How to DIY a Painted Canvas Backdrop

As pretty much every portrait photographer out there, I’ve always adored the look of Oliphant’s custom hand-painted canvas backdrops.  But so do Annie Leibovitz and the rest of the world, so their price tag is justifiably out of reach in the thousands of $$.  While they’re certainly worth every penny,  I’ve always wanted to try my own hand at creating a similar look for my studio.  Recently, I set about doing it!
Along the way, I made plenty of mistakes and learned a few things that may be helpful for others out there who are embarking on this project.  Beginning to end, I had a great time working on these backdrops.  There was a lot of creative problem solving along the way, and it’s a nice change of pace getting to work with a physical medium again when I’ve gotten so used to the world of digital photography and all those hours in front of a computer.

In this post, I’m going to tell you all about my process from beginning to end for those people out there who’d like to try it.  There may be ideas of mine that you use or you may come up with your own little tricks.  I’m sure there are about a million ways to paint a backdrop, but seeing what I’ve done may give you a great starting point.

Before you make a trip to Home Depot, the first thing to consider is where you’re going to be working on this project.  You’ll need a rather large place to work since the backdrop will be painted on the floor and you’ll want at least a couple of feet surrounding it on which to work.  I used my studio space, but  if you don’t have that or don’t want to block off a few days of use in it for the project, a garage floor or hard-surfaced basement floor would work.

Supplies I’d already owned:

  • Fans (as many as possible)
  • Paint roller/s
  • Metal paint trays
  • Lots of rags (FYI, cheap cloth diapers are the world’s best rags)
  • Small containers for mixing accent colors (I used yogurt containers, my answer to all of life’s little quandaries)
  • Ruler
  • Scissors
  • Hand saw
  • Gaff tape/Painters tape

Purchased Supplies:

  • 8’X15′ Artists canvas – $54.08
  • 2.5″ PVC Pipe – 7.86
  • Sponges and brushes for texturizing  – $10
  • 5 gallon bucket/s for mixing the base colors – $5
  • 1-2 gallon of base color/s – $31.96
  • Quart mixing color – $12.47
  • Plastic drop cloths – $3.25
  • Paint roller covers – $5.56
  • Painting extension pole – $9.87
  • Several paint stir sticks (usually free at hardware stores)
  • Paint tray liners – $4
  • acrylic accent paints – $12.15
  • Unscented fabric softener – $5.47
  • Darning needles – $1.30
  • Upholstery Thread – $1.89
  • Thimble (trust me) – $1.66

Total in Purchased Supplies – $166.52

Almost all of the items were purchased at Home Depot.  Fabric softener I got at the grocery store, and the needles, thread, and thimble were from a local fabric store (I’m sure you could also find them at Michael’s).   There are a couple of options for the canvas itself.  The cheaper option would be to get a 9×12 canvas drop cloth from Home Depot for less than $10.  The drawbacks would be that the canvas is thinner and lower quality.  After taking it out of the packaging, you’ll need to be sure to steam out the creases from folding (and even after, they may still be visible).  Also, there is a seam running down the middle of the fabric which will inevitably show up on your painted backdrop.

I opted to get my canvas from a local art store, Daniel Smith Fine Art Materials.  Canvas there comes on large rolls and you can request the length you’d like.  I chose to get 15′ from a 8′ roll.  To make it easier for transporting and ensure there would be any folding lines (ghastly!), I brought along my PVC pipe to the art store so that they could roll it directly onto the pipe for me at the time of purchase.

I set to work in my studio, and chose to do a few canvas backdrops.  Since it’s such a big undertaking and I was already making the investment of my time and money, I wanted to get the most bang for my buck and I had the space to do so.  Note:  the pricing above is just for one backdrop (though the price goes down a bit if you do more since some of the purchased items come with more than you need for just one backdrop).

I laid my canvases out on the plastic drop cloths.  In hindsight, I would have space them out further and covered more of the floor around their edges.  I ended up with quite a few splatters on my wood floor and had to be very careful not to splatter from one canvas to another while painting.
I used my roller with the extension pole to get down the base color.  You need to ‘soften’ up the paint before using it on your canvas.  If you were to use it straight out of the can, there would be a few problems.  1) It would absorb quickly into the canvas and you would need much more of it to cover the backdrop.  2) With all that paint, the backdrop itself would be heavy as hell.  3) Without ‘softening’ first, the dried paint would be very stiff and unwieldy. Upon rolling up the backdrop for storage, it would become cracked quite quickly.

