How to make a hand-painted canvas photography backdrop

In the niche industry of hand-painted photography backdrops, two big-name players dominate: Oliphant, and Schmidli. While other smaller players flounder to make a name for themselves, these two painting studios and rental houses have become recognized as the high-end models for the industry, at least within the United States. Their backdrops appear in high-profile campaigns shot for big fashion, advertising, and editorial clients such as Hermes, Ralph Lauren, Vanity Fair, Vogue, GQ, Macy’s, and J Crew. The photographers using them are recognized names like Annie Leibovitz, Martin Schoeller, Miller Mobley, and Chris Crisman. These backdrops have become the envy of many photographers wishing to advance their studio work to this level and achieve the painterly look that a hand-painted canvas backdrop brings to a portrait. However, rental of these backdrops (the primary business model of the two studios) can be costly — upwards of $400 for a three day rental from Oliphant, depending on usage. Regularly renting backdrops could rack up quite the bill for the photographer. Purchasing these backdrops outright is likely just as beyond your budget as renting. Neither studio lists purchase prices on their websites, which I take to mean that if you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. It’s safe to assume that prices are in the many thousands of dollars. While you'll probably never match the quality of these backdrops, if you want an nice canvas to shoot on while you're saving up for the real deal, you might try making one yourself.

A quick internet search for “DIY photography background” will yield several attempts to imitate the style. For reference I’ll provide links to a few that I referenced before doing my backdrop, but most of them produce backdrops that fall well short of the quality of an Oliphant or Schmidli backdrop. Many skip important steps that I’ve found are essential to producing a quality canvas, while others give very incomplete instructions. By far the best tutorial I found was the one by ILoveHatePhotography.com. Using their tutorial as a starting point and combining techniques I found on several other online tutorials, I decided to experiment on my own and see what I could make. I’ve now made two 8’x15' backdrops and as well as a smaller 5’x8’ floor drop. I did my best to document the process with photos, so hopefully you’ll be able to use this DIY tutorial to make your own. My process is far from perfect, so I recommend that you read it as well as the other information you can find online, throw in a few ideas of your own, and experiment.

Before I get started into the process, there are a few points that I think should be of note. First, know that your first backdrop will probably not come out looking as good as an Oliphant backdrop. Mine certainly don’t. Painting these canvases is an art form, and the years of experience and expert artisanship of Sarah Oliphant and her team cannot be learned in a DIY tutorial. If you really want something that looks exactly like an Oliphant backdrop, rent or buy one. Second, making a quality backdrop takes time and money. No matter what others might tell you online, you can’t make a quality backdrop for $50, and you don’t want to try. Regardless, you’re going to be spending at least a full day, possibly more, making your first backdrop. With such a large time investment, it’s worth it to spend the extra cash and do things right, otherwise you’ll just be wasting your time. In the end, even spending the approximately $175 it took to paint each of my backdrops, I still came in under what a single three-day rental would run.

Find a space

First thing’s first, you’ll need a space to paint this thing. This isn’t a living room art project. I wanted a large 8’ wide backdrop that I could use for full-length portraits, so with my final dimensions of my canvas exceeding 8’x15’ I would say I would have needed at least a 16’x25’ room to work in. Not only will you need most of that space just to lay out the canvas, you’ll also want the room to be clear of anything you would be afraid of getting paint on. Even putting plastic down, there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up flinging paint well beyond your plastic boundaries. When you’re painting on a scale this big a brush can easily flick with a powerful brushstroke, sending paint flying just about everywhere. Also consider working in a location with good ventilation and access to fresh air to aid in the drying process.

The two spaces I used were vastly different approaches. My first canvas (the blue-green one) was painted in my university’s art studio after hours. A huge room with tall valued ceilings, plenty of natural light, and windows that we could open to let in some fresh air, ventilation was not a concern. Being an art studio, paint splatter was already ubiquitous throughout the room, so an errant flick of a brush wouldn’t be a concern (although we still did put down plastic to minimize the mess).

