Can You Draw on Canvas? All Your Questions Answered

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

Can you draw on canvas or is it only for painting? Beginners are nervous about doing the ‘wrong’ things. So I decided to answer the question.

You can definitely draw on canvas! Most artists will sketch an outline prior to painting a picture with a pencil or charcoal stick and lightly map the correct proportions of their composition. Some artists need a detailed under-drawing, while others only need a few guidelines.

In this article, you’ll discover how and why artists draw on canvas, what type of canvas you should use and what art materials are most suitable. I think you will learn a few things.

Let’s get going.

Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.

Can You Draw Directly Onto Canvas?

There is no reason not to draw directly onto the surface. Some confident artists don’t always need to sketch out every idea, they can work directly using a few guidelines, while others need time to plan out their composition beforehand and make some preliminary sketches first.

The classic preparation would be to sketch out a few thumbnails and get some ideas down quickly, and after seeing something you like, make a more detailed drawing and transfer it to the canvas.

These days most artists will use a pre-primed canvas and it’s easy enough to lightly sketch on the surface. The alternative is to prime the canvas yourself with a gesso base. It’s easy but tedious.

If you want to see how a top professional prepares, draws, and paints her subjects, I urge you to watch Sarah’s intro video on Domestika.

What Pencils Do You Use to Draw on Canvas?

It doesn’t matter as long as you are careful not to score the surface. You can use an HB (#2) graphite pencil to map things out. Some suggest lighter grades, others darker, all that matters is what you intend to do afterward.

Some suggest lighter grades, others darker, all that matters is what you intend to do afterward

If you are laying thin transparent oil glazes or acrylic washes you may well see the pencil lines beneath. That may or may not be desirable. It really depends on your painting style.

I’m a great fan of Raymond Harris-Ching, not a household name but a brilliant wildlife artist who was (hopefully still is) superb at combining a pencil sketch with a finished canvas painting.

Be careful how you use soft pencils,, they smudge easily and lift as you apply thin layers of paint. This can dirty the color.

If drawing pencils confuse you read this: What Do Pencil Numbers Mean? Pencil Grades Explained + Charts

Can You Use Water Soluble Pencils on Canvas?

Yes if you use water-soluble pencils wisely, this option can solve a few problems. If it’s your intention to paint with acrylic or watercolor you can use watercolor pencils to compliment your color schemes knowing that they will blend seamlessly into the painting process.

I’ve seen James Gurney do this to good effect.

Can You Erase Pencil on Canvas?

There’s no reason why you shouldn’t erase pencil lines on a canvas. If you’ve made a big mistake you can use a kneaded eraser to correct things. Don’t use standard plastic or rubber erasers, they leave crumbs everywhere and there is a danger that you’ll remove the gesso.

There are two reasons you might want to erase pencil lines, first, you’ve chosen the wrong pencil for the job, and second, you didn’t plan your composition properly.

Both of these problems can be solved by preparation. It’s so tempting to take shortcuts and skip over the preliminaries in the excitement of wanting to get started. That can backfire.

Speaking personally, I have always found that a more methodical approach is quicker in the long run.

N.B. I’ve just come across an eraser I have never heard of before and I’m intrigued. It’s a dry cleaning pad. It’s used by restorers to clean paper and documents and it lifts pencil and charcoal cleanly off of the canvas.

Can You Draw With Charcoal on Canvas?

If it was Ok for the great masters it will be OK for you, but there are limitations. Charcoal is a messy medium and very difficult to control.

Using charcoal on canvas is not subtle. The tooth will create strong lines and charcoal will blend with your paint. It won’t matter if you paint in thicker layers but it might be an issue otherwise.

You have two choices, stick charcoal or compressed charcoal pencil.

I suspect that most artists would be more comfortable using charcoal pencils. They are less messy and easier to use, however, they have a drawback. Compressed charcoal is harder to erase and cover with paint.

Willow or vine charcoal sticks leave a gentle line but take some getting used to. They are messy and break easily. That said, it’s easier to paint over and erase fully.

The other option is to use white compressed charcoal pencils on a tinted canvas. This is much easier to disguise in the overpainting process and using a tinted canvas base is far easier than using white canvas.

How Do You Transfer a Drawing to Canvas?

There are different ways to transfer a drawing onto the canvas.

