Canvas paintings are generally larger and more daunting than the average piece of paper. Because of this, an artist needs to make a detailed sketch before starting to paint.
This article will review the best methods of sketching onto a new canvas for painting. These methods can vary based on what mediums you’ll be using. It will also discuss how to transfer a finished drawing to a canvas.
Can you sketch on canvas before painting?
Yes! Though sketching on canvas is different than sketching on paper. Canvas is generally a much rougher, more textured surface and will be even more textured based on how thoroughly you have primed the canvas.
The completely unprimed canvas is very rough. This surface is better for charcoal or soft drawing pencils, as the soft graphite will catch in the hills and valleys of the canvas and leave bold marks behind. This type of canvas is excellent for large strokes but makes tiny details hard to accomplish.
A canvas that you have only primed a little bit also works well for this reason, as it still has a lot of texture.
If use a heavily primed canvas, you are better able to use harder and sharper drawing tools. That is because the gesso has filled in most of the gaps on the surface, leaving behind a smooth finish. You can even use ink on a canvas like this, and it will allow you to add small details to your canvas that you would not be able to accomplish with softer graphite or charcoal.
How to heavily prime a canvas for pencil, marker, or ink sketches
You can buy a canvas that is already primed. But normally they are primed for painting and not for working with pencils or markers. So you might have to apply additional layers of gesso yourself.
It takes a bit of practice and patience to get a smooth surface on a heavily primed canvas. You will need to apply multiple coats of gesso and let each fully dry before applying the next one. Use a large, flat brush and bold strokes that are perpendicular to the strokes used in the layer underneath.
To get an even smoother surface, try lightly sanding each coat of gesso with a fine-grit sandpaper. This technique will give the next layer something to stick to and will smooth out the final layer. However, it is crucial to only sand a completely dry coat of gesso; you must also wipe off any debris before applying your next coat.
Spray gesso is a new technique that will produce a smooth result. You will still need several layers, but the benefit of spray gesso is there will be no rough brush marks left behind after you apply it to the surface of the canvas.
What’s the best pencil for sketching on canvas?
A sketch is usually meant to be a guide, which is ultimately covered by the final piece of art or final painting. This fact is true while sketching on paper, and also while you draw on the canvas.
Because of this, darker marks from charcoal and B grade pencils will be harder to cover up with your painting medium of choice. It will also be harder to get a more detailed sketch with these mediums, so you will have to make many choices without a sketch to guide your hand.
One potential benefit of this is that your marks will be freer and looser – a detailed sketch that you follow exactly might make your final painting seem stiff.
One last downfall of softer leads and charcoal is that it might smear. A blurry sketch will be harder to translate into a finished painting. It might also mean that the charcoal or graphite mixes with your pigment and muddies your colors, making for a dull final product.
With all of this in mind, H grade pencils tend to be best for sketching on canvas. They are much less likely to smear or leave graphite behind in your paint. And as an added benefit, their sharp points will allow you to add detail to your sketches. They will simply need a heavily primed surface to be the most effective.
Using erasers on canvas
Where there is sketching, there is almost always erasing.
When it comes to erasing your sketches, Jason Tako recommends a kneaded eraser. He notes that you must use some caution when erasing your sketches, as a hard eraser and firm grip can easily damage an oil-primed canvas.
How to transfer a drawing to canvas for painting
If you don’t want to sketch directly onto the canvas and instead want to transfer a drawing from paper to canvas, there are a few options at your disposal.
The most obvious choice is a dedicated transfer paper. This is paper that has a layer of charcoal on one side, and you begin by placing it flat on your canvas and tracing your drawing on the other side. The pressure from tracing transfers that charcoal to your canvas and leaves behind a faint sketch for you to then paint over.
If you don’t want to purchase a transfer paper, it is fairly easy to make your own. You begin by getting a blank sheet of paper and manually covering one side of it with charcoal. You then trace your drawing on the other side, the same as you would with transfer paper from the store.
One note of caution when choosing to make your own transfer paper: this version can get messy. Be sure to limit the pressure on the canvas from your wrist while tracing, as it is easy to smear charcoal using the pressure from your hand.
You can also use a cheap art projector and project your drawing directly on the canvas. But this works better if you are using a big canvas.
Sketching on canvas before oil painting
When preparing a sketch for an oil painting, it is vital to consider the effect that the paint will have on the pencil beneath it. Light washes of oil mean that the sketch will be visible beneath the paint, while heavy coats will better mask the lines.
