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Canvas Freakshow or Sideshow posters

I don’t claim to be an expert, but here’s my stab at a tutorial on the sideshow posters I’m doing for our Black Cat Carnival (Le Chat Noir Theatre). If you try this and have tips or alternative ideas (ones you’ve actually tried) please feel free to add comments and recommendations.

Cost = $10ish/poster. Materials to make 4 posters approximately 3-1/2 x 5-1/2 feet or 8 posters if you want to paint both sides (more on that later). I’m sure you can find substitutions for the Harbor Freight materials.

  • Canvas drop cloth (Harbor Freight 9’x12’ $16.99 *)
  • Grommet kit (Harbor Freight $4.00)
  • 2 Gallons of “oops” paint ($9.00 gallon) – see side note
  • Paint roller on a pole (pole not necessary but helpful)
  • Extra paint in colors for your design

*you can always find a 20% off coupon from Harbor Freight and mine will honor it on top of a sale item, I got both the grommet kits and canvases on sale with an extra 20% off with my coupons, SCORE!

Now to the nitty gritty...

(1) Unfold your drop cloth. Is it creased and wrinkly? Bad luck, iron it. Trust me on this.

(2) Lay out the drop cloth on a tarp

(3) Paint the backside of that puppy. It will take almost an entire gallon. It’s best if you start from the middle and work your way out towards the edges. The canvas will shrink a bit as you paint and it’s much easier to paint the raw wavy edges than a raw bubble in the middle (however, once it’s all painted, the canvas will lie flat so it’s not the end of the world).


(4) Wait for it to dry & flip it over (Sometimes I didn’t wait for it to dry completely, just dry to the touch, and flipped it, mostly because it was July in Georgia and I only had a couple of hours of shade where I could paint so I was in a hurry. It didn’t seem to hurt anything, some of the old dried paint on the tarp stuck to the damp canvas, but once everything was good and dry, it brushed off.

(5) Paint the front side of that sucker at least once (see side note)

Side note – ALL ABOUT THE PAINT: So, I started out using Kiltz primer and quickly realized (with 12+ posters) that I was going to go broke, so I switched to “oops” paint from my local home improvement store. At the time, I didn’t pay attention to the sheen (flat, satin, eggshell) or whether it was indoor or outdoor paint--and I mixed leftovers together willy-nilly (here's where you can get rid of all those cans in the garage with just a bit left in them). You can get by with one coat on the back and one coat on the front and it gives you a nice rustic surface. However, if you have a lot of fine detail or lettering, a second coat on the front side will give you a smoother finish (and a higher sheen will also help). Another way around this is to do any detailed stuff on two coats. For example, most of my lettering is done on a banner or coin, so that’s an extra coat in those areas without have to paint a full second coat on the entire poster. I also ended up using indoor paint because that’s what I could find a lot of neutral “oops” paint in. We only plan to hang our posters outside for 2-3 days each year so I wasn’t concerned about the type of paint. As it happened, one of my primed canvases got hit by a pop up thunderstorm, but once it dried out it was fine. If you’re going for weeks of exterior Halloween décor, exterior paint might be a better option, but I can’t say whether or not it will make a difference. If your canvas happens to get soaked, I recommend taking it down and letting dry as flat as possible and then rehanging. A sopping wet canvas may warp and stretch out (pulling out the grommets).​

(6) Once the canvas has completely dried, cut it into quarters to give you 4 even pieces. If you bought your canvas from Harbor Freight, you’ll notice there’s s seam right down the middle which will make your first cut very easy, I cut right down the middle of the seam to give me a finished edge.

(7) Flip over the edge to give yourself a hem. I marked my canvas at 5” and folded to that line giving me a 2-1/2” hem—this is just what looked good to me, you can made a wider or narrower hem if that’s to your liking. You also have the opportunity to square up your canvas if you need to by making your measurements from the same edge. You don't need to sew this edge, and if you press down firmly you'll get a nice crease (I used some clips to hold it in place as I set the grommets just to make it easier).


(8) Measure for your grommets so you have them spaced pretty evenly. You should have enough grommets in your Harbor Freight kit to get 10 grommets per poster. I actually used more than that, mostly because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time. I was lucky that the first kit I opened had a nice sharp punch. The other punches sucked canal water and I ended up sharpening them with a Dremmel. Your punch should go through 4 layers (at the corners) fairly easily. If it doesn’t you may need to sharpen it. I used a nice scrap piece of 3/8" heavy duty plastic under the canvas when I punched it. I found wood to be too soft. You may need to experiment and see what works best for you.




