A staple of Annie Leibovitz’s Vanity Fair photos is her use of premium hand-painted canvas backdrops. It seems like such a simple thing. By putting a backdrop on a set or on location, it changes the real estate of the image. There is a thick and tasteful texture to the backdrops. It’s subtle and it sure is a far cry from your vignetted and cliched high-school-yearbook-photo backdrops. In continuation of our How to Shoot like Annie Leibovitz series, we explore the use of these backdrops in photography.
Two companies have really cornered the high quality canvas backdrop market, Oliphant Studios based in New York and Schmidli Backdrops based throughout the world. Both have an impressive stock of already-painted canvases. Both do custom work. Both business models are based on rentals rather than sales.
Single day rates for renting a Schmidli canvas starts from $250 (for a 10′ by 12′) all the way to $900 (for a 30′ by 50′), along with a 20% off student discount. Oliphant rentals are more expensive but the rental period is for up to 3 days. Prices start at $310 for students, $335 for editorial shoots, and $440 for print advertising and catalogues. All of these prices do not include shipping and I’m guessing those would be quite hefty. Painted canvases are large and heavy!
Since the rental rates really aren’t economically sustainable for solo photographers or small studios to use on a continuous basis, the financially prudent thing would be to either (1) invest in one of their works of art or (2) recreate one of your own.
To outright purchase one of their canvases, you’d have to inquire about their sale prices. They do not list their prices (red flag for “if you have to ask you can’t afford it”). By their rental rates, I estimate their purchase prices are well into the four digits range. They are so prized, this photographer cried when she bought her own Oliphant. The reaction is understandable and the business model makes sense. It takes forever to make one of these, why would you sell them when you can keep making money off of them?
This leaves us with the second option, creating our own Oliphant or Schmidli style backdrop. There are a handful of websites out there that tries to detail a how-to. This one uses the Home Depot tarping canvas. This one looks really doesn’t look like an Oliphant style backdrop. Then this one is which is very wrinkled and doesn’t have the same matte texture. The problem is, most DIY-ers are not painters or mural artists. They were experimenting.
Here at iLHP, if we want to do something, we do it right. I’m not going to tell you we did the canvases for $47. They were not cheap. But they are also affordable enough for mere mortals when compared to the Oliphant and Schmidli backdrops, which are really geared towards large studios and ad agencies. So here at iLHP, we commissioned a highly regarded LA mural artist to paint a backdrop for us and walk us through the process step by step.
The Mural Artist
A perk of living in LA is the city’s wealth of creative talent. We had the honor of working with Tony Tee, a mural artist, set designer, and street artist extraordinaire. By day, he hand paints ultra realistic movie ads onto the side of 23-story buildings (see the below video).
By night, he is a well respected member of the vibrant underground street art scene here in LA. His work can be seen throughout Southern California including at Amoeba records, at Skidrow studios, and commissions by the LA Lakers.
This supplies list is roughly the minimum of what you need for a dark gray Oliphant or Schmidli style backdrop. Our commission was actually for two backdrops so I modified our original supplies list down to what is needed for one canvas (e.g. we used Medium Purple on both canvases).
The paint is acrylic paint. We mostly used Nova Color Paint here in LA. They sell online and they also have a store in Culver City (M-F 8:30-4:30). Best of all, they are extremely helpful over the phone. Gesso White is the “primer” needed to prep raw canvas (if you bought primed canvas, which are super expensive, you can omit this). Acrylic Retarder is an agent that slows down the drying time of acrylic, which helps the artist to manipulate the paint while its on the canvas.
Home Depot supplies should costs close to another $100. What was not included in the list were things like regular paint rollers, rollers handles, long roller handles, various sizes of buckets for mixing paint, painters masking tape, and butcher’s paper for storage. Tony had some of those on hand already.
The canvas can be cotton canvas or linen canvas. Tony prefers linen canvas and there are some differences, but we only managed to find cotton canvas for the size we wanted. We purchased my 8′ by 15′ and 8′ by 12′ raw cotton canvases from Blue Rooster Art Supplies for $13.99 a yard (1 yard = 3 feet). They had the size and the length we wanted, plus they were one of the more affordable options in LA. Your experiences may differ. Canvases also come in raw or primed. Primed canvases saves you the trouble of gesso-ing it for painting. However, primed canvases are exceedingly expensive and they usually come pre-stretched on a wooden frame. The raw cotton canvas cost me around another $100. Linen canvas will be more expensive.
Try to find a piece of canvas that is free of creases and wrinkles. If your canvas does have creases, do not iron them with a regular iron. This will warp the canvas (learned this the hard way). I would try using a steamer, even then, don’t stay on one patch for too long or the canvas will stretch unevenly and warp. It is best to find a piece of smooth canvas that was tightly rolled onto the tube. Lastly, you’ll need a large enclosed space to paint your canvas. The folks at The Container Yard was kind enough to let us to use their industrial sized refrigerator as a studio space.
All in all, the supplies alone needed for one 8′ by 15′ canvas should cost just over $400.
Begin by getting yourself a large cup of coffee because this thing’s going to take all day (or two). Start by covering your floor with the Painter’s Plastic for easy cleanup later on. Make sure you sweep the floor so there are no hard objects underneath the canvas. Change into old clothes and shoes because you will get paint on yourself.
