How to Draw with Charcoal on Canvas. An Essential Guide

Among many popular drawing mediums among artists, charcoal is one of the oldest known to human beings. If you're wondering how to draw with charcoal without the problems that can happen along the way.

As a general rule, many of the various types of charcoal can be used to draw onto the canvas. Charcoal pencils that can be sharpened are a reliable choice if you are looking to generate a specific concept on the exterior of a sketched canvas or a canvas panel. Compressed charcoal can be combined to produce graded areas of value and heighten the inherent characteristics of the exterior of a canvas.

Read on to find this breakdown troubleshooting guide that will assist you further.

Drawing With Charcoal
Drawing With Charcoal

Drawing on Canvas

Canvas is a standard material that is used for paintings and theatrical backdrops. Often, the canvas is primed to reduce the amount of surface texture. This is why a decent layer or two of Gesso will help smooth out your canvas surface. It also eliminates drawing problems that can often plague artists who are working on canvas paintings. Here is what you need to know:

Drawing with Compressed Charcoal

• Charcoal baton Vs. Charcoal pencil?

You might think that charcoal is regular sticks of natural charcoal, but it's so much more than you might think. Two categories of charcoal define their usage. There are pencil versions.

Charcoal pencils

  1. Charcoal pencils (needs sharpening)

These are just like graphite pencils and are enclosed inside a wooden housing. They can be sharpened with pencil sharpeners, razor blades, knives, or the tip sharpened with sandpaper. They come in various shades and are pure charcoal powder compressed with binders, so they are as hard as graphite or as soft as a crayon. The following post details all of the available options for drawing with an easel. Click Here. What Is The Best Drawing Easel?

  1. Paper-covered pencils (uses a pull string)

These are a handy variant that uses a paper covering that is wrapped paper with a pull string attached. As you need, this string will allow the paper to tear open, and the paper exposes the charcoal. After this, the charcoal can be sharpened with a knife or sandpaper, so the tip is more defined. These have pros and cons, just like traditional charcoal pencils.

  1. White charcoal pencil (needs sharpening)

What you'll find with white charcoal pencils is rather interesting. The charcoal isn't actually charcoal and is primarily made from compressed white chalk made with binders. This also extends into colored and tinted charcoal that also uses chalk to create various tinted colors. The upside is that these pencils can be sharpened with a standard pencil sharpener.

Willow and Vine Sticks

After this, you have what is called Willow and Vine charcoal sticks made from Grape Vine! They are heated in a kiln without oxygen, turning the vine into a chalky charcoal color used as a drawing stick. One advantage to this is that it can be drawn onto canvas easily and erased just as quickly. Since there are no glues or binders, it's a favorite for artists but does have downsides since it smudges very easily.

Compressed Charcoal Pencil

There is something impressive about compressed charcoal Pencil because it's wholly processed from raw charcoal powder into a drawing stick. Because it has many types of binders to create levels of hardness or softness, this is where you start having technical problems. Softer versions have higher amounts of wax, so these will work like charcoal-colored crayons.

This is fine for paper but can be a binding problem for canvas where the paint needs to stick. This is why more rigid sticks will work better since they can be shaped with a razor blade. The stiffer binders will prevent the stick from breaking too easily but do take continual sharpening. Harder variations will require a softer touch since these can dent your canvas, so darker charcoal shades are needed.

• Sharpening problems

Alright, it's a problem that has to be mentioned since drawing on the treated canvas will be different from drawing on paper. Because canvas is primed with Gesso, this combination can contain acrylic paint, gypsum, chalk, and various binders. The resulting effect helps fill the rough canvas's fabric surface, but once it's dried, it's hard enough to be sanded. This is so you can have smoother surfaces to make realistic paintings and finer detail.

This is where the problems can occur if you have a sharpened charcoal pencil. Despite the smooth surface, hard emulsifiers are used, such as gypsum, calcium carbonate, and acrylic polymers. It can become so hard that it can crack if the surface of the canvas is flexed too much. This is why a light touch is needed to apply charcoal onto the surface. This will cause your charcoal to get dull very quickly due to these additional Gesso ingredients.

