Our guide will teach you how to stretch a canvas and prepare it for oil paintings. Stretching your own canvas can save you a lot of money compared to buying a pre-configured one. While learning how to do this isn’t too complicated, it does take some practice to do it consistently well. You’ll need a good pair of tack pliers and an electric or pneumatic stapler to get consistent quality results, so be sure to explore your options.

For more on oil painting, here are the best oil painting supplies you need to know about, as well as the best oil paints to work with. And for more general advice on art supplies, check out our best art supplies guide.

What to consider before you start

Cotton canvas, linen, wood panels, copper, paper, glass and stone are just a few of the surfaces on which you can create oil paintings. Cotton is a cheap alternative to linen, but it is less durable and less resilient.

Canvas, linen and panel are the most commonly available primed and unprimed surfaces. Priming your own can give you a lot of control, and it’s another chance to save money and you can create textures that add to your paint job. For our favorite canvas options, check out our guide to the best oil painting canvases available today.


– Cloth
– Canas pliers/pneumatic stapler
– Stretcher bars

One option is to use a grid to transfer your design to the canvas or panel. Projectors and carbon paper are great tools, as long as they don’t replace time spent developing your drawing skills. Once your drawing is accurate, ink it or fix it, so that when you start painting, you won’t erase all your hard work!

Check out the best deals on the materials you’ll need below, then read on to find out how to stretch your canvas and get it ready for oil paints.

How to stretch a canvas

01. Stretch your canvas

(Photo: © Howard Lyon)

Cut your canvas with between two and two and a half inches of stretcher bar overlap, then place a few staples in the middle of one side and stretch the opposite side. Move to other sides and repeat. Work from the middle to the corners.

02. Use gesso panels and canvas

(Photo: © Howard Lyon)

Oil-based gesso on canvas require gluing before application. Rabbit skin glue is traditional, but you can also use GAC 100 or PVA size. Acrylic gesso and pastes do not require sizing and can be applied directly. Brushes, rollers and trowels are all useful for gesso.


  • Thicker gesso can be applied with a spatula (above top)
  • Putty and spackling knives are handy for producing a variety of textures when applying heavier gels and acrylic pastes (above middle)
  • Standard house paint brushes are cheap and great for applying gesso (above, bottom right)

03. Gather the best reference

(Photo: © Howard Lyon)

Take the time to learn how to use your camera. One of the biggest problems can be terrible reference that handicaps the work. Learn how to make costumes and create reference designs. It’s an invaluable and fun part of the process.

Building models is a great way to get a realistic reference when you don’t have access to them, due to size or availability. You should start collecting interesting items whenever you can. Thrift stores and garage sales are often full of cheap and interesting items. And be sure to keep some clay in case you need to quickly sculpt a head or figure for imaginary subjects.

04. Transfer a design

(Photo: © Howard Lyon)

Take your time when transferring your final design. A strong drawing is the basis of all good painting, so don’t rush through this step and make your work suffer. A grid is the best method as it will strengthen your drawing skills. A grid is a useful drawing aid. Put a grid of the same ratio on your reference and on your panel or canvas, and it will make it easier to create accurate transfers.

Carbon paper is a useful tool. The spotlights work well too. There’s no cheating, but if you use it as a crutch, you’re depriving yourself of a chance to develop your skills. Remember that the charcoal pencil works well when drawing directly on a panel or canvas. Once done, you can ink the drawing with Indian ink and erase the lines you don’t need.

05. Secure your drawing

(Photo: © Howard Lyon)

Once your drawing is complete, it’s a good idea to make sure it’s secure so that when you paint it doesn’t dissolve or smudge. Try going over your drawings in Indian ink (top, bottom). It is permanent and long lasting, and allows you to rub the paint or wipe the paint off, and not remove the design.

Fixative spray (above left) is an easy way to make sure your design doesn’t bleed or fade as you paint. Use Liquin (top right) to apply a color wash directly to a drawing. If you don’t rub hard with brushes, it will preserve your design underneath without the need for a fixative.

This content originally appeared in Paint & Draw: Oils. You can buy the Bookazine of oils here (opens in a new tab). Or explore the rest of the Painting and drawing magazines (opens in a new tab).

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