Art Blog

8 Invaluable Tips for Painting on Canvas

A blank canvas is a great opportunity, but it can also be a source of stress. Even if you're full of ideas about what to paint, how should you go about it, exactly? These tips for painting on canvas will set you on the right track.

Canvas on easel

Painting in progress via Craftsy member Jimen

What Every Painter Should Know About Canvases

art on canvas guide

Set all your paintings up for success! Learn how to choose, stretch, prime and paint your canvas. Get my FREE guide »

Canvas is a heavy-duty woven fabric that is used in a variety of ways, from sails to backpacks to marquees. In the painting world, it's usually stretched on a wooden frame. You can purchase pre-stretched canvases or stretch your own.

Canvas is a wonderful surface for painting with acrylic and oil paint, as it is sturdy, lightweight and affordable. When treated with gesso, it is also archival.

These eight tips for painting on canvas will be invaluable to beginners, but even seasoned artists might discover something new.

Craftsy canvas supplies

Masterpiece Classic Canvas – Portrait

1. Prepare your canvas

Stretch your canvas or use a pre-stretched canvas. Not to be too obvious, but I have witnessed people purchasing canvases and starting to paint before unwrapping them. So... yes, unwrap the plastic from your canvas.

The next thing you'll want to do is prime your canvas. Often, this is done with a substance called gesso, which comes in varieties that can be used with acrylic, tempera or oil paint. Think of gesso like primer when painting rooms in a house. Gesso protects the fibers of canvas, making your painting surface archival. It also makes the work surface a little bit softer for paint, which can help you use less paint to create your work of art and will also protect your brushes.

Set all your canvas paintings up for success! Learn how to choose, stretch, prime and paint your canvas with this absolutely FREE downloadable guide.

Get my free guide »

2. Set the mood with a tonal background color

In addition to gesso, you can consider applying an all-over tone to your canvas to instantly set a mood in your painting. For instance, a bright white canvas might not be conducive to a moody, stormy painting, but a coat of a light bluish-gray can give you a more moody surface for creating your desired look.

3. Set up your canvas and supplies

How are you going to paint — physically? Do you prefer an easel, where the canvas can be upright or at a slight angle? Or do you work better with the canvas on a flat surface, right next to your palette? There's no right or wrong, but you'll make your life and painting much easier if you set up your workspace in advance. Have your paint brushes, palette knives, water and any other painting supplies you think you'll need at the ready. The small amount of time it takes to assemble this "mise en place" will make the painting process far more pleasant.


Royal Langnickel Bordeaux Flat Brushes

4. Choose appropriate brushes

Certain brushes are better for canvas painting than others. For instance, your delicate watercolor brushes will get eaten alive on the sturdy canvas surface: they're too soft and delicate to apply paint assertively. In general, specifically designed acrylic or oil paint brushes will be a better choice, with longer handles and stiffer bristles which both hold and spread the thicker paint better on canvas.

Learn more about the different types of brushes here.

Underpainting on canvas

Underpainting via Craftsy instructor Micah Ganske

5. Create an underpainting

Since canvas is typically used for opaque paints, it's a great opportunity to experiment with underpainting. This is a method of creating an outline, often in an opposing color, that can add depth to your finished piece even if it won't be directly visible once you're finished.

6. Adjust colors appropriately

While oil paints will dry about the same color as they look when applied, acrylic paint will dry slightly darker than it looks while you're painting. Adjust your color mixes accordingly so that the finished piece isn't darker than you want it to be. You can test the end result before you take paint to canvas by painting a little bit of a color a piece of scrap paper and seeing how dark the swatch dries.

Acrylic medium

Winsor & Newton Artists Acrylic Glazing Medium

7. Experiment with a medium

Painting on canvas is a great time to play around with a medium. A medium can be added to acrylic or oil paint to create cool effects in painting, many of which are specifically intended for use on canvas. There is a variety to choose from, ranging from oil paint media which can make either a high-gloss or matte finish to acrylic media, which can add body, gloss or texture to your finished painting.

8. Have a safe space for your canvas to dry

Even small canvases can prove unwieldy when wet. Be sure before you even start painting that you have a safe spot for the canvas to dry. Be very mindful if setting it to dry on newsprint or paper, as even the slightest touch to the paint can cause sticking and messy cleanup. A non-stick surface is great, if possible.

Do you have a favorite tip for painting on canvas? 

