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How To Paint Watercolor On Canvas? | Fully Explained

Watercolor canvases are the most popular art media among professional artists due to their huge margin of error, low absorbency, and high durability. Such qualities allow you to experiment with different art styles and techniques, such as wet-on-wet, gradient, lifting, etc., to create unique watercolor paintings.

How To Paint Watercolor On Canvas

Many watercolor artists prefer to work with watercolor paper since it’s a versatile medium with high mobility and absorbency.

This traditional art medium is coveted in the painting world due to its durability and the fluidity it allows the watercolor paints to achieve. However, many people are unaware of how well these paints work on watercolor canvas.

The quality of your artwork will depend on the kind of canvas surface you use since some watercolor paints appear brighter and blend better on certain watercolor canvases. But to start working with watercolor canvas, you need to gain a full understanding of the medium and the process of painting watercolor on it.

In this article, we will walk you through all the important details and help you gain mastery over yet another medium. Read on!

Watercolor Paper Vs Canvas: Which One is Better?


Before we further our discussion of watercolor canvas, let’s take a look at how paper and canvas fare when pitted against each other. We’ll discuss six determining factors: absorbency, versatility, lifting capacity, convenience, durability, and availability.

1. Absorbency

Watercolor canvases and papers have almost equal capacity when it comes to absorbing watercolor paints and fixing the painting surface. However, similar to watercolor painting on wood, you have to be extra careful while painting on canvas so as not to disturb the underlying layer. So, there’s going to be a significant learning canvas as you slowly adapt to the techniques and brush strokes that are compatible with normal canvas.

Moreover, building up each layer by washing and putting a glaze or varnish will be extremely difficult on your first try. But don’t lose hope - after a few tries, you’ll master painting on a canvas board and create amazing watercolor paintings.

Once you’ve learned how to blend and layer on watercolor canvas, you’ll notice that canvas surfaces accept watercolor paints less readily than paper. This low absorbency is ideal for painting styles like the wet-on-wet technique since it gives the watercolor artist more time to experiment with the pigment.

2. Versatility 

Watercolor canvas is much more versatile than watercolor paper - you can easily create watercolor canvas art using acrylic paints, ink, and even pencils. Ideal for mixed media art, watercolor canvas allows sketching outlines of your subject matter and erasing any errors made. And you’ll find that artwork is much easier to display on stretched canvas instead of paper.

3. Lifting Capacity

Lifting capacity refers to the degree of ease of removing paint colors from the surface or washing it to start over. And watercolor canvas certainly has this capacity - all you need is some clean water and a paper towel, cloth, or sponge. Gently rub it on the canvas surface and get the paint off the surface. You can either erase and fix the error or completely erase your watercolor art to white to start over.

It is often possible to lift paint from watercolor papers as well, but it only works on hot and cold-pressed watercolor paper.

However, this lifting capacity of watercolor canvas products can often be a disadvantage, especially if an artist uses a lot of glazing. This technique is quite difficult on canvas since it requires a lot of patience to move around the watercolor paint without lifting any previous layer. You’ll have to learn how to glaze on canvas through a lot of trial and error, but try to master how to do it quickly without mixing the colors.

4. Convenience

You might often need to prepare your watercolor paper before painting, but a standard canvas doesn’t have this problem. After you purchase canvas boards or pads from the art supply store, you can directly start painting on them without any preparation. 

This is because most watercolor canvases are made from 100% cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) and are acid-free, but only a few watercolor papers have this quality. So, purchasing a traditional canvas will be much more affordable than looking for high-quality, artist-transfer paper.

5. Durability 

Unlike watercolor paper, normal canvases don’t warp or wrinkle around the edges that easily - it is much more durable in this sense. Plus, they can resist wear and tear or any breakage that is caused by moisture or abrasion. However, you’ll find paint pooling in certain areas of a poor-quality watercolor canvas.

6. Availability

Watercolor canvases are widely available across most art stores, and you’ll find a wide range of sizes as well. The common type used by many artists is the stretched canvas, which allows you to paint on all four sides of the canvas board, giving you more dimensions to work with.

What To Consider While Choosing A Watercolor Canvas?

Always go for acid-free watercolor canvases that are made from 100% organic textile, such as cotton or satin. Keeping these two parameters in mind will save you from various difficulties during painting. 

Firstly, an acid-free cotton canvas won’t react to watercolor paints and can create dissimilar colors, and secondly, they’re environment-friendly and not harmful to your health. But ensure you’re purchasing authentic watercolor canvas boards and not just normal boards covered in Gesso. 

And since there are various kinds of canvases, including canvas pads, canvas boards, and stretched canvases, many people often get confused when faced with the options. Usually, the difference lies in the size of the canvas, so as long as there’s a label mentioning that it’s compatible with watercolor paints, you’re good to go. 

