8 Invaluable Tips for Painting on Canvas


So you’ve got a big, blank canvas to work with? We’ll save you the corny life cliches, and instead give you the know-how you need to get started filling it up. Just add your own creative ideas and go!

Eight painting-on-canvas tips for beginners

1. Set up your canvas and supplies

How are you going to paint — physically? Do you prefer an easel, where the canvas is upright or at a slight angle? Or do you work better with the canvas on a flat surface, right next to your palette? Try them both out, and do what feels best. Set everything else up before you start, too: Having your paint brushes, palette knives, water and any other supplies you'll need at the ready will make your painting time stress-free and fun.

2. Choose appropriate brushes

Nope, one brush doesn’t fit all. With a canvas, you’ll need to use acrylic or oil-paint brushes that have long handles and stiff bristles. These will hold up better as you’re painting than, say, delicate watercolor brushes.

3. Prep your canvas

Starting with a pre-stretched canvas, meaning it’s already pulled onto a wooden frame, is best for beginners. With that, all you need to do before getting started is prime it with gesso. This paint compound seals off the fibers of the canvas, which will make your paint go on smoother and last longer. It also helps protect your brushes.

4. Test your colors

Oil paint doesn't change much when dry, but acrylics will end up slightly darker than they look while you’re painting. Take this into account from the beginning so that the finished piece isn't darker than you want it to be. To test out colors, simply paint swatches on scrap paper and let dry before moving onto the canvas.

5. Apply a background color

In addition to gesso, consider applying an all-over tone to your canvas to instantly set the mood. For instance, a bright white canvas might not be conducive to a dark, stormy skyline, but a coat of a light gray can give you a better starting point.

6. Create an under-painting

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

7. Experiment with a medium

A medium is a substance you mix into acrylic or oil paint to adjust its thickness, shine, drying time, texture, and more. Using these can add cool effects to your work and make it more dynamic.

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 it 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. (Or simply leave it on the easel!)

Time to tackle canvas! Build on the things you learned in the previous lesson, starting with a basic pattern and moving on to something a little more complex. You'll learn how to create an ombré effect for a bonus.
Nina walks you through constructing your own custom canvases, from buying supplies to finishing corners.
Everything you need to start painting with acrylic — tools, techniques and more.
Nina Weiss
Nina Weiss
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8 Invaluable Tips for Painting on Canvas