Manufacture Low Cost Original Canvas Art

Each of these paintings took approx five hours to complete

I’ve written briefly about art sales in the past and more recently targeting niche subject matter. Now I’d like to present ideas for further artistic potential by at what I term “catch all” subject matter. This is the kind of art with mass appeal without the stupid price tags. I’m talking about painting life-like impressionistic depictions of famous personalities in a matter of hours using computer imagery and pencil tracing techniques.

If we look to Andy Warhol and his New York “Factory”, where art became commercialised on a large scale, it reminds us how cheaply made art can sell well.  In the 1960's affordable images of famous faces for the living room permeated a period in which pop culture loomed large. That is what I have imitated in 2012, only what I am selling has the hand painted unique selling point. It’s less sterile than a print. The canvas element automatically means it can be priced to a greater or perceived value.

What I have done and how you can do it too

The first steps to making your own “film noir” style art is to find high resolution imagery of a popular person from music, life, culture etc, and go about manipulating the picture using PhotoShop. The reason I decided to produce art in the mentioned style is because PhotoShop has some fantastic filters capable of instantly simplifying an image into a perpendicular representation. It’s the same effect spray artists use when preparing to create stencils. In this example, I am focusing on actual acrylic paints for a more distinctive USP.

Brief overview

Using Photoshop filters the image will be simplified. You will be reproducing these digital effects in acrylic paint on your canvas, so for this example let us assume you want to make an A2 (594 x 420 mm) sized canvas. The large A2 image is going to be divided into four A4 (210 x 297mm) quarters and printed out on a standard laser/inkjet.

Transferring the image from the paper print outs to your canvas utilises a primitive but effective carbon transfer method. You know those little pads that duplicate a written note, like in an invoice booklet? It’s the same as that. Lots of pencil scribble goes on the back of each A4 sheet, and a hard tipped pen on the other side will press down and trace the outline to draw the image on to the canvas surface.

Create what you anticipate will be popular. I've created these templates in response to interest expressed by people I know. Use Facebook to see what your friend are listening to on Spotify for inspiration.

  • Essentially, this method of reproduction is cheating at art. But so is photography, so is screenprint and so is Tracy Emin with her unmade bed valued at £ millions! 

  • I haven't used the same example painting all the way through. Different images are used to give a broader view of what I've been up to and what my plans are.

1. Choose your canvas dimensions

I order my canvases online and get them delivered by FedEx.
Decide what sized canvas to work on. Too big and you might have difficulty selling a finished piece. Too small and you won't be able to charge as much. My standard working canvas dimensions are 20 x 16" (500x400mm) and sell for at least £45. In the right circumstances I could easily get £70 - I am searching for that time and place.

Beware of discounted canvases. There is a difference between "low price" and "cheap".

2. Find a high resolution image

All my paintings begin their life as a good photo sourced from the internet. Go for high res images.

3. Manipulate the image

The purpose of applying a manipulation filter to the photo is to remove detail and create the light/shadow effect. I use "dry brush" or "cut out" within the Artistic Photoshop filters. You may wish to experiment.

You want just the right amount of detail. Too much detail will be difficult to paint. Not enough detail will make the end result look lazy.

4. Create new Photoshop file and paste in image

The below Photoshop canvas measures 500mm x 400mm and is ideal for the standard physical canvases I work on. I simply paste my image into this newly created file and resize it using Free Transform.

5. Divide the image into sections

Divide the dimensions of the Photoshop canvas by two to find the halfway points, and then create guides. It splits the overall image into four quarters. This is important if you only have a standard A4 printer as I do. I can print each section individually and cut away the excess borders, joining each quarter image with transparent sticky tape.

Using the Photoshop eraser tool I cut away much of the dark background. Why waste ink?

  • Each image quarter must be copied into a new A4 document. I start a new Group and insert each of the four quarters into the respective Group.

  • I always add a pale background behind each quarter section. Once printed off you need to see where to cut with the knife and ruler.

Always add a background colour to find the edges of the image. Once printed off you know where to cut.

6. Print each image section

Choose an average printer setting. The quality does not need to be fantastic. Printing costs should be factored into your turnover. Be careful not to add resizing options during the preview stage.

  • Go into the advanced printer settings and increase image brightness. This saves ink. There is no need for a perfect printed image.

7. Apply pencil on reverse side of each section 

Use a window, your TV or computer monitor as a lightbox for scribbling on the back of the image. I never go higher than HB pencils because the carbon is too hard. It's important for the pencil to transfer easily onto the canvas when you trace the outline of the final image. You will be using a ball point pen or hard pencil at this later stage so bear it in mind.

Ensure you cover every outline of the image with pencil. You must not miss any important details when tracing out the final image. This sometimes still happens to me and I have to embellish the missing piece. Take your time and take care.

