You can use watercolor pencils on canvas. Artist Tested

Did you know you can use watercolor pencils on canvas? You need to be aware of what type of canvas and primer works best.

When I was asked “can you use watercolor pencils on canvas”, I ran some tests and what I found is that Watercolor pencils are a great tool for artists who want to add a light color to their canvas without having to use paint.

You should only use watercolor pencils on small canvases otherwise you’re just wasting pencils and money.

After the canvas gets bigger than a large format paper, you’re better off using watercolor paints from a tube.

Also, unlike normal pencils that can be difficult to work with due the wax-based binder and pigment in the pencils, watercolor pencils have a water soluble binder and pigment that can dissolved using just water and a brush.

This will allow you to lightly apply a wash of color to your canvas.

Lastly, use a pre-primed canvas board or gesso primed canvas rather than raw, unprimed stretched canvas. Unless unprimed canvas is a look that you’re aiming for.

The following additional tips will help you get started on your next watercolor pencil on canvas project and ensure your work will last the test of time.

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What Are Watercolor Pencils?

Watercolor pencils are a type of drawing tool that is used much like any other graphite or wax based pencil. 

The difference between watercolor pencils and normal colored pencils is the fact that these have an extra binder ingredient added to them which allows you to use clear water in order to dissolve part of the pigment on the surface. 

You can also use brush, spray bottle, or even wet your fingers for this same purpose if you wish as well. Be aware that not all brands will react equally when using different methods so it may require some trial and error before finding what works best with your choice in product.

watercolor pencils

What are watercolor pencils made of?

As stated previously, the watercolor pencils themselves are made of water soluble pigments, binders and other additives. These are encased in wood that allows the artist to sketch out a picture and then work the color with some water and brush and make it behave like a watercolor paint.

The pigment is what creates the color itself while the binder holds everything together in one form or another. 

The additives can include anything from extenders to waxes which allow for a smoother application at times as well as offering more strength and durability overall.

How do watercolor pencils compare to watercolors? 

There are many different brands of watercolor pencils on store shelves these days so it’s important that you choose carefully when making any purchase based around this type of media.

Personally I am not too fussed and I own a mix of expensive and cheap brands. I use the cheap brands for when I am experimenting and the expensive ones for client work or when I am working on paintings to sell or gift.

The difference in results are negligible but I believe the difference will show over time as colors and brilliance fade.

Watercolor pencils tend to be much less expensive than actual tubes of paint but there may not always be an exact comparison between them depending upon your needs for use in specific projects.

As an artist who is less experienced with applying watercolor straight from a palette, I find some security in being able to first sketch out my work with a pencil and then apply washes or work the pencil lines with a brush.

That said, I have always use watercolors and watercolor pencils on treated watercolor paper and less frequently on canvas. So for this post, I ran a few tests to see what the results would be when applying watercolor pencils on canvas.

When I started thinking of canvas I looked at untreated/unprimed raw canvas, a primed stretched canvas and a commercial canvas glued to a backing board to see what worked, and what didn’t.

What are the potential problems of using watercolour pencils on canvas?

The first is that some pencils are light and won’t apply on canvas. This means you’ll have to use a harder grade of pencil or go over your line with a watercolor marker after applying the color wash. 

You will end up using more watercolor pencil to get the same effect as a watercolor paint or acrylic paint from a tube.

The second problem can be removing excess pigment from your work if you make a mistake. Reworking watercolor or watercolor pencils once water has been applied can be hard. 

Reworking even watercolor pencil on canvas before water is applied can also pose a problem once you start applying a wet brush, the colors may start to blend and bleed in a manner you didn’t want.

The biggest issue will be with an unprimed canvas. A stretched canvas that has been primed in acrylic or gesso will also work ok. I found the cheaper commercially primed canvas on backing board seems to work best.

Overall most will give good results.

Preparing or Priming the canvas for watercolour pencils

Canvas is a fabric that is stretched tight and stapled to a wooden frame. 

I prefer cotton canvas over linen canvas as it has a smaller tooth and allows me to have a flatter and more even canvas after it is stretched and primed but they aren’t cheap but if you purchase a large roll it becomes quite cost effective over the long term.

rolled raw canvas

Depending on the type of canvas, it may come with either an acrylic or gesso primer already applied. As I stated earlier, commercial canvas glued to a board will also come already primed.

glued canvas boards

When you paint onto this surface using watercolor pencils (or any other medium), there are three things to consider: 

  1. How will your painting look if you remove some of the color? 
  2. How much tooth does it have? 
  3. And what happens when wet media runs over dry pigment?

For most applications, unprimed canvas works well because reworking can easily be done by scraping off the top layer of colour – just as long as there’s no sizing in the fabric first.

With primed surfaces, once excess pigments mix together they they will not separate again.

