Preparing the canvas in the 1950s and 1960s

Learning to paint

As an ‘old school’ artist, I started out in the days when you couldn’t zip down to the local paint store and select from a wide array of almost fail proof water based primers and gesso, plus varied painting mediums and varnishes. Acrylic paint did not exist. To paint in oils on canvas or board was a whole different world. I had to learn how to prepare the  canvas or board and what to mix with the  paints from scratch. Here I want to share a little bit of my experience accumulated over the past 70 years (yes, that’s right!).

Starting out

My professional  career started  in 1960 after several years as an off and on hobbyist  The owner of the art supply shop where I bought my art supplies was an artist and a gallery owner. He made a comment to me that I was buying lots of paints and that he would like to see my works. I brought them to his home and displayed them. His instant reply was, and I quote – “ They are bloody terrible, I wouldn’t even hang one in my toilet.  … Now, come inside my house and I will show you some real paintings.”


I can still remember the shock of seeing some of these works – Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, John Brack, John Percival, Charles Blackman, Leonard French and John Molvig. This gentleman who owned the art supply shop was the late Nick Heiderick, artist painter, who had studied at the German Art Academy. He invited me to come with him on painting trips and to visit his studio where he would teach me the art and craft of fine art painting. I remain so thankful for the generosity of time and precious information he gave to me.

Preparing the canvass

For those new to painting, preparing the canvas is an important step. Back in those years (50s & 60s) most artists would  use cotton duck or Belgium linen. Masonite was a support very much in favour in those years. First a size was applied to the canvas or support to prevent  the oil paint from damaging the canvas or support. An artist ,in those years, usually prepared their own mixtures to start, paint, and finish the art work.

How we prepared the canvass back in the 1950’s and1960’s

1. Rabbit Skin Glue Size.

This is to stop the oil colours seeping into the canvas or board. This glue always remains pliable and will not crack.

To make the glue add 4 level tablespoons to 1 pint cold water, stand 15 minutes.  Heat in double container to blood heat, paint onto canvas or board. Non usable after first heating. Preferably let dry 2-3 days before covering with primer.

2. Primer- Whiting Gesso

After using the Glue Size as above and waiting 2-3 days start the next step. Make new batch of rabbit skin glue size. Add 10 tablespoons whiting powder plus 2 tablespoons titanium white powder. Apply 2 coats of this white gesso primer. Best to leave a day between coats.

Commencing the art work.

 3. When commencing the painting the artist mixes colour with various medium. Medium is the word used for the solution that you use to mix with the colour. One choice I liked (back in the 60s) was Damar Varnish. To make this a 5 lb cut (world standard). This is a world wide standard strength.

Recipe for 5lb cut: Take 10 oz Gum turps,  6 1/2 oz Damar crystals. Leave to dissolve, which will takes several days then strain through gauze.

To use as a painting medium for first stage of the painting, take 1 tablespoon damar (5lb cut), mix with 4 tablespoons of gum turps or mineral turps. After you are satisfied with the work ,switch to full strength medium. As follows—1 tablespoon stand oil, 1 tablespoon Damar { 5 lb cut }, 5 tablespoons Gum Turps, 7 drops light drying oil.

You should wait at least 4 months before applying final varnish. If you wish to exhibit this painting  before this length of time you can apply an exhibition varnish. Below are the mixtures for – Exhibition Varnish and Final Varnish.

4. To use as an exhibition varnish— 4 parts damar (5 lb cut)  2 parts gum turps.

 To use as a final varnish— 4 parts  damar (5lb cut} 1 part gum turps.

All this work before you even thought about what you were going to paint.

Still there is a certain sense of pride in knowing you understood the craft side of your art when you do it the old way.

Of course today you can buy many of these primers, gesso, mediums (what you mix with the paint) and varnishes ready prepared at an art supplier.

If you are buying ready primed canvas by the metre or already stretched, I strongly suggest you purchase this from a reputable art store. Ask for 50/50 poly cotton. Most stretcher frames today do not have wedges in the corners for tightening the canvas. 50/50 poly cotton does not expand and contract as much with the changes of weather like 100% cotton or Belgium linen. This is why you should go with the 50/50 option.

Here is a painting I did in the 1960s using the techniques I mentioned. It was painted live with a model at the Ferntree Gully Art Society, Victoria in Australia. You had a one hour window of opportunity to paint.  Support: masonite- size : rabbit skin glue- primer: whiting gesso- colour: oil, mixed on pallet, no medium used-Technique: All paint work applied with painting knife.- Final varnish as mentioned above.

Nude on a couch 55x40 oil
Nude on a couch


This painting done in the 1960’s. Support: masonite- size: rabbit skin glue-primer: whiting gesso- colour: oil – medium: full strength medium [as mentioned above]- Final Varnish as mentioned above.

Mc Pherson Ranges QLD oil 61x91 cm

Mc Pherson Ranges Queensland.



I hope you might have found this story of how I used prepare, paint and finish the canvas/painting back in the 50s / 60s before water based acrylics even existed for sale.



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