To maintain a sharpened pencil or drawing stick, you need to sharpen these pencils more often than drawing on ordinary paper. This will be time-consuming and perhaps bothersome to some artists but isn't the end of the world. Knowing how to draw with charcoal using a canvas effectively will always rely on patience more than anything. As you paint onto canvas, you might likely want to correct charcoal lines as you go with minor positional corrections.

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Can Charcoal Be Used on Canvas?

Can You Draw With Charcoal on Canvas
Can You Draw With Charcoal on Canvas

The truth is pretty obvious when you think about it since charcoal is perfect for drawing on primed canvas. There are annoying problems that go along with working with any charcoal and can happen on many surfaces. Because canvas is stretched over a frame, it takes a delicate touch instead of applying pressure on paper on a hard table surface. Not only that, you'll need to consider other complications that could make painting an absolute nightmare.

• Smudging problems (can be too dark)

Any kind of compressed charcoal that is harder will give you a sharper tip that doesn't need sharpening so often. Because these pencils have fewer binders, the charcoal can be darker, so you can see the line. These types of charcoal will not stick so well to the primed canvas surface, especially if you're using Willow and Vine sticks. These are pure charcoal sticks that have no binders added at all, which can smudge very easily.

While the color can be nice and dark, you need to find a shade that works best for you. This is where charcoal pencils might be a better choice since these can have minimal binders added, so the charcoal will stick better. These binders should not have wax added, so you need to look for combination gum binders that are easier to remove. At least this will reduce the chances of smudging, not by much, but a lot more than 100% charcoal sticks will smudge.

• Charcoal with added wax

So what's the big deal with having charcoal pencils that have added wax? It sounds like a great idea since the charcoal will stick to your canvas and won't be very smudgy as a result. That doesn't sound so terrible until you start looking at the problems that go along with anything containing wax-based products. Namely, the biggest problem is that paint doesn't like to stick to wax surfaces.

Paint can dry over wax-based charcoal, but that doesn't forgive the part where this paint won't stick to the canvas either. Even if you paint thin layers, the edges can flake off any movement or flexing of the canvas. Even using a stiff paintbrush can result in paint falling off if you're painting fresh layers. This can be more problematic as layers lifted might stick out from a layer of fresh paint, making it look chunky in spots.

The best solution to prevent this will be to give your canvas a light spray of fixative, so this will help sandwich newer paint layers to your canvas. This will be detailed later in this guide and isn't just to help waxy surfaces become readily paintable.

How to Use Charcoal Pencils on Canvas?

This is essentially the second part of drawing with charcoal on canvas and will be more detailed. This is also a warning to those who might not be familiar with working with a canvas surface. It's a lot like drawing on a regular A-4 paper that's taped onto a wooden frame. One wrong move can result in all sorts of mistakes that are irritating to fix.

• Watch out for pencil pull-strings (skipping)

Paper-covered pencils have a handy pull string so you can expose the charcoal under layers of wound-up paper. This is handy when you need to adjust your charcoal tip length and is convenient without using a traditional pencil sharpener. All you need is a piece of sandpaper to get the tip as sharp as you like. The trouble doesn't begin until you start drawing and lose your grip on the hanging thread hanging from the pencil itself.

What can happen is that the tip of the pencil can run over or skip across the thread as you draw on the canvas. You might be very careless not to trim the thread short enough so you can still have a pull-thread present. Some artists will wrap this thread around the pencil enough to wrap around a finger while pulling it through the paper. Either way, try using those micro hair rubber bands used for braiding hair.

• Indentation dangers

Canvas is not precisely a thin fabric and is usually 3mm or more in thickness. Once it's been coated with Gesso, it will be firmer to the touch. You'll notice that it will still bounce like the surface of a drum after the Gesso has totally dried. As the Gesso has dried, the tightness of the canvas will be nice and springy. Now you can only guess what happens when you introduce a sharpened charcoal tip next to a tight and fragile surface.

The angle of your charcoal pencil is a careful balance of using a light-handed pressure that isn't pushing very hard on the canvas itself. If there is too much pressure applied, you risk putting your charcoal tip through the canvas or create a permanent indentation or indented line! How you hold your charcoal pencil should be from the side, where you can see the tip of your pencil making contact. A light touch is all that's needed to make a mark.