My second canvas (the tan one) and floor drop (painted together) were painted outside in my driveway on a beautiful fall day. Working outside has its advantages and disadvantages. With warm air and a little sunshine, drying was very fast, which is convenient in some ways, but can be a nuisance when you’re trying to work in the paint and want it to remain spreadable. Another issue was small bugs and dust blowing onto the wet paint and sticking. When the final canvas was mostly dry I went around picking little bits of things out of the paint and touching up spots, which I didn’t have to do indoors. Lastly, there’s a chance you might not finish in one day and will have to leave the canvas out overnight. I had to do this, but I covered everything with plastic and it turned out fine.

Choose how you want to secure the canvas

The primary difference in my method from my first to second canvas was how I secured the canvas to be “stretched” for priming. I believe this is a vital step, and is one of the primary differences between this and most other tutorials you’ll find for painting backdrops. Securing the canvas can be a huge pain, but it will pay off, I promise. The first method I used was to use duct tape and sewing pins to adhere the edges of the canvas directly to the concrete floor of the art studio. The second method was to construct a wooden platform out of 2x4s and plywood and staple the canvas to the platform. I’ll get into the details of each method later, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each. For now, read ahead and decided which method would work best for you, or come up with a better one. But you’ll need to decide this before you start purchasing supplies.

Supplies

#12 unprimed cotton duck canvas (8’x18’, or other size) — $60

The cost of the canvas will depend greatly on the size of backdrop you want to make. Feel free to shop around on this. I purchased two 8’x18’ canvases from Jerry’s Artarama, but you might also check out Bug Duck Canvas. There may be a  few other online retailers where you could find even better deals. For those of you who don’t know anything about fabrics (like myself), the #12 refers to the weight or thickness of the canvas. I chose to go with the #12 because it seemed pretty standard for canvases of that size. You could probably get away with a lighter weight canvas (which would probably cut down cost a little as well) but if you want your canvas to be thick and durable, go ahead and get the #12. Much thicker would seem excessive to me.

Acrylic paint and primer — about $100

I ordered mine from Nova Color. http://www.novacolorpaint.com/This will be the most expensive part of the backdrop. It’s hard for me to give you a really good estimate of how much you’ll need. I ordered paint for both of my canvases at the same time, and I ordered more than what I thought would be necessary because I didn’t want to run out during the painting process. For my blue-green “mottled” texture canvas I used paynes gray, cerulean blue, a touch of titanium white, and a hint of raw sienna (to tone down the blue just a bit). For my tan brush stroke textured canvas I used more of the titanium white, raw sienna, and raw umber. I had more than enough paint for both of my backdrops, and had far more than I would ever have needed of paynes gray and cerulean blue. This sep is tricky, as it entirely depends on the look and color you are trying to achieve. On both canvases I wished I had more of a neutral gray. Unfortunately the paynes gray I ordered was far more blue than I would have ever expected. It made the cerulean blue almost entirely unnecessary for my first canvas, and for the second I could not use the gray because mixed with the orange and brown of the sienna and umber it would have produces a very green look, which is not what I wanted. I would advise purchasing a neutral gray and modifying it by mixing with your colors. I would order one quart of each of your modifying colors, and a gallon of your base color. That should give you more than enough from a 8’x15’ canvas.

When ordering paint, keep in mind that the colors look nothing like they will on an online swatch. You can request a color chart from Nova Color with the actual paint samples from all of their paints. I would highly recommend doing this because it will be the best way of figuring out what the colors you are ordering actually look like. Even then, figuring out what paint to order is tricky business. You will almost certainly have to mix paints to get your desired color, and just looking at paint chart will not tell you how the colors mix. Results can often be unexpected and counterintuitive. Even simply watering down your paint mixture will change the color, and the mixed paint will change color as it dries, so you really have no idea what it will look like unless you paint a sample after you’ve mixed the paint and let it dry. Just do your best and experiment with it, and know that it might not turn out exactly how you have envisioned. 