One way is to use graphite transfer paper. This is a thin sheet of paper, coated in a fine layer of graphite.

You place the paper beneath your drawing and trace over it with a pencil. The graphite will transfer onto the canvas, and you’ll be left with a faint outline of your drawing. If you don’t want to lose your original pencil drawings, trace over photocopies.

It’s simple if you secure the paper with low tack tape framers tape. Please note, as with any form of tracing the image must be still, any movement and your tracing will be useless.

Read this post, it’s related: Tracing Art – Is It Good or Bad? When Is Tracing Cheating and Is It Ever OK?

Transfer paper is cheap to buy and clean to use, but you can make graphite paper using a photocopy.

Make a copy of the drawing, enlarge it to size, and cover the back with a soft graphite layer. Tape the copy to your canvas and draw over it. The graphite transfers easily. Don’t use too much pressure.

I’ve seen commercial artists in Thailand use this method, except they were tracing photographs not sketches, but the principle remains the same.

Another way to transfer a drawing is to use a lightbox. Many illustrators use them.

You can place your canvas on top of the lightbox and then place your drawing (or photocopy) beneath the canvas. The light will shine through the drawing and onto the canvas, making it easier to see where you need to place your lines.

This might be of use too: How to Scale Up a Drawing in 4 Easy Ways

Other artists use art projectors to trace out images, especially if they are working on a larger scale. Make sure your canvas is exactly at 90 degrees to your projector, otherwise, you’ll trace a distorted image.

The least efficient way is to grid your canvas and copy your gridded reference photo. it can be a tedious process and I wouldn’t recommend it.

I want to say one last thing about tracing an image, and it’s not something I have read elsewhere. I have found that if you trace an image there is a tendency to trace within the lines and it makes the drawing slightly smaller.

This makes little difference to the overall size and shape of your drawing but it does matter with facial features, especially with the eyes.

Traced eyes tend to be too small. When you are aware of that, you can compensate and draw the eyes larger.

What Kind of Canvas Can You Draw On?

Type of canvas matters: They have different, weights, textures, and durability. There are two types in common use, cotton, and linen.

  • Stretched Cotton Canvas
  • Stretched Linen Canvas
  • Cotton Canvas Roll
  • Linen Canvas Roll
  • Canvas Boards
  • Canvas Pads

Cotton canvas is the cheaper option of the two, and most artists use Cotton Duck canvas, pre-stretched on a frame, and primed.

You can buy it by the meter if you wish and do everything yourself. The surface of the canvas is noticeably coarse and the weave is pronounced. It stretches easily.

You can also buy a Poly-cotton canvas with a finer weave, finer thread, and a smoother surface. It’s a stronger synthetic mix and a better choice for drawing.

A linen canvas has the most durable surface and is preferred by professional artists. It has a finer weave and can withstand the rough and tumble of vigorous drawing and painting.

Linen is more expensive than cotton canvas, but for anyone serious about their art, the extra cost is the price you pay for good quality.

As with cotton, linen canvas comes in various weights and textures and you can buy it by the meter or roll, but it’s harder to stretch yourself. Many artists choose to buy ready-made canvases instead.

Canvas Weave and Texture

Most artists will be more concerned with their painting process than how well they can draw on the surface, but if the drawing is a vital part of the painting, the canvas texture will be paramount.

A lightweight linen canvas with a fine texture is perfect for drawing, but your preference will depend entirely on how you like to draw and paint.

You can buy smooth, extra-fine fine, medium rough, or extra rough canvas and each will produce a different feel to the drawing and final painting.

If you have a more meticulous style you may well choose to limit the texture and use a smooth or fine canvas. The finest primed linen canvases are so smooth they’re like drawing paper and are even suitable for watercolor painting!

Canvas Boards and Panels

You are not limited to stretched canvas you can buy Canvas Boards and panels. They are cotton canvas stuck onto a rigid substrate such as wood, MDF, or card and are very economical.

The smaller sizes are ideal for sketching outdoors and be stored and carried easily.

A canvas panel is pre-primed and ready to use. It can also be ‘sized’ to accept watercolor.

Tiger sketch Oil on board clearlt showing the pencil marks and drawing beneath. Painted by Raymond Harris-Ching
Tiger – Oil on Board
Raymond Harris-Ching

Do You Fix a Drawing Before Painting?