The recipe I used for my base paint (which seemed to have worked quite well for me) was:

  • Equal parts paint and water
  • Then add about 15% more of unscented fabric softener.

Mix it all, then transfer to a paint tray.  One coat of paint almost did the trick.  I dried them overnight and did some spot touchups the next day.
Strangely, my grocery store didn’t have unscented fabric softener so I went with the original scent, which really doesn’t make any difference except that the smell of fabric softener will be very strong in your work space for a long time, which isn’t all bad now that I remember it.
For your additional layers, get in touch with your creativity!  I tried a few different things (sponges, dry brushing, etc.  I even tried taping together two beer cans, rolling a leather chamois around them, and tying the whole thing up with string.  I applaud my own creativity, but it ended up not having an effect I was looking for, after all). I used a cheap Home Depot canvas drop cloth for practice before painting the real thing.

For my lighter backdrop, I used a taupe base color, and then a cream layer over it.  For the texture, I used a texturized roller cover.
For the darker drop, I used a medium brown base color and a lighter brown top coat with a slightly metallic finish.  I added a third layer to each drop.  For the light one, I added some very subtle plum with just a very little bit of paint on the same texturized roller cover (Important note:  for accent colors, a very little goes a LONG way, so start smaller than you think you want to).  For the dark drop, I used light brown once more, this time without any metallic sheen in it (I hadn’t liked the effect).  To create an even softer look with the top layer, I used a type of ‘dry brushing’ technique.  After applying paint to my roller, I used my practice canvas to get most of the paint off so that the paint I rolled onto my backdrop would be very faint.  Then, immediately after applying it, I used a rag in circles to blend it in as much as possible.  The effect made the final backdrop have a very soft, leathery look.One of the challenges of working out the logistics was figuring out how to hang the backdrop for shoots.  I share my studio with other photographers, and it wasn’t an option to keep it in one stationary place.  Due to its weight, it would have been difficult to hang with clamps–I think it would likely slide right out of them and probably damage the canvas (not to mention embarrass you during a shoot).  The solution I came up with was to attach the canvas to a PVC pipe, and use the pipe similarly to the cardboard tube of a paper seamless backdrop.  I suppose you could also use a cardboard tube, though PVC is much more sturdy and fairly inexpensive.

I believe the pipe came in 15′ segments, so it was more length than I needed.  I sawed off the extra, leaving about 3-4″ on each end.

To attach the canvas to the PVC pipe, I decided to sew a sleeve on one of the short ends.  To give myself room to work, I turned over a few feet of the canvas.  That way, I could work on top of it and not put any creases on the folded edge.  To see how much width I needed for the sleeve, I wrapped the canvas around the PVC and made a mark on where to sew.  It needed to be a tight enough sleeve to be able to roll the canvas onto the pipe without much gapping.  For a 2″ pipe, I marked my sewing line at about 4″Then, I used my upholstery thread and darning needles to do a simple over-under stitch (I’m sure there’s a better name for it than that) across the width of the backdrop.  You’ll definitely want a thimble as it’s pretty tough to get the needle through the layers of canvas without it.And here is what the finished canvas looks like hung on a backdrop stand!  Isn’t she pretty?  I’ve told people that aside from my kids, she’s the thing I’m the most proud of having made 😉  I’ve been using these backdrops regularly for the last year or so–it’s taken me awhile to write up this post–and they’re no worse for the wear.  Very durable, easy to set up, and compact to store.  One thing to note: in order to roll up the canvas, I lower the crossbar, take it off the stands, lay the canvas flat, and then roll it up while on the floor.  Due to its heft, it’s hard to roll it up while its still standing as you would with seamless paper.  On the floor, it rolls easily and without getting puckers.And this is what the brown backdrop looks like in action with the lovely Shreya modeling.  I hope this has been at least a little bit helpful to someone out there!  When I was getting started in the process, I didn’t find a whole lot of very detailed information and I wanted to share what I’ve learned.  Maybe there are other ways even better!

Let me know what you’ve tried and what’s worked and hasn’t!






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