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How to Paint on Canvas

Working with canvas brings a whole new element to your art work. Paper is versatile and capable of amazing things but doesn’t quite compare to the peculiar frisson of excitement that runs through you as you lay paintbrush to canvas for the first time. Initially it can feel daunting to tackle a canvas for the first time, there is a permanent quality to a canvas that is different from working with a sketch book. It is important to not let the works of master painters, artists that you admire or even your own self-doubt make you feel like you are not skilled enough to start. Whatever you create, it will be uniquely you. Read over our canvas preparation and inspiration guide on how to master this classic surface and kick start an impressive and eye-catching masterpiece of your very own.

Getting Started

Equip yourself to let your artistic self soar, if you have never painted on canvas before, simply follow these simple steps that will help prepare you for how to paint on canvas.

Where are you going to paint?

Search out a well-ventilated area that has a good light source, so you can see what you are doing. Decide if you are going to prop your canvas up on an easel or lay it on a flat surface to paint. You may want to line the surface or floor surrounding your canvas with a drop cloth or old newspaper to catch any drips. Lastly, be conscious of where you are going to dry your canvas once it is completed and make sure it is accessible.

Prepare your work space

Gather all the necessary supplies and materials you will need in advance so you don’t need to interrupt your creative flow once you get started. Grab your paints, brushes, water or solvents and any other tools or mix-ins that you plan on using. A baker wouldn’t start to bake a cake unless they had all their ingredients close to hand so why should your art be any different?

Prime your canvas

If you have bought a pre-stretched canvas you will want to remove the plastic wrapping around it (you would be surprised by how many people don’t do this!) then consider if you need to add any products to it before starting your painting. Gesso is a popular choice of primer for artists who want their work to age well; not only will the archival quality of gesso prevent your canvas from yellowing, it provides a more consistent surface for the paint to adhere to and prevents the paint from being sucked in by the fibers of the canvas.

Prime your painting

Now your canvas is ready to go, it is time to prep your painting! Adding a tonal ground (short for background) by covering the surface of the canvas in the colour of your choice can help set the mood of your painting. Earth tones are a great option for landscapes while greys and blues are ideal for seascapes or wintery images. Many of the grand masters would take the additional step of starting their creations with an underpainting, effectively a sketch in paint of what their finished work would be to help them plan out the painting process, if it worked for them why not you!

Inspirations for your Canvas

It is all very well knowing how to paint on canvas but what do you do when you don’t know what to paint on canvas? Read on for suggestions that will kick start your creative juices, you never know where a particular starting point may lead.

Silhouette Painting

Draw or trace the outline of an animal, leaf, flower or building. Paint the interior of the silhouette one colour and the rest of the painting another. Combining contrasting colours will make for a vibrant piece of wall art that jumps off the wall, whereas using tonal colours such as a creams and greys will provide a subtle and peaceful element of decor to any room.


Did you ever receive a box of felt tip pens or coloured pencils as a child and have that glorious sense of achievement when you cracked them out of their case for the first time to try each one out on a scrap of paper? Whatever medium inspires you, it is filled with a rich variety of shades and there is no better way to revel in the joy of them than by creating a patterned canvas. Using repeatable patterns is a great way to explore different qualities of your collection of tones and shades. Try using painters tape to mark off a pattern that you then fill with dots, squares, stripes or even just blocks of colour. Remove the tape when everything is dry for a crisp and colourful explosion.

Make it multimedia

Don’t just stick to paint! While there are best practices for how to paint on canvas, there is no real wrong way of doing it and, as a result, no end to the products you can use on a canvas. Try dipping the corner of your canvas in glitter (after applying a good layer of glue of course) or pasting pages of a book onto the canvas and then adding your artwork on top.

Text and stencils

Make a statement with your next canvas. Simply paint the canvas in a tone that appeals to you and then add words of wisdom over the top. Song lyrics, snippets of poetry or philosophical phrases that help keep you grounded are all prime material for a text to immortalise on canvas. Practice your brush strokes and add the text free hand or use a stencil for a more uniform look. Using a tonal background allows text to stand out clearly but there is nothing wrong with beefing up your back ground. Experiment by using some of the inspirations mentioned here and then add a layer of text at the end for a contemporary look. For more advice on how to create striking canvas art, visit our canvas tips and tricks page.

Topping up your Creativity

Although we said you shouldn’t let the work of others daunt you, sometimes our creative well runs dry and needs to be refreshed. By surrounding yourself with work that excite you, your own arts practice will flourish.

Take a trip to a local art gallery to get your fill of creativity and inspiration. You don’t need to try and copy what you see, instead let it mingle with your own creative leanings and see what it sparks inside you. Perhaps you will be filled with an urge to try something completely different or approach an old topic from a different angle.

A blank canvas is an invitation to your imagination and knowing how to paint on canvas is a wonderfully exciting step forward as an artist.

  • A Reeves Canvas
  • Reeves paint of choice
  • Paint brushes
  • A creative streak

Share your work with the world

Tag your masterpiece with #wearereeves. We’ll feature the best on our Instagram page.

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