The canvas will require 3 coats of Gesso White. Start with a 60% water/40% Gesso mixture for the first coat. Then reverse that into a 40% water/60% Gesso for the subsequent two coats. Always wait for the last layer to dry before applying the next layer.
Make sure you cover the canvas evenly. The purpose of the Gesso is so that paint can be layered on top of this chemical rather than be soaked up by the cotton fabric. A long roller handle will save your lower back.
Next comes the base coats. Here, you want to coat the entire gesso-ed canvas with a dark paint. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the final paint color you are looking for. We used a mixture of black and Medium Purple on the first day because we weren’t sure if we had enough black paint (we ended up getting more at another nearby store).
Again, apply 3 coats of dark base paint to cover up that Gesso White. Prevent hard lines of paint by using long and smooth brush strokes that coats the canvas evenly without clumping or unevenness. Always wait for the last layer to dry before applying the next layer.
There’s no reason to use a small roller brush. We did so here only because we didn’t have enough 9″ roller brushes on hand so we had to settle for a 4″. A larger roller would save a lot of time.
He started with random brush strokes on the first coat just to cover up the white, and then he finished off the two other coats with smooth long brush strokes for an even base coat. It’s not an exact science really, but you want to have a nice smooth finish to work with later on.
Lastly, a fan would significantly shorten the drying time between coats. Paint in sections and move the fan to dry in sections as you go along. Do not step onto the canvas with your shoes. Just wear socks. Try not to step onto the canvas until the layer is completely dry.
The Fun Part
Next comes the actual top coats. Tony chose to hang up the 8′ by 15′ canvas via self tapping metal screws screwed directly into the aluminum panels of the refrigerator. He wanted to do the texture work while it was hung up so he could see better. But in hindsight, he said he should have done it while it was still on the ground because it was a three man job and lot of work just to get the canvas up that high. But the man is an absolute professional and a perfectionist.
Tony mixed two batches of paint. One batch as the dark coat and another much lighter batch as the texture coat. He used blacks, grays, whites and the Acrylic Retarder (to slow drying time so he could manipulate the paint). This step is more art than science so you will have to figure out the shade you want. Start with a small patch of the canvas and test it there. Acrylic paint applies darker and drys up lighter. Wait for the test patch to dry and take a photo of the canvas with a diffused or bounced flash (not direct hard flash). The colors will look different on camera than through the naked eye. Do not add more than the recommended 15% Acrylic Retarder to the mixture. Any more and it will add a yellowish tint to the final product. We learned that the hard way.
Next, coat 2 layers of the dark coat onto the canvas. Because we were going for the smooth type of Oliphant/Schmidli look, apply the paint in long and smooth brush strokes. Always wait for the first layer to dry before applying the second layer. If you want different textures, you can try mixing up the brush strokes.
Next, while the second layer was still wet, he used a sponge to rub on the lighter texture coat.
He used a swirling pattern to create random textures. Note how much white is in this lighter texture coat.
Before the swirls dried, he used the 5′ flat brush to dry brush the swirls into a smooth consistency. This takes some finesse and skill but this was his favorite part of the whole project.
The brushes sometimes left hard lines on the drying paint, so he used painters rags and/or a clean damp sponge to remove any hard lines.
The Finished Product
After we let the canvas sit for an entire day, we were ready to inspect the results. We are extremely happy with the backdrop. We wanted a dark but subtly textured surface that we can manipulate with photography lighting. We chose a darker shade because it is easier to lighten up a dark background with flash than to darken a light background.
A closeup of the prepared canvas shows a rich yet understated texture of grays and blacks. As a photographer, you can control the contrast, glare, and tint of the backdrop by using diffuse/hard light, angle of the lighting, and colored gels.
Total labor time was close to 20 hours for two pieces of canvas, one 8′ by 15′ and one 8′ by 12′. We made some mistakes and changes along the way but it’s always a process. It makes sense to do more than one at a time because the prep work needed for one justifies doing at least two at the same time. I estimate that doing gray one pictured here by itself would still take over 15 hours. Overall, we are extremely satisfied with the way the canvas had turned out. Thanks Tony!
Storage and Care
The canvas should always be rolled and never folded. This will ensure the paint won’t crack over time and no creases will form. Either use the cardboard tube that the canvas came with or a 3″ PVC pipe will do.
In order to roll the canvas, place the canvas painted face up on the ground. Make sure the floor is swept clean. Cover the painted face with butcher’s paper. Tape up the butcher’s paper. Then use painter’s tape to tape the back of the canvas to the cardbord/PVC tube. Roll it up tightly and slowly. Once rolled up, tape up the end to the back of itself.
Oliphant provides an excellent guide on the care and hanging of canvas backdrops. Do not step onto the painted canvas with dirty shoes. Ask your models to thoroughly dust off their heels or shoes before gently stepping onto the backdrop. Make sure you know which end you’ll use as the background and which end you’ll use as the floor so as to always keep one portion of the backdrop clean.
To properly recreate an Oliphant or Schmidli style backdrop will require at least $400 in supplies alone. Furthermore, you’ll need adequate studio space to prep, paint, and dry the canvas. It’s understandable why these premium canvas backdrops costs so much, but with some patience and elbow grease, it is possible to do-it-yourself. But maybe it’s better to hire Tony to do it for you.
In Part 3 of our Annie Leibovitz series, we shoot with our Tony backdrops and give you an insight on hanging, photographing, and working with them. If you would like to commission Tony to paint a backdrop, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for a referral.