How to Draw with a Pencil on Canvas: 14 Expert Tips

How to Draw with a Pencil on Canvas. As an artist, learning how to draw with a pencil on canvas may take some time, but it's time well spent. Many artists make the mistake of thinking that canvas is something that should only be used for painting, but there's no reason you can't use it as a surface to draw on. 

Always remember, the first rule you have to follow as an artist is that there are no rules. While there are some things you shouldn't do since materials are incompatible, as long as something works and provides you with a solid piece of final art, there's no reason you shouldn't try it.

Drawing on Canvas
Drawing on Canvas

How to Draw with a Pencil on Canvas

Chances are the first surface you learned to draw on was paper. Just about every artist starts by drawing on paper, usually at a very young age. So, it's natural for you to be very comfortable drawing on paper.

But, if you restrict yourself to only paper as a drawing surface, you are limited in what you can accomplish. 

Canvas is a very different surface than paper, and when you draw on canvas, you get a different result than you would get when drawing on paper.

Unprimed canvas is rough, making it an excellent surface for soft graphite or charcoal. Minimally primed canvas works well also because it has a lot of tooth.

Heavily primed canvas has a smoother surface, making it ideal for detailed artwork, as well as for using ink.

What to Draw on Canvas?

What to Draw on Canvas
What to Draw on Canvas

The options for what to draw on canvas are endless. However, there are a few things to consider before you start drawing. First, think about the size of the canvas. You'll want to select a topic that will adequately fill the space while not being overly cramped or too dispersed.

Second, consider the topic you wish to convey. Don't be afraid to experiment with pencil lines; the textured canvas surface has elements that can be linked to various subjects, such as landscapes and portraits. Let your imagination run wild – you might be surprised by what you come up with!

Can You Sketch Onto A Canvas Panel?

Canvas panels are a great surface to work on because they are inexpensive, provide a surface similar to stretched canvas, and are firm and durable, letting you work with harder graphite and apply more pressure.

One of the issues you'll have when you draw on a stretched canvas is that using even moderate amounts of pressure will cause the canvas to sink in as you draw.

This will affect your final drawing since the canvas pops back into place as soon as you remove the pressure. Many artists are also the most comfortable drawing when they can rest their hands on their drawing surface.

Doing this with stretched canvas is problematic because the canvas will move, but with canvas panels, there is no such concern.

Drawing Directly Onto The Canvas With A Pencil

One of the great things about drawing on canvas with a pencil is that there's no particular prep work that has to be done before you get started.

You just get your canvas, choose your selection of pencils, then get to work. Before getting started, you should decide what kind of drawing you are planning.

Do you want a rough sketch with lots of texture?

Then light priming of your canvas works best. You can even work without priming your canvas, but the color of unprimed canvas is darker, making it harder for graphite to show up.

But, if you are working with charcoal, the darker pigment will show up just fine on an unprimed canvas.

Can You Create Fine Pencil Lines on Canvas? 

You can, but you'll need to prime your canvas with several coats of gesso first to create a smooth surface to work on. It can take some practice to get a smooth surface when priming your canvas, but it can be done.

When you have a heavily primed canvas, you should have an extremely smooth surface that is ideal for detailed pencil drawing.

Remember that you should use softer graphite when working on canvas, which smears easily. This is why a workable fixative is a must when working on a canvas with a pencil.

Things To Consider When Drawing Onto A Canvas

Canvas is a very different surface than paper, so you have to approach it differently.

If you plan out a drawing you want to execute on paper, you'll have to take a different approach with canvas.

Canvas usually has a much rougher surface than paper, making it ideally suited for any drawings with a lot of graphite or charcoal applied to your drawing surface.

If you heavily prime a canvas with gesso, it will be smoother, but the plastic-like surface will feel and behave differently than paper.

Preparing A Smooth Surface With Gesso

If you want to transform a rough canvas into a smooth drawing surface, you can do it by applying several coats of gesso.

The vital thing to do when preparing a canvas to make it smooth is to apply several coats. It's essential to wait until one coat of gesso is dry before you apply the next layer.

If you don't, the previous coat of gesso will peel, ruining your surface. If this happens, it isn't the end of the world. You can always bring your canvas surface down, then start the process by applying a fresh coat of gesso.

