How to Draw with Pencil on Canvas: Techniques & Preservation Tips

You might be wondering, “Can you really use pencil on canvas?” Yes, absolutely. You can use pencil to sketch on a canvas as part of the under-drawing, or you can use pencil on canvas as the final artwork itself.

Graphite and coloring pencils offers a unique blend of precision, control and flexibility, allowing you to explore shading and texture in ways paints can’t always achieve.

You can use pencil on primed and unprimed canvas, both uses give you a different final result and you should try both pencil on primed canvas and unprimed canvas and see if you like it.

It’s a game-changer for artists who love detail and subtlety.

using pencil on canvas

Let’s explore how pencils can elevate your canvas work to new heights.

The Basics of Using Pencil on Canvas

Pencil on canvas isn’t solely used for preparatory sketches; it’s also a standalone medium with its own unique qualities.

When you choose the best canvas for pencil drawing, you’re looking for a surface that complements graphite, coloring pencils, watercolor pencils or charcoal.

A smooth canvas is key for fine details, while a textured one (unprimed) is ideal for depth in shading.

The Types of Pencils that Work Best With Canvas

There are four main types of pencils that work best with canvas. These are graphite (lead) pencils, colored pencils and watercolor pencils.

Each come in varying sizes and softness. Softer pencils (B grade to 9B +) will work on primed and unprimed canvas, while harder pencils (H grade to 9H+) will work best on primed canvas.

Graphite Pencils

Graphite pencils are a staple for artists looking to create detailed sketches on canvas before paint is applied.

They offer precision and a range of shades vital for the underlying structure of canvas painting.

Soft graphite pencils work best for laying large thickers lines on primed canvas and also on unprimed canvas.

Harder graphite is best for fine line work and I only recommend them for primed canvas with a tighter weave.

If you try to use a hard pencil on a raw canvas with a thicker weave, you will end up working much harder to make your lines visible and you will also use up most of your pencils.

graphite pencils laying on canvas

Charcoal Pencils

Charcoal pencils are great for drawing on canvas because of how they work with different types of canvas and their variety.

Charcoal pencils work well on primed and unprimed canvas, but the experience is a bit different.

On a primed canvas, charcoal goes on smoother and is easier to control.

On unprimed canvas, the rough texture grabs onto the charcoal more, which can create interesting effects.

Now, about charcoal pencils themselves. They come in different grades, like soft, medium, and hard.

The grade tells you how dark or light the charcoal will be.

Soft charcoal pencils are really dark and smudgy, which is cool for creating shadows or bold lines.

Hard charcoal pencils are lighter and good for detailed work because they don’t smudge as much.

Medium charcoal is right in the middle and is versatile for different styles of drawing.

charcoal pencils on canvas

Colored Pencils

Coloring pencils, also known as colored pencils, are awesome for drawing on canvas because they let you add lots of color and detail to your artwork.

Like charcoal pencils, they work well on both primed and unprimed canvas, but in different ways.

A primed canvas, which has a smooth coating, lets colored pencils glide easily, making it easier to lay down solid colors and fine details.

Unprimed canvas is rougher and grabs the color more, which can create a cool textured look but might be a bit harder to use for detailed work.

Colored pencils come in many shades and qualities, from basic ones you might use in school to high-grade ones artists use.

The higher quality pencils have more pigment, which means the colors are brighter and more vibrant.

They can blend beautifully on the canvas, letting you mix colors right on the surface to create new shades or smooth transitions.

coloring pencils on canvas

Watercolor Pencils

Watercolor pencils are a fun and unique way to add color to canvas, especially for young artists.

These pencils are a bit like magic because they change when you add water.

On a primed canvas, which is smooth because of a special coating, watercolor pencils can slide easily, allowing for gentle coloring.

When you brush over the drawing with a wet brush, the pencil marks dissolve a bit and look like watercolor paint, which is super cool!

This works best on a canvas that’s been prepared with a few layers of gesso to make it smooth and ready for watercolor.

