Getting Started with Canvas in Obsidian

A photo of a couple of beautiful paintings on canvas.

Canvas is a relatively new feature in Obsidian. It was released in 2022, and it made some waves!

Some people love it, some people ignore it. But for the right purposes, the canvas can be an incredibly useful tool, so if you want to get the most out of Obsidian, you might want to learn to use it.

Fortunately, the basics are also super simple to learn. So let’s jump into it!

Table of Contents

What is Obsidian Canvas?

The Canvas is a tool within Obsidian that unlocks non-linear thinking. Instead of adding thoughts and notes linearly within the confines of a note, you can lay out your notes on an infinite canvas, and explore their reliationships in a more free-flowing way.

Collecting notes in a canvas feels a lot like laying your notes out on a table. You can group similar notes together, add arbitrary connections, and find gaps in your knowledge more easily than you would be able to in a single note.

For example, let’s say I’m working on a project that requires investigation into a bunch of different Obsidian plugins. I want to be able to see the notes I have for each plugin, to make sure I’ve done enough research. One way to do this would be with a regular note:

A screenshot of a note on Obsidian Plugins inside of Obsidian.

But this starts to get a little overwhelming after a while. Even if you pull chunks out of this note and link to them (or embed them), it still feels like too much stuff for one note.

The solution? Dump all of this research into a canvas:

A screenshot of an Obsidian Canvas, with an exploration of Obsidian Plugins inside.

It looks cleaner, it’s a lot more flexible than a regular note, and it allows your thoughts to evolve more organically over time.

This is just one example of what you can do with canvases. We’ll go through a few more examples at the end of the article. But first, how do we make one?

Creating a Canvas

Canvas is a core plugin in Obsidian, which means it’s built-in, you don’t have to install anything. In fact it’s even enabled by default, so unless you’ve turned off the canvas plugin in your vault, then you can start using canvases immediately.

There are three ways to create a canvas in Obsidian by default:

  • Click on Create new Canvas in the ribbon
  • Open the Command Palette, search for “canvas”, and select “Create new Canvas
  • Last and least: right click on a folder in your file explorer, and click “New canvas”

If you create canvases frequently, you could add a hotkey. {link}

No matter how you create your canvas, Obsidian will create a new canvas file and open it for you. You should see something like this:

A new canvas in Obsidian.

Now we just need to learn how to use it!

Basic Obsidian Canvas Controls

The Canvas is an infinite workspace. That means you can, theoretically, add as many notes and connections as you like, and arrange them however you like. Practically speaking I’m sure there’s an upper limit to how many notes canvases can handle, but I haven’t hit it.

Moving the Canvas

On mobile, moving the canvas is easy: typical touch controls work flawlessly. Drag the canvas with your finger, pinch to zoom, etc.

On desktop, things are a bit trickier. To pan around the canvas, there are a few different options:

  • Press the space button and drag
  • Use the scroll wheel and shift + scroll wheel
  • Drag the canvas while holding down the middle mouse button

Use whatever method comes most naturally to you.

To zoom, press space or ctrl (or cmd on Macs) and use the scroll wheel.

Adding Cards to Canvas

A canvas is no good without content, right?

Before we get to card creation, we need to talk about different types of cards. Obsidian allows you to embed nearly anything inside your canvases: videos, images, notes, even whole websites!

Drag and Drop

The easiest way to create embedded cards is to drag-and-drop them. You can drag a URL from your web browser, a file from your files app, or any note or attachment in your vault.

Drag and drop is convenient, but it’s not always the best option. Fortunately there are other ways to handle all of these embeds.

Canvas Cards Toolbar

Another way to create cards is with the canvas toolbar. Notice these three icons at the bottom of your canvas:

Showing the controls inside an Obsidian Canvas.

