How To Accurately Draw on Canvas Before Painting It (and how to gesso a panel)

art instruction
How To Accurately Draw on Canvas Before Painting It (and how to gesso a panel)

Whether you are painting a watercolor painting, acrylic painting, or oil painting and regardless of being an absolute beginner or a professional artist, the first step to achieving a fabulous painting is to have a great foundational drawing.

In this post, I'll give you:

  • the best way to quickly and accurately sketch your painting on canvas before starting to paint.
  • the tools that you'll need to achieve an accurate drawing (and here is a hint - you don't need transfer paper or carbon paper)
  • how to gesso an unprimed panel to prepare for sketching (if you'd prefer to purchase an unprimed panel)
  • 3 reasons to pick a painting surface (and the ones that I personally use and love)

Keep reading to learn more!

#1 Pro Tip To Draw Accurately on a Canvas

There are many ways to achieve an accurate drawing (and hint: there is a reason the art stores sell tracing paper). In my oil painting course "Intro to Oil Painting Program, one of the lessons within the program provides you with 6 Methods to Drawing. In this section, however, we are going to cover my all-time favorite, the Triangle Grid Method.

When I first started drawing, I probably did exactly the same thing that you did because that's what our middle school teacher told us to do, which was to go sit down and just start drawing - this is often referred to as "eye balling it". There was really no other direction. When I started painting, eye-balling it was the only method I knew, so that's the way I drew a children's portrait. Let's just say t was way off! Because children actually have different proportions than adults. And so my little bald child who was supposed to look 18 months old looks like a bald, old man. 😁. Thank goodness for my art instructor at the time just said, oh, we got to erase the whole thing, and let me show you how we're going to get an accurate drawing today.

I want to teach you this drawing method, because I know if you master this method and you can do it in mere minutes, you're drawings are going to be such a fabulous foundation for your oil paintings. So let's go ahead and watch the video and so you can get started on accurately drawing (you can skip to 1:15 minute point right to the how to create a detailed drawing.

 Note: This post contains affiliate links with Amazon and Blick Art materials which means I may receive commissions when you click my links and make purchases. However, this does not impact my reviews and comparisons. I only advocate products I believe in.

3 Bonus Pro Tips When Sketching

  1. Choose the right canvas for your project. Depending on the project you're working on, the canvas you choose can make all the difference. And honestly, the type of panel or canvas you choose is a personal preference. So I would encourage you to experiment with different types of panels. However, if you are looking for advice on where to start at the bottom of this blog post I've provided is a list of my favorite painting structures and the reasons why I love them.

    If you're sketching a preliminary drawing for a painting, for example, you might want to use a canvas panel. These panels provide a smooth surface that's ideal for detailed work. On the other hand, if you're working on a larger project, such as a mural, a canvas dropcloth might be more appropriate. The key is to choose a canvas that's big enough to allow you to work freely, but not so big that it's unmanageable.

    Once you've selected the right canvas, take some time to prepare it. If you're using a canvas panel, prime it with gesso to create an even surface. If you're using a canvas dropcloth, iron out any wrinkles or creases. Once your canvas is ready, you can begin sketching. And don't forget, these are just guidelines - ultimately, it's up to you to decide what works best for your project.

    My personal favorite structure to use is the Ampersand Gessobord. I typically purchase these canvas boards (also known as panels) in bulk in 6x6", 8x10 and 11x14" as those are the most popular commission sizes for my pet portraits AND I just love having them on hand when inspired to paint.
  2. Sketch your composition lightly in pencil.
    It's a good idea to keep your pencil lines light. This will help you get a feel for the overall layout and composition of the piece before committing to any pencil lines. And if you make a mistake, it's easy to erase it and start over!
  3. Seal the drawing before you start oil painting.
    When it comes to oil painting, one of the most important things you can do is to seal your drawing before you start. This will ensure that the layers of paint stay in place and don't smudge or run. To do this, simply spray a thin coat of "Workable Fixative" to your drawing. The workable fixative will dry within minutes and you can begin painting.

I hope you found these bonus pro tips helpful! As always, practice makes perfect. Be sure to use the tools and techniques we outlined above to help you create beautiful sketches that will accurately capture your ideas. Read on to see the tools that you'll need, once you know this it is super easy to implement and you likely already have the tools to use the Triangle Grid Method.


Art Supplies You'll Need To Accurately Sketch Your Work of Art

  • Ruler
  • Pencil
  • Reference Image
  • Hard or Kneaded eraser
  • Stretched Canvas or Panel

The ruler. One of the things people always say to me is "I can't draw a straight line" - notice that the ruler is the first tool on my list :). I don't know how this saying became a thing...when I look the history of professional artists from as early as the 14th century, they always used a straight edge to accomplish lines in their architecture drawings or even their square grids. So, I promise you, I will never frown upon you for using tools or instruments to achieve an accurate sketch!

