Painted Backdrops

For Photographers

During lockdown for the Covid 19 pandemic my business, like many others had to close down. Instead of feeling down on myself, I took this as a challenge to use this time to work of projects that I might not otherwise have had time for. Things around the studio, in my marketing, in my technique. I love the look of painted backdrops, but never had the time. Lockdown gave me the time and then more and more time as it ran on. By the end I had painted 10 canvas backdrops (9 successfully...)

I was happy with my 9 canvases. They gave me a range of colors and looks to give every client something they would love to be photographed on. After sharing my 9 backdrops on photography group I am a part of, they exploded (for me) and got TONS of questions about them. So I wrote this post to hopefully help others with some of the things I learned along the way. I am no expert these are just my findings.

Pictures of my original 9 that I refer to as the Covid Collection are at end of this post. (The photos were taken to show clients what one looks like photographed. They have some light editing including removal of some wrinkles, like I would in a portrait. They also do not show the full canvas and was just trying to give sample idea)

Painting my first set. Learned A LOT messing these two up.

Materials

My first 8 backdrops were made using 6' x 9' painters drop cloths from hardware store. During the early days of lockdown few places were open but hardware stores were labeled essential. Some of these started out as 9' x 12' drop clothes but it turned out those were not bigger just two 6' x 9' ones stitched together with a horrible seam. I had to cut those apart. The 6' x 9' canvases give a better more finished look because they don't have the cut seam, but the two resulting drops from cutting a 9' x 12' end up being a couple inches bigger. My last two were purchased as a 7' x 30' roll canvas that I cut into two 7' x 15' canvases. I will never go back to drop clothes. Though a little more expensive the quality difference and ease of use and size options made the difference well worth it. I used unprimed 12oz canvas.

The seam on a 9' x 12' drop cloth

I primed every canvas and HIGHLY recommend doing so especially on the rolled canvas, those ate primer like crazy and you would rather it eat the primer than your paint. I used Kilz PVA Primer purchased by the gallon and got at least 2 drops per gallon. For paint I used Benjamin Moore Ben Flat finish paint. Though I love Benjamin Moore for painting my home I had not planned on using them for these drops. The choice was again lockdown related. They were the only place I could find curbside pickup for paint. Also right next to my studio which was super convent! I used about a quart of paint for main color of a 6' x 9' drop and only needed about a sample size of additional colors. The problem with actually getting sample size is that they are only available in eggshell finish. Wonderful finish for the walls of a home, terrible for photography related projects because of how it catches the light. This is the main reason I have 9 backdrops and not 10... I will say I got away with using the samples watered down because it does flatten them out a bit, but I will only use flat paint in future even if I have to buy quart or bigger.

For additional materials I used 9' x 12' plastic drop cloths under my canvas while painting. For the bigger ones I overlapped two of these side ways under them. They are great as long as the paint stays on them. The paint will do everything to not stay on them. Had issues with paint running off and paint splattering so be aware good chance paint will get around. I was painting on a concrete floor with paint stains from previous tenant so not a huge deal for me.

I used standard 9" microfiber paint roller brush with an extension pole. I tried sponges and fancy roller texture brushes and hated them. Hard to control and felt like they always caused issues. Extension poll is key. Your back will thank you and its hard to reach the center and I am 6'1" with long arms.

Paint mixing buckets!!! I used gallon size to mix primer and quart size to mix paint. SO useful. Make sure they are see through with measuring marks. Other supplies, stir sticks, paint can opener, rubber mallet (close up paint cans securely), paint tray, paint tray liner. Masking tape and gaff tape for securing drops.

