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The Cowherd, oil, (40.5x56cm)
The Cowherd, oil, (40.5x56cm)

How to Prepare your Canvas for Oil Paints


Tony Williams - Posted on 06 Nov 2009

Getting a painting started can be one of the most frustrating parts of the creative process, and the way it is done has a profound effect on the finished work. The technique I now use and teach was developed early on in my career from learning how to correct my mistakes. I wanted a loose style and economy with good drawing, so when it didn’t work I wiped the offending paint out, and realised that the correction looked better than the painting. The problem was then to learn how to control that. I expect many artists have come across a wonderful paint effect only to see it wither away under the brush, and then struggle to find it again. I hope that this series of demonstrations will help to establish some reliable formulas that you can depend on and adapt to your own painting style.

It helps to be obsessed with painting, to believe that every mark and brushstroke must mean something in the context of the painting. There’s no room for passengers on the canvas, they’ve all got to work. When I’m teaching I often hear myself saying ‘love every mark you make’ or ‘it’s better to spend half an hour contemplating and understanding a visual problem than 30 minutes dabbing at it, leaving no concise statement at all.’
Until six years ago I had never painted in oils, and only tried watercolours two years before that. I saw the world visually as paintings, or even as engravings, and although art school gave me the ability to be creative, when I began to paint seriously I realised that it was the hardest job I’d ever done.

Tony Williams’ working method

The surface that I paint on is important and I spend a lot of time preparing my canvases and boards. I mount cotton canvas from a large bale on to 3/10in (8mm) ply with PVA glue and size it with PVA before it is rubbed down and gessoed. This is often rubbed down and gessoed again until it feels and looks right in a cross light. I use a 2in (5cm) decorator’s brush to scrub over this surface an initial loose mix of paint, and then quickly push in the dark dynamics of the picture using an old worn down 2 or 3in (5 or 7.5cm) bristle brush, picking out with a rag and adding more dark paint as needed to establish the drawn elements. This process is carried out in a rapid, spontaneous and highly-charged session. Hopefully I will be left with the underpainted structure, into which I rapidly punch the cleaner colours from the palette.

Demonstration: The Cowherd

The colours used were:

  • Cobalt blue
  • Burnt sienna
  • Cobalt violet
  • Chrome orange
  • Terre verte
  • Titanium white
  • Cadmium yellow
  • Naples yellow


A loose mix of cobalt blue burnt sienna and a little violet was quickly scrubbed over the canvas and lightly rubbed back, making sure there was still enough movement on the surface to allow an almost white rub-out with the rag
The Cowherd Stage 1

I began to lay another darker area for the shed, and then a thicker mix of blue and brown allowed the cows to come to life. By ragging away on the still loose surface I was able to draw the cows and start to give good edges
Cowhere stage 2

While the ground was still wet I softly ragged with a folded piece of cotton cloth to find a third tone and continued with the drawing of the cows, shed and shadows
Cowhere stage 3

More dark mix was added. The figure of the cowherd, which I took from a drawing, was pushed into the composition with a fairly large soft brush and then wiped round to draw him. A well-worn No 3 hog brush helped to define the third cow and take out light markings
Cowherd stage 4

I decided to add the perfect early morning summer mist, which masked out all the fussy background detail. I also added the church steeple
Cowherd stage 5

I painted the sky, teasing paint inwards to the edges and added pinks to the mist. Bounced light under the cows raised the dynamic and key, and a loosely stated hot green applied to the lower left of an off-centre square cross composition

Cowherd finished painting
The Cowherd, oil, 16x22in (40.5x56cm)

December TA

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