The pencil. The hardness or fanciness of this pencil is not relevant UNLESS you intend to get a drawing completed that includes the dark shadows for smudging, in which case I'd recommend a #6B or #8B - if you are going for a simple sketch with enough information to paint then a good old fashioned #2 pencil (which is also just an HB) will do just fine.

Reference Image. There are a couple of important notes about the reference image:

  1. It needs to be in the same ratio as the blank canvas or panel that you choose. Meaning if you want to paint on an 16x20" the reference image would need to be either a 8x10" or 4x5".
  2. Using your ruler, draw lines from one corner across to the opposite corner, and repeat that on all corners which will create a large X across the reference image. Then, if desired, create smaller triangles within the larger triangle to help break down what you'll end up drawing on the canvas.

Stretched Canvas or Panel. There are a couple of important notes about the panel.

  1. Gesso or not. If you are completing an oil painting or acrylic painting I recommend the panel either be already gessoed or you apply the acrylic gesso to the unprimed canvas. The Ampersand Gessobord panels I recommend are already primed and it provides a much smoother surface to draw on than a standard linen or cotton canvas. For Instructions On How to Prime a Canvas or Panel, go to the next section of this article.
  2. Tone the Canvas. Another consideration, although not required, is to tone the canvas. I've found this to be a personal preference of artists. Some prefer to draw on a plain white canvas and others prefer to have the white washed away, so to speak. So give it a whirl and see which way you like it better.
    Another tip about toning the canvas: When I do tone the canvas prior to drawing for either an oil painting or acrylic painting, I'll apply a thin layer of an acrylic color or oil paint that I see as a general color or the one that I want to be the lightest part of the canvas. I'll also work rather quickly with toning the canvas and then use a paper towel to lightly wipe away excess that would slow the drying time or create ridges that I don't want.

    For example: when I paint a cat with green eyes, I toned the canvas/panel with the lightest green that I see in her eyes. The reason I do this is that I know that the light travels through the layers of paint to bounce off the white of the canvas, if I keep the paint thin in the lightest part of her eyes, then the cat's eyes will glow. It is a very similar approach to oil painting as watercolor - reserve the lightest area for last.
  3. Lay out the grid. In this step, you'll draw out the triangle grid in the same manner as you did in the reference image. Then you'll

Compositing Images

If you'd like to take multiple images, combine them and then sketch them out for a more complex drawing, you'd follow the same process above plus an extra step. Check out the blog post "How To Create a Composite Image for A Painting Reference Using Photoshop".

How to Gesso a Canvas or Panel

If you like DIY projects and want the best results at a low cost or create custom panels, then prime your own canvas at home with acrylic gesso. In the Ultimate Guide to OIl Painting Supplies Course, available in the Intro to Oil Painting Program, when I talk about structures to paint on I generally recommend already gessoed panels to save time, but that comes with an extra cost. Priming your own panels is a great way to save money and create a fabulous custom piece.  As a result, provided within this section are the process and materials.

There are 2 types of painting surfaces you can purchase: Primed and Unprimed. 

If you purchase unprimed, then yes you need to prime the canvas with gesso. The reason is:

  1. When using a raw/unprimed surface, the panel/canvas will soak up the oil from the oil painting, making it a bit more difficult to blend, and move and it'll dry faster.
  2. When using a raw/unprimed surface the paint over time will rot the canvas.

 In the eBook "Ultimate Guide To Oil Painting Supplies" I recommend purchasing Primed canvases/panels because - and I'll be honest - I generally don't enjoy the "priming" process UNLESS I have a specific size in mind that I know I can't purchase or I want to really take the time to enjoy the entire process as the old masters did. BUT for those of you who would like to experience this process, here is what you do to prime a canvas or a wood panel.  

How to Prime a Canvas With Gesso

I recommend you have all of the following art supplies laid out within arm's reach and that you put aside enough time to allow for the gesso to dry between layers. Applying gesso for a new painting is super messy, the last thing you want is to be running around trying to find more paper towels while you’re trying to quickly apply gesso before it dries. 

Materials To Have On Hand:

  • Canvas: best if already stretched or glued onto a rigid support
  • Sponge
  • Water
  • Plastic or metal stirrer
  • A trowel, large palette knife or a cake icing spreader
  • Acrylic gesso
  • 1”- 2” flat brush
  • Plastic container
  • Paper towels
  • Sander with 220 grit or finer. 
  • Smock (to keep your clothes clean)
  • Large Straight Edge

1. Wet the Canvas

With a sponge dipped in water, lightly wet the canvas and its sides.