Material List (6' x 9' Canvas)

  • 6' x 9' drop cloth
  • PVA Primer
  • Quart of main color in flat finish
  • Sample size worth of additional colors (flat finish)
  • Water
  • 9' x 12' plastic drop cloth
  • Microfiber roller brush (one for primer and one for main color)
  • Roller frame
  • extension arm
  • paint tray
  • paint tray liners (one for primer and one for main color)
  • paint can opener
  • Gallon Plastic paint mixing bucket clear with measure markers (for primer)
  • Quart clear plastic paint mixing bucket with measure markers (for each different color)
  • stir sticks
  • rubber mallet (optional)
  • Masking tape
  • Gaff Tape

Process

Start by laying out plastic drop cloth and flattening out. I secured each corner to the floor with masking tape. If are using a drop cloth from hardware store or other folded canvas you will need to remove creases. I have heard of people ironing and steaming them out I have not done that and will cover my process during priming. Wrinkles need to be removed before the first coat of primer drys as they get set. Lay the canvas flat on top of the plastic drop and secure the corners with gaff tape. Gaff tape seems to hold up longer to the wet paint and sticks better. When taping the corners i try to stretch the canvas a little. Not too much or it starts to tug and tear on the plastic drop.

Priming

In a 1 gallon plastic paint mixing bucket mix 3 quarts of water and 1 quart of primer. The water helps thin out primer and paint. This lets it spread better on the canvas and leaves the finished result more flexible. The one I ruined was very stiff and much heavier because of not watering down paint enough. Pour into paint tray with paint tray liner (not all of it will fit at once you will need to refill a couple of times.) If possible I highly recommend priming two canvases at the same time. Roll watered down primer onto canvas to cover. It is thin and will not instantly coat. You will need to go over it a couple times on the first coat until you start to see somewhat even coverage.

If like me you did not remove wrinkles and creases beforehand now is the time to do it... or get rolled canvas instead its sooo much better. The way I did it was to work in quadrants and try to stretch the canvas out from the center. I would start the roller in the center of the canvas while standing half way through one of its sides. I would press down on the roller while rolling it towards me. I would then lift roller and put it back in center next to first stroke and work my ways to the side filling one quarter with primer. I would then start over next to the original center line and due it for the other quarter. I did this on all four sides. It is a lot of work and don't necessarily recommend doing this but it worked well for me.

When done let the first coat become dry to touch. Time will depend on how wet it got and environment of the room. I was normally able to get two coats of primer in one day. Two coats tended to be about right amount. For each coat after the first one, half as much water primer mixture was needed. This is why doing two canvases at once is great because you can split a gallon between the two of them for the additional coats.

These were the first ones I made. I had not figured out my process for removing creases yet and they unfortunately set.

Painting

After primer is dry to touch, (I normally wait until the next day) you can start on the main color. You may want to switch out the plastic drop at this point. I found that the primer that drys on the plastic flakes. When one of these flakes gets on the canvas it can melt into it and create a horrible splotch that I found very hard to remove. If you catch the flake right away its not so hard to remove, but you need to catch it right away. Switching out the plastic drop can save hassle and worry.

This is my ruined canvas. You can see white marks and splotches where the primer flakes melted in. I have to completely repaint over to finally get rid of them. Just touchups to the area didn't work. This eventually put way too much paint and too much eggshell finish on it ruining it.


For main color I have landed on just going with the color I want the most of. Some people say it needs to be the darkest color, others the lightest color, and also heard middle color. I didn't find any of these to be particularly better than the other possibly slight lean towards the middle color. Sometimes you only need one color as some paints will separate in interesting ways mixed with water. Chalkboard paint is great example of this forming shades of black and grey. The olive canvas is one coat of one color because I loved how it separated. Other canvases are 5 plus colors because some colors just do not work as well for this. I have not found a way to figure out why some colors work and some don't but it is even down to specific color. I had two browns I used on backdrop, one was terrible. It separated into red and teal. Another brown barely different in color went right on without issue.

