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.



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.


    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: ) 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!

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