• Gesso cracking

Gesso is such a forgiving addition to any canvas to help give painting surfaces smoother with a professional appearance. Then again, there is a downside that will make your canvas more prone to cracking. Even if you use two layers of Gesso, these could lead to cracking if the canvas surface is flexed or pushed too hard in certain spots. Corners and edges will fracture vertically, while closer to the center will result in spiderweb-like fractures.

Most of the time, these will not show up when you start painting onto the canvas or could be filled with thinned paint washes. This can help repair minor cracks since the paint will act like glue but won't always keep cracks from being seen later if you use heavy brush strokes.

• Hard to remove charcoal lines

Let's say that you've added some charcoal lines that are too heavy, or you want to erase a line that's not what you wanted to sketch. You will need to use an eraser to remove these lines. Here are methods that help you remove charcoal based on the type of charcoal pencil you're using.

  1. Willow and Vine charcoal sticks

These are erased the easiest and only need a gum eraser, gum paste, or a soft kneaded eraser. Since this is natural charcoal, it's the cleanest that can be safely removed without leaving any residual marks.

  1. Pencil and paper wrapped charcoal

These are charcoal powders that are mixed with additives and compressed into a continual charcoal rod. Depending on the number of additives, the softness and darkness will vary to the needs of an artist using them.

  1. Gum-based charcoal pencils

Gum-based additives are a good choice that's used to keep charcoal powder stuck onto a canvas. These can also be removed using a gentle gum eraser and repeated kneaded eraser putty. This will remove the surface layers of charcoal, making it less likely that smudging will happen. The remaining layers will be faster and easier to remove.

  1. Wax-based charcoal pencils

These are harder to remove from all charcoal pencils since removing wax will take a very delicate touch. This is where dabbing and erasing with a good amount of kneaded eraser will be the best. This will take several attempts to remove as many waxy charcoal markings as you can.

Can You Apply Charcoal Over Paint?

You can apply charcoal over sections that have been already painted. This is common when you're in the process of painting and when you need to make essential corrections.

As long as you aren't using hard lines and you can see where you've added new corrections, you can over-paint these sections. At this point, you want to avoid using wax-based charcoal pencils to avoid having paint bonding issues.

More aggressive cleaning may include using a soft toothbrush and a little bit of soapy water to help break down waxy build-up.

Wax is often broken away using a gum eraser since the crumbly eraser will allow the wax particles to fall away from the canvas. After this, you'll be able to scrub with your toothbrush to remove any leftover residue.

How Do You Use Acrylic and Charcoal on Canvas?

Acrylic paint is an excellent medium to use when using charcoal. These two complement each other since acrylic is dry and allows lines to be added over the top when the paint is dry.

If there is a mistake sketched onto acrylic, you use a gum eraser to remove unwanted lines. At this point, it would be a better idea to use Willow, and Vine sticks to make subtle corrections that are easier to correct.

The texture of acrylic paint allows natural charcoal to stick to the surface without much effort. Removing these lines won't leave a mark on the acrylic paint when using a kneaded putty eraser. Be sure to mix the lifted charcoal lines into your putty to transfer back onto your painting.

How Do You Seal Charcoal on Canvas?

When you want to keep charcoal lines from smudging after you've primed your canvas, you can seal your charcoal drawings with a fixeative spray.

Many sprays are helpful, but the best ones are Krylon's fixative spray since every art and paint store will carry this product. Don't try using hair spray because these can yellow over time and aren't meant for long-term preservation. Click here to view information on Amazon

Since you only want to seal just the charcoal, the workable fixative spray from Krylon is a good choice since it can also be erased.

It won't affect the quality of your painting and certainly won't inhibit the adhesive nature of paint layers. In the end, if you want to seal your finished painting, you'll want to use a different kind of paint sealer, depending on the type of paint you're using.

Final Word

It seems like a great idea to use charcoal to draw onto your canvas, but give yourself options so you can make corrections easier. I recommend using pure Willow and Vine sticks that are 100% natural.

After this, the next best choice is using gum-based charcoal or compressed charcoal pencil. As long as you aren't rubbing these lines much, you'll have clean lines that can be painted over without any problem.


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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