I recommend staying with more toned down colors. Earth tones are great, neutrals are great. nothing too vibrant or over-saturated. Watering down the paint does flatten, lighten and desaturate a little. Colors will be darker in pictures than in real life. If you are unsure go with the slightly lighter shade. Lighter blacks and darker greys work better than very black blacks for black canvases. I started mine with literally Jet Black and it was where a light, hope and paint went to die. Had to work hard with lighter blacks to bring it back. Sometimes mixing different shades of the same color work great sometimes its better to mix with a completely different color. My pink is actually pink and yellow and the blue is 3 shades of blue and olive blotches. My gold is two shades of gold a shade of yellow and olive.

For painting main color I use about a quart of paint. I mix the paint in 2:1 ratio of 2 parts water to 1 part paint for the first coat of main color. I try to even spread the paint in full strokes across the canvas going from one end to the other like painting a wall top to bottom. I like to be more even with the first color. I find that it is smoother and shows up better when additional colors are added. I will work lengthwise then width wise then lengthwise again to work in the first coat evenly. I don't stop part way through a stroke up and down as it can leave marks. I like to let first coat dry a couple hours between additional coats. Whether you need more than one coat of main color paint will be up to you to decide. That is a little more art than science on how you want to canvas to look.

Before moving to additional colors I make sure first coat is dry to touch. Normally let dry over night. For additional colors I mix at a rate of 3:1 water to paint. I like these colors to be thinner to help spread across the main color and let it still show through. A light gentle touch is best here. The goal isn't to paint over the main color but supplement it to add interest. Where I go with even repeatable painting patterns for the main coat I try to be more sporadic with additional coats of paint. I will roll more in specific spots than all over the canvas and I will try to hit same spot from all angles that I can: horizontal vertical and all diagonals trying to thin and spread the paint. Often times I will pour paint into the center and then move in a circle pulling little bits of paint from the center to edges of the canvas. This can create a sort of vignette effect. If you added too much of an additional color just water can be added to let it drag out more or with enough water remove that color almost entirely barely impacting the dry layers of paint. Because of this I let every different color become dry to touch before adding additional colors. Also if color is not dry, they just mix and create a new color. Sometimes that's good but normally not the desired outcome. Sometimes the paint will look completely different after it has dried. Often it looks better sometimes not. So waiting for drying is important to get the real look of the paint.

Adding splashes like the grey canvas below is done by literally splash pouring the additional paint colors mixed with water onto the canvas. Let the paint sit for a couple minutes then roll our as normal. It can create a cool effect but I find it draws a little too much attention from the subject.

Finished

When you have reach a stage you like let it fully dry for a couple days. I find that the layers of paint stay wet longer than you might expect. I have hung canvases too early with clamps and gotten permanent clamp marks. Its not the end of world if you always clamp in same spot, but if you decide to flip it around later it may be issue. You worked this hard just let it dry if you can.

I do not paint double sided canvases. The paint from the new side would impact the original side at least on the edges. Maybe there is a way doesn't make sense from my expierence.

Storage

Say it will me now: "I (state your name) will NEVER fold my canvas!" Got it? Never ever ever fold your canvas. You will crease it and it is a huge headache to remove. Ok don't fold. If you need to store a canvas roll it up. I highly recommend rolling it around something for support. I have rolled just the canvas and it sagged and might as well have folded it. Not quite as bad a folding but not great. Stick something like a cardboard tube like roll canvas comes on or the one a paper backdrops come on works well. I have heard of people using PVC pipe, and I have rolled around metal backdrop support bar.

If you have the space you can leave it on a backdrop stand or nail to a wall. I have used panel board nails to secure to drywall and concrete nails to concrete blocks, my studio has both types of walls. Nailing is great but then you are stuck at a specific height. My preference is bigger canvas rolls like the 7' x 15' attached to one of the wall mount paper holders. I gaff tape them to metal cross bar and then roll up and unroll with the chain system. This is best way I have found to use canvases.

7' x 15' Black canvas taped to metal cross bar.

6' x 9' Painters drop nailed to wall with paper roll above.

My Canvases

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