There are two ways you can get started with watercolor canvas. Either you can buy a readymade canvas board, or you can prepare one using watercolor ground. However, preparing canvas can be quite challenging on your first try, so we recommend using readymade ones initially. 

Materials You Will Need

Let’s look at the materials you will need to create a watercolor painting on canvas and prepare the surface before you begin painting if required.

  • Canvas pad/ board
  • Watercolor ground
  • Watercolor Gesso
  • Watercolor paints 
  • Paintbrush, sketch pens, pencils
  • Paper towel or damp cloth
  • Watercolor Palette
  • Fine-grit sandpaper
  • Varnish
  • Transfer paper (optional)
  • Masking fluid
  • Toothpick or earbuds

All of these supplies should be of good quality. Doing so is a foolproof way of avoiding various challenges one can face while painting, such as color pooling, high absorption, curling, warping, etc.

Preparing Canvas For Watercolor

If you prefer preparing your own watercolor canvas board instead of buying readymade ones, then this basic tutorial is for you. First thing first - you’re going to need watercolor ground, which is a specialized watercolor gesso to help the canvas absorb water-based paints. 

Absorbent ground is necessary since most canvases aren’t absorbent enough to keep the colors in place. Even if you add a thin layer of normal gesso without applying ground, there are chances of the paint running off.

Before you prepare the watercolor canvas, you’ll be faced with various watercolor ground choices, but we recommend using the one by Daniel Smith if you’re a beginner. Try using an absorbent ground that is transparent and smooth in texture since it will ease the process of spreading. 

The aim is to get a flat, smooth surface for painting, so you can also sand the canvas after applying gesso. Here’s a detailed look into the process:

Step 1

If your watercolor canvas pads or boards are raw, apply two layers of standard gesso to cure the canvas before applying the absorbent ground. Let it completely dry.

Step 2

Apply at least two to six layers of watercolor ground to your pre-stretched canvas, and allow each layer to dry completely before applying the next one. Moreover, if you want a textured surface, start applying the watercolor ground more roughly, starting from the second layer. In this case, you’ll have to apply more layers than you normally would for a smoother surface.

Step 3

Let the watercolor ground cure for at least 24 hours before painting watercolor on it. When it’s completely dry, you can start painting watercolor, oil, and acrylic paints on the surface.


If you want a very even and smooth surface to paint on, use a fine-grit sandpaper to sand the canvas when it’s completely dry.

Applying Watercolor Paint on Canvas 

Now that you know the basic differences in the effects of watercolor paints on canvas and paper, you’re ready to get started. Keep in mind that there will be a period of experimentation and adjustment, which you’ll use to get ahead of the learning curve. 

From learning how much paint to use in a single stroke to the glazing process, there’ll be quite a few things you need to get the hang of. So, we recommend utilizing your first watercolor canvas art as a test run.

Experimenting with different brush strokes, paint dilution, and concentration is the key to unlocking the power of blending, layering, and lifting techniques. You can reuse your watercolor canvas simply by lifting colors to correct any errors - this helps prevent waste and achieve a finished painting. 

So, as long as there aren’t any layers of sealant or varnish, you can continue to tweak your artwork with different techniques. If you’d rather not lift colors repeatedly, you can cover the error with watercolor grounds and start all over again.

Step-by-Step Guide:

There aren’t any specific instructions for creating a watercolor painting on a canvas pad or board since every artist has their own art style. The basic steps are similar across different painting types, whether you’re using acrylic paint, watercolor, or oil paint. But you can always follow some recommended guidelines to make your first attempt successful. Follow these steps:

Step 1

Before you use watercolor on canvas, lightly sketch the subject and ancillary drawings on the surface with a pencil. If you’re worried about leaving grease stains on the pre-stretched canvas, consider using transfer paper while sketching. Masking fluid is another agent that helps in safeguarding your canvas and waterproofing the painting. You can also use this fluid if you wish to keep certain areas of the painting uncolored - do it at this step itself.

Step 2

Now you can begin painting watercolor on canvas. If you want a more solid base for your painting, use a background wash before getting started. Then proceed to add layers, details of the subject, and glazing. However, be wary while applying the glaze since it can be tricky - experiment with your mixing time and paint-water ratio. 

And as always, there’s always the option of lifting color and starting over if you haven’t applied a sealant.

Step 3

If you’re feeling adventurous, try creating mixed-media art. Watercolor paints are compatible with various other media, such as acrylic and oil-based paints, so take advantage of this ability. You can also incorporate watercolor paints in an acrylic painting and vice versa - take your pick!

Step 4

As we’ve mentioned before, any error you make while you use watercolor on canvas can be corrected through color lifting. But there are other techniques as well. Simply use earbuds or a toothpick to scrape some of the paint off the area where you’ve made a mistake. And since watercolor canvas is quite durable, you won’t need to worry about ripping or tearing it.

