What would my great-great-great-great-great-great grandchild think? Priming and toning a canvas

Back in the days when I had my little studio set up in my apartment in Maine, if I wanted to paint with oils I’d buy a pre-primed canvas board from the art store, sit down to that bright white canvas, dip my brush first into a jar of turpentine and then into my paint and have at it. Surprise, surprise: I didn’t know what I was doing.

Unprimed cotton canvas from Dick Blick. I suck (literally)!

That bright white canvas I was using had been primed but it hadn’t been toned. Raw, unprimed cotton or linen canvas is nubbly and absorbent; priming involves first applying size (a sealant made from animal glue that protects the canvas from the acids in the paint) and then ground (usually gesso), which gives the canvas a smooth, uniform texture and color and prevents your paints from getting sucked right into the canvas.  If you’re buying raw canvas, however,  you need to stretch it before you prime it, and for that you need stretchers and canvas pliers and yada yada yada that’s a whole other ball of wax I don’t know a thing about. Lot’s of other people do, though. Here’s one.

Why would you go through all that hassle? To save money, primarily; to use a canvas shape you can’t find pre-made; to have complete control of the surface of your painting. I get it, but I’m not there yet.

Instead, as absolute beginners, we’re using these Tara Fredrix acrylic-primed canvas panels. According to Jim, though, that’s only because these early experiments are likely just bound for the circular file. As we improve, we’ll want to avoid acrylic-primed canvas, especially – ESPECIALLY – acrylic-primed stretched canvas, which is complete garbage, and in two-hundred years will make our paintings such a mess of crazing that our conservators will tear their hair out trying to fix them up.

Ahem. Yes.

Exchange when Jim left the room:
Classmate M: Do any of you have a panel I can borrow? Wet Paint was out of them and they sold me acrylic-primed stretched canvas!
Classmate B, handing one to her: Yes, no need to fall on that particular sword…

auction pic
A 200-year-old painting I bought at an auction. Acrylic-primed?

Instead, our best option as we advance will be oil-primed linen canvas, although looking at the prices I don’t expect to be using this for “Still Life with Grey Pear #2”!

So that’s Priming… What about Toning?

red wine spill download
No one would even notice this on light grey!

Here’s a rule: Unless — and perhaps even if — we’re painting a Bichon Frise lost in a snowstorm, we never want to paint on a blank white canvas. There are two reasons: First, oil paint grows more transparent over time, and (here’s that 200 years thing again) we don’t want our descendants to see our paintings any brighter than we originally intended. For those of us less concerned with our legacies, though, painting on white is really just harder on the eyes: It’s much more difficult to judge value and color against white. Darks will appear darker, colors brighter (think of how that red wine stain pops against your new white couch) and we’ll end up compensating with our paint choices, leading to unintended results. Plus, if our paint is too thin in some areas we might see little white speckles poking through — blech.

Instead, we tone our canvas by laying down a thin, semi-translucent layer of paint mixed with toning medium.

Toning Medium

1 part Walnut Alkyd Medium (WAM is walnut oil to make your paint less stiff – I’ll get into this more in an upcoming post on creating your palette — mixed with alkyd for a faster dry time)
3 parts Gamsol (Gamsol is an Odorless Mineral Solvent — basically turpentine without the stink and braincell killers)


It should look something like this:


…but less grody. Mine appears to be growing something.

Mark the level on your jar. The Gamsol will evaporate much more quickly than the WAM, and if you haven’t used very much you’ll be able to fill it to the line again with Gamsol.

Now we need to mix it with our paint. Which paint? For us, at this point, we’re using…grey. (Later, I’ve heard that it’s your painting’s dominant color, but I’ll get into that when I learn color.)

As you see on our materials list, we’re using Gamblin paints, mostly the Portland Greys (I used to live in Portland, and I can vouch for it being this color most of the year) with some white and black.

The black is called Ivory Black. How weird is that?

Our goal is to create a mixture that’s around 60-80% light. If I’d like to be systematic, I’d use some Portland Grey Medium, Portland Grey Light, and Titanium White, all mixed together to a lovely pearly shade of kitten whiskers.

But in the few weeks I’ve been painting, I’ve already gotten lazy about this and just tend to mix all my leftover greys together after a painting session and brighten the whole mess up with white if necessary. As far as I can tell, it’s not an exact science.

Once your paint is mixed up, you can add the toning medium. This can be scooped up with your palette knife and dumped into your paint pile one or more times; then you continue to mash it all up and scrape it around until you get to the consistency of thick soup. Yum!

Drippy, but could be even drippier…

Lay your canvas out on newspaper — this is a mess and no job for an easel — and using the largest, widest of your brushes, paint it on.

My photography is shite! This is actually a fairly light grey.

Then, fold up a paper towel or shop towel and lightly scrape it across the canvas, removing the excess. You’re done!


Now, waaaaaiiiiiittttt….. It takes at least three days, if not longer, for your toned canvas to be ready to paint on. Go watch TV!

But first, you have a messy brush. Read on to find out how to clean it. (Spoiler alert: it involves spit!)

2 thoughts on “What would my great-great-great-great-great-great grandchild think? Priming and toning a canvas

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