How to Use Watercolor on Canvas: Professional Tips for Preparing and Choosing Your Canvas

Watercolor is a unique medium to create beautiful artwork. For novice artists, watercolor is the easiest medium to learn. Artists find it honest, transparent, and spontaneous, as mistakes in watercolor may actually be used as an artistic effect.

There are also practical reasons why some artists prefer to use watercolor over oil. One factor is the faster drying time compared to oil. Watercolor does not smell as strong as oils, and it’s easier to carry around a watercolor palette than tubes of oil.

When you are just starting out, you’ll find painting with watercolors is easy because you can paint on different sizes of paper. Paper is ideal for watercolor since it absorbs the watercolor on the surface better than regular, unprimed canvas. Moreover, if you want to paint with watercolor on canvas, you will need to take some action to prepare it.

Watercolor is also ideal for those who want to draw and paint. There are watercolor pencils that look like pencils, but they disperse the colors differently. You have to dip them in water and wait for it to dry, but instead of using a brush, you have a pencil point.  They can be used for both drawing the outline and painting the colors, which would be difficult using the brush.

Watercolor Paper vs. Watercolor Canvas

You can use most paper surfaces for watercolors, but to get the best results, it is better to use watercolor paper.

Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper is a specially-made paper specific for watercolors. Compared to a paper which is made from wood shavings, watercolor paper is made from cotton intertwined within its fibers. This layer of cotton allows it to be more absorbent and retain the watercolors rather than letting them rub off.

There are definite advantages of painting watercolors on paper, specifically for beginners. When you use specialized watercolor papers, cotton can absorb the watercolors, keeping them in place. In general, it would be easier to start off on watercolor papers since it would not drip off. Aside from making the painting process easier, you also avoid making a mess.

Types of watercolor paper
Types of watercolor paper

In contrast, painting watercolors on canvas will require more patience and a certain degree of technique. You have to manage your strokes and wait for the canvas to settle before you apply a new color. Otherwise, the watercolor would drip all over the place, and form paint pools over the canvas.

It is always a prerequisite for any artist to take precautions especially if your canvas is not specialized for watercolors.

Pros and Cons of Watercolor Paper

Highly absorbent
Easy for beginners
Variable sizes
Avoids messy studio
Paper is fragile, may rip with strong strokes
Need to frame paper and place under glass before in order to display

Can I Use Watercolor on Canvas?

Sure, but use watercolor canvas. Watercolor canvas is stretched or primed with different formulations that can make them absorb watercolors better. You can buy prepared canvas for watercolors, and these have a finer texture. You may also apply coats of Gesso to regular canvas to make it more absorbent, and enable it to retain watercolors.

When working with canvas, the main advantage is its size and durability. Canvases are bigger than paper and it can stand alone without a frame. In contrast, the paper is usually smaller and after it dries, you have to place it on the frame. It is not an easy task since the paper is usually very fragile.

With the painting on canvas, it can already be displayed once the watercolor dries. The curing time for watercolor is significantly shorter than that of oil or acrylic.

Pros and Cons of Watercolor Canvas

No need to frame under glass
Ready to display or sell right away
Not as absorbent as paper
Needs painting technique, not suitable for beginners
Using watercolor paper is the best option for watercolor uses for any level. If you do not have plans with your painting yet (to sell or exhibit), then it is better to paint with watercolor paper and develop better technique, before you move to a larger canvas.

Recommended Watercolor Paper

As the watercolor paper is ideal for smaller paintings and ease of use, the recommended paper is the Arches 12-Inch x 16-Inch Acid-Free Cold-Press Watercolor Paper Block. At the moment, it is the best watercolor paper on the market.

Arches Watercolor Paper Block, 300 lb Arches Watercolor Paper Block, 300 lb
  • Best quality and efficiency
  • Holds up to intense work − 300 lb / 640 GSM
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The block is made up of 10 sheets. It is clearly white to ensure the best contrast with the colors you will use. The material is made from 100% rag cotton, which ensures maximum absorbency. It also has a neutral ph level, so it is acid-free. Most paints have a base PH level, so acidity affects them.