8. Trim and join each image

A self healing cutting mat is an investment. All your cutting should be done on one of these mats as it stops your blades from becoming blunt. If you do not have one yet, use the cardboard on the back of a sketchbook Get the cutting mat though - they are inexpensive and may be used as a mouse mat too(!)

  • A good sharp knife is a prerequisite for this type of work. Have plenty of blades in reserve.

As you can see I have prepared more than one of the same image.  I also use sticky tape on both sides of the image for extra security. The last thing we want is for the image to fall apart. A ballpoint pen can also draw over the top of sellotape when you trace the outline. This simple carbon copy technique is very effective.

Do not simply cover the entire reverse side of the image in carbon as it could rub off on the clean canvas and make a mess. It makes your pencils last longer too.

9. Check and/or prime the canvas

Ensure the canvas sites flush against the wall. If there are large gaps between the canvas or it comes away from the wall, do not use it. We do not build great houses on bad foundations. Do not waste your time.

When ever I discover a bad canvas, I mark it "defective". Thankfully it is rare to get defective products and much depends on how much you pay for them. Never confuse cheap products with low priced products.

Canvases are particularly susceptible to wildly fluctuating temperature. For example, hanging a canvas over or near a radiator causes the wood to warp and bend.

Try to buy your canvases from specialist suppliers who are aware of the behaviour or wooden frame art canvases. My supplier very kindly offered to replace a couple of defective products.

Here is an example of a canvas sitting flat against the wall. This is how it should look.

10. Fasten image to the canvas

We're almost there! This stage is where you fasten the paper template image to the canvas. Masking tape does the job nicely and make sure it is high tack. Use your thumbnail to really press down the tape into the grain of the canvas. Over time you'll understand these minor nuances and forgo any hiccups along the way.

Sometimes I remove the corners of the paper template so the image can be fastened down with the tape.

11. Trace all contours with pen or pencil

Use a ballpoint pen to trace the lines of the image. If you want to check that the carbon copy is working, lift up the corners of the paper and check.

It's possible to use the same templates repeatedly too. Use red, blue and back biro respectively. Why? Because red is the lightest colour and black is the darkest. You can go over the same lines three times rather than the first and last time with the black pen.

12. Remove large image, touch up line on canvas

  • Multi layers
    If painting more than one colour, you will have to keep removing the image, paint a layer in, allow to dry and then repeat. Usually you would start with the lighter colours and build it up. It is something I am experimenting with and definitely the kind of work I can charge much more for.

Registration marks are the key for using any type of overlaying effect. You will be able to remove and reposition the image multiple times and continue tracing the outlines onto the canvas.

I started with the grey colour first

The lips were the final part

13. Carefully paint canvas and allow to dry

Fill in the canvas carefully with paint. I often work on an image for a while, then put it to one side to dry while working on another. The last thing you want to do is smudge wet paint or put your elbow in an area not yet dry. You need to have patience with these things. One false move and the entire product is ruined. Believe me, it still happens now and it is very frustrating.

14. Use eraser to remove any pencil lines

Use a gentle circular motion to remove excessive pencil lines. If you used a soft pencil (2B, B) it will be easier. Sometimes it is not necessary to remove lines because the paint completely covers it.

Blow away the "rubber crumbs" (lol) and use a dry clean brush to clean up - like an archeologist with dinosaur bones.

If you painted the canvas with a primer coat of paint, be extra careful. You do not want to rub away or smudge the paint.

In the example to left, you can clearly see the grain of the canvas meaning there is little risk of smudging or smearing the base coat. Still, be gentle and take your time.

15. Finished!

Each painting is almost identical. 
The fact they are hand-painted give a human touch.
It took a while but we got there! It is a lot of work to make these paintings, but how much longer would it take if you produced them free hand? That's what your customers will believe you did which is why you can charge more.

Whichever images prove most popular can be recreated over and over. Although it's a low priced method of production, time and care must be given to each painting.

Remember - price to value, always.


  • Use good solid canvases.
  • Invest in good quality paint - the cheap stuff is nasty and diluted.
  • Get large brushes for filling in big spaces. Tiny brush strokes look tacky and amateurish.
  • Use Facebook for research on what music your friends like - Spotify auto publishes playlists.
  • Get a website and Facebook page running.
  • Consider offering referral fees - you want people working for you so you can minimise advertising.
  • If you can afford it, think about giving away the odd painting as a birthday or Christmas gift - good news travels fast.
  • Keep a time sheet so you know how long each painting takes. Work out an hourly wage and add some profit on top to find a good price 
  • These things make good Christmas presents because they're novel. 
  • Everyone likes art and music to some degree and a well executed image can fetch a high price. 
  • It's not pretty pictures you will be selling - it's memories, experiences, people's self image and tastes.