Yes! You can actually use colored pencils on canvas. However, it might be a bit challenging and comes with some pros and cons. It’s not as straightforward as drawing on paper and it requires some preparations.
Note that colored pencils aren’t made to be used on canvas. If you have ever used a canvas before for painting acrylics or oil paints, then you would know that canvas has a very rough texture and a lot of tooth.
If you’re a beginner, I would say you are better off using your colored pencils on paper. If you’re an artist fond of exploring different possibilities, then nobody is stopping you from using colored pencils on canvas!
Below is a breakdown of what to prepare, and the pros and cons of using colored pencils on canvas.
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What To Prepare And Consider When Using Colored Pencils On Canvas
#1 Choosing The Proper Pencils
There are student-grade colored pencils, and there are artist-grade colored pencils. In this case, the higher-quality colored pencils are your best choice. The cheaper colored pencils might have issues drawing on the coarse texture of the canvas, and the color might not show.
There are also oil-based, wax-based, and watercolor pencils.
Can You Use Oil-based Color Pencils On Canvas?
Generally, oil-based color pencils have a harder core but are more expensive. Oil-based color pencils are best used on an unprimed canvas because they will wear out less even with the untouched, rough canvas texture.
Recommendation: For oil-based color pencils, choose Faber Castell Polychromos. This set is loved by many professional artists for its highly-pigmented color and break-proof lead.
Can You Use Wax-based Color Pencils On Canvas?
For wax-based colored pencils that are more common and less expensive, they are best used on a primed canvas as they have a softer lead and may wear out quickly.
Recommendation: For wax-based color pencils, choose Prismacolor Premiere Colored Pencils. It has a soft, thick core that delivers highly pigmented colors smoothly.
Can You Use Watercolor Or Water-soluble Pencils On Canvas?
Some artists use watercolor pencils directly on unprimed canvas. Watercolor pencils are water activated so they are drawn on the canvas first, then a water-loaded brush is used to move them around the canvas. It creates a “painterly effect” with pigmented colors.
Recommendation: For watercolor pencils, choose Faber Castel Watercolor Pencils. It is water-soluble, highly vibrant, behaves like watercolors when activated with water, and is completely permanent when dry.
You can watch this video by Sunshinearts demonstrating how she uses watercolor pencils on a canvas.
#2 Using The Proper Canvas
You can buy a pre-stretched canvas on a canvas board or a canvas panel, you may even buy unstretched canvas rolls in bulk.
When using colored pencils on canvas, I would recommend using a canvas panel.
A canvas panel is a canvas stretched out and attached to a flat piece of wood as its support. The surface doesn’t sink or bounce even when you rest your hand on it, and you’ll be able to create a more accurate artwork. It also lessens the risk of puncturing holes through your canvas.
A canvas board would remind you of a picture frame where the canvas is glued or attached to the wooden supports on each side, leaving the middle part without any support. When you rest your hand on the canvas board, the canvas can move and bounce back, which may affect your artwork and make it hard to apply pressure.
The terms “canvas panel” and “canvas board” may be used interchangeably by some brands, but just remember to look for the canvas stretched on a flat wooden surface.
I would not recommend using color pencils on unstretched canvas, as it will use up your color pencils much faster because of its rough surface.
It’s also best to purchase an already primed canvas panel to save yourself some hassle and save your time. If not, you can also prime your canvas yourself with some gesso.
#3 Priming Your Canvas
If you’re not able to buy a primed canvas, one way to make working with colored pencils in your canvas smoother and easier is to prime your canvas beforehand with gesso. Gesso is a kind of white acrylic paint used by many artists to make a canvas smoother and create a stiff, flat surface.
With a smoother canvas, your colored pencils will not wear out quickly. This is especially important when using wax-based color pencils with a softer core.
To make your canvas even smoother, you may put two or three layers of gesso. You can even add more layers to an already primed canvas. Then, you may also sand it down manually to make your canvas as smooth as you desire.
Pros: Why Use Colored Pencils On Canvas
#1 Vibrant, Highly Saturated Colors
Using colored pencils on canvas makes the pigment of the colored pencils “pop” vibrantly. This is because the weaves of the canvas can hold a lot more pigment compared to paper.
It depends on the colored pencil you are using, and you need to sharpen your pencil properly to get the most out of it. You also need to sharpen frequently as the canvas wears down your colored pencil quickly.
If you want to produce a less-vibrant, toned-down artwork, you can still achieve that by using lighter pressure when drawing. The heavier you prime your canvas, the less saturated the colors will show up.
#2 High Versatility
Depending on how you prime, you can prepare your canvas for different outcomes.
As mentioned earlier, a heavily primed canvas will present less saturated colors. This is because of the smooth surface that acts like paper. With a smoother surface, you can also create more accurate and precise details in your artwork.
Meanwhile, an unprimed canvas will present more vibrant colors. It also has more texture so you can create a textured artwork with an “airy look” by leaving some of the white parts of the canvas visible.
Canvas is definitely more durable than paper and may stand the test of time. It has less risk of tearing while drawing and when displayed. Its tough weave also makes burnishing and erasing possible. So you can create both major and minor changes.
#4 More Painterly Effects
Due to the nature of the canvas’ surface, it produces a more painterly-like effect, especially when used with solvents. Your drawings would look more like it was painted on, not drawn, which may be desired by some artists.
Cons: Downsides Of Using Colored Pencils On Canvas
#1 Wears Down Colored Pencils Quickly
Since canvas is heavily textured, your colored pencils would be used up quickly and you will have to keep on sharpening your colored pencils frequently. So, it’s up to you if you want to use your expensive colored pencils on canvas.
Wearing down can be lessened by priming your canvas with gesso. You can prime multiple times, and even sand down your canvas to make it smoother.
#2 It Is Harder To Erase Mistakes
It may be harder to erase mistakes on a canvas because of its material. You can erase mistakes up to an extent by using an electric eraser, or if some of the gesso is lifted from the canvas.
#3 Achieving Fine Details Is Hard
The heavy texture of the canvas makes it hard to create fine details. The surface has a lot of gaps in between, and it may be hard to cover up the white speckles completely due to its texture.
This can be countered by priming a canvas and making it smoother.
If you want to read one artist’s insight about this match, you may check out Carrie Lewis’ personal experience and what encouraged him to use colored pencils on canvas: Reasons to Try Canvas with Colored Pencils.
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