How to make your own hand-painted backdrop for under $50

We all love 'em and most of us can't afford an entire library of hand-painted Oliphant or Gravity backdrops, one for every occasion. So here's how I created my own drops for under $50. Cha-Ching!

Here's what you'll need: 

(Everything but RIT and steamer available at Home Depot) 

  • Paint color(s) of choice 

  • Visqueen (plastic drop cloth) 

  • Paint Roller or foam brushes (I've used both for different effects) 

  • Paint tray 

  • Canvas painter's drop cloth (I used 6x9) 

  • RIT dye (optional)* 

  • Steamer or iron 

  • PVC Pipe (7’ for a 6’x9’ canvas)

  • Positive mental attitude (and maybe a podcast)

PRO TIP

If you are working with paints that are not harmonious with the color of your paint, you can either cover the canvas entirely to the edges for a full-bleed look or you may want to consider dyeing the canvas to relate to the color family of your paint.

That way, if the paint is thinner in some places or if, over time, it starts to rub off, it won’t be as noticeable and may actually add character. I prefer this method as the dyed canvas allows me to leave a margin around the edges of the canvas, giving it an even more hand-painted and extravagant look. 

Choosing the paint: 

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If you are painting a lighter backdrop, I would recommend choosing two to three colors that are very (and I mean very) close to each other. Subtle variations in hue will show up dramatically on the canvas, so for my lighter backdrop, I used a triad of colors from the same chip card and the darkest one was almost too dark. For a darker backdrop, I would suggest choosing one color. 

I chose this family of colors. The first worked well together, but the third was too dark so I used it sparingly.

I chose this family of colors. The first worked well together, but the third was too dark so I used it sparingly.

For this experiment I chose light taupe/cream (three colors) for the first backdrop. I did a quart of each color (3/4 gallon total) which was more than I needed. I also did a second backdrop in a vibrant red and used only one color. 

Paint colors can be chosen and mixed at any store that sells interior house paint (I went to Home Depot) and be sure to choose the flattest finish available. Pro tip: ask them for the least expensive type of paint in that color and they will color match so you’re not wasting money on pricey brands.

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Choosing the canvas:

We went with a 16x9 Everbilt canvas drop cloth which is a good size for medium close-up portraiture. Keep in mind that paint is heavy and going much larger than this will make for a cumbersome, unwieldy backdrop. You may want to research other types of drop cloths for your own specific taste and going to a hardware store with lots of options is a good way to make a hands-on decision. 

Steaming the canvas gets the creases out so they don’t become a permanent part of the backdrop

Steaming the canvas gets the creases out so they don’t become a permanent part of the backdrop

PAINTING YOUR BACKDROP

STEP 1 

Steam (or iron) your canvas. Any wrinkles that may have occurred from packaging will become a permanent part of your backdrop. Some wrinkling is natural and will add to the texture of the canvas—it's the uniform creases you want to get rid of. 

STEP 2 

Lay out your plastic or visqueen as the canvas will absorb a great amount of paint and bleed through to the other side. I taped the plastic down (one piece on each corner is fine) and taped the canvas to the plastic to hold it in place. 

Leave a 1-1.5in margin around the edges of your canvas for a high-quality artistic look.

Leave a 1-1.5in margin around the edges of your canvas for a high-quality artistic look.

STEP 3

If you are using more than one color, start by layering your darkest color over the entire canvas. If there are small patches of thin coverage, fret not as you can hit them with the second layer—your next lightest color. When working with a canvas drop cloth that has a color harmonious with your paint color (or if you’ve dyed it to match), leave a 1 inch margin around the edges of the canvas to give it a rich, painterly feel.

If using a single color, a roller will be easier, faster, and will give you a flatter (less textured) look.

Remember, the paint will dry darker than it appears when it’s wet, so portions of it will start to dry while you’re still working giving it a patchy, uneven feel. Allow the canvas to dry fully before you decide to touch it up.

STEP 4

After the canvas has dried completely (we left it overnight), roll it around your PVC pipe for easy storage and usage. If you affix the backdrop to the pipe, you can slide your C-stands in for easy mounting.