not quite as lucky, since this can take more time than we both expect!

Smooth sanded primed canvas & unsanded

Above, you can see a canvas that’s been wet sanded (in front), then the one that hasn’t.

Wet sanded primed canvas

Here’s a canvas that’s still wet after being sanded. They dry pretty quickly – especially on a hot summer afternoon!

As you can see, before I even begin to paint, there’s a lot of work that I need to do to make my canvases workable with my particular pastel painting method. By doing this prep work though, I’m able to eliminate any need for glass and archival cotton rag mat boards (the traditional way to display pastel artwork), and I don’t even need to use frames if I’ve chosen deep gallery wrapped canvases.

11 Comments

    1. Hi Joan, if you click on the link “water base primer” in the first sentence of this blog post it will take you to the primer website. My husband is a sign and graphic artist, so he purchases this primer from his sign supply companies. Good luck with your experimentation!

  1. The only thing I find with the priming is that then the surface seems to reject thick layering and the pastels just seemed to slide across too easily. Any thoughts or ideas on that? Is there a happy medium where you can thin the paint to just seal up a bunch of the fiber? The raw canvas just vacuums up the pastel…but I still want good adhesion.

    1. I use the fsc-88 wb primer shown above – it leaves a slight tooth to the canvas after I’ve put on 3 coats & sanded it fairly smooth. I do have a light touch with the pastel, but when it begins to get slippery, that’s when I spray with diluted pva size. (here’s a post about that process: https://janajohnsonartwork.com/2014/03/18/finished/ ) The size once dry holds the pastel and I can keep working until I’m finished. I spray more size on as needed. At the end I coat well with the size and then some acrylic varnish spray. It’s truly an experimental process — lots of trial & error when into this, and like anything, the more you practice, the easier it gets. Good luck!

      1. Jana, your artwork is beautiful. Thank you for giving others ideas they may be exploring on their own. I would suggest the use of archival art supplies IF one is selling anything. I use GOLDEN clear gesso on my raw canvases to give an interesting texture when using soft pastels for my abstracts. Yes, it does eat up my expensive soft pastels AND the colors are stunning so I think it worth the ‘loss’ of sticks.

  2. Hi Judith, thank you for your kind comment. I do use archival art supplies, and I’ve asked the fsc-88 wb primer company if their product is considered archival, but they weren’t able to tell me it was. Considering it’s used in the sign industry as a primer for oil paint & other sign paints which are hung outdoors in the sun & elements, and they withstand the weather, I believe they’re pretty archival – especially if used indoors in normal artwork-hanging environments. I’ve used it for over 10 years and have yet to see any issues. Do you have a website showing your artwork? I’d love to see what you’re doing. Cheers, and thanks for commenting!

  3. Thanks for the excellent information. Was wondering if I can put a coat of clear gesso over the primer to give a little more tooth, or do you think the surface with just the primer is adequate for a little layering?

    1. Hi Valerie, I’ve never put anything over the primer FSC88-WB (except water when I sand it at the end) & just start painting with watercolor or pastel, so I can’t tell you if gesso would help or not. I’ve found I’m able to layer pastel on top, but after a while it does get slippery, and that’s when I spray with the diluted PVA size to adhere the previous layers onto the canvas. I then proceed once the PVA has dried, layering more until I’m happy with the finished painting. The only way to know what will happen with clear gesso is to give it a try. If it works, great, if not, oops – maybe you can sand it back off. I’m always experimenting, and dealing with good or bad outcomes, but it’s all a learning experience, and hopefully you’ll find something that works at the end!

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