Learn How to Spray Canvas Prints like a Pro

Are you spraying your canvas prints? Do you want to learn how to develop the best workflow and technique for coating perfect prints every time? This month’s Top 5 Printmaking Tips,Tricks, and Techniques will help you get there…

If you’ve ever wondered whether you can afford an in-home HVLP spray booth, we have good news: you can! We put together a purchasing guide and how-to video that’ll walk you through setting up your own DIY HVLP booth for under $125. If you’re interested, you can download that guide and video by clicking here.

1. Lighting

Photo by: Bill Atkinson

Lighting is one of the most important factors in getting the best results when spraying canvas prints. Surprisingly, it’s also one of the most commonly overlooked aspects of the coating workflow. With ample overhead lighting, you are able to clearly see your results as you are spraying the canvas. Bubbles and pinholes can be prevented if you see them before they dry! Plenty of lighting will also insure that you have an even coat with no dry spots, or over saturated areas. The best lighting is any type of overhead light that is directly above the prints when you are coating them.

A good practice is to place your prints at an angle when you are spraying them. Somewhere in the vicinity of 45 degrees works well for 2 reasons:

  • The prints are allowed to dry evenly and without any drips of coating forming.
  • The angle of the print allows the light to shine differently, which helps you clearly see where the coating lies.

2. Distance and Pressure

Depending on the type of HVLP gun you have, the distance you hold the gun from the print and the pressure you use will vary. If you are using our Timeless Print Varnish, start about 8″-12″ inches away from the canvas print. This gives the spray a wide angle to work with while keeping the flow even. If you are spraying too close to the canvas you may apply too much varnish. Also, if you are holding the gun too far from the canvas, you may end up not applying enough varnish to sufficiently protect the canvas print. If you are using a gun that is connected to an air compressor, 40psi is a great universal starting point for pressure. However, due to variances in each gun this setting may be different. What’s most important is that there is a steady, even flow of coating when you are spraying. You want the gun close enough to the canvas to cover it evenly and thoroughly, but you also want it far enough away so excess coating is not applied.

Glamour 2 requires dilution to work properly. A great starting point is to create a 50/50 mix of Glamour 2 and distilled water. This will flow evenly through your gun and lay smoothly on the print. Beyond the dilution, the technique for applying Glamour 2 is virtually the same as applying Timeless. If you want the prints to dry at a faster rate, reduce your water to about 30% of the total mix.

3. Spray Technique

The techniques described in the video above is the easiest way to get a great coat in a short amount of time. The best way to insure you cover the entire print is to spray left to right AND top to bottom. This applies the varnish at every angle onto the canvas, allowing it to be absorbed evenly and without dry spots. This will also help prevent cracking on the corners of the canvas when it is stretched. When you are spraying left to right, adjust your spray pattern so it is flowing out of the gun in a vertical line. This will give you the most coverage with each passes, allowing for less passes. When you are spraying top to bottom, simply adjust the spray pattern so it is flowing out of the gun in a horizontal line. Try to avoid “round” spray patterns as this tends to apply too much varnish, and this may cause bubbles, pinholes, or unwanted texture to the print. Be sure to point the gun directly at the print the entire time you are spraying. With larger prints, try to avoid standing in one spot when spraying because the outer edges of the print may have lighter coverage than the middle of the print.

4. How many coats should I apply? How thick should each coat be?

With Timeless, common practice is to apply two light to medium coats, allowing at least 20 minutes of drying time in between coats. This technique applies a thin layer of varnish each time, so the results will always be a smooth finish. Although one heavy coat can work, heavy coats must be applied more carefully because too much varnish can cause bubbles or texture on the prints. Another benefit of thin/light coats is that you can apply as many coats as you like. With Timeless Gloss, additional coats will increase the gloss sheen on the print when dry.

