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How to Print on Canvas and Stretch It
You are back home from your last voyage and you have a lot of pictures. Perhaps, at least some of them you would like to print out in addition to upload them to various hosting sites like Flickr. After all, nothing can give you and your home more than the sweet memories reflected in the cosiness of a nicely framed photo with moments experienced during your adventures. If that's your plan, why not to print for a change on canvas? The texture of this media will surely make the print richer - not really an oil painting, but close to it. Here is how you can do this.
For our exercise, I selected this picture of a fresco I took in Arezzo, Italy, in Pieve di Santa Maria (Baptistry Church of St Mary). It was a difficult shot without a tripod with horrible light conditions. I am surprised I managed to make it. Whereas I like the subject a lot, the shot is very far from perfect. But I see some potential in it.
There are two problems: first, it's flat and needs significant tonal adjustments. Secondly, the ratio of the photo is not suitable for framing it in a 11" by 14"" frame. Unfortunately, the composition desires to be better as well. This fresco is actually painted on a column, and the access to this column was blocked - that's why I could not move more to the left to get the fresco centered better.
So, I fired up my Mac, launched Photoshop to do some magic. Note, that since I new that my final goal would be to print on canvas, I did not try to focus on things like sharpening or trying to eliminate noise. My major goal in processing was to preserve and enhance the medieval look of my photo to convey the majestic atmosphere inside this beautiful church as well as its beautiful architecture.
That's the result of my effort. What did I do? First, I expanded the canvas (for the moment I am talking about the Photoshop usage of the word canvas) to the left by about 1.5", and after that I painted the background by cloning some stone textures from the original picture. After that I enhanced colors using curves tool, channel mixer and color balance layer options. I also enhanced slightly what is called local contrast (by using rather large values of the Unsharp Mask filter). I did not try to make any significant contrast improvements at this point since I was about to use the painting with light technique (described in one of previous articles). In this particular case I added some vignetting to make visually the center area more pronounced. I also added "light" to faces, hands and feet. My next step was to enhance the way the priest robes look - I increased the lightness of light areas and the darkness of dark areas on the folds of their clothing. Finally, I "added" more "texture" to stone details.
You can actually order your canvas print on the Web - I prefer my own printer, and I am still using Canon i9900. It was never intended for printing on canvas media, but I discover long ago that it does excellent job in doing this. And I also found nice canvas at McGonigal Paper & Graphics LLC (see side bar of the right) coated for using with ink-jet printers. It turned out that the profile for Canon Photo Paper Pro can be used with this canvas with excellent results. I have to mention that Canon now has new printers and sells its own canvas media. But I still like more results obtained with my old i9900.
I simply wanted to show you here that there is no cheating - as you can see this is indeed a fabric, real canvas very similar to the one used by painting with oil and acrylic. For the 11x14 inch frame, I print on 13x19 inch media, and that gives you enough material to stretch the canvas.
Two comments I would like to make. First, do not rush to start stretching the freshly printed canvas - let it dry for a couple of hours. Second, I recommend to coat now the back of the print to seal it (especially if you are not using archival inks - like the inks for Canon i9900; I will talk more about coating later).
Here is what you need to stretch the canvas:
Stretcher bars of the size you want (in my example I am using two 11-inch bars and two 14-inch bars - about one dollar each). I buy them at Plaza Artists Materials (see the side bar on the right)
Glue for Wood (I use Titebond®)
Staple gun and 1/4" (6 mm) staples
Canvas Pliers (to hold the canvas with a firm grip while attaching it to the stretcher - the cost of smaller ones is about $25)
Any right angle measuring tool and a ruler
Acid free clear finishing spray. There are plenty of them available: I often use Krylon® Kamar® Varnish, another spray is Blair®. You can buy matte or gloss, the price varies from $5 to $35 depending on the brand. Krylon Varnish is a very economic option: you can buy it at $5/can.
I strongly recommend not to skip this step - do not rely on the precision of the milling machine for the squareness of the frame. If it's not square, it may impact the quality of your final result.
Give the glue time to dry before you start stretching: this process involves rather high stress on the frame, and you can damage it. Follow the instructions for the glue regarding time after which you can stress the parts glued.
Another useful tip - mark the back of the canvas so that you can easily see where the image starts and ends on all sides of the canvas. This will be especially useful if the size of the image printed is close to the size of the stretcher frame or exactly the same - you can do this since the opening of the actual frame (the one you put the stretcher frame into) is about 1/4" smaller (on all sizes) than the size for the frame. So, suppose you have a 11x14 inch frame - the actual opening will be 10.5x13.5 inches. The stretcher frame you need will be 11x14 inches - which is it's real size. So, if the size of the image is 11x14 (whereas canvas size can be 13x19 inches), your image will cover exactly the stretcher frame and you will have 1/4" of tolerance. Since stretching is not a precision craft, you can make a mistake (especially during your first steps) since you work with the back side of the canvas and do not see where to start and how to align the canvas against the stretcher frame.
I usually print the image of a slightly larger size. For example, for the stretcher frame of 11x14 inches, I would print the image 11.25x14.25 (on a canvas 13x19 inches). I use marks in the back side of the canvas to align the stretcher frame of the canvas, bend one side of the canvas as shown and shoot the first staple.
