Framing Options for Paintings on Unstretched Canvas or Paper

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Question: One of my biggest personal painting struggles is my tendency to tighten up and lose spontaneity. I would like to try painting on unstretched canvas and/or gessoed paper to save money and help the gestural aspect of my work. On page 27 of your Landscape Painting book you talk about painting on unstretched canvas. If the painting is a keeper, how do you handle this? Does one glue it to a masonite panel?  If so what type of glue? – Robin

Answer: Whenever I talk about painting on unstretched canvas, I am inevitably asked this question. What do you do if you want to frame it? It may come as a surprise that a painting done on unstretched canvas can be stretched later. It can also be mounted to a panel or matted. For the benefit of those who may not have heard of painting on unstretched canvas, I’ll first outline the advantages, then I’ll discuss the various presentation options.

Note: Unstretched canvas does not mean unprimed! When I mention “unstretched” canvas, it means pre-primed canvas. My preferred brand is Fredrix.

The advantage of painting un unstretched canvas or paper

Freedom. There is a certain preciousness about stretched canvas. You may have taken considerable time and effort to prepare the canvas or, if you bought it ready-made, spent a sizable sum. A pristine stretched canvas can be intimidating. It says, “You’d better not mess this up!” You may not want to commit to the trouble and expense of stretched canvas until you know the painting is working out. Unstretched pre-primed canvas (or gessoed paper) is, by comparison, very low cost. As Robin’s question suggests, working on an inexpensive and “unprecious” surface may encourage you to be freer and more experimental.

Portability. Stretched canvases can be cumbersome, especially for plein air painters who must travel light. When I paint outdoors, I carry around several pieces of gessoed paper and unstretched canvas in an envelope. I simply tape the individual pieces to a lightweight panel. It adds almost no weight to my pack.

Painting on canvas that is to be stretched later

If you plan to stretch the canvas later, be sure to leave 1.5 – 2 inches of extra canvas around the image area to wrap around the stretcher bars. (See below.) Also be sure to measure your work in increments of whole inches, so it will conform to the standard sizes of stretcher bars.

Diagram of how to prepare paintings on unstretched canvas

Framing options for paintings done on unstretched canvas or gessoed paper

1. Stretching the canvas after the painting is finished. Stretching the canvas after the painting is finished is certainly possible, but it’s not easy. I don’t recommend doing it yourself unless you are very skilled at stretching canvases. If budget permits, I recommend taking it to professional framer. If you do want to do it yourself, here are some guidelines.

  • You do not have to stretch pre-primed canvas as much as you would unprimed canvas. You only need to stretch it enough to make it gently taut, enough that the canvas has no buckles or ripples. That said, stretching pre-primed canvas is definitely harder than stretching unprimed canvas. Pre-primed canvas has much less give.
  • Even if you have the tools and the strength to stretch the hell out of the pre-primed canvas, don’t. Although oil paint does have some flexibility, there is a point at which you could damage or crack the paint layers, especially if the painting has been drying for several years.
  • A painting that is being stretched undergoes lots of handling, so you must take extra care not to damage the surface of the painting in the process.

2. Mat the painting. If you like the look of a mat or liner around a painting, there is no reason you can’t mat a painting done on paper or unstretched canvas. A small piece of canvas will lie very flat under a mat. A larger piece may not lie as flat, in which case mounting or stretching may be called for.

3. Mount the painting. You can mount canvas or gessoed paper to a panel or mat board. Like stretching a painting, mounting can be tricky. It requires a lot of skill and must be done right if it is to remain flat (unwarped) and be truly archival. I recommend taking it to a professional framer, who knows how to do it and has all the necessary tools. Complete step-by-step instructions for mounting are beyond the scope of this article, but if you are interested in doing it yourself, here are a few points to be aware of. Also see the comments and suggestions by readers below. As with any studio technique you are trying for the first time, don’t try it on your “precious” painting. Always experiment on scrap canvas or paper first.

  • Use an archival glue intended for mounting such as Yes Stikflat Glue or Polyvinyl Acetate (PVA). See Gerry’s comments below about stabilized PVA and shelf life.
  • Before mounting paper, seal the back side of the painting with a coat of gesso. Tape the painting facedown on a clean surface before gessoing. This will to allow it to dry flat without any buckling. Canvas does not need to be gessoed on the back.
  • Proper mounting requires complete adhesion. You must use enough glue to form complete contact between the back of the painting and the panel, and spread the glue very evenly using some type of spatula. Too little glue may result in areas that don’t fully adhere, trapping air beneath the surface of the painting.
  • Proper mounting produces a completely flat panel without any warping. Immediately after glueing the painting to the panel, it must dry flat under significant pressure, and be allowed to dry completely (approximately 24 hours). Full adhesion and drying under pressure are the keys to a panel that will dry completely flat.
  • Mount onto good quality material. I have found the masonite available at lumberyards to be very poor quality for art purposes. Their pieces are usually warped. I recommend spending a few extra dollars for an artist-grade panel, like those from Ampersand or archival foam core.
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About Author

Mitchell Albala is a Seattle-based painter known for his semi-abstract and atmospheric landscapes. His book, "Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice," is a national bestseller with nearly 37,000 copies in print. Mitchell is also a popular workshop instructor at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, Winslow Art Center, Daniel Smith Artist’s Materials, and Arte Umbria in Italy. He has lectured on Impressionism and landscape painting at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines. His popular painting blog, which serves as a companion to his book, was awarded #12 on feedspot.com’s Top 75 Painting Blogs.