However, on an unprimed canvas, which is rougher, using watercolor pencils might be a bit tricky.

The rough texture can make it harder to get even color, and the watercolor effect might not be as smooth.

Also, unprimed canvas doesn’t absorb water as well, so the watercolor look might not come out as expected.

The cool thing about watercolor pencils is that they come in lots of colors, and you can mix them to create new shades, just like regular watercolors.

But remember, watercolor pencils on canvas can be a bit of a challenge because the canvas isn’t as absorbent as watercolor paper.

So, if you’re using them on canvas, it’s more about having fun and experimenting rather than getting a perfect watercolor painting look.

watercolor pencils on canvas

The Types of Canvas that Work Best With Pencil

When choosing a canvas for pencil drawing, the type of canvas plays a significant role in the outcome of the artwork. Here are the types of canvases that work well with pencil:

Cotton Canvas:

Cotton canvas is a popular choice because it’s affordable, lightweight, and versatile. It comes in various textures, from rough to smooth.

The texture of the canvas can impact how the pencil interacts with the surface. For detailed pencil work, a smoother canvas might be preferable.

Linen Canvas:

Linen canvas is more expensive but highly favored by professional artists for its durability and resistance to stretching and warping.

It has a finer weave compared to cotton, making it a better choice for detailed drawing. Linen canvases are known for their smooth texture, which is ideal for pencil work.

Canvas Boards and Panels:

These are also suitable for pencil drawing. Canvas boards are made by adhering cotton canvas to a rigid board. They provide a smooth and stable surface for drawing.

Canvas Pads:

For practice or less formal work, canvas pads can be a good option. They offer a canvas-like surface in a more portable and economical format.

Pre-Stretched Canvases:

These canvases come already stretched and primed, saving time and effort. They are available in both cotton and linen and come in various textures.

Primed vs. Unprimed Canvas:

Primed canvas, coated with gesso, provides a smoother surface for pencil, while unprimed canvas has a rougher texture.

The choice of canvas depends on the desired effect and the type of pencil you will use.

different types of canvas you can use

You Can Erase Pencil from Canvas

Erasing pencil from canvas can be a bit tricky, but it’s definitely possible with the right techniques and tools.

Here are some methods:

Gentle Erasing:

Use a kneaded eraser for light pencil marks. This type of eraser is soft and pliable, and it can lift graphite from the canvas surface without damaging it.

Gently press and lift rather than rub to avoid smudging.

Erasing Tough Marks:

For tougher pencil marks, you might need an eraser that’s a bit more abrasive, like a vinyl or plastic eraser.

Be careful, though, as using too much force can damage the canvas.

Cleaning the Canvas:

If the canvas is already primed and you’re trying to clean off pencil before painting, you can lightly dampen a cloth with water (if the canvas is water-resistant) and gently rub the marks.

This method might not remove all the graphite but can lighten it significantly.

My go-to technique is to use a hard hog hair brush dipped in water and actually paint out the graphite pencil by spreading it around.

It does make the canvas darker but it achieves my goal of removing pencil marks from the canavs.

Paint Over:

Sometimes, it’s difficult to completely erase pencil marks from a canvas, especially if the canvas is textured or if the pencil marks are heavy.

In such cases, you might choose to simply paint over the pencil. If the pencil lines are thin and light, they may not be visible under a layer of paint.

Test First

Before attempting to erase, it’s always a good idea to test the eraser on a small, inconspicuous area of the canvas to make sure it doesn’t damage the surface.

best eraser for charcoal

How to Use Pencil On Canvas

If you can draw on paper with pencil you can pretty much draw on canvas with pencil. It is not rocket science once you have had some practise.