(9) Got all the grommets in? Great! If you’re an artist, start painting. If you’re not, keep reading.

(10) I am no artist. But I can dig up pictures off the internet. There are lots of examples of banners on the internet (Pinterest, particularly), or you can piece together your own. Some of the best search terms I've found for finding simple images are “tattoo”, “coloring book”, “pen and ink”, “black and white clip art”, and "line drawing". Find something you like and use what skills you have to put it all together in Word or a graphics program so you have a draft of what your poster will look like.

(11) Overhead projectors are wonderful and what I used. However, there are tutorials on Pinterest on how to make your own using a lamp and a cardboard box. Because I was doing so many of these, I bought transparencies and ran them through my printer, but you can also use those clear report covers, just lay them over your printed draft and trace out your design (or draw something from scratch if you have the talent).


(12) If you’re going to project your image onto your canvas, you’ll need to hang it up. You can put a few nails in a wall and hang it from that if you have a garage or someplace some extra nails won’t be a big deal. My dad welded up a frame for me from some leftover pipe (thanks, Dad!) and I used bungee cords to pull it taught. A taught canvas is much easier to work with and using bungee cords will make it quick to set up and take down. You can probably make a similar cheap frame from PVC or find a cheap bed frame on Craigslist. WARNING: Do not use the tarp clips from Harbor Freight combined with bungee cords (assuming you're trying to avoid grommets), you will risk life and limb when they slip off and they will slip off!)

(13) Transfer your design onto your canvas. I like using a sharpie oil paint pen for this. You may prefer a pencil or something more forgiving. If you’re layering paint (like wording on a coin), you can go ahead and draw out the words with the paint pen if you like and paint over them. You will still be able to see them faintly through a layer of paint (unless you really put a thick coat on there).


(14) Paint away





Some things I learned along the way:

Wet canvas shrinks as it dries. You can lose an inch or more along the edge when you first prime.

Wet canvas stretches. If possible, leave your newly primed canvas flat until it’s dry. Once both sides have been primed and dried, it's pretty stable.

Painted canvas is much stronger than unpainted canvas. I put grommets into unpainted canvas (then painted it) and into dried primed canvas and the ones that were painted prior to adding grommets were by far the superior product. I think the grommet punch was actually easier and you get a crisper grommet hole.

Finished canvases can be rolled up for storage (once fully dry).

I strongly recommend you save a bit of your final background paint in a jar in case you make a mistake in your design and need to “erase” it (LFMF).

You can paint your design on both sides. This will save you about half the cost since you basically get 8 posters instead of 4 from the same materials. However, you will probably want to sew a nice even hem so the “back” side looks good. (1) I didn’t want to mess around with sewing the painted canvas (2) at the time, we weren’t sure if we were going to use the canvases FOR a wall or hang them ON a wall. If we hung them on a wall, there was no point painting both sides since no one would be able to see the back, and if we used them as a wall we could just put two back to back.
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]They look great. Very good tutorial wished it was posted 2 weeks ago... but thems the breaks.

Just finished up the last of our 4 HF smaller 4X 12 drop cloths last night. They had them on a three day coupon last week for $5.99. Each drop cloth has4 side show banners redone onto it. Each section took about an hour to 90 minutes to do our way... we were lazy and in a hurry.

Didn't think to iron out the folds to begin with kinda wish I had now..
Didn't think about wet canvas shirking so that must be why I have some unevenness... Oh well will add to the creep factor right.
Even though I figured we'd need a primer coat we didn't bother... really wanted an old worn and weathered look, so faded and uneven coloring worked for us.
We just clipped the section of cloth we were working on to the garage door with a sheet of plastic behind to help keep paint off the door.... wishful thinking..Frog used his paint sprayer with watered down paint, for the large blocks of color, I did much of the hand painting using the watered down paint made for some good and not so good blending. Oh well keep repeating creepy factor like a mantra.
Since they turned out to be more of a watercolor painting then paint paint I will be hitting them with an iron to make sure the color is set and fingers crossed won't bleed or run is they get wet.
Planned on adding grommets to the top for easy hanging. The venue we've got for this year's potluck has 4 TALL windows and the banners will be hung over them. I'll try to post pictures of our finished banners once I get some.

Again great banners and tutorial.

Finally got a few photos of some of the panels we did enjoy



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