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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 Table

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.

1. Prepare your canvas

Priming a 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

Tonal Background on Canvas

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

Painting Set Up

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.

4. Choose appropriate brushes

Paint 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.

5. Create an underpainting

Underpainting on canvas

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.

7. Experiment with a medium

Bird Painting on Canvas 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 »

38 Comments

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 […]

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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, kimberlymzamlich.blogspot.com

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Jeannette

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.

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Jeannette

Also why not check out lessons on YouTube.

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THELMA HAWLEY DEPEW

So interesting

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nancy backe

Thanks, helpful

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Pat

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

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Stanette Rosenberger

learned about acrylics today, thanks

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Joyce Angell

Great article….Have more!

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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.

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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!)

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Dee

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.

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Diane

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

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Jo Mills

I use foam plates for pallets. When finished painting for the day, I cover the plate with plastic wrap and put it in the fridge freezer. The paints will be useable – after thawing – for weeks if not even longer!

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Jo Mills

This hint is for acrylic paints only!

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Kimberly

Great tip. Thank you!

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Lynn

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.

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Pragati

Great tip..thanx

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Sarah

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?

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Courtney

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

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kunal

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

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Kim

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?

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Monique

You can use acrylic paints on canvas, prep your canvas with an acrylic product called “Gesso” you can paint it onto the canvas prior to painting. Paint on the Gesso and let it dry in between coats, three coats should get you a good ground to paint on. You can also sand in between coats to smooth your canvas, but there again make sure the coats are dry before you sand them. Make sure all the dust is off after sanding each time also. Then have fun painting, once you’re finished with your painting and let it completely dry 24 hrs. is good I have let them dry for a week to cure, even though it is acrylic. Then you can buy a finishing varnish, either matte or semi gloss or glossy, depends on what look you want, and you can get it in brush on or spray varnish. Good luck. Hope this helps.

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Cherise Smith

Never new this. Wow, thanks! I used to spray my acrylic paintings with cheap hairspray directly afterwards when the paint was dry… probably a Big no no.. but at least none of them have cracked or seem to look bad, still look original to me even after about 5 years or so

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Monique

You can mix water with Acrylics, not oil paints, or water can be added to watercolors. Get a fine mister bottle to spray your acrylics with so they don’t dry out on your palette. It’s easier to use, that way when you see or feel the paint drying up or they start feeling tacky or globbing up and getting hard to use just mist them with your little spray bottle and they will stay workable longer. While you’re in the progress of painting with Acrylics they will dry fast, so it makes blending difficult, they have extenders that you can buy also, to make the paint stay wetter longer. I only use Acrylics for small stuff or painting flower pots, I prefer oils, I can feather blend with oils, a lot of people don’t like the harshness of the chemicals or the toxicity of the paints. But I like the traditional way of painting, I don’t paint fast so Oils allow me to work at my own speed. There are rules to all types of artistic mediums, there are invaluable Art books on the internet that you can purchase to learn more about painting. The internet is full of how-to-paint editorials and free painting lessons. You tube has free painting lessons. I taught myself how to paint and I wanted to paint like the “Old Masters” so that’s what I’ve been studying, learning and practicing for the last 16 years. I’ve been able to draw since I was young and taught myself how to be better at drawing. There’s a lot that goes into each skill, being able to draw for me is always something I fall back on cause that’s what I started with first. Everything takes practice. I’ve drawn a portrait 14 times once trying to get it just right. So like with every skill it takes lots of practice. Have fun.

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tahir al pakistani

Thanks for share such a good information

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Annette

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)?

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LynnMari

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?

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julie

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.

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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.

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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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Nidhi

I am planning to use a stencil on canvas to create wall art. What kind of paints would you advice me to use? Chalk paint or Acrylic paint? If I plan to use chalk paint should I use some other primer instead of Gesso?

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Phil Dellasega

I think it should be noted that if you buy a prepared canvas, they are already primed with gesso. The only reason you would want to use gesso on a purchased canvas is if you want to modify the texture; I.e., it’s too rough and you want it smoother. There’s more to prepping a canvas than just slapping gesso on it, so do some research before you tackle it.

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a.m

Hi! I would like to try painting. It will be my first time to paint. And I would like to ask some help from you. Ahmm, is it alright that the acrylic paint and oil paint put together? I mean not literally mixing the two paint but instead can I apply the oil paint first then after is the acrylic paint to serve as the second layer?

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Sherrie

It would not work to use acrylic paint as a second layer over an oil painting. Oil does not dry in the same way that acrylic does–oil oxidizes over time. The second layer acrylic would eventually flake off. There are some artists who use acrylic under oil, which is okay. The only question with this practice is the degree of mechanical bond, which may be limited due to the “plastic” nature of acrylic. Acrylic gesso allows some absorption into its surface, creating a decent mechanical bond, that acrylic paint does not. Clear acrylic gessoes have a bit of tooth that helps create a mechanical bond, even though they allow less absorption. There is a treasure trove of information on this at the Gamblin and Golden paint websites. You may want to visit them and study their treatises on methods and techniques at http://www.gamblincolors.com and http://www.goldenpaints.com. I hope this has helped you….

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