DIY Handpainted Backdrop

With winters lasting for 6 months in Toronto, I find that outdoor shoots are put on hold for pretty much the entire time. Because of that, I try improving my studio work during the indoor hermitting season as much as possible. That way once spring kicks in I can go back to shooting outdoors at full power. 

All of my previous studio work (which is limited) involved either a blank wall in my house or a blank wall in my house with a grey paper backdrop that I purchased at Henry's for $40 CAD. This year, when I was asked to shoot an album cover, I knew it was time to figure out something a little more sophisticated. Cue in NEW BACKDROPS!

I thought about renting but backdrops are easily damageable and I didn't want to take on that responsibility. The ones for purchase offered at camera shops in my area are sold from $70 - 150 but they remind of those cliche high school photos. It's just not my thing. In my dreamworld I'd love to own several high quality Oliphant backdrops but in my dreamworld I also have a much higher budget for this and generally much more money in my bank account. And so enters the do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude and some crossed fingers praying that I'm not crazy, wasting my time, or wasting my clients' time.

I scoured the internet for any resources on how to go about doing this. I found Sue Bryce's blog post which is very good but I wanted to continue researching. I found this post here but the photographer hired a professional muralist and damn it I just don't care to buy all of the suggested items on his list! I'm very careful when it comes to purchases and try to to be as frugal as possible. I had a $250 budget for this so I ended up purchasing a lot from the latter. However, after painting a canvas myself I can guarantee that you can paint a beautiful, good quality canvas for less.

I wanted to create an Oliphant-inspired painterly and textured looking backdrop that had a lighter center with a dark vignette. I made a pinterest board with backdrops that give me a photo-boner, almost exclusively either Sue Bryce's or Emily Soto's. I am obsessed with this look for backdrops and definitely wanted to emulate them. Check out the board:

Everything that was necessary to make this happen was purchased at Home Depot. I wish I kept the receipt so I could share exactly what each item is called and how much it cost...I do remember spending almost exactly $250 for everything in total, if that helps. This is the list of things I purchased - in hindsight I definitely could have purchased less and for cheaper, so please keep reading on to know what was useful and what wasn't!

  • Plastic sheeting (think you're going to protect your floor by covering it with newspaper or garbage bags? No way in hell. Spend the few extra bucks and get yourself some huge plastic sheeting and cover your entire room with it. The paint seeps through the canvas, trust me, you want to save yourself the hassle, worry, and time).
  • Tape (to tape and secure the plastic sheeting)
  • 1 linen canvas dropcloth, 9ft x 12ft (the backdrop)
  • 1 gallon of gesso white primer sealer
  • I purchased 3 main paints, 1 gallon of each colour. Also purchased 2 quarts of 2 other colours for small details.
  • 1 combo pack that came with 1 heavy duty roller and 2 plastic trays and 1 tin tray
  • 1 Steel Single's Painter Pole - aka one of those poles you attach to the roller to lengthen it. SUPER important if you don't want to be on your knees and break your back.
  • 1 sponge
  • 1 four inch brush (would have purchased a bigger width but that was the biggest they had in stock
  • Gloves


