How To Canvas Painting For Beginners: A No-Sweat Guide

An oil painting of flowers in a vase

Canvas painting may sound intimidating for a beginner. However, once you get the basics, you can paint using oils, acrylics, gouache, oil pastels, or mixed media. This how-to guide to canvas painting will teach every beginner what you need to know to start painting. We will discuss what you need, including the significant step of priming a canvas. 

In this how-to paint on canvas for beginners, you'll learn the importance of priming your canvas, depending on the paint medium you'll use. You must also understand the tones and values in the painting so you can apply the proper underpainting. Before you start the actual painting on canvas, do not forget to outline everything. 

What You'll Need

Step-by-Step Instructions

1. Prepare your canvas

Priming your canvas is the essential step for painting, no matter what paint type you use. Most manufacturers prime their canvases. However, the cheaper ones usually use a very thin layer of primer. You have to add a few more layers of primer to get the texture you want. Choose the suitable primer, depending on the paint type you wish to use.

  • Priming with gesso or acrylic primer

If you're using professional-grade gesso, it is much thicker, so you'll need to add a small amount of water to it without letting it become too runny. The gesso should slowly drop when you pick it up with a putty knife or brush.

Apply water on the canvas using an ordinary paintbrush. Let the canvas sit for a while until it is only damp. Using an ordinary brush, apply gesso or acrylic primer on the canvas. Apply in a single direction. You may also use a plastic putty knife, sponge brush, or paint roller to apply gesso on your canvas.

Let the primer dry thoroughly. If it has air bubbles, remove them by sanding over the surface. Add the subsequent layers in the opposite direction, repeating the drying and sanding between layers.

Other artists love adding a drop of acrylic paint or a black or gray acrylic medium to add a tone to their canvas. This way, you can skip the underpainting process. Another advantage of using a toned primer is seeing the missing parts easier than using white gesso.

  • Sizing with rabbit skin glue

When priming canvas for oil paintings, skip the wetting process but use rabbit skin glue. Buff the canvas with a sandpaper block to remove the lint, especially if using an unprimed canvas roll. Prepare the rabbit skin glue per package instructions. Once the rabbit glue is ready, apply it on the canvas using a large brush. Let the glue dry.

Scrape off any clumps on the canvas with a palette knife, then sand the surface with a sanding block. Add another layer of the rabbit skin glue and sand again before applying another layer. Add 2-3 layers until you get the right thickness of the primer.

2. Understand values and tones

Understanding the values and tones of your reference image is the key to a successful canvas painting. A painting is more than just colors on a canvas. It has an emotional tone that you can interpret in many different ways.

Capturing the right tones - the combination of light and dark tones - helps capture the image you're working on, especially if you're doing a monochrome painting.

For example, to an untrained eye, an apple may look all red or all green. However, there are darker portions and lighter portions to it, affected mainly by the amount of light. We are emphasizing the untrained eye as you improve identifying the tones as you progress.

Giving the right tones to your painting is one way to capture the closest image, especially if you're doing a realistic one. To add the right tone at the right place for your oil painting, identify the lighter and the darker areas and label them. As you progress, though, you may skip the labeling part as your eye is more adept at identifying the tones.

If you have photo editing software, identifying the tonal values of your reference image is more effortless. Desaturate your image, and the result will show you the tones that you can't see with the untrained eye.

3. Underpaint your canvas

Once you get the proper tone of your reference image, you can now add the underpainting. The purpose of underpainting is to remove the whiteness on the canvas to reduce the glare. It also sets the tone for your painting.

If the tone of your image is warm, use a cool underpainting and a warm underpainting for a cool tone. Cool tones include blues, greens, and earth tones. Warm tones, on the other hand, are reds, oranges, and pinks.

Also, if painting with oils, it is best to use acrylics for underpainting. This technique helps dry your oil paintings faster. Let the underpaint dry before adding your outline or starting with your painting.

4. Outline your painting

  • Scale your drawing

Determine the size of your canvas and compare it with your reference image. You can use an easy-to-use proportional calculator app that's free to download on your Android and iOS devices. Once you've set the scale of the painting, you're ready to do your outline drawing.