To use pencil on canvas effectively:

  1. Choose the Right Pencil: Soft graphite pencils (B series) are better as they are less likely to damage the canvas compared to harder pencils (H series).
  2. Apply Light Pressure: Use gentle strokes to avoid tearing or scratching the canvas.
  3. Consider Canvas Type: On a primed canvas (coated with gesso), pencil marks will be smoother. On unprimed canvas, they will have a more textured look.
  4. Erase Carefully: Use a kneaded eraser for light marks and a vinyl eraser for heavier marks, but always be gentle to avoid canvas damage.
  5. Fix the Drawing (sealing): If you plan to paint over it, lightly fix the pencil sketch with a workable fixative to prevent smudging.
  6. Experiment and Practice: Try different techniques and pressures to see what effects you can create with pencil on canvas.

There it is, if anyone else says it is more complicated than this then they are lying to you.

How to Seal Pencil On Canvas

To seal pencil on canvas is to protect your work. A spray fixative will ensure your drawing remains intact, free from the smudging that hands or brushes might cause.

I like products like Krylon fixatives. They work, they’re inexpensive and available almost anywhere.

I would recommend a fixative spray that would work with pastels on paper or canvas as pencil on canvas will also have small dust like particles that could smudge if touched.

A fixative for pencil on paper may work but may not be as effective.

Krylon Fixative Spray
Krylon Fixative Spray

Things You Should Know

When considering pencil use on canvas beyond what we’ve already discussed, it’s important to keep in mind the following additional aspects:

  1. Blending Techniques: Pencil marks on canvas can be blended using blending stumps or a dry brush. This can create softer transitions or shading effects, especially useful in detailed or realistic drawings.
  2. Combining with Other Mediums: Pencils can be effectively combined with other mediums like acrylic or oil paints for mixed-media artwork. Pencil lines can add detail or texture to a painting.
  3. Sketching Underpaintings: For artists who paint, a pencil sketch on canvas can serve as a guide or underpainting. This helps in mapping out the composition before applying paint.
  4. Layering: Layering pencil marks can build up tone and depth. This technique is useful for creating a range of values from light to dark.
  5. Protecting the Artwork: If the pencil drawing is the final artwork, applying a fixative can protect it from smudging and fading. However, it’s crucial to test the fixative on a small area first, as it can sometimes alter the appearance of the pencil marks.
  6. Handling Smudging: Pencil on canvas, especially softer pencils, can smudge easily. It’s important to handle the canvas carefully and possibly work from top to bottom to minimize smudging with your hand or sleeve.

Preparing Your Canvas for Pencil

When diving into canvas art, mastering the prep stage sets you apart. Your canvas’s potential skyrockets when primed correctly, making every pencil line count.

Properly Priming the Canvas

Before you ask “Is it okay to use pencil on canvas?” remember, a well-prepared surface is key. While not required, priming ensures that your drawing or sketch translates well on the canvas before paint is applied.

Priming allows for easy corrections in case you’re wondering “Does pencil erase from canvas?” A primed surface gives you the liberty to make changes without damaging the integrity of your canvas.

Best Primer for Pencil on Canvas is Gesso

To prime a canvas for use with pencil, the most recommended product is gesso.

Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or a combination of these, and it creates an ideal surface for pencil drawing.

It’s especially useful because it provides a uniform color and acts as a base for further paint applications if needed.

The chalk in gesso ensures good adhesion, and the binder regulates the absorbency, making it a versatile primer for various painting media, including acrylics, oils, and pencil.

There are a few key steps to follow when priming your canvas with gesso:

  1. Preparation: Before applying gesso, prepare your canvas and ensure you have a soft flat brush and gesso ready. You can thin the first coat of gesso with a little water to make it easier to apply.
  2. Applying Gesso: Apply the gesso evenly, first in one direction and then in the perpendicular direction for each subsequent coat. This cross-application method minimizes brush strokes and ensures even coverage.
  3. Drying and Sanding: Allow the gesso to dry well between coats. If you’re in a hurry, you can use a hairdryer for quicker drying. After the first coat is dry, lightly sand the canvas to roughen the surface slightly, providing a better grip for the next layer of gesso. Ensure to clean off any residue after sanding.
  4. Number of Coats: Generally, about three coats of gesso are recommended. However, this can vary based on the absorbency of your canvas and your personal preferences.
  5. Drying Time: Gesso usually takes one to two hours to be touch dry, but it’s best to wait at least 24 hours before drawing or painting on it. Be aware that humidity and temperature can affect the drying time.

