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Tips on How to Use Pastels on Canvas – it can be done!

While most people think that canvas is the surface for art media like acrylics and oil paints, other kinds of media can also be used on canvas to create beautiful and interesting pieces of artwork. One such media that may be used on canvas is pastel. While traditionally, pastels are used on special pastel paper, using them on canvas can open up new and interesting ways of using this lovely art medium. In this post, I’ll describe the top tips on how to use pastels on canvas while covering other questions you need answered. Keep reading to learn more.

How to use Pastels on Canvas - Edouard Manet
Portrait of Madame Jules Guillemet“, 1880, Edouard Manet, pastel on canvas. Saint Louis Art Museum

Types of Pastels You Can Use on Canvas

You can use any kind of pastels that you have on canvas, but you should definitely realize that the end result may be different from what you can expect when you are using traditional pastel paper. 

Typically, oil pastels are the pastel of choice for use on a canvas. These crayon-like pastels allow much of the flexibility of oil paints but in a less messy, easier to control format. Most often, artists just draw on the canvas with the pastel. The soft, waxy texture of the oil pastel can provide interesting texture to the drawing. 

However, soft and hard pastels are also used on canvas at times. They will behave a bit differently on the canvas than they do on paper. Using hard and soft pastels on canvas will probably require more blending so that the canvas does not show through the pigment color. Pastel pencils will behave similarly when used on canvas.

how to use pastel sticks

How Do You Blend Soft Pastels on Canvas?

When you are using soft or hard pastels on a canvas, the typical method is to lightly brush the canvas with water so that it is slightly damp. As you work, you can use a wet brush to smear and blend the colors. 

If you prefer a dry technique, you will need to work slowly, using your fingers, an artist’s blending stump, or a paper towel to blend the colors and fill in any gaps on the canvas.

To blend colors by using a layering technique, you will need to spray a layer of fixative on your pastel drawing over which you can create more layers of pastel coloring. 

How Do You Prepare a Canvas for Pastels?

Canvas is a good surface for pastels because the surface is rough enough to have “tooth” that grabs onto the particles of pigment, embedding them in the surface.

However, if you buy pre-primed canvas, the gesso that is brushed on the canvas to prepare it for painting may smooth the surface of the canvas. A smooth surface is not ideal for pastels of any kind.

The best way to avoid a too smooth surface is to buy canvases that are not primed. However, if it’s too late, and you already have primed canvases, you can prime the canvas again with a product like Golden Pastel Ground. This product will give the smooth canvas a bit of roughness or “tooth” which is ideal for working with pastels. 

Basic Pastels Technique When You’re Using a Canvas

Without experimentation, art would never change, so keep in mind that you can generally try to use any media with any surface. In art, rules are made to be broken. If you have a novel idea of how to use your pastels on a canvas, feel free to experiment. 

When using hard or soft pastels on a canvas, you can use a dry or wet technique. For a wet technique, lightly brush or spray the canvas with water. You don’t want it extremely wet; slightly damp is perfect.

Lightly draw the outline of your basic picture with a graphite pencil, a colored pencil, or a pastel pencil. Use the flat side of the pastel to fill in the colors of your drawing with wide arcs of color.

Typically, the lighter colors are filled in before using the darker colors and blending in layers. You may want to spray a layer of workable fixative on the drawing before you add some of the darker colors over the top of the lighter ones. This will keep the colors sharp and fresh rather than getting muddy and smudged. 

To use a dry technique with hard or soft pastels, you probably want to work in small sections, blending the pastel with your fingers or another blending tool as you go. This will press the color into the fibers of the canvas and keep the colors opaque.

Again, use layers of lighter colors before you add the layers of the darker colors. Keep a damp towel nearby to clean your hands frequently when working with hard and soft pastels so that you won’t smudge the colors.

Oil pastels will behave significantly differently on a canvas than hard and soft pastels. You will want to begin by sketching out your basic outline on the canvas with a pencil. However, you should work in opposite color order with oil pastels than with chalk pastels.

You will lay down the darker colors first, add the mid-tone colors, and last, you will add the lighter colors in your drawing. 

When you use oil pastels on canvas, take your time adding layers of color. If you try to lay down too much color all at once, the colors will become muddy and less vibrant.

Oil pastels may not blend as easily as hard and soft pastels. To blend oil pastels and make your drawing look more like vibrant oil painting, you can use a paint thinner like turpentine to blend the colors and smooth the lines of the drawing.

You may want to use a paper towel rolled to a fine point or a cotton swab to apply the turpentine to the drawing.

When you display your pastel drawings, you must properly care for them, so they will last a long time. Hard and soft pastels need to have a fixative sprayed on the drawing to avoid smudging and smearing.

However, oil pastels do not necessarily need a fixative, though many artists use one to avoid accidental smearing of the artwork.

If you do not use a fixative for an oil pastel canvas drawing, you should use a mat as you frame it to keep the drawing from pressing up against the glass in the frame.

The glass will cause the drawing to smear and smudge, and when you remove the drawing from the frame, you may leave some of the oil pastel on the glass, ruining your picture. 

How to Use Pastels on Canvas Support Video

I have undertaken some research to find you a YouTube video that I believe best covers the topic of pastels on canvas from start to end.

Wrap Up

I hope this post “How to use Pastels on Canvas” helped you learn something new about using pastels on canvas that you did not know. Pastels are one of my favorite mediums to use for their ease, quickness and vibrant colors and I hope it becomes a favorite for you.

If you wish to see some samples of famous artists who used Pastels on canvas I have linked to Manet here and Mary Cassatt here. Mary Cassatt’s pastels on canvas are light, gentle and loose and are a great starting point for inspiration.

I have some other Pastel related posts if you are interested such as How to use Pastel Sticks to Create Artwork and Best Oil Pastels – Top 5 Reviewed + Buyer Guide. If you are interested in learning what the best oil pastels are, I have a buyer’s guide here covering these.

Feel free to share this post with your friends or on social media if you think they will benefit from my tips.

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