What Every Painter Should Know About Canvases

art on canvas guide

Set all your paintings up for success! Learn how to choose, stretch, prime and paint your canvas. Get my FREE guide »


Advice for Painting on Canvas

[…] First, make sure your set-up is comfortable and organized. Have your canvas on an easel or on a flat surface. Try out both to see which way feels more natural. Make sure you have your brushes, paints, and palettes nearby at the ready. Nothing interrupts the creative flow more than hunting down a particular colored paint. These little things can allow you to enjoy the painting process with less hassle. For more tips on canvas painting, click here:: 8 Invaluable Tips for Painting on Canvas […]

Kimberly M Zamlich

I have a Liquitex Wetting spray and a Golden mediums Retarder. How do I use these? I want to keep the paint a little wet so that I can blend colors on a surface. Do I mix it into the colors on the palette, or mix colors first and ad to the brush? What is the difference between the spray (do I spray into the mixed colors or the surface, then paint?) and the Retarder? Thanks,


I would check the retarder container which should tell you how to use it. Most retarders are usually added to the paint once it is mixed not sprayed on.


Also why not check out lessons on YouTube.


So interesting

nancy backe

Thanks, helpful


Thank you for your information. It was very helpful. I wasn’t able to download the free painting of the flower though.

Stanette Rosenberger

learned about acrylics today, thanks

Joyce Angell

Great article….Have more!

Nancy Wright

I would strongly suggest a “stay wet Palette. I was so used to watercolours, i was shocked at how fast acrylics dry. Also can use a folded over peice of tinfoil, spray your paint with a bit of water, or old yogourt containers, to keep your mixed paint in.

Jessie Oleson Moore

Nancy: that is a great tip!! I too segued to other media from watercolor and this happened to me, too (the amazement at how fast acrylics dry!)


I use a”stay wet” palette with a piece of tempered glass. Sometimes it can take two or three weeks for me to get back to a piece, and most times the paint is still usable. I love it. And if you use open acrylics, even better. Keep sponges in stock though, they can get moldy quick.


What is the purpose of th e glass? Ever d o you pug the glass?


I work on small canvases, flat on newspaper at the dining room table. To keep them from sticking to the paper when I paint the edges, I start out by putting a push pin into each corner of the wood in the back, to keep the whole thing elevated by a half-inch.


Great tip..thanx

kshirasagara sivarao

OIL is a medium, similarly water is the medium to mix pigments.
In market we get ready made pigments. Or you can prepare your own powder pigments.
To mix pigments we need liquid. Liquid may be oil or water. In Oil painting we use oil.
We use LINSEED OIL . This mix may be in paste form or viscous form for storage. Now we can not use it directly on canvas. To make it flow we need solvent. TURPENTINE OR WHITE SPIRIT.
Now you are ready to paint.
For more discussion drop mail on my mail ID
CANVAS: In general oil painting is done on cotton canvas. To apply paint can was needs to be conditioned with GESSO to protect fibers of canvas and also use very little paint to get the texture.
PAINTING: Now you can paint canvas. After painting allow it dry.
GLOSSY: To get glossy look to painting spary or paint VARNISH on dry painted canvas.


Hi, As a beginner I had drawn a picture in canvas board, using the artists oil color & purified linseed oil, it’s been 5months & my painting is sticky till now, may I know your suggestions to rectify this issue.


I bought some pre-stretched canvases from the craft store. It came with eight wood “shingles” that are about 1.5″x1/2″x1/8″. What are these for?


They are extra in case you should need to stretch the canvas some more.


Thank you for the information. Was a Good read. Looking for more information

Improve Your Home By Adding Art | Kath's Blog

[…] that are available with a quick search on the web, or the thousands of different places that you can pick up tips and tricks for painting. There are more resources than you could ever possible go […]


Do you mix water with all paints? I’m a beginner at painting on canvas and need as much help as I can get. I have purchased acrylic paint. Is this the best to use on canvas? Do I need to prep the canvas and put something over the canvas once I have it painted?

tahir al pakistani

Thanks for share such a good information


I don’t have retarder and I don’t get it in stores so can we use water (just for wetting the paint; we can’t a whole lot of water…so I’ll just spray it)?


Thanks for the tip about canvas paper – as a beginner, I try to paint often but I’m on a limited budget. My local store suggested canvas paper but I hadn’t known if I needed to prime it or what. It’s a rough weave which is interesting but kind of a pain (needless to say, I won’t buy that particular paper again). Do you have any tips to avoid buckling?


LynnMari….. when I use the canvas paper I secure it to a board or a sheet of foam board along the edges with blue painters tape… the tape comes off easily when you are finished and does not leave a sticky residue.

cheryl lowe

I place my canvas on a large sheet of freezer paper (shiny side up) before painting. I use it to wipe off excess paint from my brushes, it keeps paint from getting on my art table, and allows you to dry your painting on without sticking.

John Mahoney

I agree that when it comes to having a successful painting you need to make sure you have the right tools to do it. It makes sense that having these on hand can help the painting have the feeling you want it to have. It is important to remember that in order to create something great you need to take your time and pay attention to detail.


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