  • NOT SURE ON PRIMERS: I'm not sure that a primer is really necessary. I painted three coats of the gesso white on top of the backdrop, because just like when I used to prepare canvases for painting with acrylics in high school, I figured that "prepping" the raw canvas cloth and making it so that you literally start off with a clean white canvas would make sense.... I'm not sure though. I'm hoping to try the cheaper route this summer of painting straight on a canvas. If I do, will definitely keep you guys posted.
  • ROLLING PROTECTION CARDBOARD THING: I would 1000000% percent urge you to buy a circular cardboard thing to roll the finished backdrop in, so that it does not get bent. I can't stress how important this is. Obviously it's hard to keep it from crinkling or being bent at all but I now have a canvas that I spent 10 hours of back breaking labour on and it is bent everywhere. Though it's still very useable, there's so much extra Photoshop retouching and that alone makes me want to cry.
  • MORE PLASTIC SHEETING: I would suggest buying an additional plastic sheeting to cover your backdrop ONCE IT IS FINISHED AND DRY. Protect your new prize by covering it with plastic, then rolling it in that cardboard thing. Why? Because when I thought mine was dry and packed it to go, the next day when I unrolled it there was splotches of white everywhere. Initially I thought the paint had peeled off. What really happened was that the primer coats leaked to the other side of the canvas while being applied (which is completely natural). Though it dried, once layers of paint were applied, the whole backdrop got wet. So when it's being rolled while still semi-wet, the primer on the flip side of the canvas stuck and left marks on the finished side...FML!
  • SKIN PROTECTION: I didn't wear gloves at first.  Once the primer touched my hand I got a pretty horrible rash for half a day. Learn from my stupidity. Wear gloves. Protect your feet too but not by wearing socks because it can stick and mess up your work. I wrapped a plastic bag around each foot and tied it around each ankle. Worked like a charm!
  • LESS PAINT: As each gallon of paint was around $20 each (cheapest ones offered), the money quickly added up. I would recommend getting two gallons for your main colours and maybe a quart of a white for accents, and that way you can also mix the white with the two other colours. The colours and amount you buy REALLY depends on what you want to create.
  • NO BRUSH: I tried using the four inch brush and after 3 or 4 strokes I realized that was not the texture I wanted. Stopped using it and wish I could return it to be honest. Brushes are pretty expensive too, I wouldn't bother looking at them unless you are aiming for that look.
  • BIGGER SPONGE: Home Depot offered two types of sponges. One was pretty much the size of my hand and cost $4 CAD. The other was a Ralph Lauren sponge that was twice the size and cost $20....For one damn sponge! I was shocked and went straight to pick up the cheaper one. For the painterly look that I wanted to create I think the smaller sponge wasn't good enough. I would definitely go with a much bigger sized sponge - so if you're OK for paying 20 bucks for a sponge go right ahead. For next time, I'll just search in art stores until something more reasonable comes along.


So you've purchased everything, the plastic sheeting is taped to the floor and your raw canvas cloth is spread out. The canvas comes wrinkled but don't worry - once it absorbs the paint it's pretty much going to become a very flat wrinkle-free surface. So don't bother with an iron or steamer.

Start priming (if you want)! I primed it 3 times with a roller, after each time I stopped and let it dry for approximately half an hour. I used a small fan to get the drying process to go faster, I found it to help. After the third coat the canvas felt pretty heavy and was very wet. I was done for the day.

I started painting a week later and began with the darkest colour first: a deep black-blue. I painted three coats using the roller. That colour alone looked gorgeous, I would be happy having a backdrop with just that colour alone. However, if it's layered with different colours, once lighting is brought into the picture the different colours could be brought out with different lighting setups. That's what I was going for. 

Again, I waited for the canvas to dry after each coat. The paint seemed to dry much faster than the primer so I was happy because I wanted to finish the backdrop that day. After 3 layers of the black-blue, I chose a grey-blue and painted the canvas with that colour. However, I left out the edges to start getting that vignette look that I wanted to achieve. After the grey blue, I chose another grey-blue and did the same thing.

Once that was done, I took the sponge and started doing all of the detailed texture work. I sponged the canvas using the black-blue, and then greys as well. I tried mixing some off-white but didn't vibe it. So I took a little bit of white, and mixed that with one of the greys. I did around 4 layers of sponge-texturing. It's all about experimentation. 

I'm very happy with the results, and more happy with the learning experience. I've used the backdrop four times already and can't wait to use it a few more times, as well as paint a new one!

Here are some photos of the process and some creative images with the backdrop being used. Notice in the photos featuring the completed backdrop how the colours change depending on how the light reflects on it! Pretty cool and extremely versatile.

If you have any questions just ask. Hope you enjoyed this post, cheers :)


Samples of the final backdrop on a shoot day, with unedited pictures. You can see the damage done that now needs to be fixed in Photoshop - again, it poses no serious problem to the function of the backdrop. It's just a waste of time that could have been prevented.