In terms of thickness, each coat should completely cover the canvas without over-saturating it. In other words, one smooth pass in each direction while moving at a steady pace will do the trick. In the video above, we cover roughly 12 inches of canvas per second, always pointing the gun directly at the canvas. Moving the gun to slowly across the canvas will create a heavier coat as more varnish is applied per square foot. Moving the gun over the canvas faster will create a lighter coat, but be sure that you are still completely covering the print and not missing any spots. Always overlap each coat, and coat past the end of the print so that there is coating on the excess canvas that will be stretched and stapled on the back of the frame.

5. Keep your gun clean

The importance of keeping your gun clean cannot be understated. My recommendation is to clean your gun after each use. Not necessarily after each print, but after each use. For example, if you have 10 prints to coat, load your gun to hold enough coating for ten prints and coat all of them one after another. When you have completed that run, clean your gun. Timeless and Glamour 2 are both water based varnishes, so using hot water is all you need. When cleaning the spray gun after each use, this prevents build up of dry particles in the gun that could potentially end up on the print.

Photo by: Bill Atkinson

Here are a couple of recommendations if you are looking for an easy to use HVLP gun that works well with Timeless and Glamour 2. Both of these guns include a turbine and do not require a compressor:

Wagner Control Spray Plus HVLP gun

Fuji Mini-Mite

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  • Anonymous

    Very informative article.  Spray technique questions come up all the time and it is nice to have a single article that touches on the basic principles of successfully spray coating a canvas print.  

    I will add that another key feature of great lighting (as shown in the photo of Bill Atkinson’s spray room) is faster dry time.  High powered lights will speed up the dry time considerably.  

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com Paul Morales

      Great point on the dry time Adam. This allows customers to spray more prints in less time, as well as move prints out of the way sooner.

      • http://www.gicleetoday.com/ ChrisWofford

         Any way to get more details on his drying rack set up in the image?  I would like to build something like that. Thanks!

        • http://www.breathingcolor.com Paul Morales

          Hello Chris,

          He uses PVC Pipe 1″-2″ diameter, and clips to hold onto the prints. I think the pipe rests on the wood columns that are suspended from above. It is very intuitive!

  • Ken Schuster

    Bill Atkinson’s image of that spray booth/room looks like a great setup using common hardware store supplies. I’d like to see the air exchange setup used there.

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com Paul Morales

      Hi Ken,

      His air exchange is basically leaving the garage door open if you’re referring to ventilation. It’s a very efficient setup, and the nice part about Timeless and Glamour 2 is that since they are water-based varnishes, the vapor is much less harmful than the standard solvent varnish. I’ve sprayed prints indoors without even having a window or door open and it was very manageable. 

  • Mcschmitt

    Hi Paul: Great information, My question is, can I use your product and apply a finish on some of the prints that I have sprayed with Lacquer Matte or McDonald lacquer spray? Marland

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com Paul Morales

      Hello Mcschmitt,

      As long as the previous spray coat is completely dry, you should be able to coat Timeless or Glamour 2 on top of it. It is advised that you test this process on a small sample print to determine what will work best for you.

  • Anonymous

    Just to share my spraying experience with Timeless ~ For me what I found vital for my “spray style” was the proper distance.  Distance from nozzle to canvas print.  My prints were coming out with a bit of luster-like texture.  Paul recommended that I stand closer to the print.  I was standing about 2-3 feet away from the print.  Once I moved up 8-12 inches away, worked like a charm! 

    Another part of the process that I found very important was doing a few test prints, and finding a coating level I liked.  I ran off 4 small 8″ x 10″ canvas prints on Lyve Canvas.  On each print I wrote with a Sharpie marker on the back:  1 coat, 2 coats, 3 coats, 4 coats. Since everyone has a different opinion of what “1 coat” looks like, I found for my style of spraying 2 coats was optimal.  
     After I coated all 4 small 8×10’s I did a “Fold Test” to determine if the amount of coating I had sprayed would be enough to withstand the tension involved in gallery wrapping. 