  • Draw your outline

Drawing your outline is essential if you're drawing a realistic painting. You may add the outline before adding the underpainting if you want to skip applying liquin after your outline. Otherwise, add the underpaint before you outline.

  • Outlining a blown-up image

Using a proportional divider, replicate your reference image on the canvas. If you want to scale up your drawing, you may use photo editing apps to do it. Print your image in the size you want to use. Tape the scaled-up reference image on an appropriately-sized area, the wrong side towards you. Draw a chalk outline around the reference image.

Using a soft pastel, fill in the outline, then tack one end on the canvas. Trace the image with a pen until you have completed transferring the image on the canvas.

Seal the canvas with liquin. This step seals in the soft pastel outline and improves the binding property of the oil paint on the canvas. However, since soft pastels tend to smear, apply the liquin in light, steady strokes to prevent disturbing the soft pastel.

  • Outlining directly on canvas

Divide your reference image in a grid, then lightly replicate the grid on the canvas, using the right proportion. Draw your outline using a graphite pencil until you get the right image. Seal the outline with liquin and let it dry before you start painting.

5. Start Painting

Neutralize the underpainting by adding a white background to your canvas. Slowly build the canvas by adjusting tones and values on your painting. Add thin layers instead of making them all at once. This technique is another way to ensure that your oil paintings dry faster than usual.

Continue adding layers until you get the image you want. However, learn when to stop. When you do it too many times, you can ruin an already fantastic painting by looking for perfection in your paintings.

Easy Acrylic Canvas Painting Ideas 

Here are a few painting ideas that every beginner should try to build their skills.

Sunset Scenes 

Acrylic painting of a sunset behind electric posts

Acrylic painting of a sunset behind electric posts - Image by Wow Art

In this example, the artist combined masking and gradient techniques to apply the colors that represent the sunset sky. After the acrylics dried, he removed the mask for the moon, then painted it with white acrylic before adding the details.

Forest Scene 

Forest scene on black canvas

Forest scene on black canvas - Image by Joony Art

You may find painting on a black canvas challenging, but the stark black background gave the foreground image an excellent contrast to build them well. You need to build up the layers of the foreground image since acrylic is not as opaque as gouache.

Observe how adding tones and values add dimension and texture to your painting, even if it is flat when you touch it. Dry brushing white paint over the trees for the light rays is also a brilliant idea.

Painting with a Palette Knife 

Impasto painting with a palette knife

Impasto painting with a palette knife - Image by Palette Knife Painting Tutorials

Aside from brushes, you can also use other tools to create a canvas painting. In this painting, the artist used a combination of brush and washes of water to apply an exciting underpainting.

The artist used the impasto technique to add thick layers of acrylic paint on your canvas for a more authentic look at the basket and the flowers. He used an old frayed brush to make the cluster of leaves look more realistic for the foliage.

Easy Watercolor Canvas Painting Ideas 

Watercolor canvases have a slightly different surface than canvases you can use for acrylics and oils. However, they are somewhat finer, primed with the absorbent ground to make it more absorbent. Our tutorial on using watercolors on canvas is a helpful article to check for more in-depth information.

Watercolors are transparent, making them an excellent medium to use if you love subtle layers on your paintings. Here are three outstanding examples of what you can paint on watercolor canvases.

Impressionistic Paintings

An impressionistic watercolor painting of a house

An impressionistic watercolor painting of a house - Image by Kalakosh

After adding the outline of the house, the artist added the background and foreground wash to set the tone for his watercolor painting. Since this is an impressionistic style, the artist has a free hand on it.

Impressionistic watercolor paintings are a good jump-off point for beginners since it allows you more freedom to paint what you perceive rather than be hampered with realism.


Abstract watercolor painting of a landscape

Abstract watercolor painting of a landscape - Image by The Mind of Watercolor

Abstract painting, like impressionistic paintings, gives you more independence as to what to create. Be sure to understand the five elements of abstract art or any art style - lines, shapes, colors, texture, and space. Play with these elements to create amazing abstract art.

