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Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting: Article 2 of 3

Updated on May 10, 2016
carolynkaye profile image

I've been an artist since childhood and work mainly in oils, acrylic and pencil.

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Getting Ready for Painting

Welcome to the second article in my 3-part series, "Beginner’s Guide to Oil Painting".

In this article, you’ll learn how to prepare a canvas for oil painting, decide on a subject and learn an easy technique to transfer a sketch from a sketch pad onto a blank canvas.

Preparing Your Canvas

Once you have your supplies gathered, the first step is to prepare your canvas.

You will need your canvas, your gesso, a soft paintbrush about ¾” to 1” thick, a small plastic container to put some gesso in and something to cover your work surface. (An old pillowcase works for this. If you don’t have one, paper towels will do.)

Gesso is an acrylic-based primer that will make the oil paints grip the surface of the canvas better. Even if the canvas you bought says it’s pre-primed, adding a coat of gesso will make a huge difference in how your paint goes on the canvas.

Gesso is water-soluble and unlike oil paints, you can clean gesso off your paintbrush with water and a gentle soap.

Here are the steps to prime your canvas:

1) Place your canvas on your covered work surface.

2) Put a little gesso into your small plastic container, dampen your paintbrush and begin applying the gesso in neat, even, horizontal strokes across the canvas. You can re-dampen your paintbrush during this process if needed, but don’t over-thin the gesso with water. Also, don’t apply the gesso too thickly or it may crack when dry. A light coat is perfect.

If you have a thick canvas with staple-free edges, apply the gesso to the sides too, as show in the photos below.

Take your time and apply the gesso in neat, smooth strokes.
Take your time and apply the gesso in neat, smooth strokes. | Source
Don't forget the sides of the canvas if you plan to paint them too.
Don't forget the sides of the canvas if you plan to paint them too. | Source

When you’ve covered the entire surface of the canvas with gesso, check to make sure everything looks nice and smooth.

If needed, make a few quick touch-ups, but work quickly because once the gesso starts to dry, going over it repeatedly will smudge the surface.

Once the gesso has been applied, your canvas should look similar to the photo below. Allow the canvas to dry for 24 hours before you paint on it.

Be sure to clean your brush with lukewarm water and a gentle soap as soon as you’re finished with the gesso. I like using either a gentle dishwashing soap like Dawn, or even a liquid hand soap. Gently rinse your brush well until all the gesso comes out and put it on a paper towel to dry. If the brush isn’t thoroughly cleaned and rinsed, the gesso will harden as it dries and the brush may be ruined.

Deciding on a Subject For Your Oil Painting

What you want to paint is entirely up to you. I sometimes find it helpful to make a few rough sketches on a sketchpad to plan out my painting in advance.

To make sure my sketch or design is the right size and fit for the canvas I plan to paint on, I will trace the actual canvas onto my sketchpad as a guide. Just make sure you’ve let your canvas dry for at least 24 hours after applying the gesso before you do this step.

Outline the small canvas on a sketch pad as a guide.
Outline the small canvas on a sketch pad as a guide. | Source
As a new painter, a blank canvas can be intimidating. A sketch pad is a good way to do a 'rough draft' of your painting before you work with your paints on the canvas.
As a new painter, a blank canvas can be intimidating. A sketch pad is a good way to do a 'rough draft' of your painting before you work with your paints on the canvas. | Source

Try as many sketches as you need until you find something you like. Some ideas for a painting are a colorful bowl of fruit on your table, the scenery outside your window, your pet, or a flower or plant. Browse through your vacation photos for ideas.

If you find something you like, you can either use it as a reference for your painting or trace it using your pad of tracing paper and transfer it onto your canvas. If you prefer to do a more abstract design, you can skip this step and move onto the painting. If you plan to use a sketch, below are the steps for transferring your pencil sketch from your pad onto your canvas.

If you're not sure what to paint, try some pencil sketches on a pad to help plan out your painting and layout.
If you're not sure what to paint, try some pencil sketches on a pad to help plan out your painting and layout. | Source

Once you have decided on a sketch, neatly cut out your sketch using your trace marks as a guide.

Supplies to transfer your sketch to your canvas
Supplies to transfer your sketch to your canvas | Source

Flip the sketch over and use the side edge of the pencil to darken the back of your drawing.

Darken the back of your sketch with the sides of your pencil
Darken the back of your sketch with the sides of your pencil | Source

After the back is darkened, tape the sketch front side up evenly onto the canvas as shown below so it stays in place for the next step. Make sure it’s lined up straight because this is how your final sketch will be positioned on the canvas.

Sketch taped onto canvas
Sketch taped onto canvas | Source
Source

Once it’s securely taped, use a ballpoint pen to trace over all the lines of your sketch. Press hard enough to transfer the design, but not so hard you’re tearing your paper. Be sure all your pencil marks are covered with pen so you don’t miss anything.

Trace sketch with ballpoint pen to transfer design
Trace sketch with ballpoint pen to transfer design | Source
Sketch is on canvas and you're ready to start painting!
Sketch is on canvas and you're ready to start painting! | Source

Now you’re ready to get painting, so be sure to continue onto the final article in the series, “Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting: Article 3 of 3," where you will see the process of creating an oil painting from start to finish.


© 2012 carolynkaye

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    • carolynkaye profile image
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      carolynkaye 6 months ago from USA

      Thanks, Judy. I'm glad you liked it. I appreciate your feedback! -Carolyn

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      Judy Butler 6 months ago

      I really enjoy the lessons. i learn so much every time and truly enjoy trying out the techniques..

    • carolynkaye profile image
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      carolynkaye 2 years ago from USA

      You're welcome, emma! Thanks for the comment :)

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      emma 2 years ago

      What a great tip blackening the back and then going over with a ball point pen to get your lines on the canvas, this has been troubling me for ages! Thank you so much!

    • carolynkaye profile image
      Author

      carolynkaye 3 years ago from USA

      uzma shaheen, thank you for your comments. Much appreciated! :)

    • uzma shaheen profile image

      Uzma Shaheen Bhatti 3 years ago from Lahore,Pakistan

      great hub, you described every step with great detail. It's a great guide for beginners. I liked your idea of transferring drawing on canvas.

      well done.