21 Comments

  1. Mitch, I have been mounting unstretched canvas paintings to hardboard for a couple of years, now. Seems to work very well, at least so far. I seal the hardboard panel with GAC 100 and gesso both sides. The mounting side receives asecond coat of gesso and the canvas is applied while the gesso is still wet. These are small pieces (8 x 10, 9 x 12) and, if I am sure to get an even edge to edge, coat, this has worked.

  2. Gerry Conley on

    Mitch.

    When I used to glue my own canvas panels prior to painting, I used Polyvinyl Acetate. I concluded it was worth spending many times as much for stabilized PVA glue from an art supply purveyor rather than buying gallons of PVA cheaply from Home Depot. PVA is inherently unstable. The archival, buffered, PVA product from an art store, if used promptly, will produce an archival product. However, if stored it too will turn acidic. The manufacturer will tell you how long it keeps. My recollection is that it stays balanced only for a few months.

    Have you glued up a highly textured painting? Did you take any precautions when putting the panel and canvas into your press?

    Gerry

  3. Really appreciate this thorough response! Although I know I’ll miss the “bounce” of stretched canvas, I’m off to buy a roll of preprimed to experiment.
    -Robin

  4. Thanks so much for this article. I use the canvas pieces, then mount them to gatorboard, which seems very stable. They’re light in weight and easy to cut, and not too bad in price when bought in 4-foot by 8-foot sheets. I have been using “Yes” glue, which has seemed OK.

  5. Gene jaress on

    Being new to painting, but not to art, I started learning the craft to better understand the art. I don’t like the bounce of the canvas especially if I are doing scrubbing techniques like Mitch demonstrates for underpainting. I use 1/4 or 3/8 inch cabinet grade ply, cut to the size desired. For 1/4 inch I build a frame and glue and nail. For bigger, I use 3/8 inch, seal the back and edges with a sanding sealer, slightly rounding the edges of the top surface [this helps reduce paint build up on the edges]. I use soft gel for adhesion PVA; white glues and gesso are thinner and leave more room for error. Lay the gel on liberally, but evenly. I use a 4 inch plastic spatula, lay on the canvas cut oversize to account for shrinkage, roll from the center out. The gel will be pressed into the canvas and there will be gel squeezed out of the edges. Turn over and apply weight.

  6. David Dwyer on

    Mitch — great blog posting! Thanks. I’ve been mounting my painted canvases (or unpainted canvases, in advance of plein air work) to panels using a slightly different method which I find works well for me. After applying the PVA glue liberally to the surface of the panel, I lay my canvas down on top of the glue-coated panel and use a hard rubber brayer (roller) to push down on the surface of the painting, working from the center out to the edges, to make sure I have good adhesion and that no air bubbles are trapped. I then run my clean finger all around the outside perimeter of the painting where it meets the edge of the panel, to double-check that there’s complete adhesion along this margin. I cover the painting with a sheet of waxed paper and put a couple of heavy books or another board plus a weight on top of the painting/panel sandwich and let dry overnight. The next day I use an X-Acto knife to trim the excess canvas from around the margins of the panel.

  7. Naomi Lesberg on

    I appreciate your answer and would like to add a couple of things. First, you can keep the canvas unprimed if using acrylics. Washes of acrylic ink or thinned paint give a nice, surface to paint on. Two, you can roll the canvas when your’e not working on it, which makes it far easier to transport and store. It’s also easier to reach the middle of large pieces. Three, I glued one of my unstretched canvases to a piece of bamboo screen that had been reiforced with some wood pieces. It’s unconventional, far less expensive than framing, and suits the subject matter.

  8. Elizabeth Sandia on

    I learn so much from your emails. The Kahn videos are worth me viewing several times. I will forward to them to my painting buddy in MA. Keep up the great, informative work you do.

  9. Thanks for sharing your technique with us. I also do the same – using paper as a substrate for oil paintings – but I prefer to use a reversible adhesive. Lineco Neutral pH Adhesive is one. It works best when mounting canvas to board, since it is water-reversible and the water won’t damage the canvas. When using paper, I use BEVA film, which is heat-activated. (Water will possible weaken the paper and damage it.) It only requires a 150 deg F clothes iron activate the film.

