Reasons to Try Canvas with Colored Pencils

Are you looking for a durable support that can stand up to deep solvent blending and erasing without damage? Have you considered trying canvas with colored pencils?

I know you have questions. I sure do, and I can’t think of anyone better able to answer them than today’s guest blogger, John Ursillo. John has been using colored pencils on canvas since 2007. Today, he’ll tell you how he came to canvas as a colored pencil support, and why he likes it.

Please welcome John Ursillo.

Reasons to Try Canvas with Colored Pencils, Guest Post from John Ursillo

Canvas with Colored Pencils

by John Ursillo, CPSA

When discussing technique with fellow colored pencil (CP) artists, I sometimes meet with a doubtful look should the subject of using canvas as a support come up. “Why canvas? What’s wrong with paper? What made you go there and why?”

This has changed over the years as other artists have adopted the canvas…but I still get the soft-voiced comments of gallery viewers of “How the h… does he do that?” I like to explain, and Carrie has given me a wonderful chance here.

Anything wrong with paper?

Absolutely nothing! I have nothing against paper as a support, having done and continue doing many pieces on a wide variety of papers from the time I picked up my first set of colored pencils in 1984. Paper was all I knew to use!

Life is Like a River, 18 x 24 Colored Pencil on Canvas

How I Started Using Canvas with Colored Pencils

I caught on to using canvas in 2007 as the coming together of two seeming separate events:

First, I had my interest focused on doing a nautical piece based on a ship I photographed in New Zealand in 2004. Much of the drawing involved weathered, rusted hull plating with a unique, surface texture–right “down my alley”!

Second, I tried, but could not capture it in test runs on the papers used for my normal colored pencil (CP) techniques no matter how I tried. Not just the texture but also the luminosity of the color was off–it just would not seem real–in fact it seemed very “ho hum” and “why bother?”

As a possible “what if?” solution I remembered a snippet I had recently read in the CPSA publication To The Point. It discussed small scale use of odorless mineral spirits to dissolve CP when working on paper. I had already tried that and liked it–for small areas. Would it work on a larger scale?

Seen Better Days, 24 x 11 Colored Pencil on Canvas

Yes…sort of!

The hardware store variety mineral spirits from my garage did dissolve the CP but when used over more than a small area it soaked into the paper and even left some color blooming out around the wet spot when it dried. Further experiment didn’t resolve these problems and I was about to give up.

A “What If” Moment

But, I’m an engineer and problems are our daily bread. My Left-brain Engineer side determined to get an answer, one way or the other.

Then…another brainstorm. In those days I was painting in oils as well as doing CP pieces. I had a piece of canvas board sitting around waiting for a project. Engineer said “Canvas doesn’t absorb mineral spirits right?. Hmmm…what if?”

My first attempts were messy. But as I got the “hang of” this new support and the new way of using CP, my left brain told my Right Brain everything was “OK, go ahead, what are you waiting for?”

The result was a 20 x 16” piece, “The Venture” (see below) that became my second acceptance to the CPSA International (2010), led to an invitation to conduct workshops at the 2012 CPSA Convention, and the work was subsequently accepted by the American Society of Marine Artists (ASMA) for their 16th traveling exhibit.

The Venture. Original artwork using canvas with colored pencils.

The vessel depicted is the actual tramp steamer used as the set for and digital model prototype of the “SS Venture” featured in the 2005 film “King Kong”.

I was visiting my daughter ‘down under’ when she worked with Weta Digital on the film. She got us onto the secured quay where the ship was moored, so it was a unique “up close and personal” experience of a piece of maritime history. I discovered this gallant lady was eventually declared unseaworthy and too expensive to restore or maintain. She was ceremoniously scuttled (sunk on purpose) in the deep, stormy waters of Cook Strait, between the North and South Islands of New Zealand in 2010.

A fitting end.

Why I Like Canvas

I was, and continue to be, sold on canvas as a support for CP and artist’s mineral spirits as a solvent. Perfecting the technique took time, and I continue to surprise myself with each new piece’s opportunity to learn more.

I continue to use various papers as well, but canvas has been adopted as my primary support.

In my opinion there are some salient advantages to using canvas as a support for Colored Pencil work.