    Thanks for this great article Paul!!Fold Test: http://www.breathingcolor.com/000_pfw_user_files/site_uploaded/2/images/Lyve_fold_test_web.jpg

  • http://www.fazteck.co.uk/ INk cartridges

    Great post Paul. the information you shared about these spray is great and fantastic. thanks for sharing.

  • Jonathan-porter

    Hi Paul,

    Can you tell me where I can buy the clips from?

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Paul Morales

      You can find them at any home improvement or hardware store. Ask for 2″ Spring Clamps. They’re usually about a dollar each.

  • Jonathan-porter

    Hi Paul,

    Sorry just another question we use the Timeless varnish would we need to dilute it?

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Paul Morales

      Hi Jonathan,

      No need to dilute Timeless. It’s ready to go as is from the container. Be sure to adjust your spray gun accordingly so the flow is smooth and even.

  • Steven

    Very useful article Paul. Thanks.
    Can you please tell me, would it be OK to leave the varnish in the spray gun between coats (20 min) or would it need to be emptied  and cleaned? Also should I spray the back of the canvas where it contacts the stretcher bars? Wouldn’t the acid in the wood break down the canvas eventually?

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Paul Morales

      Hi Steven,

      Great questions. It’s not necessary to spray the back of the canvas. I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone practicing this, but you could experiment with it. The acid content in the stretcher bars depends on your choice of stretcher bars, because the type of wood will have varying degrees of acid content. Our EasyWrappe bars, for example, have a very low acid content. The acid content won’t break down the canvas though, although it will contribute to yellowing over time. But if the print side is coated, you won’t see that yellowing as it will only be on the back where the canvas contacts the wood.

      As far as leaving the varnish in the gun, I wouldn’t for any longer than 20 minutes, especially if its hot in your spraying area. You don’t want to risk allowing the varnish to dry inside the gun, because at that point it will be more difficult to clean.

  • Rgvsdigitalpimp

    Anyone know what kind of lights those are hanging on top towards the prints?  I have some but they’re small and don’t light up even close to what I need

  • http://www.darrenf.com/ Darren Francis

    Thanks for sharing!  I’m curious, how does the Wagner Control Spray Plus HVLP gun and Fuji Minimite fare against the those offered by Apollo? What are the things to look for in a HVLP system for these sorts of applications?

    • Justin Bodin

      Hi Darren,

      I’m not personally familiar with the Apollo systems, maybe someone else can chime in on that.

      Personally I like to evaluate all of the components of different types of guns to see which I think would fare best over time. For example, I’ve noticed that the Wagner is primarily plastic, where the Fuji is metal.

      Hope this helps!

      • http://www.darrenf.com/ Darren Francis

        Hi Justin, thanks for the response. No worries.

  • DavidAnderson.tv

    So when you say “two light – medium coats”, is that to say, spray horizontal, let it dry 20 min, and the a second coat done vertical? Or is it to say, spray horizontal, and vertical, let it dry 20 min and repeat? Just wanted to be clear on that since going horizontal and vertical is technically two coats. Thanks.

    • Justin Bodin

      Hi David,

      A single coat would consist of both vertical and horizontal passes. Then wait about 20 minutes and then repeat the vertical and horizontal passes for coat number 2.

      Hope this helps!

  • http://adonelson.smugmug.com Andrew Donelson

    I have the same question as David Anderson. It is not clear from the video or description whether the vertical and horizontal passes are 1 coat or 2 coats separated by 20 min. Anyone clear on this?

    • Justin Bodin

      Hi Andrew,

      You’ll want to do the vertical and horizontal passes both in one coat. Then wait about 20 minutes and apply the second coat.

      Hope this helps!

  • David T.