I didn’t use close to all of the acrylic retarder, and frankly I’m not sure how much good it did. The intent of the retarder is to slow the drying process and leave the paint workable for longer. As watered down as my paint was, I think this impacted the drying time and workability of the paint very little. You might just skip this. The slow dry matte liquid has a similar intended purpose, but is supposed to give the finished paint more of a matte finish. I used this on both canvases, so it’s hard for me to say what it would look like without it. You may be able to get away without it, but regardless I would strongly recommend selecting paints that have a matte finish and are relatively opaque. This is another use of the paint swatch color chart you can get from Nova Color. Photographing on the background with strobes you will want a matte finish so it does not reflect glare from the lights in the finished product.

The one thing I did run short of was the gesso. I used almost 3/4 of the gallon on a single backdrop and had to purchase more before I painted my second. I’d advise having close to a gallon per canvas, unless you’re painting a smaller size.

Other supplies

  • Extension poles — $8 each
  • 4” Polyester paint brushes (2) — $7 each
  • 6” paste brush — $4
  • Paint roller trays
  • Paint rollers (cages and heads)
  • Paint buckets (you’ll need quite a few of these for mixing you various colors)
  • Stir sticks Plastic sheeting (buy the good thick stuff)
  • Sponges and miscellaneous items with which to apply texture
  • Leftover cardboard tubes from a used roll of seamless (for storage)

Duct tape method

Wooden platform method

  • 8-foot 2x4s 
  • Plywood sheets (I used 8’x4’)
  • Sheetrock screws
  • Electric screwdriver
  • Tape measurer
  • Spring-loaded stapler
  • Staples

Secure the canvas

Securing the canvas is very important, and is probably the most commonly overlooked step in the tutorials I found online. The pros certainly secure their canvases. If you look at a high quality canvas backdrop you’ll see a slightly jagged edge, evidence of where the canvas has pulled away from the points where it was secured when it stretched during the priming process. I have yet to figure out exactly how the pros do it, but I have a guess. I think they have a studio floor that they are capable of stapling directly into during priming. This is essential because as you wet the canvas during painting it will shrink and possibly warp in strange ways, preventing you from making a perfectly flat backdrop. Additionally, stretching will completely eliminate folds and creases that may be in the canvas originally. Most canvases you order will be shipped folded, which means they will be creased. Some tutorials recommended ironing the canvas to get rid of these creases, but even then it seems like a futile attempt at making a perfectly flat canvas. Just secure the canvas, prime it, and you are guaranteed to have a perfectly smooth, flat backdrop.

Duct tape method

For my first canvas, I had access to an indoor art studio with polished concrete floors. Trying to come up with a way to secure the canvas I thought of the duct tape method and the platform method, but chose the duct tape method for the studio because of the difficulty of transporting construction materials into the studio (on the third floor of a building with no elevator) as well as cost efficiency. The idea was to essentially duct tape the canvas in place directly on the floor. Duct tape stuck very well to the polished concrete floors, so I was confident the tape could hold to the floor under the tension of the stretched canvas. However, the big problem I foresaw was the tape sticking to the canvas. Wet canvas doesn’t stick to duct tape very well, so I decided to use sewing pins to pin the canvas to the tape.

To do this yourself, be prepared to spend a lot of time pinning canvas to duct tape, and try not to poke yourself with the pins too many times. First, cover the floor with plastic sheeting. The acrylic gesso used for priming will bleed through. Lay out the canvas over the plastic and trim the excess plastic with scissors, or fold it under the canvas. Pull out a length of tape to cover the full edge of the canvas and adhere it to the canvas with about a quarter inch overlap. Then work your way down the edge, pinning the canvas to the tape every 2-3 inches. Don’t try to skimp on the pins — when the canvas stretches, it will pull very hard. I had the pins bend and break at several spots, which might have been avoided with more pins. Once you’ve got the pins in, tape down that side. Be sure to wipe down the floor first so the tape sticks better. Move to the opposite edge and repeat. Pull the canvas slightly, but don’t feel the need to stretch it when taping it down — it will shrink during the priming. Lastly, repeat for the other two sides, make sure the whole canvas is flat. I put down a second layer of tape on the outside of the first just for good measure, to make sure it wouldn’t pull free from the floor.

