In my workshops students often ask about the texture on my painting surface and how I achieve it. It's quite simple actually. I use gesso. When you buy a canvas at an art supply store it comes primed with gesso which covers and protects the surface of the canvas itself. The gesso allows the artist time to move the paint around on the surface without it soaking into the canvas. I take it a step further and use very rich, thick, creamy gesso to build up a textured surface on my canvases and the watercolor paper that i paint on.
This is a very simple process and is the first step in my painting process. I add the gesso as soon as I get a new canvas or a pack of watercolor paper. I let it dry overnight and I have a great surface on which to paint. You can apply the gesso in any number of ways, but I use both a 3" brush and my hands. I use similar marks as my regular painting strokes, thus integrating all the brushwork and mark making in my paintings.
I use only Utrecht brand Artist's Professional Acrylic Gesso. I have tried all of the major brands and find the Utrecht Artist's Professional Acrylic Gesso to be the thickest and creamiest and it does not crack no matter how thick it is applied. Here is all you need to get started:
A one gallon jug of Utrecht Artist's Professional Acrylic Gesso
A stiff 3" flat brush or a large palette knife
Your favorite painting surface
Give this technique a try the next time you are preparing a canvas for painting. I think you will really like the results.