Studio Craft: Priming and painting unstretched canvas?

Ask the Expert: "Is it possible to gesso and paint on canvas that hasn't been stretched? What about displaying the finished art without stretchers?"

A: The preferred method is to stretch canvas, then size and prime (or just prime if using acrylic gesso), but sometimes artists choose to work on loose fabric, especially for works of monumental scale, or where gravity-assisted applications like drip painting are involved.

While it's possible to work directly on loose, unprimed fabric, doing so presents some significant challenges. Canvas that's sized and primed without stretching will tend to shrink irregularly, making it difficult to achieve a flat painting surface, and ripples can cause paint to pool and flow unpredictably. Uneven shrinkage at the edges can also make installation difficult, particularly if canvas has been cut to fit specific dimensions. If finished art must fit exactly, but edge distorton might be a problem, try working "full bleed" on canvas that's larger than the final dimensions, then trim to fit.

Using factory-primed canvas for paintings executed on the studio floor is an easy way to avoid issues of shrinkage and distortion, since the priming has already dried, and the fabric has been calendared (passed through rollers) to flatten it. There are limits to the widths and lengths of primed fabric, however, so for paintings that exceed dimensions available, priming loose fabric in-studio may be the only option.

If the studio floor is made of a material that can accept staples, or if plywood boards can be placed over the floor, it may be possible to tack the canvas down while work is in progress. Paper should be placed under the canvas to prevent primer strike-through from sticking the painting to the floor/boards.

The display and installation method for finished art will depend on the type of paint used. Paintings executed in a flexible medium like acrylic can withstand more movement than oils, especially as they age. Oils, by comparison, become brittle over time and can get badly damaged if the fabric support flexes or movesexcessively. Artists wishing to use a suspension display method for large canvases like hanging from grommets should consider using acrylic instead of oil. Canvases painted in oil on unstetched fabric will likely prove more durable if the finished art is displayed in a way that minimizes planar distortion, either on a frame or mounted to a rigid panel.

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