These three buttons allow you to 1) add a card, 2) embed a note from your vault, or 3) embed media from your vault, respectively. Those are the three most common things you will do with canvases, so it’s handy to have them so easily accessible. You can either drag these icons onto the canvas to place them precisely, or click on them to add the new card in the middle of your viewport.

Adding Cards with Right-click

Finally, another good way to add cards to a canvas is with the context menu. Right-click anywhere on a canvas, and you will get options that look like this:

The right-click menu for an Obsidian Canvas.

Select an option and the new card will be created wherever you right-clicked.

This menu is helpful for creating almost anything in a canvas, including text cards, embedded notes, websites, and groups (more on groups shortly).

Additionally, you can double-click anywhere on a canvas to create a new Text Card. This is the quickest way to create a new card, and even though you can only create Text Cards this way, it’s still quite helpful.

The Limitations of Text Cards

A few notes on different types of cards: they aren’t all created equal.

“Text Cards” are cards that look like notes, but they are not embedded notes. They support Markdown formatting, which means you can add headers and lists and such within text cards.

Unfortunately they do not support backlinks or Properties. So if you’re creating a lot of content inside of a text note, it’s probably best to convert it into an embedded note.

Fortunately the Obsidian developers anticipated the need to do this from time-to-time, so they built in an easy way to convert text cards to embedded notes. You can right-click on any text card, and click “Convert to file…” Obsidian will ask you for a name, and then create the note in your default location. Handy!

The context menu in Obsidian that allows you to convert a text card to a note.

Formatting Your Canvas

Once you’ve created a few cards in your Obsidian canvas, you’re going to want to format them.

You can click and drag to move cards wherever you like. Once you have a card selected, you can also drag from any corner to resize it.

(these actions also work on mobile, but they’re a little more finicky. Drag and drop is a little error-prone on mobile)

By default, when you are dragging cards around the canvas, Obsidian will try to help you with “snapping”. It will try to align cards either on the left, right, or center. This is helpful for creating clean looking canvases, but you can change it in the settings if it doesn’t work well for you.

Connecting Cards

Another thing you can do to format your canvas is connecting cards. If you hover your mouse on any of the four sides of a card, a little dot will appear. You can then drag from that dot to another card, and Obsidian will create an arrow in the direction that you drag.

A look at connecting cards in Obsidian Canvases.

This is handy for creating visual relationships between cards. It’s somewhat similar to mind-mapping: you can use lines to guide your eye in the right direction.

Once you’ve created a connection between cards, you can edit it by clicking on it. Once you click on it, you can press delete or backspace to remove it, or you can change its settings with the context menu. Currently the context menu allows you to customize each line in these ways:

  • Set color of the line
  • Change the line direction. Options are:
       – Nondirectional (no arrow)
      – Unidirectional (one arrow, the default)
      – Bidirectional (two arrows)
  • Add label

The line context menu looks like this:

The context menu for lines in an Obsidian Canvas.

Grouping Cards

Another handy feature for organizing your cards: you can create arbitrary groups within a canvas.

These groups are colorful boxes that help you to visually group together content. They are similar to arrows in function, but they make notes look even more connected.

Here’s what they look like:

An example group inside an Obsidian Canvas.

To create a group, you first need to have at least two cards that you want to group together. Then you drag to select the cards you want to group, right-click, and select “Create group”.

A highlighted group in Obsidian.

You can also create an empty group using the context menu, as I noted above.

Canvas Settings

There are a good number of settings you can change when it comes to Canvases. In a nutshell, they are:

  • Where to create canvases
  • Default mouse behavior
  • Default ctrl+drag behavior
  • When to display card label
  • Snap to grid
  • Snap to objects
  • Zoom threshold (I like to crank this one up)

It’s important to choose where to create new canvases, but other than that, I don’t typically change these. But it’s good to know what is available to you.


If you haven’t tried Canvas in Obsidian, I hope this gives you what you need to start! It’s a powerful tool, and for the right situation, there’s nothing better.

Give it a shot, and you might be pleasantly surprised!

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