Watercolor users consider Arches as the best watercolor paper. The packaging keeps the painting in place, and you may cut it loose when it dries, unraveling the next sheet. This ensures that the other sheets are protected, and also helps to keep a tidy workplace.

The Arches watercolor block is recommended for beginners, but the experts are also vocal about their approval. The quality is excellent and it has the best surface among all watercolor papers in the market.

Best Canvas for Watercolor

When it comes to watercolor canvas, we would recommend the PHOENIX Stretched Watercolor Canvas.

PHOENIX Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas PHOENIX Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas
  • 100 % cotton watercolor canvas
  • 14x18 Inch/ 4 Pack
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They are sold in packs of 4 pieces each, with 3/4 inch width. It is described as a Profile Professional Artist Painting Canvas for Water-Soluble Paints. There are also other dimensions available, ranging from 5×7 to 14×18.

The Phoenix Arts Group has produced art canvases and supplies since 1988, and they have good knowledge of what artists need. They a wide array of canvases ranging from fabric, linen, polyester, and cotton. They also have paint colors, brushes, easels, frames, and other essential art accessories.

The Stretched Watercolor Canvas is carefully designed for watercolor users, with a 100% cotton surface. This will ensure that the watercolor is absorbed and would not seep off. It also comes with a pine wood frame, so it is ready to be hung once the paint has dried.

Your Decision

In the end, the decision on whether to use watercolor paper or watercolor canvas depends on many factors: the size of what you want to paint, your level of expertise, and what you intend to do with your finished artwork.

For beginners, it is advisable to use the watercolor paper simply because it is specialized for watercolor usage. It has the most absorbent surfaces and when you choose the recommended, high-quality paper, it is very easy to paint and mix the colors. Paper is best for smaller prints and also for practice.

Difference of watercolors on canvas and different surfaces

If you intend to display your artwork or give them as a gift, then the watercolor canvas is the easiest. The recommended canvas is ready to hang or to give away, with no need for framing. It does require a certain degree of technique since there watercolor paint takes time to dry.

In short, watercolor paper is easier to use and best for beginners, while the experts who have intentions to exhibit or transport their paintings should go for the watercolor canvas.

How to Paint Watercolor on Canvas?

What if you can have the absorbency of watercolor paper with the convenience of canvas? That would give you the best of both worlds. Is there a way to achieve this? Artists would recommend applying treatment to the surface of the canvas to make it more absorbent. One popular option for this is Gesso.

Watercolor on Gesso Canvas

Gesso is an important art supply that is similar to acrylic paint, except that gesso has a thinner coat which allows you to apply it on any canvas surface. It dries hard, forming a layer between the fabric of the canvas and the surface. With this layer, there is a harder surface which allows the paint to stand out from the canvas.

Gesso on canvas

When you apply gesso on canvas, the color sits longer, and you can wipe off the paint before it sticks. This can allow you to mix or shade the colors multiple times before letting it settle. With gesso, the canvas is now ready for any medium, including watercolor.

Why Use Gesso as Your Primer?

There is a question on why we need to use gesso as a primer instead of just applying a coat of white acrylic paint. This shortcut may be damaging in the long run.

Artists recommend gesso because it has an amount of calcium carbonate that will eliminate the acids from your canvas surface and make it more absorbent Gesso is basically titanium white paint instead of acrylic, and it is formulated to create more adhesion to your surface. When you use acrylic paint as a primer, it only smoothens the surface without the absorbency that you need, especially for watercolors.

What Materials Do I Need for Gesso Priming?

Acrylic Gesso

There are many types of gessoes in the market, but acrylic gesso is usually applicable to any type of canvas. If you want to use watercolor, you should purchase a cotton surface canvas. Acrylic gesso is safe to use on cotton surfaces.

