10 Steps to Making a Hand-Painted Canvas Photography Backdrop

Many of the Portrait Photographers who I look up to (JoeyL, Clay Cook, Luke Fontana, Miller Mobley) and am inspired by use high-end hand-painted canvas backdrops behind their subject combined with soft lighting to create a painterly image, these images are typically used in high-end fashion, editorial and advertising.   To buy outright they are ludicrously expensive, and to rent, well….I wouldn’t have much of my clients budget after!  I am by no means an artist in the form of a painter, and I am most certain my finished piece has nothing on one made by a professional like Oliphant Studios, however my initial thoughts were “how hard can it be?” and then went about working out the best way to go about creating my own.  

 Above: Finished Canvas.      Model:  Kamila Hussein

Above: Finished Canvas.      Model: Kamila Hussein

I spoke with artist friends, found blogs online, the best of which was one by a NY based Portrait Photographer Philip Vukelich and also a short video made by a UK based Photographer - Karl Taylor and then went about planning it.  I documented each stage, so thought I would share :)

Below a little video to run you through my process, but below please follow the 10 step guide.

Step 1: Buy your canvas

On ebay I found 12ft X 9ft ‘Bolton Twill’ Dust Sheet; essentially a very tight knit, fairly thick decorators sheet, I bought 2 for £25.42 and it arrived within a couple of days.

Step 2: Source a space large enough to paint

Luckily enough I have a photographic studio in Stoke Newington, which was large enough and had a flat floor, however most garages should be large enough or even a drive, but just make sure the floor is very flat.  Ideally a place which has good airing, to the paint can dry easily.

Step 3: Create a shopping list

  • PVA (1 litre) - which you will later mix with water 4 parts water to 1 part PVA to prime the canvas.

  • Bucket - to mix PVA and Water, and later mix paint.

  • Thick paint brush 6” or a paint roller (I chose paint brush as I felt I would have more control over the paint, and didn’t want any random flicks of paint going on anything else)

  • A smaller paint brush (maybe 2” - doesnt matter too much just so you have more control)

  • A string mop

  • Paint tray

  • Rag - old T-shirt or something (didn’t really use, only really to clean up)

  • Paint:

    • Base layer - Matt Black (I used 2 X 750ml tins)

    • Dark Grey (500ml)

    • I also bought a light grey, but it was way to light  so never ended up using it.

  • Duck tape

  • Black bin bags

Step 4: Iron/Steam the canvas

I did this to get all of the kinks out of the fabric, as it was quite thin and had been packaged in a small wrapping, it had lines all the way through it so thought it best to iron it out first of all.

Step 5: Prepare the space

For this, and maybe it is a slightly unconventional way, but I cut black plastic bin bags, with a stanley knife so I could lay them flat with a maximum floor space, I taped them to each other and to the floor.  You can buy one big plastic sheet, however when I looked they cost about £10-14, and the plastic bags were £1.20.

Step 5: Priming the canvas

Once it was ironed out and the black bin bags were on the floor, I laid it flat, over the top, and created a mixture which was 1 part PVA 4 parts water (roughly) mixed in a bucket, after mixing the liquid together I applied it with the larger 6” paintbrush (though you could also do this with a paint roller as well)

Step 6: Leave until touch dry

Leave for maybe 3-4 hours, I went off got some lunch, did some editing, and came back after about 4 hours, and it was touch dry.

Step 7: Reprime the canvas

As I did before, same mixture I went and painted the whole thing with a PVA/Water mix.

Step 8: Set up a fan, and leave to dry overnight

I left it to dry overnight, but also actually applied some weights along each side, nothing formal, just what I could find, a couple of ladders, a table, some wooden planks, and a marble wheel.  I did this as I could see a couple of the edges starting to curl, and it was more of a precaution as I didn’t want them to curl any more.

Step 9: Base paint

Next day, about 15 hours after the 2nd coat of PVA/Water mix, I went about painting the base coat, I used a solid matt black paint, and watered down about 1 part paint, 3 parts water.  It went on like black ink soaking it all up!  I applied with the big/wide 6” paint brush, but had the smaller brush to dab any other areas which had been missed, especially around the edges where I needed to be a bit more careful not to get the black paint on the floor.

Step 10: Mix secondary and tertiary paints, and apply.

The final and the most crucial part, which i found a little stressful, and I emphasise that it is this stage which is the hardest, and you really need to just continue, however bad it might look like to begin with!  I used the dark grey paint I had bought, then mixed  the black and the dark grey in the paint tray.  I then used the mop to dap the now black canvas.

The first few dabs of the ‘dark grey’ paint looked terrible, but I kept on, and tried dabbing to mix the ‘dark grey’ paint (which wasn’t that ‘dark’!) into the black, then used a combination of the black paint, and a mix of black and dark grey to layer over one another, slowly blending the colours into each other.

I didn’t time myself, but I reckon I spent 30-45 mins perfecting this, layering the different shades of grey on top on one another, really trying to blend the shades, while keeping/creating some interesting pattern with the mop string.  After about 5-10 minutes I perfected a technique, so from there it was just about getting they print right, but the first 5-10 mins I left all my trouble was going to waste and this canvas was going to look horrendous, so please soldier on if the same thing happens to you!

I then left the canvas for about 15 hours, with a fan in the room, and the following day it was ready for a mini shoot :)

The total I spent, including all the paint, brushes, etc… and the canvas; £79.85