How should you prepare your canvas if you want a smooth surface? First, you'll want to use a broad brush.

Then you start by brushing gesso in one direction, careful not to miss any spots. If you're going to check your canvas to see if you've missed any spots, you can hold it at an angle under a light.

Wet gesso is reflective, so if you notice any spots that aren't reflective, you need to apply gesso over them.

After applying the first coat, you should put your canvas somewhere to dry away from moisture and excessive heat or cold.

After thoroughly drying your canvas, you should lightly sand it before applying the next coat of gesso.

Lightly sanding your canvas will roughen the surface slightly, giving the next layer of gesso something to grip. After sanding your canvas, use a dry rag to gently rub off anything left on its surface.

Then, using a large brush, you should apply another coat of gesso, making sure to brush in the opposite direction that you did for the first coat.

You'll want to repeat this process several times if you are trying to create a smooth surface.

An alternative method for applying gesso is to use spray gesso. Spray gesso is relatively new, but in the short time it has been on the market, it has proven to work just as well as traditional gesso.

You'll want to use the same approach that you use when brushing on gesso, applying several coats, and allowing ample drying time between coats.

You'll also want to ensure that your canvas is kept flat while using gesso. If you spray on gesso while your canvas is at an angle, the gesso will run, ruining your surface. Spray gesso has the benefit of going on evenly without leaving any brush marks, giving you a very smooth surface.

Use A Soft Grade Pencil To Draw Onto The Canvas As This Will Not Damage The Surface Of The Canvas

Can You Sketch onto Canvas
Can You Sketch onto Canvas

The one problem you have to be on the lookout for is the potential for a hard pencil to damage or tear the surface of your canvas. This isn't much of a problem when you are working on a canvas panel, but when you are working on a stretched canvas, it's something you need to be on the lookout for. 

Hard graphite pencils are great for adding details, but the hard, sharp point on a pencil like this can scratch the surface of a canvas, or if enough pressure is applied, it can puncture a hole in the canvas. If this happens, all the hard work you've put in on your drawing could be ruined.

Using a softer graphite pencil is a much better option. Softer graphite is harder to control, but it's also much less likely to damage the surface of your canvas. While it is more challenging to do so, you can create fine lines and details using a softer type of graphite. The key is to use light pressure and generous amounts of workable fixative.

Why Harder Grade Graphite Pencils Are A Bad Idea

Not only will harder graphite risk damaging your canvas, but it will also be much more challenging to apply to canvas. H grade pencil and hard graphite leave lighter marks, which necessitates using a heavy hand if you want to create easily visible marks. Hard graphite is also very difficult to blend, making it hard for you to create different values in your drawing. A big part of what makes canvas such an ideal drawing surface is the surface allows substantial amounts of graphite to be applied to it, so long as the graphite is soft.

Create Contrast Using Charcoal Pencils

If you are looking for a material besides paint that seems to have been made for canvas, then charcoal or charcoal pencil is something you should spend some time exploring. Charcoal is soft, lays down easily, and in the hands of a skilled artist, can be used to create a wide range of values. Charcoal pencil is soft enough to not damage canvas, and their softness also gives you the ability to blend and spread it over the surface quickly. This charcoal pencil drawing set is made from premium quality materials. Click here to visit Amazon.

If you want to experiment with charcoal pencils on canvas, make sure you only use a few coats of gesso. You want a rougher surface when working with charcoal so that it will have enough tooth to stick to your canvas.

Drawing With Color Pencil Onto Canvas

Another type of pencil you may want to use on canvas is colored pencils. Colored pencils allow an artist to create beautiful and vibrant works of art that are colorful without having to use actual paint. Colored pencils work on various surfaces, but if you want to create any type of detail, they work better on a smoother surface. That means applying several coats of gesso before you start your drawing.

If you want to try something a little different, you can use turpentine to dissolve the pigments in your colored pencils, creating an effect more like a painting than a drawing. Using colored pencils like this is also a great way to create an underpainting. Colored pencils give you a high degree of control, which means you can draw out a detailed underpainting, then glaze color over the top.

Can Pencil Graphite Be Seen Through Acrylic Or Oil Paint?