Normally you wouldn’t need to fix your preliminary drawing, but if you’ve drawn a very detailed sketch or been over-enthusiastic with your charcoal, you might want to spray it with a workable fixative. I’ve always used Winsor and Newton but there are many alternatives.

Note that watercolor will not adhere well to fixative. Be cautious because I’m not sure it will work.

Read more here: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster

Don’t be a cheapskate and use hairspray, it’s full of chemicals never designed to have stable permanence. It’s hair lacquer and is very likely to yellow with age. Don’t use it on your artwork.

If you use a pencil and want to seal the drawing fully before using oil paints you can do what Stephen Bauman does and coat the drawing with 3 layers of Gamblin PVA size.

When you see him do that on a video it makes your eyes open.

Check out this course on Proko by Stephen Bauman

Can You Draw With Pen and Ink on Canvas?

You can draw with a pen on smooth or fine surfaces and draw just as you would on paper and for the same reasons.

You can use a pigment ink pen on smooth linen canvas and apply watercolor washes. You can also use a pen to add details over paint.

Another option is to use a brush with Sepia Indian ink. You can make a lightfast underpainting in the old way before applying color, acrylic, or when it dries, oil paint.

Ink is unforgiving. Once you apply it, there is no going back. You can’t correct mistakes, only disguise them.

Be cautious drawing over gesso. It can clog your pen.

Can you Draw With a Sharpie or Copic Marker on Canvas?

You will have many of the same issues as with a pen with one important caveat, Sharpies are not long-lasting.

Although they are water-resistant, permanent does not mean lightfast. They will fade quickly in direct sunlight and gradually fade indoors.

As an underpainting, I can’t see the point, and as a medium, they are good for illustrations and ephemera but not for fine art.

Can You Draw With Pastel on Canvas?

Pastel is a dry medium. It’s a pigment mixed with a gum arabic binder and needs a textured surface to adhere to. Canvas works well.

One way to use pastel is to tint the canvas first with an acrylic base and then apply soft pastel over it. It produces rich and vibrant colors.

Another idea is to tint the surface using Pan Pastels. These are pans of powdered pigment with less gum arabic and are applied with sponges and blenders to cover large areas quickly.

They are easy to blend and erase and combine with both soft and hard pastels beautifully.

Soft pastels are better suited to larger artwork with a looser style, hard pastels, meaning sticks and pastel pencils, are more suited to fine details. I find myself mixing both freely.

Oil pastels are different. The pigment is bound with oil or wax and is incompatible with the other types of pastels.

They can be combined with oil paint and will dissolve with thinners in the same way. It’s perfectly possible to use them on canvas.

This post might be useful: Best Pastel Pencils For Beginners: 7 Top Brands Plus a Chart

Can you Draw With Colored Pencils on Canvas?

I have never come across an artist doing this but if you can draw with graphite I can’t see why you can’t do the same with colored pencils.

Two obvious issues come to mind.

If you are using colored pencils you are using them as the main medium and not as the base for something else, in which case a stretched canvas would drive you mad.

It would be like drawing on a spring mattress, instead, I would draw on a canvas panel so I can use some pressure.

I would also worry about how quickly my pencils will wear down. This would potentially be a punishing surface and wear the pencils down faster than usual.

You could use very smooth linen, in which case why bother? Just use your normal paper surface.

Can You Draw on Canvas? Final Thoughts

You can draw on canvas and many artists sketch out the basic shapes before applying paint

Some very confident artists draw the proportions using a paintbrush and don’t need a pencil or charcoal line to follow, while others need a more precise foundational drawing before they can proceed.

It’s a matter of style and personal preference. There is no right and wrong way. It’s more a matter of time and aptitude than anything else.

You should not be governed by so-called rules, do whatever suits you best. Don’t be inhibited by what you think a ‘real’ artist would do, believe me, they all break conventions.

And don’t think you can only draw on canvas prior to painting. If the surface texture of the canvas is perfect for your drawing needs then go for it.

This is the type of art I make. I draw wildlife.
Pencil on paper

Family life. A mechanical pencil drawing of a family of elephants by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

If you want to sell your art and don’t know where to start, I can show you how I do it. All you’ve got to do is copy the idea

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

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Can you draw on canvas? Your questions asnswered
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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