I decided to revive an old favorite this week and do some drawing on stretched canvas. The first time I drew on stretched canvas was back in my art school days in and around the Fall of 1987. I started painting on stretched canvas the year before and did some drawing on the canvas then but that was fairly perfunctory drawing. It was a little bit of drawing that had to be done in order to complete a painting. But then in the Autumn of 1987 my paintings got more complex and so did my working drawings.

That Fall I made a series of about a dozen twenty four by thirty six inch paintings on stretched canvas. Or at least I think that was the size. It’’s been a long time since I painted them. I’m not even sure if I was drawing on the canvas for these or just transferring a working drawing over. There is a difference. If I was transferring a drawing then I would have made the drawing on paper and then used a grid to copy it onto the canvas. This is more like reconstructing a drawing on canvas rather than actual drawing. It’s more like putting a puzzle together than making art.

The following semester, in the Spring of 1988, I have a distinct memory of drawing on stretched canvas. That’s when I started working at a larger size, around three by four feet, and drawing directly on the canvas. I didn’t want to make working drawings and transfer them. I wanted to compose at the same large size I was painting at. Sometimes that makes a difference. I can work a composition out at a small size but then when things get blown up to a larger size the spacial relationships can change. What looks good at four by five inches might not look as good at four by five feet. That’s not always the case but sometimes it is.

Drawing on stretched and gessoed (a white paint used as a primer) canvas with a pencil is a little like working on rough sandpaper. The surface is really textured and it can wear a pencil down quickly. If I wanted to work on a smooth surface I’d have to add multiple coats of gesso and sand it down in between coats. That’s something I never did. I was okay with lots of surface. That’s what I was looking for with my paintings.

I can remember a fellow student, whose name escapes me all these years later, once wandered over to my part of the senior painting studios to admire one of my in progress paintings. It wasn’t even a painting yet since I was working on the pencil drawing. One of the things that happens when drawing on gessoed canvas is that you can’t really erase on it very well. I found that a brown gum eraser worked best (and crumbled fast) but even then there were grey smears left behind. That didn’t matter because they were going to be painted over but often I’d move things in the composition and I’d have to erase and that would leave ghost images behind. It was the inclusion of these ghost images that my fellow student was admiring. It gave the drawing a dimension of time that usually isn’t present in a work. He even suggested that a make a bunch of drawings on canvas that I didn’t paint over. I thought that was a good idea but never got to do it.

The drawings on canvas I’ve made since are not nearly as large. I haven’t done a lot of them either. I drew a few of them back in the mid-2000s when I started making eight by ten inch acrylic on canvas paintings. Those small paintings meant I had to do a little drawing on canvas (mostly transferring drawings though) and inspired me to make a finished drawing on an eight by ten inch canvas. That drawing was one of my female figure with lots of decorative elements around it. It ended up coming out okay but I only drew a couple of them.

Now it’s ten years later (after the eight by tens) and the memory of drawing on canvas came back to me. On some level I wish I could finally make those large drawings on canvas but I’m not that ambitions. I don’t have the energy, space, or money to make them. So I settled for some eight by ten inch ones. I already had a stack of blank canvases so I was good to go.

One of the reasons I wanted to draw on a stretched canvas was to make the drawing more of an object. A drawing on paper is flat and light. A Drawing on stretched canvas is however thick the canvas is. In this was the canvas is three quarters of an inch thick. That makes the drawing more of an object that a if it was on paper. It makes the drawing seem a little more important since its solid.

I can remember using a soft 6B pencil back in 1988. I use a 4B or 6B on paper all the time. I tried using one again on the smaller canvas but I found the pencil to be too soft. It made too much of a mess as a lot of the graphite didn’t stick to the canvas. I ended up using a much harder 3H pencil. A 3H is very light when I use it on paper but since the canvas really shreds the graphite it is much darker on the canvas.

The process is simple. I made a drawing on a six by nine inch piece of paper, scanned it, blew it up to eight by ten inches, print it out, and then transferred the drawing to the canvas. I used graphite paper to transfer the drawing. That means I put a sheet of graphite paper between the printout of the drawing and the canvas. Then I took my 3H pencil and drew right on top of my drawing. The pressure of my pencil transferred the graphite onto the canvas. It only makes a light line though so I have to pay attention.

After the drawing was transferred I had to redraw the whole thing. I had to press down hard and dark, give it some line weight, figure out a little more of the design, and fill in the dark areas. All while trying to keep the canvas neat and clean. It took me about three hours to make the drawing. I think it would have taken me half that time if I drew it on paper. But I wanted an object.