Can graphite be seen through if you paint with oil paint or acrylic over the top of it? That depends on how thick the paint is. If you use thin washes, you will be able to see any graphite on the canvas. But, if you use many layers of paint or thick paint, it should cover the graphite completely. Now, just because you can cover graphite with paint doesn't mean you should use it for your underpainting. If you are working with acrylic paints, you can feel free to use graphite. Acrylic paint turns into a solid plastic sheet when it dries, so it will seal the graphite that you used to draw on the canvas while planning your painting.

But, if you are using oil paint, you should never paint directly over a graphite drawing. It may not happen overnight, but graphite can rise to the surface through multiple layers of oil paint over time. Now, if you seal the graphite before painting over it, you shouldn't have any problems. Workable fixative can work here, but if you want to ensure you get a seal that will protect your painting, you should use matt medium over workable fixative. Another option is to use charcoal to draw with before painting.

How To Trace An Image Onto A Canvas Using A Pencil

Tracing often gets a bad wrap in the art world because it's viewed as cheating by many. If it makes you feel any better about it, the old masters used camera obscura techniques to project images onto canvas. If you use tracing and transfer paper to speed up your process, there's nothing wrong with it. But how can you trace it onto a canvas? 

The answer here is simple; you can't. Most artists use a lightbox for tracing, which won't work for a stretched canvas or a canvas panel. What will work is carbon paper. If you use carbon paper, go over the lines of what you want to trace; you'll be left with an image you can paint over. Just make sure that you seal it with workable fixative and then matt medium before you start to paint over it.

Projecting A Pencil Drawing Onto A Canvas

While a lightbox won't work on a canvas, a projector will work just fine. High-end artist projectors can be quite expensive, placing them outside the budget for many amateur or young artists. Does that mean you'll have to give up on the idea of using a projector to help you with your art? Absolutely not! Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a high-end artist projector, you can go for a less expensive projector that uses magnifies and projects a paper image, or you can use something along the lines of a Pico digital projector that hooks up to your computer.

If you use a projector, you'll either need a steady desk or table to set it on and tape to secure it to a wall across from the desk or table. Or, you'll need to buy a tripod stand that aims a projector down at your desk. Artist projectors are handy tools that can help you shave a lot of time off your process while also helping maintain a proper perspective. Since artist projectors don't project an incredibly bright image, they are best used in low-light or darkened rooms.

Beginner Ideas For Drawing Onto A Canvas

If you are just starting to explore what you can create by drawing on canvas, you shouldn't spend a fortune on materials. This is an experimental stage, so using less expensive materials can help to save your bank account while allowing you to develop your artistic skills. One option to consider here is using canvas panels. 

They are similar to stretched canvas, but they are far less expensive. Another option would be to buy a roll of unprimed canvas. Buying canvas by the roll is much less costly than buying it stretched. By opting for the unprimed canvas, you can experiment with different numbers of coats of gesso to see what works best for you.

Another money-saving tip is to not be afraid to re-use canvases when you are just experimenting and practicing. You can erase most graphite and charcoal from a surface; then, with a few coats of gesso, your canvas will be ready to draw on again. Whatever you do, when you first start drawing on canvas, don't be afraid to experiment. Try new things, combine mediums together, and see what works for you. Drawing with pencils on canvas might feel odd at first, but once you get used to it, you'll see that it opens up a whole new world of artistic possibilities for you.

Additional Questions:

Can you Draw onto an Acrylic Painting?

Drawing onto Acrylic Paint
Drawing onto Acrylic Paint

Acrylic paint is difficult to use because the surface isn't as smooth and slippery as oil paints.

Experiment with different artists' mediums. You may stack several thin layers on top of one another without difficulty; in fact, because there won't be much tooth when applying new drawing materials. of charcoal and marker pens on top of acrylic with ease. Can you Draw on Acrylic?

How to Seal Pencil Drawings

How to Seal a Pencil Drawing. If you are looking to preserve graphite drawings. Here are some alternatives. A UV-resistant varnish or working fixative. Just keep in mind that workable fixative can dull the colors of your pencils somewhat, so if you're going for bright and vibrant hues, you might want to choose a different sealing technique.

Varnishes, on the other hand, such as UV-resistant varnish, offer a more permanent seal. It will stop your drawing from fading and discoloring over time, but it cannot be removed or altered once it has been applied.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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How to Draw with a Pencil on Canvas