Which Gesso Should You Buy?
There are different types of gessoes in the market depending on what they can offer: consistency, stability, or durability. For watercolor, you need to look for absorbency. Higher quality gesso will allow you to get the absorbency you need while applying fewer coats.
Liquitex Professional White Gesso Liquitex Professional White Gesso
  • Premium white acrylic gesso
  • Lightweight, non-toxic, dries to a water-resistant, non-yellowing surface
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Cotton Canvas

You may use any canvas, even fabric canvases in painting. However, for watercolors, the best choice is cotton.


For mixing and controlling the texture of the gesso.

Standard House Paintbrush / Squeegee

There is no specific size necessary, but since you are going to spread gesso onto your canvas, it would be easier to get a wider brush to cover more area with fewer strokes.

Step-by-Step Guide

1. Prepare Your Gesso

If you have a powder gesso, you need to mix it with water. Follow the instructions in your gesso container. Mix well with water until you the consistency is smooth and there are no more lumps.

For the liquid gesso, you may dilute with water depending on the thickness that you prefer. If the thickness is ideal for you, then you can proceed with the application.

2. Apply the Gesso on the Surface of the Canvas

Dip your paintbrush into the gesso and apply in parallel strokes from one edge to the other, covering the entire surface. Don’t forget to include the sides of the canvas. In order to cover more ground in less time and have a smoother finish, you can use a squeegee instead of a brush.

In this case, apply some gesso on the canvas and proceed to spread it around the surface, from one edge to the other. You may need to use a brush to cover the sides.

Whether you use a brush or squeegee, the goal is the same: to ensure that the pores on the surface of the canvas are well-covered.

3. Wait for the Coat of Gesso to Dry Before Applying Another Coat

The drying time depends on the type of gesso and the thickness of your coat. If you used a brush, you should rub sandpaper after every application to ensure the smoothness of the coat and remove any loose fibers on the surface.

4. Repeat the Procedure

You can repeat the procedure to apply a second coat using the same procedure. But this time, you should brush the gesso perpendicular to how you applied it to the first time. For example, if you brushed the gesso horizontally for the first time, apply the gesso vertically on the second coat.

The recommendation is to apply two coats on the unprimed canvas. Usually, two coats will do, but you can add more if you want, just remember to stroke the canvas alternately (parallel, perpendicular).

Absorbent Grounds: The Game Changer

Applying more coats of gesso may still not give you the best absorbency for watercolor art. To get the best result for your masterpiece, you should apply absorbent grounds on your canvas.

Absorbent grounds are also called watercolor grounds, precisely because they were made to help artists in that medium paint on their canvas.

How to Apply Absorbent Ground on your Canvas

After the gesso primer has dried, you can now proceed to apply the absorbent grounds. If you will use absorbent/watercolor grounds, you only need to apply one to two coats of gesso.


  • Absorbent/ Watercolor ground
  • Water (to dilute absorbent ground for a smoother texture)
  • Standard Paintbrush
For the watercolor ground, the squeegee may not be a good option since the absorbent grounds will be more diluted than the gesso. Remember that at this stage, the canvas is already primed with gesso. The surface is already hard and thick because of the gesso, the goal for absorbent grounds is to make it smoother and more absorbent.

Step-by-Step Guide

Absorbent grounds are usually thick, and the best way to apply it is to dilute with water. Add one part water to three parts of the absorbent ground to make sure that the mixture is not too thin.

  1. Apply the absorbent ground mixture from one edge to the other. Turn the canvas around and apply the coats perpendicular to the previous application.
  2. Wait for two hours for the first coat to dry.
  3. Repeat the process for a second coat.
  4. Wait overnight, or 12-24 hours before to ensure that the grounds are dry before proceeding to paint.

Now you have a smooth, absorbent canvas to paint on. Get your creative juices flowing and paint your masterpiece.

How to Seal a Watercolor Painting on Canvas?

