Watercolor Painting On Canvas: Here Is How!

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Many of the greatest painting in history were made on canvas. However, most of these were oil paintings.

So if you like watercolors as much as I do, you might be wondering: can you use watercolors on canvas?

The answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no, so let’s look at the question from several angles.

water color canvas

Can Watercolor Paint Be Used On Canvas?

If you have an average canvas that you bought in the local art and craft store, it most likely isn’t suitable for watercolor painting.

The reason is that these types of canvas can’t absorb any of the water.

However, not all is lost. With a process called “priming” you can modify the surface of a canvas with gesso and a watercolor ground to make it more absorbent and behave similar to watercolor paper.

Moreover, nowadays there are special watercolor canvases available. Although they can be a bit difficult to find in the local stores, they have become incredibly popular with avid watercolor painters because you don’t have to apply any gesso or ground yourself.

However, regardless of what kind of canvas you use, it will never feel exactly similar to painting on watercolor paper.

Also read our article on the best paper for watercolor painting.

How Do You Prepare A Canvas For Watercolor?

As mentioned before, on a normal canvas used for oil or acrylic paint the watercolor paint would easily slide off the surface. So to make the surface more water absorbent, you will have to apply a layer of gesso and watercolor ground. If you don’t know how, here are the basic steps:

  1. First apply the gesso as normal. If you never learned how to apply gesso, read our article on gesso. Normally two or three layers will do.
  2. Once the gesso has completely dried you can apply the watercolor ground using a brush or roller. I normally use Golden Absorbent Ground because it’s specifically designed for watercolor washes, but you can find many similar products.
  3. To prevent any cracking during the drying, make sure to only apply a thin layer.
  4. Normally you will need 4 to 6 layers of watercolor ground to make the canvas absorbent enough.
  5. Once you applied all layers, you will have to let the canvas for at least 24 hours before applying any watercolor paint on the canvas.

What Type Of Canvas Is Used For Watercolors?

If the process above sound a little laborious, you would be completely correct. Not only does it take a long time to apply several layers of gesso and watercolor ground, you also have to let it dry for over a day before you can do any painting.

So if you are planning on buying new canvases, I strongly recommend getting a special canvas for watercolor painting.

This type of canvas can be used right away and can absorb a fair amount of watercolor paint.

Best Watercolor Canvases

When it comes to watercolor canvases, the ones by Fredix are quite popular. They are made with a special gesso formulated for water-based paints.

The first time you will use this watercolor canvas might be a little tricky. Since the paint dries very close to the surface, some paints might run and blend with each other if you aren’t careful. However, with some practice you will get used to it in no time.

The canvas comes in the sizes 9″x12″, 12″x12″, 12″x16″, 16″x20″, 18″x24″, and 24″x36″.

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Although the canvases by Fredix are great, they also come at a pretty steep price.

So if you are looking for a cheaper option, you might want to take a look at these watercolor canvases by Phoenix. They come in a 6-pack and are considerably cheaper.

Although I haven’t personally tried them, I have good stories about them.

They are made out of 100% cotton and primed with a special gesso to make them compatible with watercolor paint.

However, the paint dries very slow on the surface, so painting will some extra time compared to watercolor paper. On the flipside, it gives you plenty of time to correct mistakes.

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How Do You Seal Watercolor On Canvas?

Even after the watercolor paint has completely dried on the canvas, it is still sensitive to water. So if you accidentally spill some water or a drink on your painting it will be completely ruined.

The old-fashioned way of protecting your watercolor painting is to frame it under glass or plexiglass.

However, recently it has become more popular to use a fixative to keep the paint in place, such that the painting can be framed without any glass. Additionally, if you don’t have to worry about the weight of the glass in the frame you can make much bigger paintings.

If you want to seal your watercolors yourself, I recommend using the Krylon UV resistant spray or the aerosal spray by Lascaux.