This was my first attempt at painting my own canvas backdrop. Read about the 2nd attempt here (where I learned from all the mistakes with this one).

Back in 2018 I was looking for different backdrops for my headshot and portraiture work in the studio. I'd always used seamless paper rolls, but I wanted something with a bit more character, depth and 'personality'.

I started searching and came across the work of Sarah Oliphant and her Oliphant backdrops. I became really intrigued, especially with the behind-the scenes photos and videos that are often posted on Oliphant Studio's Instagram. Her backdrops are works of art and understandably command a premium price. There are alternatives to Oliphant backdrops, namely Gravity Backdrops, whose work I also greatly admire.

However, as someone who is always keen to do things myself as much as I can when I can, I thought I'd give creating my own backdrop a go, and if I failed miserably I would look into purchasing one of the premium ready-made backdrops.

A quick search didn't yield that many results and most of the backdrops that photographers had created were not like Oliphant or Gravity backdrops at all, or didn't have the textures that I was looking for. The best tutorial by far that I found was by Philip Vukelich. This was the one I followed most closely, along with a few pointers from The Broketographers and Jacek Wozniak. I also had fantastic advice by a friend and very talented set designer, Georgina Miles.

The backdrops are typically made from artist's canvas, gesso primer and acrylic paints. These are all high-priced products and definitely contribute to the quality of the finish. I decided to make a prototype before jumping straight into the expensive stuff, so I bought a huge heavy duty cotton dust sheet from Screwfix along with a plastic sheet, 3 large tubs of Dulux paint in black, grey and white, pva glue and some rollers, sponges and buckets.

I started by taping the plastic sheet to my studio floor with gaffer tape (this is to protect the floor from any leakage and spills).

Then I taped the cotton sheet to the plastic. The cotton contracts when it gets wet, so the principle is that it retains some shape when this happens. I then mixed the pva with water in roughly equal parts, and rolled this all over the canvas.

It started contracting and pulling almost immediately, and it was at this point I realised that the gaffer tape just wasn't strong enough. The gaffer tape holding the canvas to the plastic held, but the tape holding the plastic to the floor came loose almost everywhere. (The problems this created will be made apparent later). There was nothing I could really do about this, so I waited a few hours then gave it another coat of the pva mixture. After this the canvas was pretty misshapen - not square at all anymore - and I realised I would have to cut it to square once I'd finished my project.


The next step was mixing the paints. I knew that I wanted a dark grey textured backdrop, so I had pure grey in one bucket, pure grey in another bucket and in the third a mix of the grey and white. I added water and a bit of pva to each bucket (ratio was probably 50% paint, 40% water and 10% pva). The water would make it easier to apply the paint and to create splashes etc, and the pva would theoretically (in my head) give the dried paint some elasticity and durability (I wasn't sure if the paint on its own would flake off the canvas or not in time).

By this point I'd written off this backdrop as I didn't think it would turn out well enough, so I just coated it with the grey paint and let it dry for about an hour. Then I started adding the lighter and darker shades and blending them in using a large brush. I wasn't giving it too much thought, but as the layers and blends started building up it started to look quite good. I was very happy with the colour and overall 'feel' of it, but it didn't have the 'texture' that I liked about the Oliphant and Gravity. So in order to add texture I decided to 'scrub' the canvas with the brush; as the paint was still wet I could brush really hard to cut through the paint to expose the cotton underneath. By controlling how hard I brushed I could control the lightness and level of texture exposed. It was really starting to come together now and I started thinking that this could actually turn out quite close to how I wanted it to look. I was worried that I would start messing too much with it; I let it dry overnight so that I could look at it with fresh eyes the next day.

I was very pleasantly surprised. It was still lacking in the texture that I liked, so I went at it again with the (dry) brush and scrubbed hard in random places to expose the lighter layers, and sometimes the canvas. The overall effect was very, very close to what I wanted. The only problem was that the canvas had twisted and pulled in many areas because the plastic sheet hadn't been secured well enough during the priming process. The scrubbing process had accentuated this problem, by following the lines highlighted by the pulled plastic sheet underneath. I was hoping this could be sorted out at a later point.

I waited another day to make sure that the canvas was completely dry then I removed all of the gaffer tape and removed the canvas from the plastic. As I'd already seen, the plastic had created creases in the underside of the canvas as it had contracted. I folded the plastic sheet away and cut the canvas square, to a rough size of 2.7m wide x 2.5m high. It was pretty apparent that the canvas would not be rollable - it would need to be hung up - so I needed a way of attaching it to one of my studio walls but not permanently.

I decided to staple the canvas to a 3m length of 3x2 timber from which I could hang it. I then drilled a hole on each end of the timber, and the entire backdrop could then be hung on two hangers screwed into the wall.

Once hung it was clear that the drying process had created major problems, and the scrubbing process had made this worse. The backdrop was full of ripples (some of them very deep) and dimples. I decided to spray these areas on the back of the backdrop with hot water then heat them up with a hair dryer to try and get them out. It worked very well, and I still do this now and again as the canvas 'moves' with humidity.

I was so pleased with the backdrop that I created I couldn't wait to try it out, so I called on my boys - my readily-available subjects.

I love the backdrop - it's a part of my portraits now - it adds warmth and character whilst allowing me to maintain my low key portraiture style. It's not an Opliphant or a Gravity, but it's good. I will definitely make another one at some point - another grey, but lighter with even more texture. I might even use proper artists' canvas and acrylics next time. Coincidentally, on a recent shoot the client didn't want too dark a background, and I didn't think that white would suit the brief, so I had the brainwave of reversing the backdrop and seeing if the back would work at all. By not lighting it and having the subject stand about 3 feet away from it the colour and textures worked really well - sort of creamy, off white with the odd black and grey bleed through in places. I'll do another post in future...

I made a second attempt at this backdrop, and created 4 new ones; read about creating an Oliphant/Unique backdrop here.