Moreover, you can correct a fully dried painting - simply add water to the area using a round brush and scrub the paint off. 

Step 5

Ensuring your watercolor canvas art is completely dry is a huge step towards increasing its longevity. Let the painting dry for at least 24 hours - this will also give you enough time to decide whether you want to make any changes before sealing.

Protecting Your Watercolor Canvas Art

The high resistance of canvas against humidity and debris is the most common reason why most artists prefer this medium after trying it. So, it doesn’t require glass or a wooden frame to protect it from the elements.   

If you decide to hang your art on the wall as decoration, ensure you apply a thick layer of UV-resistant spray varnish or sealant. It’s always better to use spray varnish than brush a sealant on the surface since it can smear or lift the paint. 

Remember that you can’t make any changes to the watercolor painting once you’ve sealed it, so ensure everything is in order. Also, ensure you spray the varnish only when the artwork is completely dry.

Moreover, you only need about three light layers of sealant to protect your painting, but ensure you let each layer dry for 20 minutes before applying the next. When you’re done sealing the painting, let it cure for a while, preferably for another 24 hours, before handling it. Properly sealing after you use watercolor on canvas makes it water-resistant, ultra-violet rays resistant, smudge-proof, and durable.

Different Watercolor Techniques

Learning about the basic techniques of watercolor painting can go a long way in preparing you to create a masterpiece. Of course, trial and error is a compulsory part of the journey, but having some knowledge reduces the chance of errors.

1. Lifting Technique

This technique is very useful for correcting areas or creating low-pigmented subjects such as clouds or eyes. It actually “lifts” the pigments from the surface of the watercolor paper or canvas. To do this, first, you cover the entire painting surface with a light coat of water and then paint the area with any color you want. 

Ensure you use a lighter shade since lifting a darker shade is quite difficult, and we recommend scraping the paint in this case. Then, before your paint dries, use a clean brush or paper towel and firmly press it on the area where you don’t want color. This way, the paper towel or brush will soak the excess paint, leaving behind a colorless or lighter area.

2. Gradient Technique

This basic yet effective technique lets the watercolor bloom from a lighter to a darker shade. While creating a color gradient, you should pay close attention to the water-paint ratio to get a beautiful result. It is mostly used to paint sunsets, oceans, or landscape backgrounds.

After priming the surface with water, start with a dark shade of any color and add a thick layer on the uppermost part of the canvas or paper. While the paper is still wet, quickly keep adding layers and bringing the color to the bottom with clean, horizontal strokes without dipping the brush in an additional color. As you create layers upon layers, the brush consistently loses color, creating the beautiful gradient effect we’re aiming for.

For sunsets that include different colors, you can re-do the process with another color on top of the completed gradient while the surface is wet.

3. Wet-on-Dry Technique

The previous techniques involved the “wet-on-wet” art styles, so we’ll talk about something different here. A wet-on-dry technique denotes using paint on a dry surface - this process helps you make certain details stand out and set properly onto the canvas. 

First, wet the surface and create a background with one color - apply it evenly and let it completely dry. You can use gradient or lifting techniques to create beautiful backgrounds in keeping with the theme of the main subject. 

Once the background is completely dry, take a thin or pointed brush and draw your details using darker pigments. 


Don’t add a lot of water to the paint since it can lead to unwanted blending or diffusion.

4. Wet-on-Wet And Wet-on-Dry Combination

This combined method is very popular for creating oceans or lakes with ripple-like effects. After covering the paper or canvas with water, you need to use the same technique as when creating a gradient effect. The only difference here is that you need to totally disconnect your brush from the paper occasionally to create negative spaces.

Next, while the paint is still wet, add darker pigment to create more depth - do this with wavy brushstrokes. However, the darker strokes should reduce in frequency as you reach the top of the canvas or page. This wet-on-wet technique allows the darker pigment to seep into the lighter one, creating a rippling, water-like motion.

Moving on to the wet-on-dry portion, using a side-to-side motion, apply blue strokes swiftly, but let the color fade as it moves to the top. Ensure you don’t add too much water to the color this time - the strokes should be dark and detailed. 

Even though this technique is quite elaborate, it can be very effective in creating difficult themes such as water and sunsets.

Tips For Creating Watercolor Painting On Canvas

Now that you know all about creating watercolor paintings on canvas, here are some suggestions you can follow to enhance the experience. These tips will make the process a lot easier and enjoyable:

1. Start Off With Landscapes or Bouquets

Many artists prefer canvas to watercolor paper since it helps you to experiment more freely by allowing you to correct errors without worrying about starting over. And errors can get particularly daunting when creating a landscape with various minute details, such as trees (including branches, leaves, flowers), sky gradient, water, etc. So, we suggest taking advantage of the margin of error given by canvases and starting off with a serene landscape like a pine forest.