One important note is that graphite may become visible again after multiple layers of oil paint are applied over the top of it. The only way to fix the problem is to seal the graphite with workable fixative for better results. You should apply the fixative after the sketch is complete, but before any paint is added to the surface of the canvas.
Charcoal will not become visible again after you paint over it in oils. However, because charcoal is a powdery and often dark medium, it tends to smudge into the lighter colors you use and make them muddy. Using a fixative before applying paint to the canvas may also help keep charcoal from dirtying your crisp, bright colors.
Sketching on canvas for acrylic painting
Sketching on canvas for acrylic painting is done similarly to sketching on canvas for an oil painting. You must be aware of the sketching shining through the finished piece if you use a transparent painting technique.
You may also want to seal your pencil sketch to prevent smudging and prevent the pencil or charcoal from turning your bright acrylic colors into a muddy mess. Just like oil paint, a workable fixative or a matte fixative will help prevent this from becoming an issue as your painting ages.
Drawing on canvas with specific mediums
Depending on what you have available, you may want to experiment with using different mediums to sketch onto your canvas. Different mediums gave different advantages that you may need to take into account before proceeding with your sketch.
As a note, it is perfectly acceptable to sketch using acrylic or oils. Light, small marks can be perfectly disguised by or blended into the painting you create over top of them. In order to “erase” the mark you’ve made, you can easily paint over your sketch with white or whatever base color your canvas is.
Alternatively, you can utilize one of the following mediums while preparing the sketch for your painting.
Drawing on canvas with colored pencils
Colored pencils are a great option to add color to your sketch. You can completely erase colored pencil on a primed canvas by using a wet cloth and some water.
Colored pencils are generally softer, and therefore they will wear down fairly quickly on a rough, textured canvas. For best results and more detail, you should coat your canvas in many layers of sanded-down gesso in order to craft a smooth surface on which to sketch using colored pencils.
One thing to note is that some paints may resist the wax base commonly used in colored pencils, and therefore the pencils may show through on your final piece of art. To help prevent this from happening, you can use lighter colors, such as pastels. These will have a less visible effect on the layers of paint you apply on top of them.
Another option is to use watercolor pencils. These pencils are applied just like ordinary colored pencils but will dissolve in solvents or water. This makes them less likely to show through to the finished work, but more likely to blend with the pigments that you apply to the canvas.
Using mineral spirits on wax-based colored pencils will achieve a similar effect to watercolor pencils. This technique is also a great way to turn your sketch into a more fleshed-out underpainting.
Drawing on canvas with charcoal
Unlike colored pencils, charcoal works better on rougher canvasses with less primer. These types of canvasses give them more tooth to stick to so they can leave behind dark marks. Charcoal is also a soft medium, which means it is less likely to damage your canvas than a firm medium, like an H grade pencil.
There are many different varieties of charcoal that you can use to sketch on canvas. The two main types are called vine charcoal and compressed charcoal. These come in the form of sticks, as well as charcoal pencils.
Vine charcoal is made from the burning of grapevines. It has no binder in it, and because of this, it is a brittle variety of charcoal that leaves a lighter mark than compressed charcoal. However, it fills into the crevices of the paper very nicely. This variety of charcoal does not transfer to the paint very readily.
Compressed charcoal comes in a stick or pencil form. It is different than vine charcoal because it consists of charcoal powder held together by a binder and compressed into sticks or pencils.
This type of charcoal leaves behind a darker mark than vine charcoal. Some varieties of compressed charcoal pencil will trail charcoal powder into your paint, especially if you use lighter yellows or white directly on top of it.
Another option is to tone your canvas with dark paint, such as brown, green, or blue. Then you can sketch in white charcoal to construct your drawing. This toning method is a great technique to experiment with, and the white charcoal is less likely to transfer to your paint pigments.
Drawing on canvas with markers
Markers will also work better on a smooth surface, just like colored pencils. A rougher textured canvas may damage your marker tips and will not leave a satisfactory mark behind.
Be careful when choosing a marker with which to draw on canvas. Alcohol-based markers, or oil-based markers such as Sharpies, may seem like decent options at first. However, over time, these markers may bleed through your canvas and into the beautiful painting you created on top of them.
The best marker to use to sketch on canvas is an acrylic-based marker. Just like using acrylic paint, acrylic markers are suitable underneath both oil and acrylic paintings. They also often have fine round tips, which offer more control, and they come in a wide variety of colors for you to choose from.