  10. I have been using the Arches oil paper. I use Liquitex acrylic pouring medium as a glue. Pouring this on to mdf board. lay the paper on, press under a weight for 20 mins, then cut of the edges of the paper to fit. So far this has worked perfectly every time

  11. I need help! I bought my canvas pre-stretched. I have put two coats of gesso on canvas and the corners have become wrinkled. How do I fix this and make the corners tight?

  12. Mitchell Albala on

    It’s difficult to say why this happened. It’s possible that the canvas was slightly wrinkled to begin with, and that your two coat of gesso just exacerbated the problem. In any case, there are two solutions I can think of. One is to manually re-stretch the corners. This may not be possible with the type of canvas you have, though. Many pre-stretched canvases nowadays are stretched in such a way that the canvas is embedded into the back and cannot be unhinged/unwrapped. The second option is to use a canvas re-tensioner spray. This is a spray that you spray on the back, and it’s supposed to tighten up the wrinkle and dents. There are probably many different brands, but the one I have here is by Masterpiece, a leading canvas manufacturer, and it’s called Tight’n’Up. I’ve never actually used it, however. I suppose there is a third option, which is that you can try returning the canvases. Even a pre-primed canvas should not get all wrinkled if you decide to put a few coats of additional gesso on it. Good luck!

  13. English Norman on

    Thanks for a great post. I appreciate it. I have a painting with a small hole in it. I thought a solution (don’t want to patch it) might be to size the painting down into a smaller frame. I’m wondering if I can attach directly to inside of the frame or must it be attached to a panel or restretched? I’m trying to balance the painting to make it smaller and I’m not sure there’s enough space to restretch next to the hole… Thank you so much for any advice.

  14. Mitchell Albala on

    Hi English. I’m not sure I understand your strategy, but I think you are suggesting cropping the painting to a smaller size, excluding the portion that has a hole in it. That is certainly doable and you can find instructions for doing that about halfway through this post. “1. Stretching the canvas after the painting is finished.” As for the whole being so close to the edge that you might not have enough room to wrap around the stretcher bar — that complicates matters. In that case, I would consider options #2 or #3, matting the painting or mounting the painting. These are tedious exercises, but if it’s a really great painting, then it’s worth it. I hope that helps.

  15. Hi Mitchell, Great blog … Technical question … I am planning to do a series of paintings in acrylic on primed, but unstretched canvas, whilst travelling with the intention of mounting them on Ampersand panels. I usually work directly on panels but this is not practical. I had considered working on Fabriano Pittura paper or Bristol board and then mounting them but I always find the corners of anything paper based get bashed and dented, so canvas seemed the best option. BUT, just did a trial painting on canvas and it has seriously buckled, wouldn’t possibly lie flat on a panel. So I tried gessoing the BACK as well as the front and its lovely and flat. My question is..is gesso OK to use? Should I use something like acrylic gel or a GAC?? Need to get this right as planned on doing 30 for a solo show!

  16. Mitchell Albala on

    So you are saying that you gessoed both sides of the panel BEFORE you attempted to glue the unstretched canvas to it, right? And that worked. As far as I know, that is archival. I have been told that wood panels should have a coat of GAC on them before doing anything like this, but I would check with Ampersand, as they are such a high quality product, that they may already have some kind of archive seal in them already. I mounted a work on paper to a board once, and the framer told me to also gesso the back of the paper, as well. No entirely sure why. The gesso sounds fine to me, but I would check with someone who is more of an archiving expert than I.

  17. I just painted on a sheet of primed canvas from a pad. I taped it to a piece of wood, and now I would like to remove the painting to let it dry, and use the same wood panel for other paintings. I am thinking about just taping the first painting to a wall or other surface to hang/dry. I guess my question is whether I need to keep the painting taped to the wood base, or can I just re-tape and hang elsewhere, thereby freeing up my wood panel for other paintings? Thanks.

  18. Mitchell Albala on

    Sure, you can remove and “hang” the canvas elsewhere to dry. just make sure that it’s flat.

  19. When I went overseas I couldn’t take my painting because the cost to post it was crazy. The friend I left it with unstapled it and sent it rolled. Unfortunately there are some tears where the staples were. What would you suggest I patch these with? I was thinking sticking some bandage or iron on webbing? Then I was going to try and attempt putting it on a frame again since it has already been stretched I imagine it would not be as difficult. Any advice would be very welcome. Thanks Eva, New Zealand.

  20. Mitchell Albala on

    If the tears actually reach to the surface of the painting, then, yes, you would need to do some kind of patching. I don’t do this archival restoration, so I can’t tell you what the exact protocol would be. I would probably patch it with canvas using an archival glue for artists. If the tears are just around the original staple holes, and do not reach the painting, then just re-stretch the painting. What difference does it make if there are tears where no one will see it. Good luck.