Top 5 Tips for using Charcoal on Canvas

Like most people I grew up drawing on paper and painting on canvas but I wondered if it would be possible to create a decent, sale-able drawing on a canvas.

Tips for using Charcoal on Canvas

  • Pick tight canvas, loose canvas makes drawing difficult
  • Have lots of charcoal to hand as it gets used up very quickly
  • Bigger canvas means more detail
  • Use a putty eraser to remove charcoal
  • Knock of charcoal dust regularly or draw upright using an easel

Can Charcoal Be Used on Canvas?

As you can see from my drawing, Yes charcoal can be used on canvas! Through my research and experimenting with charcoal on canvas I have come up with a list of essential tips to help you create awesome charcoal drawings on canvas. To avoid the common mistakes you must first learn these 5 things;

  1. How charcoal works
  2. The best surfaces for charcoal
  3. Can you create good art on canvas using charcoal
  4. Does charcoal work the same on canvas as it does on paper
  5. The pros and cons of using charcoal on canvas

How Charcoal Works

Charcoal in its simplest form is burnt wood, it consists mostly of carbon. One of the most common forms of charcoal used by artists is vine charcoal.

Vine charcoal is an excellent drawing medium. It is easy to use just by applying pressure and drawing across a sheet of paper. Small particles of charcoal are left behind sticking to the surface, leaving a mark.

What Surface is Charcoal Usually Used On?

Most commonly charcoal and other forms of drawing mediums are used on paper. The texture of the paper is really important when selecting a surface for your charcoal drawings.

Glossy or shiny paper does not work very well as the charcoal doesn’t adhere to the paper properly and marks are faint or non-existent.

Smooth non-shiny paper works well, however it creates lots of dust and only a few layers can be put down.

The ideal paper for charcoal drawings has a fine tooth, which is much better suited as the grain allows the charcoal to “stick” to the paper.

Comparison of three different surfaces for drawing

Can a Canvas be Used to Draw on?

Yes! Of course it can.  Charcoal has been used in painting for hundreds of years. The old masters would have made use of charcoal sticks when sketching out the under drawings for their paintings.

Canvas makes a fantastic surface for charcoal drawings. The grain of the canvas allows the charcoal to adhere very well.

As you can see here all three types of charcoal that I have used are able to create excellent marks when applied to the canvas.

If we compare that to a paper with a fine toothed grain and to cheap printer paper you can see that the canvas results in much clearer, vibrant and contrasting tones.

Here are the three surfaces side by side: Canvas, Fine grain paper, Printer paper from left to right. 1 is Vine charcoal, 2 is Compressed charcoal and 3 is Charcoal Pencil

I have used canvas as a surface for charcoal drawings many times, both for sketching out rough plans of what I would like to paint and as a standalone medium. Here is an example of my under drawing side by side with my completed painting. 

Drawing on Canvas

I have also completed drawings on canvas with no intention to paint over them. I love the toothy appearance of the surface and feel it adds a great deal of texture to the artwork.

This drawing was created using, vine charcoal, compressed charcoal and charcoal pencils.

Tiger Drawing by Daniel Wilson

The canvas worked well in this piece as I was experimenting with leaving larger gaps between the fur strands.

Although there is a semi- realistic final outcome the grain of the canvas does show through in the darker marks.

The canvas works incredibly well when you want to use large definitive strokes and build your drawings up in lots of layers.

The canvas works excellently when laying down vine charcoal as it can be very easily erased.

Due to the strength of the canvas you can build up and erase layers almost indefinitely without damaging the canvas, although because of how well the darker charcoal sticks to the canvas it is much harder to erase than charcoal on a fine toothed or smooth paper.

Should You Use Paper or Canvas?

There isn’t a single answer to this question but I can give you my opinions. Drawing on canvas and paper both have their merits and both result in completely different outcomes.

Here is the drawing on canvas I created earlier, I decided to recreate the drawing this time on paper. We can compare the two images below.

The first thing that jumps out is the difference in the levels of detail. Although it doesn’t look like much there is significantly less detail in the darker areas of the fur when drawing on canvas.

 The drawing on paper is much sharper and more detailed than on the canvas. This is because the finer tooth of the paper allows for the charcoals to be manipulated much more easily.

The highlight can be added using an eraser as the darker charcoal is more readily removed from the surface when using paper rather than canvas.

This isn’t to say that the paper drawing is better. Personally I believe the drawing on canvas is a much better piece of art.

The contrasting shapes and marks that make up the drawing add a sense of depth and dimension that isn’t present on the paper.

However these drawings were done three years apart so my drawing abilities have developed with lots and lots of practice in that time.

Pros and Cons of Paper and Canvas

Paper Canvas
Varying grains Charcoal adheres very easily
Darker tones are harder to achieve Very easy to blend
Easier to erase Good range of values
Easily preserved using fixative Easily preserved using fixative
Spray fixatives only Wide range of fixatives can be used
Better for more detailed work Excellent for abstract mark making

Which is Better?

Personally I use an incredibly smooth paper for my charcoal drawings as I enjoy the fine details that can be added. However if you are looking for a strong and reliable surface for more expressive and abstract artworks then I would thoroughly recommend you trying charcoal on canvas.

However if you are experimenting with charcoal drawing on canvas I would strongly recommend investing in a good quality one, the tighter the better as I sometimes found that my canvas sagged onto the wooden support frames and left outlines of the frames as I was drawing.

An alternative to this if you are on a budget would be to take the canvas off the stretchers, complete your drawing and then re stretch it back onto the frame when you have finished.

As with all artwork the final visual outcome is subjective to the viewer and yourself as the artist. You may love feel of the charcoal running over textured grains of canvas or get lost in the smooth glide of charcoal pencils over paper.

The only way of knowing for yourself is experimenting! Buy yourself some different types of paper and some canvases and give it a go!

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9 Replies to “Top 5 Tips for using Charcoal on Canvas

  1. Please can you help me with some of fixatives you are using for charcoal on canvas? Thank you in advance for the answer.

    1. Hi Nicolae,

      I have used a pastel spray fixative, it’s much better than using things like hairspray because it doesn’t yellow. For the big tiger on canvas i used the pastel fixative followed by a glossy spray varnish and then a glossy liquid varnish brushed onto the canvas.

    1. I only frame it not behind glass if i have done it on a canvas. I seal the drawing with pastel fixative then use a glossy spray varnish then finish with a brush on varnish.

  2. Hi,
    Very nice article. It quite difficult to find information on charcoal work on canvas. The tiger on the canvas is just mind blowing. I am very new to charcoal drawing. Could you please let me know how you got such well defined fine white lines on canvas. I find when I use the while chalk on canvas it just powders and is hardly visible.

    Thanks,
    Maheen

  3. How did you prime the canvas? Or did you draw directly on bare canvas? And did you use oil or acrylic to paint over the sub drawing? Please and thank you!

    1. I usually prime the canvas with two layers of white gesso then sand it down. For the tiger piece It is just charcoal and nothing else. For the lion painting I used acrylic over the top of the original charcoal sub drawing.

      1. What grit of sandpaper do you sand the gesso down to? Also, have you ever mounted paper on canvas and, if so, what is your process?

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