Putting paint to your favorite art brush and plopping some on a new canvas is a moment of bliss for artists, but what to do first to assure your work is of the highest quality and durability is critical to your work, especially if you are a working artist or showing and selling your work in any capacity. Canvas preparation is the biggest factor in the longevity of your work and sets the stage for your paint to stay on the canvas for as long as possible. It can make the difference between a painting lasting for decades before peeling and cracking, or centuries.
Buy the Best Quality Canvases You Can Afford
The most effective canvas preparation is starting with the highest quality brand you can afford. Ideally, you will be building your own canvas frames from scratch and stretching from rolled canvas onto them from a bulk roll. This will produce a very sturdy framework and an excellent quality of canvas that is snugly fit and tight on the frame with neat corners. That's a subject for a dedicated blog, so to learn about that, read these excellent blog posts here, here, and here. You will learn all the key points involved, what tools you need, and what materials to use, then you can decide if you want to try your hand at building your own. You can also buy pre-made canvas stretchers to build a canvas if you don't want to do any woodworking and angled cuts. See this example of pre-cut stretcher bars ready to purchase.
What kind of canvas you want to purchase depends mostly on what medium you work with. Make sure to purchase something compatible with either oils or acrylic based paints. Canvas comes in cotton or linen, with linen being of the superior quality, and priced accordingly. Buy what is compatible with your medium of choice and what fits your budget. Example of canvas on bulk rolls:
If you decide to build your own canvases, you will need equipment in addition to framing materials and canvas. Here are some exaples of what you will need to stretch and apply the canvas to the stretcher frames. Consider this added expense when deciding on how much you will do yourself vs. buying prepared canvases that are pre-streched and have at least one coat of gesso primer.
Buying Pre-Stretchd Canvases
If you decide you just want to buy already stretched canvases off the shelf so to speak, there are many brands and types to choose from. Canvas surfaces bought ready made still require some canvas preparation, but the higher quality you buy, the less prep will be required. Cheap beginner canvases are good for expereimenting and learning, but they have less stable wood framework and the canvases are often loose. If you are just playing around and experimenting, get the cheap canvases and shrink them up tighter with the hot water method. Otherwise, buy better and do some extra canvas preparation. Creative Mark "the Edge" produces a good quality gallery wrapped canvas in a large range of sizes. You can also try other medium to higher quality brand names such as Paramount, Centurion, Fredrix, Masterpiece, Senso, Old Holland, Winsor & Newton, and Museo. Good sources for buying canvases are Jerry's Artarama and Dick Blick.
Linen prestretched canvases are also available, and it painting with oils, you will need to do your canvas preparation differently. Here is a blog on canvas prep for oil painting on linen or canvas.
To Wire or Not to Wire
Once your have your canvas ready, and you plan to work with acrylic based paints, you are ready to begin canvas preparation. I personally like to pre-wire my canvases with hardware because I find it annoying to have to do it with my finished artwork, and there is the risk of damaging the work when wiring after painting. I use D-rings, weight appropriate wire. (I apply bumpers to the corners after I have a finished and dry painting, and I hang it right up to cure for1-4 weeks before varnishing.)
You're Now Ready for Gesso
After wiring it's time to add gesso. Sure, those canvases typically come pre-primed off the shelf, but it's a very thin sprayed on layer and it won't do much to hold your paint on the canvas. Gesso comes in black and white colors, and it can be tinted with paint. Adding more gesso to your canvases creates another secure layer of bonding and gives the surface a bit more tooth for the paint to grip to, and this is the one critical step in your surface preparation. You should have brushes that are dedicated to gesso application and clean them thoroughly after each use. Gesso can be applied smoothly or with texture, depending on what you will be painting. For a smooth finish apply one coat, let dry overnight, and sand it lightly with a fine grit sandpaper. Apply another coat and repeat the process until you have a surface as smooth as you like. If you are making a textures piece of art, go ahead and put some of the texture in right there in the gesso layer. Buy the best brand that you can afford. I don't recommend spray on gesso, but if you do use it, make sure to spray on at least two coats with drying time in between, so you get enough thickness to have a substantial layer.
After that last step in canvas preparation, many artists apply one coat of a thinned paint to the entire canvas as a first coat over the gesso before beginning the artwork. It can be any color, depending on your art style. You can cover that coat completely with your painting or let some of the base color show through. If you are sketching your design on the canvas before painting, apply your sketch with drawing pencils and spray afterwards with workable matte fixative. The fixative will prevent the pencilwork from smudging while you paint and also stop it from staining your paint colors. Let it dry overnight, then proceed with painting.
If you put a bit of time into your canvas preparation up front, your work will be of higher quality when complete, and the appearance will be of a higher caliber as well.