2. Drying Time

Wait for at least 24 hours before applying varnish or paint coating to your finished piece. This will prevent the colors from accidentally washing off or blending with the varnish or coating product. Also, read the label of the varnish carefully and follow the directions while working with it. 

3. Choose The Right Varnish Method

Always use spray varnish on the canvas for watercolor paints since applying glaze or coating with a brush can lift the colors from the painting you’re trying to safeguard. Moreover, using a spray-on method is more convenient - you’ll be done with just three coats and won’t need to wash your brush or hands repeatedly to take the solution off.

4. Take Your Time

It is a common misconception that you must seal the painting immediately after completion. However, you can wait for a few weeks before you decide to apply the varnish. This will give you enough time to decide whether you’re satisfied with the finished product. But ensure you keep it in a dry, cool place away from contact.

5. Create Your Preferred Texture

Watercolor ground often creates a chalky, uneven texture that many people might not prefer. If you want a smoother surface, simply sand it down with fine-grit sandpaper. Then, take a cloth (preferably with no lint or lose threads) and remove the excess dust. Now you have a smooth, even canvas for watercolor.

How To Paint Watercolor On Canvas FAQs

  • Do I need to prime the canvas before painting with watercolors?

    No, a pre-stretched canvas you purchase from the art store is already primed with watercolor gesso or absorbent ground. So, you won’t need to prime a readymade canvas – just start painting as you normally would on watercolor paper. But if you decide to make your own canvas, then preparation is necessary. Refer to the step-by-step guide on preparing a canvas, as this article mentions.

  • What kind of watercolors should I use on canvas? 

    A traditional canvas allows you to use pretty much all kinds of watercolors, including gouache, watercolor in tubes, pans, liquid watercolor, markers, etc. All you need to do is ensure the surface is wet enough for the pigment to show up and blend with others. Moreover, when using watercolor markers, the surface requires sanding since markers don’t thrive on textured canvases. 

    Overall, you need to be careful about the paint-water ratio for most kinds of watercolor products.

  • Can I mix watercolors with other mediums on canvas?

    Watercolor canvas is a great surface for creating mixed-media art. Since the material is quite durable, unlike cold and hot pressed paper, it readily accepts other media like acrylic paint, ink, graphite pencil, etc. Many experts recommend experimenting with different media on canvas to achieve different depths and dimensions.

  • How do I prepare my canvas for watercolor painting?

    If you decide to make your own raw canvas before painting, our step-by-guide on preparing a canvas will be helpful. As such, you need to cure the canvas with at least two layers of standard gesso. Then, you need to apply two to six layers of watercolor ground. 

    Depending on the texture preference, you can either roughly or smoothly apply the absorbent ground from the second layer. Let the canvas cure for 24 hours after this process. Once completely dry, sand the surface for an extra smooth base.

  • What techniques can I use for watercolor painting on canvas?

    You can use all watercolor techniques on canvas – lifting, layering, blending, gradient, ombre, wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry, etc. Just be careful about the paint-water ratio and let the colors dry properly, and you’re good to go. 

  • How do I ensure the watercolors don't bleed on canvas?

    Typically, watercolors don’t bleed on canvas unless you’ve neglected to use the right water-to-paint ratio and drying time. After painting one section, let the area dry completely before you paint the next section – this will prevent the color from bleeding unnecessarily. Moreover, priming the canvas well is another way to ensure it readily accepts the paint. 

  • How do I frame a watercolor painting on canvas?

    You can directly hang the painting or let it rest against a shelf or wall when the artwork is cured and dried. However, if you don’t prefer the raw look of canvas, you can get it framed in a wooden or glass frame based on the preferred aesthetic. If you’re unsure how to fix it in a frame, send it to a photography shop specializing in framing.

  • How do I care for my watercolor painting on canvas?

    The spray varnish that you’ll use after finishing the paint will sufficiently protect it from UV rays, humidity, and dirt. However, you can never be too careful – so you should put the canvas in a dry area that is away from direct sunlight and human traffic. You can also consider framing it in a wooden frame to protect it from rodents and debris. 

  • To Sum It Up 

    Before ready-made canvases were invented, artists had to stick to watercolor papers for their art. And even though the paper did allow brighter hues and mobility, people started demanding permanent structure as the art style evolved. Thus, watercolor canvas gained popularity as the most preferred art medium for watercolor, gouache, and even oil-based paints.

    If you’ve never tried painting on canvases before, we recommend using it since it allows you to experiment with different techniques more freely. And if you do make mistakes, you can always lift the color or scrub the area to get the paint off. You’ll never know the full scope of your artistic abilities, especially when it comes to watercolors, if you don’t try painting on canvas!

    See you next time!

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