Be careful not to damage the surface of the print. If you are nor sure, keep the stretcher frame vertically (which makes it more difficult to align) and shoot the first staple in this position. Note, that I start stretching along the longer side of the stretcher frame beginning from the middle of the shorter stretcher bar.
Here you need to start using canvas pliers - hold the canvas with a firm grip against the other side of the stretcher frame (still making sure that the canvas is aligned correctly against the stretcher frame) and shoot the second stable. The usual question is about the tension you need to apply. You will need to rely on your judgement. But I would like to draw your attention to folds - they are clearly seen on the photo - they start forming when tension is applied. This is normal and you should see such folds and perhaps use them as an indicator of how far you should go with applying tension. Anyway, while holding canvas with pliers, shoot a staple.
This is not something you must do. However, I found that by doing this, it becomes a bit easier to proceed and get better quality. So, add another two to staples already set (you have one staple on one side and another staple on the other side of the stretcher frame). Now you have two staples in the middle of one stretcher bar and two staples in the middle of the bar on the opposite side of the stretcher frame.
You next step is to set a staple in the middle of the longer side of the stretcher frame. Here again, you need to apply correct tension. The general guide line is that this time it should be significantly less than what you did during previous step. Just look at folds I mentioned above. During this step, half of them should go away. Set a staple, and switch to the opposite side. This time tension applied should be as high as what you did during your very first step when you were ready to shoot your very first staple.
Click on the diagram to see its bigger version. The order in which you set staples is identified by numbers. Note, that you have already completed steps 1 through 4. To continue, keep working from one side to another moving to non-consecutive vertices (diagonal). Keep in mind that those 12 spots identified by the diagram are for 11" by 14" frame. If you have bigger frame, you will have to take care of other place where you would have to set staples. However, you should still follow the concept of switching places on diagonals.
This picture, basically, shows step 5 (see the diagram above). Nothing new at this point - just use canvas pliers and shoot staples. You will see that this time it will be much easier to understand how much tension you need to apply - as much as needed to start making the canvas surface flat and free of any folds and imperfections.
Another view to illustrate the "stretch and shoot staple" technique. Keep going according to the diagram above until you set all 12 spots.
Here, I wanted to show you one more time how you hold canvas with pliers. By the way, my pliers are relatively big with wide gripping jaws. Even if they are very convenient with any size of canvas, they are not needed for the 11x14 inch project. You can do it with smaller canvas pliers.
The purpose of this photo is to show you that during the stretching process you will see folds, wrinkles and other problems - something like this. This is normal and the whole purpose of stretching canvas is to make sure that you eliminate all such imperfections by working through all sides of the frame .
So, use your pliers, straighten the canvas by applying enough tension and fix this part of canvas by setting a staple.
Once you are done with all 12 spots, you will see that there are still large spaces between staples (especially along the longer side of the stretcher). That needs to be changed. Still helping yourself with canvas pliers, set as many staples around the frame as needed so that the space between staples is not more than 2 inches.
Congratulations - now you have a smooth canvas surface. Still several steps are needed before the project is completed.
At this point you need to get rid of the excess of canvas on all sides of the stretcher. Use scissors to cut it away. By the way, canvas is a very heavy fabric, and you may need somewhat bigger scissors to do this step.
Now you need to fix all four corners of the canvas. They stick out and will create problem when you try to set the stretcher (frame) into a real frame. So, use your fingers to straighten fabric at corners, bend fabric and attached canvas corners to the stretcher with staples. Now the whole thing starts looking really good.
You can stop at this point, and frame your canvas as it is. However, for a number of reasons I strongly recommend to cover the canvas with a protective clear film.
The protection I am talking about is mostly against substances that may cause inks to fade no matter how good they are. The second reason is that usually the protective coating makes canvas look better. It has an effect of enhancing colors and making the look of the picture more like a real oil painting.
Since all chemicals used for coating can cause allergies and be harmful to your health if you inhale their aerosols, use a mask. The one I am holding in may hands is very good. It exceeds NIOSH N95 standards, and you will not even notice the very strong smell of chemicals used for coating.
If you have a shop equipped for painting where you coat your canvas, that's very good. I do not have such place, so I do this in my garage. This is a wonderful place for all sorts of things, but if you do this during summer time, beware of small (and tiny) insects. They tend to land on your still wet canvas and may easily damage irreparably all your efforts.
Otherwise, just follow instructions on your spray can.
One of the questions you will have is how much coating to apply. As always the case, it's difficult to give specific recommendations. Two things to keep in mind. First, do not overdo. You will probably want to have a rather glossy surface, so to achieve this effect, it is better to apply coating several times with small amounts at a time (and letting it dry between applications). Check that coating is applied evenly - look at the surface as shown on my picture. This will tell you immediately if you are doing OK, or not.
The second thing to remember is that if you overdo, and layers of coating are too thick, it may start cracking (if not immediately, but with time).
If you are really after gloss, I would recommend to buy special high quality gloss coating. Such spray can be rather expensive ($15 - $20), but it will give you guaranteed results without any risk of cracking I mentioned above.
When you are done with coating, let it dry. It would suggest several hours - even if it looks like it's already dry.
And then, the moment comes when you can finally set and secure the stretched and coated canvas inside a frame you have purchased for your newly obtained treasure. Sometimes I just shoot a couple of longer staples on the back of the frame to attach the canvas.