Unlike when using watercolor paints or watercolor pencils on paper, the canvas will not warp or lose its shape after you have applied water.

Using watercolor pencils on unprimed canvas, fabric or paper board is possible, but should be used with caution.

To preserve the tooth of your surface and avoid staining, it’s best to apply watercolor pencils after completing any paint other applications on wet media such as acrylic paint. 

Keep in mind that you can’t erase over the top of a permanent layer of pigment – so if you’re not happy with how something turned out, start again and paint over it with primer!

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unprimed canvas

What are some other tips? 

Watercolor pencils can be mixed together without fear because they aren’t designed for blending like normal colored pencils. 

It might be best to practice this technique; good blends in watercolor take time to perfect, even when using traditional tools.

Testing Drawing Pencils on Canvas

It’s always helpful to test your materials before you start a big project.

You’ll want to know which pencils work best on what type of canvas, and how they behave when applied in various layers. 

Applying Watercolor Pencils onto Canvas

If you apply more pressure with the watercolor pencil while drawing on watercolor paper, it will leave darker lines than if you had pressed lightly across the surface. 

You may not get the same reaction when working on canvas.

Apply too much, and instead of getting a solid color that looks like paint, your pigment may blotch or form little specks around where you’ve drawn. 

While using watercolor pencils on canvas is also an option, it does in my mind create a less polished finished product than if you were working on paper. 

In addition, mistakes or errors can be difficult to correct once they are dried.

Test using watercolour pencils on different canvas 

Test using watercolour pencils on different canvas textures to see how they react. You may find that using a paintbrush with little water is the best way to work your pigments after you have laid in some light pencil lines.

Try a few light washes of color and see if you like the consistency you get.

Also try blending a few colors of watercolor pencil on the canvas and see if you like the effect you get.

Let the test patches dry and see if you like how the final color looks. Is it dull? Is it to your expectations?

Durability of watercolour pencils on canvas

Durability can be a factor when using watercolor pencils on canvas, as watercolour paintings typically need to stand up to the elements.

Canvas is known to be very durable, what I am not totally sold on is the duration of watercolor pigment and binder on the primer used on the canvas.

Gesso works well as it absorbs water and watercolors but it may absorb too much water, leaving the pigment to sit on the surface layer on its own.

Again, we need to run some longer term experiments to see what the results are. Based on my current research, it seems as though watercolor pencils last a good time on canvas.

If you have some concerns that the watercolor pigment won’t bind to the canvas surface you can always apply a fixative.

Fixing watercolor pencil on canvas

Applying a fixative is a little trickier than on paper due to the porousness of canvas.

I would use the same type that you would for pastels on canvas as the consistency of the pigment for both pastel and dried watercolor pencil pigment would be the same.

As I stated in my other post about using pastels on canvas, this may affect the colors by making them seem more dull so you do need to use a high quality fixative.

Pros of using watercolour pencils on canvas

There is a lot less mess involved compared to other media.

Watercolor pencils come in an amazing variety of colors and you can get them very cheaply used, which makes it great for practicing techniques or just having fun coloring.

Cons of using watercolour pencils on canvas 

The texture may make the lines appear more jagged as they are not able to blend well with smooth blending techniques like those you would use on paper. 

The pigment does have a tendency to fade over time so when storing your work be sure that there are no sources nearby such as sunlight or heaters which could also damage the surface of the painting. 

The Best Watercolor Pencils for Drawing on Canvas

I have used all brands from Faber-Castel to Prismacolor but I found Caran D’ache Prismalo Aquarelle Watercolour Pencils to be the best for me as I like finer work.

Like I mentioned earlier, I also use no name brands or off-brand watercolor pencils and I find they are fine as well.

If you are look for the best then these pencils come in an amazing variety of colors.

The pencil colors provide rich, blended pigment that creates little to no harsh edges.

The lightfast properties of these pencils mean that your work will not fade as long as no direct sunlight hits it.

If you are looking for high quality watercolor pencils, you cannot go wrong with these.

Water-soluble pencils vs Watercolor pencils

Can I use water soluble pencils? Are these the same as watercolor pencils? These are two different kinds of pencils. One uses a water soluble graphite and the other a water soluble pigment.

Watercolor pencils are coloured pencils, which means that their marks can be made to look like watercolor paints by wetting them with a brush.

In all honesty, unless you are a professional artist you can use the two interchangeably.

Can you use watercolor pencils on canvas – Wrap up!

So, can you use watercolor pencils on canvas? Sure! The best way to find out is by doing it. Share your results with me on Instagram.

I hope you enjoyed reading “Can you use watercolor pencils on canvas” and I hope this post answered all the questions you may have had plus more. 

Please share this blog post on social media so your artist friends know too!

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