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Painting on Canvas

By: Roxanne McDonald - Updated: 27 Nov 2010 | comments*Discuss
Canvas Painting Oil Painting On Canvas

Some say it is trial and error. Others say it is learned technique. Experienced artists who do oil painting on canvas offer helpful suggestions for common concerns that come up in the process.

Art Painting Canvas Q and As

Q: What art painting canvas should I begin with?

A: There are several possibilities for canvas choices—using canvas panels, stretching your own canvas, using pre-stretched splined or stapled canvas, or working with gallery-wrap canvas.

Canvas panels – canvas stretched over cardboard frame/bars

Stretching your own canvas – cotton or linen (primed with gesso or un-primed) canvas, wooden stretcher bars, staples, canvas pliers, a right angle, scissors or Exacto or Matte knife, and a small art hammer will make up your canvas-stretching supply kit. More expensive to start, but over time will be more affordable than pre-stretched canvases.

Pre-stretched canvas – cotton or linen canvas that is typically primed and stretched over a wooden frame/bars and ready for oil painting.

Gallery-wrap canvas – canvas with no staples or nails showing where it was attached to the stretcher frame.

Q: What basic supplies do I need for oil painting on canvas?
A: Besides your choice of canvas, you will need the following starter materials/media.Brushes – Typically, brushes are synthetic, natural, or nylon brights, filberts, rounds, and flats. As well, these brushes are categorised as either bristle or sable brushes—with bristle brushes being stiffer or harder and sable being softer. You can use the same brushes for oil painting and acrylic painting, while you will want to use specifically designated watercolour brushes for watercolour.

Once you experiment awhile, you will come to know and decide on which brushes you prefer, be they ones you feel blend better, ones better for large canvas painting, or ones better for select subjects and details.

Oil Paints

Oil paints – Available in tubes of two sizes (the larger for whites, usually), oil paints for a beginning painter are best kept to a few primary colours, white, and black. This is so you can experiment with mixing your own colours, for starters.

Paint Pallettes

Painter palettes – Again depending upon your preference, you will want to get a palette which is either of wood, glass, plastic, metal, or even paper (the latter coming as a pad of many sheets). Choose a neutral collared palette, for the paints will be more easily discerned against a white or grey than against a distinctive colour.

Palette knives and painting knives

Palette knives/painting knives – Available in several shapes and sizes, palette knives are used by many to mix colours and by a few as a painting implement (a special effect is derived from the knife that differs from those of the brush, as is a different result gleaned from using your rag or even the tube of paint). However, the typical technique for oil painting on canvas is to work “fat over lean”--from lean to fat—layering to enhance drying time and to avoid thick paint cracking.


Medium – Painters use a medium (of which there are several) for mixing colours, changing paint’s thickness, adding a varnish to paint, or enhancing texture or quality or colour. Each medium has distinct characteristics, resulting in such things as translucency, sheen, thickness (or density or body), or paint exposing, holding, or concealing brushstrokes.

For oil painting on canvas, there are such medium options as linseed oil, turpentine, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, safflower oil, cold wax, resin, and varnish(es).

And each medium has consequences, so do some experimenting or further research to know the aging, shining, or yellowing properties each might have.

Q: Are there any basic beginning “rules” I should know for oil painting on canvas?

A: The first and foremost suggestion is to apply “fat over lean”: With each layer you add, the paint should be oilier than the previous application. This is when your medium comes in handy, as your first layer(s) will consist of more thinning (with turpentine or spirits), for example.

Q: How do I deal with the canvas edges when I am finished?

A: Again, it is up to you what effect you want: some painters leave the edges unpainted, for the piece will be framed. Others paint right onto the edges, or what some call painting “around the corner”. Still others merely add one of the colours from the front of the painting—avoiding stark white or pure black as the edges will call to the viewer more than you may wish for them to.

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