Every professional artist started with a blank canvas and a bundle of questions. Do you opt for cotton or linen canvases? Which art supplies work best on stretched canvas? Do you opt for pre-primed or unprimed canvas?
Our short guide will go over the canvas painting fundamentals so you can start your work of art with confidence. Let’s dive in!
What You Should Know About Canvas Before You Get Started
When you paint on canvas, you’re participating in a centuries-old tradition in the art world. The medium became popular during the Italian Renaissance in the 1600s, and one of the oldest surviving oil paintings on canvas dates back to the 1400s.
Recommended Reading: Acrylic Paints vs. Oil Paints: What's the Difference and Which One is Right for You?
Take a look at the most famous paintings in the world — like The Starry Night, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and The Birth of Venus — and you’ll discover they were all done on canvas.
Today, artists are spoiled for choice when it comes to painting mediums, but canvas is still one of the most common materials for oil and acrylic painting. In most cases, the canvas is tightly stretched across a wooden frame so it’s easy to paint on (and display later)!
Love The Starry Night? We do too! Get all the supplies you need to paint it, including an artist-led tutorial, with Painting to Gogh. Click here to see The Starry Night kit.
Pre-Primed vs. Unprimed Canvases
Canvases need to be “primed” before you start painting, which is when you apply a layer of material that creates a smooth barrier between the canvas and paint.
Priming makes it easier for the canvas to grip paint, keep the pigments bright, and stay rigid and usable as it gets wet. Without this process, the canvas would absorb too much paint, have dull patches, or sag too easily.
Most of the canvases that you can purchase are pre-primed so you don’t have to worry about any of this.
Priming Your Canvas
If you like DIY projects and want to prime your own canvas at home, then you’re going to need some acrylic gesso. Take a stretched canvas, put some gesso in a bowl or on a paint palette, then use your brush to evenly cover the canvas. Let the gesso dry and then do 1-2 more coats for the best results. Once it dries, you’re ready to paint.
Common Types of Canvas
Cotton canvas is an affordable option for painters who are just starting out. A properly prepared cotton canvas will last a long time (and it’s what you’ll find in any of your Painting to Gogh kits). It’s naturally flexible and durable and is often primed with acrylic primer.
Linen is made from flax and is more durable, rigid, and longer-lasting than cotton. It’s also the more expensive option. Linen canvas is often primed with oil-based primers and doesn’t warp as much over time, so it’s the go-to choice of many professional artists. You don’t have to worry about this type of canvas becoming too brittle either as linen retains its natural oils.
Canvas board is another common option for new and student painters. Some are made of primed cotton canvas that’s stretched over a fiberboard, while others are simply a board that’s been primed and stamped to have the texture of canvas. They’re cheaper and great for practicing before you start on your canvas art piece.
Our Top 10 Tips for Painting on Canvas
1. Angle Your Canvas To Paint Comfortably
First, decide whether you’ll be seated or standing when you paint. Many easels are easy to adjust so you can switch between both. Adjust your easel based on your height and how comfortable it is to hold the brush up to the canvas. For some painting techniques, you want to be able to make contact with the canvas at a 90-degree angle.
Make sure you can easily see your painting subject, whether it’s a video tutorial, a drawing, or a real-life object.
2. Take Advantage of Canvas Wedges
If you received a little packet of wood or plastic pieces with your store-bought canvas, they’re called canvas wedges, canvas tightening keys, or stretcher bar keys. They’re used to stretch and tighten the canvas if it starts to sag.
Canvas can get droopy from all the layers of wet paint, temperature changes, humidity, and age. If you notice sagginess after painting, wait until your canvas is completely dry and hammer the wedges in afterward.
3. Sketch Your Image or Underpaint
You know the saying, “Measure twice, cut once?” Set yourself up for success by sketching your image before you start laying down paint. Grab a pencil, color pencil, or charcoal and make a sketch on a piece of paper.
This is a helpful tip for any painting, but here’s the great thing about canvas: You can use a pencil (graphite) to lightly outline your art on the canvas and then paint over it. Another technique is to do an “underpainting” or “wash,” which is when you use very watered down paint to make a rough sketch.
Both tips give you more control over the final image. You can simply follow the lines as you go and you know it’ll be closer to what you want (compared to a freehanded attempt).
4. Lay Out Your Supplies Before You Get Started
The last thing you want is to be running around trying to find a Round 6 brush or more paper towels while you’re in the creative zone. Once you start painting, you want everything you need within arms’ reach so that you don’t lose inspiration or have your paint dry too much while you’re hunting for supplies.
Gather up your brushes, necessary paint colors (black, white, red, blue, and yellow are usually the minimum), paint palette, a cup of water, paper towels, and anything else you think you’re going to need.
5. Use Paintbrushes With Firm, Tough Bristles
The paint brushes you choose have to be able to withstand the hard, rough canvas surface. So, look for brushes with stiff bristles that are graded for acrylic and oil painting.
Avoid grabbing any watercolor brushes you have lying around — they’re known for being softer and are going to break down rather quickly when used on canvas. A bonus to using firm-bristle brushes? They make it easier to do unique acrylic painting techniques like dry brushstrokes.
6. Start With a Toned Canvas To Add a Unique Quality
Who says you have to start your painting on a plain white canvas? Try a toned background: Simply choose an interesting color, paint the canvas, let it dry, and then start on your artwork. It can make colors pop and enhance the painting’s luminosity.
For example, if you’re going to paint a lovely blue sky, you could start out by painting the canvas with a bright yellow. It may seem scary, but the yellow undertone could add a sunlit warmth to everything in your painting.
The fun is in experimenting with different colors to see what effect it has. Check out color wheels and color theory to get some ideas.
Recommended Reading: How to Blend Acrylic Paint [+ 5 Blending Techniques to Use]
7. Get Creative With Solvents and Mediums
Canvas is extremely durable, which means you can use a wide variety of mediums (products that can thicken and change the texture of paint) and solvents (products that thin paint out and clean paint brushes) to have fun with the look of your artwork.
When it comes to acrylic paint, you’re likely going to use water as your solvent. You can apply different mediums to make your painting look glossy, matte, transparent, 3D, and more. These tools give you the freedom to experiment and see what you come up with.
8. Easily Erase Mistakes With Water, Titanium White, or Sandpaper
Painter Bob Ross once said, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” So, if your canvas experiences a “happy little accident,” don’t worry. You can use water, titanium white paint, or sandpaper to fix painting mistakes fairly easily.
- If your painting is still wet: Try scraping off the unwanted paint with your palette knife or something with a sharp edge. Apply some water (or linseed oil for oil paints), wipe the rest away, and paint over with titanium white. Let it dry and then keep painting.
- If your painting is dry: Use fine sandpaper to gently grind down the area with unwanted paint. Use a damp towel with water (for acrylics) or linseed oil (for oils) to clean the area and paint over with titanium white. Let it dry and then keep painting.
9. Choose a Safe Place To Dry and Store Your Canvas When You’re Done
The last thing that you want is for your new painting to get ruined while it dries! Find a location for the canvas to dry out of harm’s way, away from any water sources, heat sources, small children, or curious pets.
10. Order Your Canvas Paint Project From Painting to Gogh!
Now that you know how to paint on canvas, here’s our final tip: Avoid the hassle of researching canvases, primers, and brushes by ordering your painting supplies from Painting to Gogh!
Our painting kits and tutorials are designed for all skill levels and interests, from masterpieces like The Scream to a simple sunflower. They’re easy to follow along with so you can focus on having fun with your friends, family, coworkers, and more. Choose your favorite painting to get started.