Deep Saturated Color

Getting deep saturated color using CP dry on canvas involves much pressure and a very sharp pencil to get color down into the weave of the canvas. Pencil wear is high. Why? The white of the canvas shows through in the pits of the weave. Easily build up lighter passages using the white weave of the canvas just as with a rougher paper. This is valuable for doing work that requires an “airy” feeling, especially skies and atmospheric effects.

Vibrant Color

Vibrant colors can be built up by using an under drawing/painting to fill in the tooth without killing it. Use complementary colors in the under drawing/painting to add interest and vibrance to colors laid over them.

Durability

The weave of good canvas is very tough and difficult to destroy, either by burnishing or erasing thoroughly with a white eraser and water, making both small and major changes possible.

No Framing Necessary

Canvas is available pre-mounted in both large and small sizes. The lack of need for a frame makes large CP pieces possible that would otherwise be prohibitive to glaze, frame and ship. An unglazed (no glass) CP work on canvas is no more fragile that an oil or acrylic on canvas when properly handled.

Excellent for Solvent Blending

The appearance of lightfast CP applied dry is greatly enhanced through use of solvent UV protective coating such as fixative and varnish.

Color Saturation

Color saturation is easier to achieve when solvent is used–even for very thin, single layer passages. The colors in a finished piece on canvas have a vibrance different from works on paper because of the property of light penetrating the color layers and reflecting off the brilliant white surface.

More Painterly Affects

Lastly, and in my opinion, a deciding factor. Because of the nature of the surface, CP work on canvas compels a more “painterly” and immediate technique than dry CP on paper. Don’t get me wrong. Both approaches have their important place in the genre of CP works. But some subjects obviously work better on one versus the other. I work on both.

Christmas Chickadee III, 8 x 10 Colored Pencil on Canvas

Choosing the Right Canvas

Canvas brands, like papers, vary widely in texture from coarse to ultra-fine. I have tested many of the brands commonly available in local art supply houses or from internet vendors with high customer ratings. The only ones I looked at were: archival throughout, had brilliant white gesso coating, Fine, regular weave, lack of foreign matter in the coating, and a finger-touch texture like velvet. But these stood out:

Blick’s Premiere canvas line: a consistently fine product for this use.

Archival Watercolor Canvas made by Fredrix. Its texture is more like a portrait canvas that Blick’s.

Both come in stretched or board-mounted and have well aligned, regular medium-smooth weave and brilliant white gessoed working surface – archival throughout. Each has a feeling like velvet of a very fine

paper. They also come in common rectangular dimensions as well as square, oblong and curved shapes (Blick).The Fredrix Canvas has a very fine weave, much like portrait canvas. I choose this when I want the canvas weave to be almost, but not quite, inconspicuous.

For artists new to CP on canvas I recommend a canvas board. If you get your canvas from a local art supply store, review the criteria I described about and require the clerk to let you open and feel the surface. If he/she won’t, go to a store that will.

For an overall look at my many pieces done on canvas I direct the reader to my website, www.bearcubstudio.com.

So What do You Think about Canvas with Colored Pencils?

My thanks to John for sharing his experiences with using canvas with colored pencils.

I started out using oil paints on canvas, so John’s method intrigues me. What about you?

John is the featured artist in the May issue of CP Magic, where you can read more about his unique technique, as well as his artistic journey.

9 Replies to “Reasons to Try Canvas with Colored Pencils”

  1. Thanks John and Carrie. I love learning new and interesting ways to use my colored pencils. Canvas sounds especially adventurous.

    1. You are very welcome, Nancy. I really love sharing with other artists. CP on canvas HAS really been an adventure in versatility, color and especially LIGHT. if I can assist in any way just drop me an email.

  2. i’ve experimented a couple times with cp on canvas. i really like it, & must do more. It works well for me without solvents, but i’m so allergic that i make it a point to NOT use any. The canvas plays to my weakness, a heavy touch

    1. Good morning, Valerie! Thanks for your comment. Happy you’ve givenCP on canvas a try. The surface CAN work very well without solvent as you’ve discovered. I’m working on a small piece at the moment using dry CP over a watercolor underpainting. The key to working dry is the canvas – a nice, fine weave works best. I’m using a Fredrix Archival Watercolor canvas board for these very qualities. If you have any questions, just drop me an email or comment via my website.

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