Do Watercolors Work on Canvas: Tips and Techniques

If you have an interest in painting with watercolor on canvas, I would recommend using specifically designed watercolor canvases. Watercolor canvases are a relatively recent development and are ideal for artists who enjoy working with watercolors but prefer the texture and appearance of canvas. There are various options available, including stretched canvas, canvas boards, and canvas pads, catering to different preferences and needs.

You can use watercolor on canvas, but there are a few nuances to consider when using canvas as a surface for watercolor paintings. Allow me to elaborate on the key points you should be aware of when utilizing canvas as a support for watercolor artwork.

Watercolor on Canvas

can you paint watercolor on canvas

Traditionally, watercolors are typically painted on watercolor paper, which serves as an absorbent support. Watercolor paints rely on the paper to absorb and anchor the paint to the surface, utilizing the paper fibers as well. Conversely, canvas is more commonly used for oils or acrylics, as these paints are typically applied to a non-absorbent ground where the paint remains on the surface.

However, there is a type of canvas called “watercolor canvas” that has been specially prepared to accommodate the unique properties of watercolor paints. Watercolor canvas has a modified surface finish that aids in similarly absorbing the paint to paper. This allows artists to use canvas as a support for watercolor paintings while still achieving the desired effects and characteristics of the medium.


Watercolor on Canvas: Characteristics

One of the primary differences you’ll notice when using watercolor canvas is that the paint tends to remain on the surface for a longer period, providing you with more flexibility and time to manipulate the paint. This is because watercolor canvas is less absorbent compared to watercolor paper.

Another notable distinction is the enhanced ability of canvas to lift dry watercolor paint. Watercolor canvas allows for more effective lifting, even when the paint has completely dried, in comparison to paper.

An advantage of using watercolor canvas is that it reduces the need to preserve white areas in the same manner as with traditional paper. The canvas’s lifting capability also makes it easier to correct mistakes without compromising the surface quality. However, this lifting capability can be slightly problematic when applying multiple layers of paint, particularly when glazing. Care must be taken to ensure that subsequent layers do not disturb previous glazes.

Additionally, watercolor canvas offers durability and resistance to tearing, making it a robust support for artwork. It also facilitates easy sketching of outlines and allows for erasing mistakes without affecting the surface’s integrity.


Can you watercolor on canvas?

do watercolors work on canvas

Painting on watercolor canvas offers a distinct experience compared to working on watercolor paper, and there may be a learning curve when you first begin. Notably, watercolors tend to stay wet longer on watercolor canvas than on paper, and while the canvas is coated with watercolor-specific gesso, it is still less absorbent than watercolor paper.

To make the most of watercolor canvas, it’s advisable to approach your initial painting as an experiment. This allows you to test different techniques and observe how the watercolors interact with the canvas, helping you avoid potential mistakes when working on a more serious piece.

Many artists prefer watercolor on canvases as they can display the finished paintings directly on the wall without the need for framing under glass. If you choose to do so, it is important to protect your finished watercolor painting with a spray sealant like Krylon Crystal Clear. This final coat acts as a protective layer, similar to varnish, safeguarding your artwork.

Once you become familiar with the process, painting with watercolors on canvas can be relatively straightforward. However, there are a few considerations to keep in mind when selecting canvas panels.

Here are some key points to consider when choosing canvas panels for watercolor on canvas:

  • Opt for a size that suits your preferences, as canvas panels are often available in bulk, allowing you multiple opportunities to experiment and practice.
  • Select canvas panels made of 100% cotton, as they can absorb watercolor effectively and aid in water retention.
  • Ensure that the canvas panels you choose are acid-free (archival quality) to prevent yellowing and deterioration over time.
  • Look for canvas panels that are already primed, either with or without Gesso. Alternatively, you can apply a layer of gesso yourself before painting to create a suitable surface for watercolor application.

Can you paint watercolor on canvas?

Here are some steps to follow when painting with watercolors on canvas:

  • Use a larger brush, such as a size 14, and apply light layers of paint alternated with clean water.
  • Apply a second layer of the initial color, but this time make it slightly darker by using more paint and less water.
  • Take advantage of the canvas wrapping around the edges of the panel by wetting the edges thoroughly, allowing any excess paint to flow down the sides.
  • As the canvas becomes wetter, it’s recommended to place a paper towel under your canvas to protect your working surface.
  • For the final layer, choose a soft color that complements the existing colors on your canvas.