    Bill Atkinson says, “Bubbles and pinholes can be prevented if you see them before they dry!”
    But HOW? What do you DO when you see them?!? They really are a menace to an otherwise
    beautifully varnished canvas print! Please help with this. I’m using Timeless with the Wagner
    HVLP Turbine gun, and following the video instructions. Thanks for help with the bubble/pinhole

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Justin Bodin

      Hey David,

      Are seeing bubbles or pinholes? Or both? Pinholes can usually be filled in with a second coat after the first one is dried.

      Bubbles may be a little harder to fix if they don’t burst during drying. I have had success with heating up the varnish a bit and applying that second coat.

      Having said that, you should be able to prevent them before getting to that point. I usually see these caused by one of two things: 1) Too thick of a varnish coat. May need to increase your gun hand speed or make less passes over a given area. Or, 2) not letting the print dry long enough. If outgassing is still happening when the print is being varnished, you can see this problem occur. 24 hours is typically enough time to wait, but if you are in a very moist climate, you may have to wait longer.

      I hope this helps!

      • David T.

        Thanks for that reply, but just to be more specific–at the first moment you see the bubbles, is there anything you can do, or is it already TOO LATE?!? The pinholes really aren’t that much of a problem. What temp. is considered too hot in the spraying area,
        and does temp. have anything to do with bubbles forming. What would happen if you start to see bubbles, and you stopped spraying and tried to roll them out–then resumed spraying? Aside from the bubbles the results are fantastic, but the bubbles are RUINOUS if left to dry…

        • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Justin Bodin


          I don’t know of any method of fixing bubbles on the print once they happen.

          Setting down the spray gun to roll them would be totally experimental, but it may work. I’ve never tried it personally.

          I typically recommend to start with the source of the problem and resolve it from there instead.

          If bubbles are commonly happening when you spray, it’s likely that your spray gun setting could be better adjusted. In my experience, this comes from too much air being put through the gun. I would try to drop the air pressure a bit to see if that helps. You may also bump up the amount of coating flow, if your gun allows.

          • David T.

            Thanks for both replies–am studying them carefully, and will try various adjustments you recommend. Again thanks, much appreciated!

  • Sharon

    Do you have any new recommendations on an HVLP spray gun? both the Wagner control spray plus and the Fuji Mini mite seem to be discontinued. What should I be looking for in an HVLP spray gun

  • Scott Sternberg

    While using a HVLP cup gun to spray Timeless, when you
    are finished since there is really no contamination in the cup can one
    pour the remaining Timeless back into the container it came from?

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Justin Bodin

      Hey Scott,

      As long as you are sure to clean the reservoir well each time, you should be fine putting any remaining Timeless back into the original container.

      • Scott Sternberg

        Thanks Justin, that pretty much sealed the deal for me moving from rolling to spraying. Also thank you for all the information you have shared in this thread. I found a lot of it helpful!

  • Ronnie Duke

    Setting to spray timeless next week.
    I bought 2 boxes of grip clips (36 each box) for $10.93 per box on amazon prime they are nickel plated steel Size # 2 , 2 1/4″ wide and very well made. Now i can set multiple prints. A lot better and cheaper than I could find local.

    Sparco Bulldog Clip, 11/32-Inch Cap, Size 2, 2-1/4-Inch, 36 per Box, Silver (SPR58501)

  • James Leonard

    Is there a special/specific technique for hand-roll varnish after the print is mounted?

    • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Justin Bodin

      You’re mounting to a rigid substrate, I take it? A lot of people will tend to varnish before mounting, but it depends. Steps for varnishing shouldn’t be any different.

      • James Leonard

        Thanks and yes using stretcher bars. My only concern was if applying post mount to a non-flat surface. Specifically, how to ensure even coating of the corners and gallery mount edges with the roll-on varnish…

        • http://www.breathingcolor.com/ Justin Bodin

          Oh, OK so you’re stretching, not mounting. Varnishing after stretching is extremely uncommon and not recommended. A large part of the reason we use varnish with matte canvas is to prevent cracking and scuffing during the stretching process. Always print, varnish, then stretch.

          • James Leonard

            Perfect, thank you very much…