2. Stir or Shake the Gesso Thoroughly

Stir the acrylic gesso (in its container) with a stirrer or if you get the kind in a bottle, shake it up..

3. Pour the Right Amount of Gesso

Pour the right amount of gesso onto the canvas. You don’t want to end up extra since it isn't ideal to put it back into the jar when it’s dry. Close the jar as soon as possible—gesso dries quickly!  ALSO IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT pour leftover gesso down the sink - it will harden and clog the pipes! 
For large areas, focus on sections so that you can work the gesso before it dries.

4. Add Water

Thin the gesso, adding up to 20% water, as needed. Stir well. Make sure you dilute the first layer especially since diluted gesso will penetrate the fibers of the canvas more easily and will be easier to spread. This allows you to also keep the gesso paint layer thin. Over the years, I've learned to just keep a container of water to the side of the panel and I wet the paintbrush and apply that to the gesso directly on the panel, it is a quick and easy way of moving the gesso while it is on the panel.

5. Clean Spills Quickly

Keep a paper towel handy to clean the stirrer and any spills, as acrylic gesso dries very fast and, once dry, it is not water-soluble.

6. Brush or Knife It On

Using a 1” or 2” brush or the trowel/palette knife, apply a coat of gesso onto the canvas in one direction, evenly spreading the gesso from left to right and back.  (Watch the video below to see how this is done)

7. Smooth the surface. Using a straight edge, preferably the full width of the panel, gently and in one smooth motion, sweep the surface to remove any ridges. (again, watch the video below to see how this is done)

8. Let It Dry Thoroughly

Once the gesso is dry, after at least an hour you can start painting on it or sketching on it, but it’s better if you let it sit overnight. How can I tell if the gesso is dry? If the canvas is cold to the touch, the gesso is not dry yet.

9. Sand Lightly and Repeat

The smoother the surface the easier the pencil glides across the panel, which is great for the fine details of drawing people's portraits. So, for a smoother surface, you can sand the first layer lightly before you brush another layer on. After sanding, make sure you clean up any dust residue with a rag. 

10. Extra Layers

I recommend at least 3 layers and alternate the direction you apply the gesso. For example, if the first layer of gesso you went in a horizontal fashion, on the second layer go verticle. You'll need to repeat the drying and sanding steps between each coat. For a textural effect, you can skip the sanding and apply the gesso in an uneven and textural way. 

Finally, you get to paint!

Here is a fantastic video that describes this process, this video is by Tiffany's Fine Art You Tube Channel

Wait until the coats are dry before you start painting.

3 reasons to pick a painting surface

Did you know you don't have to just paint on a canvas? The options are limitless! Really, the only things you need to consider are:

1) Do I want to frame it?

2) Do I need to ship it?

3) How much do I want to spend?

To make a surface take oil paint all you need to do is Gesso the surface or sand the surface enough to give it a "tooth", meaning texture, for the paint to adhere to.

The surfaces that I recommend are ready for you to begin oil painting right away - there is no need to "Prime the canvas" with Gesso because the surfaces I recommend are already primed saving you a ton of time.

In addition, the surfaces that I choose to work with are fairly smooth because:

  • They are great for painters who paint thinly
  • Smooth surfaces are easy to wipe off if you mess up.
  • Smooth surfaces are easy to photograph or scan when you want to make prints.

I encourage everyone to experiment with various textures and styles of the canvas, and I have done so as well, BUT there is one that I found in 2014 and rarely do I deviate from it.

The surface that I recommend are ready for you to begin oil painting right away - there is no need to "Prime the canvas" with Gesso because the surfaces I recommend are already Primed UNLESS you have a specific size in mind and you'd rather enjoy the process the old masters took. I recommend Ampersand Gessobord overall for the following reasons:

  • Great storage. With panels about 1/4" thick, you can easily stack them for storage.
  • Price points are really good.
  • Framing options: you've got the option to frame or not to frame. I personally love the Floater Frames.
  • Shipping and handling of these are really easy. Because they are panels you don't have to worry about ripping and they have less bulk.
  • if you screw up to make a mistake, you can just wipe it off.

Here are some other good quality surfaces that I also love to paint on:

      • RayMar Artfix Oil Primed Belgian Linen Panels (a splurge purchase, but lovely to paint on)
      • Centurian Oil Primed Linen (comparable to RayMar but more cost-efficient)
      • DaVinci Pro Panels Ultra-Smooth

I hope you found this article very informative regarding the process to create a great sketch and other considerations to take during your creative process. If you have additional questions, feel free to post a comment below. If you'd like a more in-depth understanding of painting check out the Positive Painters Oil Painting Program hereIf you are a beginner, check out the Intro to Oil Painting Program here.

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