From Paper to Canvas

If you’re a calligraphy artist, chances are that you’ve done the majority of your work on paper. But have you given canvas a shot?

I did my fair share of non-calligraphy related fine art back in high school — and a little in college — but I never actually took my skills to the canvas… until recently.

I’ve had my prints featured in gallery showings before. But a couple of weeks ago, I was invited to submit work for a local art show/fundraiser. The other artists featured in the show were submitting canvases and large-scale mounted photographs. As you might imagine, I felt a little silly bringing a small piece of paper to the table.

I figured what the hell, I’ll pick up a canvas and go to town.

closeup shot of a canvas

After a couple minutes of working on this canvas, I felt like I had discovered an entire new world of creative opportunities.

If you’ve never put your calligraphy on to a canvas — you should. And if you’re hesitant like I was, then read on.

Paper vs. Canvas

Working on canvas is different for a number of immediately obvious reasons.

  • Different surface
  • Different tools
  • Different scales

These were the aspects that deterred me.

When working on paper, we tend to feel a sense of comfort because it’s just a sheet of paper. Chances are, you have countless other sheets of paper at your disposal. If you were to mess this piece up, you have the freedom of crumpling the sheet up and throwing it away, or just flipping to another page in your sketchbook.

Canvases aren’t as cheap as paper, so they naturally feel much less expendable. However, canvas is much more forgiving than a piece of paper. If you mess up to the point in which you can’t “save” your piece — you can paint over it and start again.

Canvases are made to withstand many layers of wet (or dry) media.
You can start over as many times as you please. In a sense, it’s cheaper than paper!

Once I got my hands dirty, I realized just how much freedom I had. And after the first couple of strokes, I decided before I had even finished that I was going to paint over it and start again — just because I could.

When you start a canvas, don’t go into it with the mentality that you’re screwed if you mess up.

Selecting Canvas

A seasoned oil painter would probably slap me for saying this, but start cheap (and stay cheap if it suits you).

When you browse the canvas section of your art store, there is a spectrum of different types of canvas that range in quality price. Hell, I even know painters that construct frames and stretch their own canvas. Just keep in mind that the quality of your materials is a necessity that differs from artist to artist.

Canvas section of an art store

So many canvas choices!

Between spray-paint, paint markers, acrylics, and a brush, a calligraphy artist really has everything they need to create a masterpiece on canvas.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with stepping up the quality of your materials if that’s what works for you. But if you’re just getting your feet wet, don’t feel bad about choosing the less expensive stuff.

Planning Your Canvas

If you’re not yet comfortable with tools you’ve selected, you’re probably a little nervous to start the canvas. I know I was!

Before you get started, I’d recommend getting a large roll of cheap brown paper. Painters and carpenters use this paper to protect surfaces while they work. And once they’re done, they simply throw it away.

Before you get your canvas wet, grab a big section and start experimenting with your tools. If it helps, you might even try a rough test of what you want to put on your canvas just to get a feel for the scale and the tools you’re using.

I keep a stock of this in my studio and use it for testing (and wrapping gifts!). I also hang large sheets of it on the wall when I want to work at very large scales.

Beginning Your Canvas

When you’re comfortable with your tools, it’s time to get to work. Once again, relax and remember just how forgiving the process of working on canvas is. If you screw up, you can cover it and start over.

Depending on the type of work you’re doing, it might be useful to lay down some straight edges as guidelines with a rule or a T-square.

t-square guides on a canvas

Don’t overthink it. You’ll quickly find that one of the beauties of working on canvas is experimentation and trying new things.

When you put yourself in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable situation, you’re bound to learn something new. And in most cases, these lessons lead to new ideas and improvements in your work.

Canvas Layering Techniques

As mentioned, we touched on how forgiving canvas is. It’s for this reason canvas is now my favorite surface to work on. If you mess it up, you can use canvas layering techniques to cover your work and start over again.

While experimenting with abstract calligraphy on my first canvas, I found that when I began covering up my first layer with black spray paint, that layer was showing through. Of course, I could have kept applying more spray paint to mask the base layer entirely — but I thought it looked cool.

A thin layer of spraypaint on top of a calligraphy composition

The black layer on top was thin enough to let the work underneath shine through. However, it was dark enough that I could still apply a new layer on top without visually muddying up the composition.

From there, I went crazy layering my canvas over and over again and was able to achieve some excellent results. In this post, I’ll share my process in hopes that it helps inspire you to develop dynamic canvases of your own.

Using Markers and Spraypaints

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes materials. Use whatever intrigues you the most. Personally, I enjoy paint markers and spray paint the most.

Spraypaint cans and markers

Paint Markers

There are a number of art supply brands out there like Montana, OTR, Grog, and Molotow. These companies manufacture heavy duty pump markers capable of handling tough pigment. My favorite is Molotow. Compared to the other brands listed, the quality of the nib and the consistency of the pigment is far superior.

The markers come in a number of sizes. I’m partial to the 627HS, which has a broad 15MM nib. This nib is tough and can produce many different types of strokes. They’re absolutely Perfect if you’re into gothic scripts like I am.


Any type of spray paint will do, but I stick to Liquitex brand. Liquitex spray paint is of the same quality as any other artist paint. However, it is extremely low odor — to do the degree in which I use it indoors to layer my canvases.

Canvas Layering Approach

As it turns out, you can buy black canvas as well as white canvas! After experimenting with both, I’ve found there’s not much difference in the end product when it comes to layering.

Black and white canvases

On the other hand, if you’re trying to work on a dark background, the black canvas will save you the up front hassle of painting the canvas.

Initial Layer

My process begins with putting down an initial layer. In this particular canvas, I’m planning to have a centered abstract blackletter composition with some space around the edge. This composition will go down on a future layer.

White marker composition on a black canvas

Middle Layers

Since there will be space around the edges of the canvas, I want some ghosted layers to show through. The first couple of layers I put down will act as these ghosted layers.

In between each layer I put down, I apply a light coat of spray paint. Once again, this allows the subsequent layer to show through, but it’s still dark enough to put another layer on top of.

At this point, I like to make a mess. Using short bursts of spray paint, shaking, splattering, smearing, or blowing paint, I grunge up the piece which adds texture to our ghost layers.

white splatters on a black background

Before laying down one final coat of spray paint and adding the final composition on top, this can be a good time to introduce color (particularly if you’re working exclusively in black and white).

The final coat of spray paint will mute these enough to set them back in the final piece, but still allows accents to shine through here and there. This can be a nice visual aspect in the final product.

The Final Layer

Once I’m happy with all of the canvas layering I’ve done, I’m ready for the final composition. I generally use rulers or a T-square to map out my composition area. As I mentioned earlier, I’m leaving some space around the edges of the canvas to “frame” the composition.

Here’s a video of the entire layering process and final composition:

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