Tips for Drying Your Canvas

When drying a watercolor canvas that is fully saturated with water and paint, natural drying can be a time-consuming process. However, you can expedite the drying time by using a heat gun or hair dryer. Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when using an external heat source for drying:

Watercolor on canvas:

  • Ensure that the heat gun is kept at a safe distance from the canvas to avoid burning or scorching it.
  • Maintain constant motion with the heat gun while drying. Moving it continuously across the surface prevents uneven drying and reduces the risk of creating heat or burn spots on the canvas.
  • During the drying process, the water and paint on the canvas, which sit on the surface without sinking in, will move around with the flow of air. This movement creates a beautiful final piece with a sense of depth.

The pros of watercolor painting on canvas:

can you use watercolor on canvas
Watercolor on canvas

1. Durability

Watercolor canvas offers enhanced durability compared to paper, allowing for more robust painting techniques without the fear of tearing the surface. You can confidently engage in actions such as blotting, scratching, or scraping without worrying about damaging the canvas. Its sturdiness provides resilient support for these techniques.

2. No more buckling

When using pre-stretched watercolor canvas or canvas panels, you can eliminate concerns about buckling. Unlike watercolor paper, there is no need for additional stretching to prevent buckling, especially when applying numerous wet washes. Once you have applied the watercolor ground, you can immediately begin painting on the pre-stretched canvas without worrying about any warping or buckling issues.

3. Color-lifting

Watercolor on canvas allows for effortless color lifting, whether it’s for making corrections or achieving desired color-lifting effects such as highlights. Unlike working on paper, where you may need to rely on masking fluid or carefully preserving white areas, watercolor canvas provides the advantage of not requiring such measures. This also grants you more time to work on intricate details because the absorption time of the paint is slower on the canvas.

4. Framing options

Watercolor paintings on paper typically require framing behind glass and a rigid backing for protection, as paper is prone to damage. However, when using stretched watercolor canvases, boards, or panels, the need for glass is eliminated. Once you have properly fixed and varnished your work, you have the flexibility to hang it framed or unframed. Attaching hanging hardware to the stretcher at the back allows for easy wall display. This provides convenient framing options and allows you to showcase your watercolor artwork without the constraints of glass.

How to Watercolor on Canvas:

To begin exploring watercolor painting on canvas, you can set up a comparative exercise using different substrates: hot-press watercolor paper, cold-press watercolor paper, and a canvas pad prepared with watercolor ground.

Prepare three strips, one for each substrate, to test your watercolors on. For the comparison, you can start by creating a graded wet-on-wet wash, followed by a flat wash where you lift a section of color once it has dried. Lastly, you can experiment with basic glazing and layering techniques.


Watercolor On Hot-Pressed and Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper

If you’re interested in delving into painting watercolor on canvas, it’s recommended to begin with basic exercises that explore different watercolor techniques. While three techniques are mentioned here, you can certainly expand upon them for a more comprehensive exploration:

1. Hot-Press Watercolor Paper

Hot-press watercolor paper is known for its fine and smooth surface, which is achieved through the process of being pressed between heated rollers during manufacturing. This type of paper has a slower absorption rate, allowing you more time to manipulate and experiment with water and pigment. Its characteristics make it particularly suitable for precise and intricate detailing, making it a favored choice among illustrators and artists who require fine, controlled work.

2. Cold-press Watercolor Paper

Cold-press watercolor paper is characterized by its unique textured surface, achieved by being pressed between non-heated rollers. This paper has a higher absorbency compared to hot-press paper, demanding quicker work on details. Color-lifting is more challenging, with increased staining on the paper. However, cold-press paper is highly durable and can withstand heavy washes, making it the preferred choice for many artists. The textured surface allows water and pigment to pool in the indentations, adding to the desired visual effect and finish of the artwork.

3. Watercolor Ground On Canvas Pad

Watercolor on canvas exhibits a similar behavior to hot-press paper, as the water and pigment tend to stay on the surface for a longer period, providing extended working time. While the washes bloom and spread comparably, the edges may not be as crisp. Despite the relatively smooth surface, canvas retains more tooth compared to paper, resulting in a slight resistance when using brushes, reminiscent of cold-press paper. This is a familiar experience for those who have experimented with different watercolor papers, and it requires adjusting techniques accordingly. Regardless of the chosen watercolor ground, it is essential to test and explore its unique characteristics to discover the creative possibilities it offers.


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