Gesso is available in different consistencies and colors, including traditional white, transparent, and black gesso, allowing for creative flexibility depending on your project requirements.

For pencil drawing, a smoother surface is usually preferred, which can be achieved with multiple, well-sanded layers of gesso.

Transferring a Pencil Drawing to Canvas

Transferring a pencil drawing onto canvas can be achieved through various methods, each suitable for different needs and skill levels.

Here are some of the most effective techniques that artists have used across the years:

Using Transfer Paper/Carbon Paper:

This method involves placing transfer paper between your drawing and the canvas.

You then trace over the drawing with a pencil, which transfers the design onto the canvas. It’s a quick method that doesn’t require prepping your paper and provides a sharp transfer.

Pencil Method Without Transfer Paper:

For this, you color over the back side of your drawing with a pencil.

Then, place the paper on the canvas, design side up, and trace over the design with a sharp pencil.

This method etches the design onto the canvas.

Mod Podge Method:

This is a newer technique. Apply Mod Podge to the canvas, then lay a mirrored image of your drawing face down on the canvas.

After drying, moisten the paper with a damp sponge and rub off, leaving the image on the canvas.

Grid Method:

This method is one of the oldest and is my personal favorite.

This involves drawing a grid over your original sketch and a corresponding grid on the canvas.

You then transfer the content of each square on your sketch to the corresponding square on the canvas. This method is helpful for maintaining accurate proportions and details.

Using an Art Projector:

Project your drawing onto the canvas and trace it. This method is useful for adjusting the size of the image and transferring detailed sketches.

Using a Lightbox:

Place the reference image and tracing paper into a lightbox.

Trace the image onto the tracing paper, then transfer it to the canvas using either commercial or DIY transfer paper.

Freehand Method:

If you’re confident in your drawing skills, you can transfer your sketch freehand.

This method gives a more organic and natural-looking result but requires good drawing skills.

Comparison Method:

Place your sketch and canvas side by side and transfer the lines onto the canvas by eye.

This method is great for maintaining accurate proportions while creating a natural-looking artwork.

Techniques for Drawing with Pencil on Canvas


Crosshatching is a productive technique to add texture and depth to your canvas sketches.

By overlapping lines at various angles, you build darkness and a sense of volume that makes your drawing pop.


Smudging allows you to soften edges and blend shades seamlessly.

With a gentle touch, you can manipulate graphite and charcoal on canvas to create smooth transitions, echoing a watercolor effect without paint.


Stipple to introduce intricate detail and texture into your canvas art.

This method involves making tiny dots with your pencil which, from afar, gives the illusion of a detailed, cohesive piece even on the roughest canvas papers.

Adding Color to Your Pencil Drawing

Layering Colors

When you apply colored pencils to a canvas, layering is key for building up depth.

Start with light pressure for your initial layers; this technique makes it easier to add more colors.

Blending Colors

Blending intensifies the colors in your canvas art and helps create smooth transitions.

Use a paper stump, your fingers, or a blending pencil to merge colors seamlessly.

Tips for Achieving Realistic Effects

Creating Shading and Highlights

Your canvas art can leap off the page with the right shading and highlights.

Shading adds depth, while bright highlights breathe life into your pencil drawing.

Using Different Types of Lines

Strong lines define the shape of your subject; delicate lines offer subtle detail.

Mastering both in your canvas sketches will make your canvas painting stand out with a professional touch.

If you have any unanswered questions about using pencil on canvas, shoot me a note in the comments or use the Contact Us page. I reply quite quickly.

Pencil on Canavs Art Sample

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