Can You Draw on Canvas? Your Questions Answered

Can you draw on canvas. Classical oil painting for naturalist bird portraiture by Sarah Margaret Gibson on Domestika

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.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

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 from only 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 to get the ideas down quickly, and when you see something you like, make a more refined 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.

Classical oil painting for naturalist bird portraiture by Sarah Margaret Gibson on Domestika
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What Pencils Do You Use to Draw on Canvas?

I like to use an HB (#2) pencil to map things out, it doesn’t matter as long as you are careful not to score the surface.

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 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 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 a pencil that compliments your color scheme knowing that it will blend seamlessly into the painting process. I’ve seen James Gurney do this to good effect.

Can You Erase Pencil on Canvas?

There is no reason why you shouldn’t erase pencil lines on canvas but it does beg the question of why you need to?

If you’ve made a big mistake you can use a kneadable 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 secondly, 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 it is 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 options, 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. They do have a drawback however, 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 onto Canvas?

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

One way is to use graphite transfer paper. This is a type of paper that is coated in a fine layer of graphite.

You can place the paper beneath your drawing and then trace it over it with a pencil. The graphite will transfer onto the canvas, and you will be left with a faint outline of your drawing.

Sounds simple enough and it is if you secure the paper with low tack tape framers tape. 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. It saves you the hassle of making it yourself. You can of course do it yourself and I saw the way commercial artists in Thailand do it.

They make a photocopy of the image they wish to transfer. They enlarge it to size and cover the back with dark graphite. They tape it to the paper or canvas and trace it with a pencil.

Of course, they were not tracing a sketch, they were tracing photographs, but the principle is the same.

If nothing else it saves you from having to ruin your sketch in the transfer process.

Chris has his own way of transferring his images to canvas,
Watch His Introduction

Introduction to Photorealism for Oil Painting by Christopher Paul Stevens
on Domestika
Learn to paint methodically with Chris Stevens

Another way to transfer a drawing is to use a lightbox.

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.

It will work if you don’t work too big.

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.

The least efficient way is to grid your canvas and copy your gridded reference. 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 make the drawing slightly smaller.

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

Traced eyes tend to be too small and 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.

Cotton 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 buy the meter if you wish and do everything yourself. The surface is noticeably coarse and the weave is pronounced. It stretches easily.

You can also buy a Poly-cotton canvas that has a finer weave, finer thread, and smoother surface which is ideal for drawing. it’s a synthetic mix and stronger than cotton.

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

It is more expensive than cotton but for anyone serious about their painting that is the price you pay for using the best.

As with cotton canvas linen 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 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 drawing is a vital part of the painting the texture will be paramount.

A lightweight linen canvas with a fine texture is perfect for drawing, but your choice will depend 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 final painting. It will also affect the drawing.

Do you want the weave to show or not? If you have a more meticulous style you may well prefer to limit the texture and use a smooth or fine canvas.

The finest primed linen canvases are so smooth they are like 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.

Panels are pre-primed and ready to use. They can also be ‘sized’ to accept watercolor.

Do You Fix a Drawing Before Painting?

Normally you would not need to fix your preliminary drawing but if you have drawn a very detailed sketch or been over-enthusiastic with your charcoal you might want to give it a spray. I’ve always used Winsor and Newton Fixative but there are many alternatives.

Be very cautious. Fixative is ideal if you intend to seal charcoal and over-paint it in layers of pastel. When I painted with pastel it was my chosen painting process.

Watercolor will not adhere well to fixative. 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, don’t use it on your art.

If you use a pencil and want to seal the drawing fully before using oil paints 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 Stephen’s drawing course on Proko

Can You Draw With Pen (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.

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 more gradually 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 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 prepare 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 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 finer detail. I find myself mixing both soft and hard freely.

Oil pastels are different. The pigment is bound with oil or wax and are incompatible with the other types of pastel that are water-based.

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

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 board so I can use some firm 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 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 must be, believe me, they all break the orthodox ways of doing things.

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


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