Wooden platform method

Here the idea is to construct a plywood platform and staple the canvas to it. Since I was working in an outdoor driveway there was little chance that I could have made duct tape stick to the concrete, and it would avoid the tedious task of pinning the canvas to the tape. I can’t help with the specifics of how to construct your platform. It’s a relatively straightforward construction project, but it will depend on the size of your canvas you want to paint on how you construct it. I used 8’x4’ sheets overlaid on a 2x4 support structure. Simply screwing the plywood to the 2x4s provided it with more than enough rigidity. You’ll see in my photos that I used only a single center support down the middle of the structure. I would now recommend two supports because you will need to walk on the platform and I was worried that the sections of unsupported plywood would not support my weight in places. Use cheap 1-1/4” sheetrock screws to secure the plywood.

The basic framework for the wooden platform.

The basic framework for the wooden platform.

The completed platform.

The completed platform.

Before laying down the canvas, I again recommend covering the platform in plastic. While you probably aren’t concerned about getting paint bleeding through onto your nice plywood, covering it in plastic will prevent the wood from absorbing the water from the paint, which could dramatically increase the necessary drying time. Lay out the canvas over the plastic and begin stapling it down, again making sure that it is only somewhat taught, but more importantly square. Staple every 2-3 inches to avoid having the canvas tear out of the staples when it stretches.

Prime the canvas

Now you’re ready to begin the fun part. Put on some ragged old paint clothes and get ready to get covered in paint. Start by mixing up a diluted solution of gesso. Gesso comes as a very thick paint that is almost paste-like. For the first coat you’ll want to mix up a solution of about 75% water 25% gesso. Use about half a gallon of gesso. Mix thoroughly with a stir stick to ensure an even consistency, and begin liberally painting it on the canvas with roller brushes. This is a great part to have help from a friend. 

Part way through priming the blue-green mottled canvas.

Part way through priming the blue-green mottled canvas.

Priming the tan canvas.

Priming the tan canvas.

The canvas will quickly soak up the gesso mixture. The point of priming like this is to have the gesso fill the spaces between the fibers of the canvas to prevent shrinking and warping when you’re doing the final painting, as well as to allow the colored paint to lay on top of the canvas instead of being absorbed into it, so you can use less of your colored paint. This is the point in time where the canvas will begin stretching dramatically, and you’ll find out if you put in enough staples. After one complete coat let the canvas dry to the touch before painting on your second coat of gesso, this time about a 60% gesso 30% water mixture. You want to make sure it is worked into the canvas pretty well and the fabric is saturated, but you don’t want it to be goopy or to have excess gesso laying on top. After this second coat you’ll need to let the canvas dry completely. Even if the top of the canvas feels dry to the touch, the underside of the canvas may still be quite wet. You’ll want to give it some time. If you’re working indoors, set up some box fans to blow some air over the surface of the canvas. Make sure it’s completely dry to be sure it’s done stretching and won’t warp when you take out the staples or pull up the tape.

After the fully primed canvas is completely dry is an excellent opportunity to break for the day, if you need to. My first canvas was primed one day and painted several days later. Don’t worry, if you do that you won’t have to re-secure the canvas. Painting on the primed canvas won’t cause warping or shrinkage, so you can just roll it out and get to painting when you want to start back up.

Mix your base color

As briefly mentioned above, this part is especially tricky. Mixing paint can often give unexpected results. Colors can take on different tones as they are lightened and darkened, and it is difficult to know more than a rough estimate of how a paint will look in the end. Just do your best. Another thing about mixing paint is that unless you meticulously measure volumes of which paints you add, you’ll probably never be able to reproduce the same color again, so my advice is to mix in a large batch so that you know you have enough. You’re going to need enough to paint a full base coat and have enough left over to divide up into smaller batches for making your secondary colors for texture.

Paint the base coat

Once you get your base color right, thin it down with a little water (maybe 15% water) and make sure it’s mixed really, really well. A small glob of unmixed paint can leave a huge spot of unwanted color on your canvas. Pour some out into clean roller trays and paint a solid base color with the roller brushes. After you start laying paint down, now is a good time to decide if you want to modify your base color. Make sure you give it a good even application and you’ll be fine with just one coat. Let the canvas dry.

