Painting a Canvas Backdrop

October 26, 2016 Blog

On Sunday, I had a GREAT IDEA to photograph a special Victorian Style shoot with a dress that I have access to for one day. So off I went to the hardware store and bought 2 quarts of paint and a gallon of white. After all, if it all turned bad I would throw the pink into the white, mash it up, and then make it dirty and cracked. That was my fall back. I chose colors based on a pastel palette that suits the final look I want and, basically, is different from anything I have in the studio. I had already purchased canvas painter drop sheets — 9×12 feet from Amazon. I bought rollers, and sponges, and trays, and lots of plastic, and moved all of my furniture to the four corners of my apartment. It soon looked like a crime scene, and I was ready.

I know lots of people that have tried this, and every one of them failed, so I wasn’t holding too much expectation. In saying that, I had two drop sheets, so I bought two sets of paint — one pastels and one golds. All up, drop sheets, rollers, and paint cost $140, so that’s $70 per backdrop. This took about 7 solid hours of painting and then there was cleaning up, too.

People say Oliphant are expensive, but they are the best hand-painted backdrop I have ever seen, and to be honest, if I had done a shoot that day, I would have made enough money to buy one, so you always have to weigh up the time you are worth and paying an expert to do something. It was a great experience, and I really love the result. I’m sure if you are artsy and crafty and want to try it or are on a tight budget or just want to experiment, you will love to try, and I hope you are pleasantly surprised.

The backdrop unwrapped like this — wrinkled and lined. Luckily, for the studio, I purchased a steamer for clothes, so I used this to steam it. I gaffer taped it to an old V Flat. YES, because I had this romantic notion that I would paint it upright A: because I have a Puppy and didn’t want her walking on it and B: because I don’t have a lot of space. It took me about 10 minutes to work out that you need to do this flat on the ground. Palm to forehead.

It said it was 9×12 foot, but when I opened it, it was more like 9×11 foot and had a seam. I cannot complain. It cost $19, so I cut a bit off and went with a square 9×9. Don’t ask me why. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Choosing colors is actually quite easy. I went to the hardware store and chose white and a light plummy pink and a darker grey plum. There are so many beautiful tones to chose from. I asked the guy for the matte-est acrylic I could have. He mixed it up in minutes, and I was off. I didn’t consider what sort of paint. I paint my Polyboards with interior acrylic so that’s what I chose for this.

The sponges were cheap and so were the rollers and the plastic ground sheets. These big sponges are the best. When they are wet, they create the best textures, and they wash really well. I am not a researcher apparently. I found out today, there are tutorials all over the net on how to do this. I hate tutorials. I am a let’s-just-try-this kind of girl and anyway, everyone I know failed at this, so I was on a wing and a prayer anyway, or as my ole pappy used to say Rip, Shit, or Bust. ha

I started with the lightest color first, and rolled it on thick from the center out. I did not seal the canvas; I just went straight in. The canvas drinks up the paint and soon my lightest quart was gone, and I only had done the hot spot in the center.

I thought, “Oh no. I am going to need more paint.” So I persevered and got the darker plum and mixed it with white and started painting the outer edges like a vignette. Getting progressively darker as I got closer to the outside, I would roll in all directions roughly and then grab a wet sponge and dab, swish, rub. I felt like an artist, and I loved every minute.

At this point, I had slid down on to the floor. I was covered in paint and so was the dog. I was singing loudly and having the best time ever, like I was creating a masterpiece. haha

This is my favorite moment. I stood back and thought, “GOD I AM CLEVER,” and I sent photos to all my friends, and basked in the glory of my genius. This was exactly what I envisioned.

THEN I SCREWED it all up!

Everything told me to stop NOW, but no, no, no, just a little more, and a little more, and oops that’s getting quite dark in the center now, and OH NO! It’s flat and totally lost all the pink, and I decided to spray some water on it. And then it went muddy, and my pinks turned to light grey, and I saw my moment of genius slip away.

I remember a great quote my Mother used to say in the Art room when I was 18 and learning to retouch photographs with a paint brush. “It takes two artists to paint something, one to paint, and the other to hit the first artist over the head when they have done enough” (a great quote for retouching as you know when you cross that line to TOO MUCH).

But then, when you screw up is when your greatest lessons are learned and here was mine. I went back to the center with white and started to rebuild the hot spot that I had completely covered and what I ended up with was perfect and muted and very subtle, and I love it. I lost the pink altogether, and that’s okay. Next time, I will know how to not lose it and what I have will photograph very beautifully. It is more pink/plum in real life than this photo shows, and I really look forward to shooting on it and showing you how it looks. Overall, it was such a fun project for a Sunday. The New Zealand All Blacks played the USA Eagles in Chicago, so I had rugby on, lots of good music, and I feel like I have created something that will photograph beautifully. I highly recommend you trying it if you’re brave. The paint washed off the dog eventually, and the floor, and I am happy.


  1. Sue, you are a genius! Not just for all your amazing ideas, tips and help but also for the fact that you always make me laugh! Loved reading this post!