A Painting In The Making

This blog article is about my painting process. How I take an empty canvas to a finished painting.

gallery wrap pre-primed canvas
Gallery wrap stretched canvas.

I compose and paint all of my works on stretched canvas that has been commercially primed. I prefer the type of canvas that wraps around the stretcher bar support. This allows me to carry the painting around the edge of the canvas giving it a more finished look. It also means the painting will not require a frame for display unless one is desired.

Gesso Primed Stretched Canvas

canvas with gesso layer
Gesso primed canvas.

Even though the canvas I use has already been pre-primed by the manufacturer, it’s not sufficient. To provide appropriate support for the pigment, further layers of primer must be applied. The canvas must be prepped and ready to receive the oil paint before I can begin painting.
I apply two layers of gesso on the stretched canvas and allow each layer to dry thoroughly between coats. The canvas is next carefully sanded to remove any rough edges. I make an effort to prime as many canvases as possible. That way, whenever inspiration strikes and I want to start a new painting, I have a ready supply of prepped canvas on hand.

Click for more information on what to know about gesso. For step-by-step instructions on how to prime a canvas using gesso, check out this article on WikiHow: “How to Prime a Canvas.”

Sketching The Image

sketch image on the canvas using a grid
Sketching the image on the canvas.

After the canvas has been adequately prepared, it is time to start sketching the image onto the canvas’s surface. Every painting begins as a simple grid drawn on the canvas. This grid serves to aid in the placement of the focal point and other elements where they will best complement the overall composition. Using a pencil or stick of charcoal, I begin sketching the image that will eventually become the painting. I try to make the sketch as detailed as I can, making sure to include the shadow areas too.

BTW, I don’t usually make my grid lines this dark. It’s best to keep them light. I only made them dark so they would show up better for this example. I will erase them before the layer of under paint goes on.

The Underpainting

The underpainting.

An underpainting is the first layer of paint applied to the canvas, and it serves as a foundation for the subsequent layers of paint that will be applied as the painting progresses. It’s a crucial layer that’s largely made up of pigment and medium (a blend of mineral spirits and linseed oil). I use this underpainting layer to get rid of the stark white canvas surface and begin blocking in color, which also helps define the image’s basic outline. I keep this layer thin, making sure not to cover up my sketch lines. That will happen later as I develop the painting as I add more layers of pigment. Once the underpainting layer has dried, I begin laying in oil paint layer upon layer and adding more and more detail as I go until the painting is complete.

Painting In Layers

Layering on the oil paint.

I paint in layers and allow each layer some drying time before applying the next. This takes longer to finish a painting, but this technique will enable me to achieve the effect I’m working toward on each of my paintings. Depending on the amount of detail that needs to be included in the composition, some paintings will have more layers than others. Allowing each layer to dry reduces the overall drying time required before applying the varnish layers.

Applying Varnish

After the painting is finished and has had time to thoroughly dry, I will apply at least two coats of artist-grade clear varnish to protect it and bring out the colors.

The Finished Painting

white dog pet portrait
The finished painting.

The Large White Dog
Domestic Pet Painting by Teresa Bernard
16″ w x 20″ h
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

Read more about this painting here.


Additional Reading

The Importance of Varnishing Oil Paintings

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Updated: 10 March 2023

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