Now that you have finished your watercolor painting on your primed canvas, you should take steps to protect your art. Remember that you chose to paint on canvas because it is more durable and easier to display. It takes away the hassle of framing the work under glass.

Your painting will be readily appreciated, as viewers can get a closer look and there won’t be any glare of reflection. However, remember that without a glass frame, your painting is exposed to the elements.

Sealing Watercolor on Canvas

The common practice for watercolor is to frame them under glass. This was done because most watercolor paintings were made on paper. In the proceeding instructions, we discuss different materials used to seal and protect watercolor paintings on canvas without framing it under glass.

Fixative Sprays


  • Artist Fixative Spray
  • UV protective Varnish Spray (optional)
  • Paintbrush (optional)

Artists recommend using spray fixatives and varnishes. There are various fixatives for different paints. Most of them are acrylic based, but choose the one that is specified for watercolor paintings.

Note that there are workable and non-workable fixatives. The workable fixatives allow you to make changes on the painting even after you have sprayed it on the canvas. However, this can only apply to other mediums.

Since watercolor is relatively more fragile than other paint mediums, any added changes after acrylic fixatives are applied may cause a difference in texture.

Many artists in this medium have noted that fixatives will repel water, even the workable fixatives. For watercolor, this means the paint will not be absorbed, since the fixative already provides a protective layer on the surface.

Always remember, before spraying or applying any fixative or varnish, make sure that the painting is finished and signed. There should no longer be any changes or additions.

Step-by-step Guide

1. Choose an Artist-grade Fixative

Warning: There are some painters who have used hair spray or any aerosol to seal their watercolors. The contents of hair sprays can have strong chemicals that can cause your painting to lose its original color.

Using a recommended fixative like Winsor & Newton Artists’ Aerosols Workable Fixative.

Winsor & Newton Artists' Aerosols Workable Fixative Winsor & Newton Artists' Aerosols Workable Fixative
  • To Protect From Smudging & Dust
  • Fixatives Also Enable The Top Of The Surface To Be Continually Worked By The Artist
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2. Leave It for a While

Your painting can be vulnerable to possible smearing and smudging. While this happens more often in oil and pastel, the parts of your painting with heavy strokes and multiple colors may also smudge. Spray lightly according to instructions, and observe the recommended distance.

The fixative can help keep the paint in place by providing a thin, invisible barrier on the surface.

3. Apply a Protective Varnish

It is an option to apply protective varnish to painting after spraying on the fixative. This will ensure that the paint stays in place and reduce the effect of UV rays if the painting is exposed under direct sunlight.

Varnish can also be sold in spray form just like the fixative. In this case, you simply follow the instructions on the spray can.

There are paint varnishes that are in liquid form. Apply the varnish according to the product instructions using a paintbrush. You may apply multiple coats if you feel that is necessary.

Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Medium Matt UV Varnish Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic Medium Matt UV Varnish
  • Protect art from airborne pollutants, UV damage and fading
  • Dries to an even finish
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Guides and Reminders on Fixatives and Varnishes

Important: If you want to send your watercolor painting to an art competition, you must keep in mind that there are some watercolor art galleries or societies that will not accept varnished watercolor paintings. They consider the varnish as a separate medium in itself since some of them are acrylic.

Some artists also note that using a surface-coated varnish that you use to protect the painting may actually change its appearance. The surface-coating varnish will make it look like an acrylic painting because the colors will become shinier and wet. This is why watercolor competitions do not accept them.

There is an ongoing debate among watercolor artists on using fixatives and varnishes. The watercolor is different from oils and pastels because the colors can be more visually gentle compared to other paints. Using a varnish can affect that.

Other Methods: Plastic Glazing

For strict watercolor artists, the best way to protect their painting is still to frame it under glass. However, you can still have the benefits of protection without the heavy glass frame.

Plastic glazing can be treated with UV inhibitors to minimize reflection and glare. It is easier to find plastic material instead of glass for larger frames. Also, using creative lighting can help minimize the reflection of plastic coverings.

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