The tan canvas part way through applying the base color.

The tan canvas part way through applying the base color.

Mix your secondary colors

You can’t make texture with just one color. You’re going to need a lighter and a darker tone, although changing the hue of these secondary colors could also make for some neat effects. Note that even a small variation from the base color will produce fairly pronounced textures. Because of this, I’d recommend using all that excess base color you made and dividing it into three batches — one for a lighter color, one for a darker color, and one that you keep exactly how it is. This will come in handy if you go too far in places with the colors and need to backtrack to the original background color, as well as for mixing in while texturizing to get a blended look. Once you’ve got your secondary texture colors I would strongly recommend diluting them down quite a bit. It’s hard to explain why, besides that it makes the paint less “potent” and easier to blend in to give a more loose, organic feel.

Texturize

This is absolutely 100% the hardest and most frustrating part of this whole process. Of the whole process, this is likely what makes the greatest difference between a great backdrop and a terrible one. This is where the years of experience and artisanship of Sarah Oliphant put Oliphant backdrops into a whole other category. There may be some big secret to achieving the look you’re going for, but I don’t have it. Both of my backdrops were textured very differently, and it is evident from the results. Both of them I spent a significant amount of time playing with methods for creating the texture I wanted. Even then, I had something else in mind, but settled for something that I thought looked alright and I knew I could reproduce. For my first canvas, the blue-green mottled one, I achieved the texture largely using sponges to dab at the canvas by hand with my lighter and darker colors, blending them as I went. For my second one, I settled onto a large, sweeping brush stroke look. I attached my 6” polyester paint brush to the end of an extension pole and stood towards the center of the canvas making long sweeping strokes.

While I can’t tell you how to produce the perfect texture, I do have a few tips that I learned from painting mine.

  • Keep the canvas wet. Wet down the section you’re about to paint before you add paint. I kept a bucket of water to the side that I would brush on right before sprinkling paint over the area. Keeping things wet helps it brush over the canvas organically and not stick to one spot, as well as helps the different colors to blend.
  • Don’t try to layer paint. You’re going to need to achieve the texture you want while everything is wet. Don’t, for example, paint all of the dark color and texture the light color over the top. It is readily apparent when you layer paint like this, and it won’t look natural. 
  • Work big, and work randomly. If you work too small you will create fine, predictable textures that stand out when you look at the piece as a whole. Working big sections of the canvas at once helps avoid this. Likewise don’t work systematically around the canvas. If you paint one side and then the other it will show. This is difficult to avoid, but necessary to get a natural looking backdrop.
  • Have only one person do the texture. This isn’t the time to ask a friend for help. Each person, even trying to do the same thing, will produce noticeably different textures. Have one person texture the whole thing to keep things consistent.
  • Be spontaneous and experiment. Try something weird you might stumble across a texture you like.

Dry and store

Once you’re happy with how it looks, take a break for the rest of the day as the paint dries. Again, you’re going to want to make sure that the canvas is entirely dry so it doesn’t get ruined by rolling up the canvas. I’m not sure how they come in a rental from one of the studios, but I had just finished a roll of 9’ seamless and had the cardboard tubes still laying around. I taped the canvas to the smaller inner tube, rolled it up, secured it with gaff tape, and slipped the whole thing into the larger outer tube for storage. Make sure it’s rolled tightly so it doesn’t work bends and creases into the canvas during storage.

There you have it. After a full day, maybe a day and a half, you should have yourself a gorgeous, hand-painted canvas backdrop. Now go take some photos on it and let all of that hard work pay off. If you’re planning on using this tutorial to give it a shot and have any questions or need clarification on something, feel free to send me a message and I’ll do my best to answer questions. Likewise, if you come up with a better way of doing something (like securing the canvas) or have insight into how the “pros” do it, I’d love to hear about it! And of lastly, if you paint your own canvas, once you do a shoot on it share the photos with me so I can see how it turned out!

As promised, links to resources and other online tutorials: