Skip to main content

Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting: Canvas Preparation and Sketch Transference

I’ve been drawing and painting for most of my life and love sharing tutorials and tips to help anyone who wants to learn about art.

Oil painting made easy—anyone can do it!

Oil painting made easy—anyone can do it!

How to Transfer Drawing to Canvas

Get ready to learn how to prepare a canvas for oil painting, decide on a subject, and learn an easy technique to transfer a sketch from a drawing pad onto a blank canvas!

What You'll Need

  • Canvas
  • Gesso
  • Soft paintbrush (¾” to 1” thick)
  • Small plastic container
  • Something to cover your work surface (ex. an old pillowcase, paper towels)

What Is Gesso?

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 gentle soap.

1. Prime Your Canvas

Before you are ready to paint, you need to prep your canvas with primer. Priming the canvas allows the oil paint to stick to the surface of the canvas. Priming is a critical step and makes a huge difference in the outcome of your painting.

How to Prime the Canvas So It's Ready to Paint

  1. Place the canvas on a covered work surface.
  2. Put a little gesso into a small plastic container.
  3. Dampen the paintbrush.
  4. Begin applying the gesso in neat, even, horizontal strokes across the canvas.
  5. 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—otherwise, it may crack when it's dry. A light coat is perfect.
  6. Clean your brush with lukewarm water and gentle soap as soon as you’re finished with the gesso. I like using either a dishwashing soap like Dawn or an art brush soap.
  7. Gently rinse your brush well until all the gesso comes out. 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.
  8. When you’ve covered the entire surface of the canvas with gesso, check to make sure everything looks nice and smooth.

Tips for Working With Gesso

  • 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.
  • If you have a thick canvas with staple-free edges, apply the gesso to the sides too.
  • Once the gesso has been applied, your canvas should look similar to the photo above. Allow the canvas to dry for 24 hours before you paint on it.

2. Decide on a Subject for Your Oil Painting

What you 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 fits the canvas I plan to use, I trace the actual canvas onto my sketchpad as a guide. Just make sure you’ve let your gesso on the canvas dry completely before you do this step.

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.

3. Put Your Pencil to Paper

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

Ideas for Oil Painting Subjects

  • A colorful bowl of fruit on your table
  • The scenery outside your window
  • Your pet
  • Flower
  • Plant
  • Something from your vacation photos
Here are some supplies to transfer your sketch to your canvas.

Here are some supplies to transfer your sketch to your canvas.

4. Cut the Sketch

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

Darken the back of your sketch with the sides of your pencil.

Darken the back of your sketch with the sides of your pencil.

5. Darken the Back

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

6. Tape the Sketch

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

7. Trace Your Drawing

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 tear your paper. Be sure all your pencil marks are covered with pen so you don’t miss anything.

Now You're Ready to Start Painting!

Now you’re ready to get painting! Read "Beginner's Guide to Oil Painting" to see the process of creating an oil painting from start to finish.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 carolynkaye


Elizabeth on October 30, 2018:

I always wanted to know, how to trace and put it on a canvas. Thanks so much.

carolynkaye (author) from USA on May 18, 2018:

Hello Emmanuel, Thank you for your kind comments. I'm glad you've found this helpful :)


Emmanuel from Nigeria. on May 18, 2018:

You are just a great coach here. I love this and I love you for taking each step nice and slow. great work. kudos!

carolynkaye (author) from USA on May 21, 2017:

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

Judy Butler on May 20, 2017:

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

carolynkaye (author) from USA on October 28, 2015:

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

emma on October 28, 2015:

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 (author) from USA on April 18, 2014:

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

Uzma Shaheen from Lahore,Pakistan on April 07, 2014:

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.