While some paintings are a complete abstraction, giving the audience the freedom to interpret the drawing, some abstracts have some form, such as the landscape painting in this example.


A watercolor painting of flowers on canvas

A watercolor painting of flowers on canvas - Image by Streams of Dream Design

The artist explored the many watercolor techniques in this painting, mostly adding the details with a mop and cat's tongue brush and the watercolor wash with a flat brush. Using just five colors, the artist created a lovely watercolor painting on canvas. For more, try our watercolor painting ideas for beginners to find the best artwork to capture your attention for more ideas.

Easy Gouache Canvas Painting Ideas 

Gouache paint is an opaque water-based medium that remains water-soluble even when dry. Artists sometimes stay away from this medium since many think it's a very amateur paint to use. This claim is not valid since many proficient artists like Henri Matisse and Edgar Degas used gouache for their paintings or underpaintings. 

Marc Chagall, one of the most prominent glass painting artists, also used gouache underpainting for his paintings and even painted in gouache. He even exhibited gouache paintings in the Louvre. He then donated the paintings to France after the nation agreed to build a museum (Musee National Message Biblique Marc Chagall) in Nice. 

However, you may also prime your canvas with gesso before you start gouache painting. Leaving some texture as a too-smooth surface may cause the gouache to bead instead of absorbing into the canvas. Another good thing about gouache is that you can correct it even when it's dry. Reactivate the pigments with water, then dab a paper towel to pick the pigments.

The secret to good gouache paintings that will last long is sealing them with wax medium. Apply the wax medium in a single direction over the dry gouache painting with a cotton pad. The wax will protect the painting and give it a sheen because gouache paintings dry to a very matte finish.

The Night Sky

Night sky gouache painting on canvas

Night sky gouache painting on canvas - Image by Sunshine Arts

The night sky is an excellent subject for your gouache paintings. Because of its highly opaque composition, you can easily create a deep black sky that will make your stars shine. You can also use different shades of blue, violet, and green for this painting to achieve a more vivid color contrast with the night sky.


Painting of a penguin

Painting of a penguin - Image by Sandrine's Gallery

Wildlife and pets make a good subject for gouache paintings. The artist used primed canvas stretched on a wooden board to paint her emperor penguin for this painting. Then, seal the painting with wax medium, so the pigments won't reactivate when you accidentally drop water into it.


A gouache painting of a strawberry

A gouache painting of a strawberry - Image by Hyemina

Here is a gouache painting of a strawberry drawn on a mini canvas. These sizes are best for displaying on your bookshelves and bric-a-brac displays. The artists underpainted the whole canvas in light pink, then painted the strawberry before adjusting the values, resulting in a simple yet enticing piece to display.

Easy Oil Canvas Painting Ideas 

According to most beginner artists, oil paints are the most intimidating of the painting mediums included here. However, to get used to oil canvas painting, start with less complicated subjects so you can perfect using oil paints before you move to more complex subjects.


A fundamental oil painting of an apple

A fundamental oil painting of an apple - Image by Yupari

Every artist starts somewhere, especially when it comes to the more complex oil paints. The ubiquitous apple makes its appearance in this oil painting on canvas, where the artist explains how to create tones and values on your painting. With the right art supplies and tools, you can make lovely oil paintings in no time. 


Sunset sky over pine trees

Sunset sky over pine trees - Image by Emily Mackey

Skyscapes are another favorite subject of beginner oil painters because they are easy, and you can paint any sky form - sunrise, sunset, cloudy, even foggy. In this painting, observe how the artist adjusted the tonal values of the sky to create depth and dimension on her painting instead of looking flat.


Oil painting of daisies

Oil painting of daisies - Image by DrawPsy_Logic

Flowers are the universal subjects that beginners may take on. For this example, the artist painted a cluster of white daisies on a dark green background, making the whites pop out better.


Canvas painting for beginners need not be frustrating. We hope that we addressed some of the concerns you had in the past regarding painting on canvas. Aside from the technique on how to paint on canvas, we also included 12 ideas (three each for acrylic, watercolor, gouache, and oil painting) to try. Have fun painting!

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