Every Beginner’s Guide To Using Watercolor On Canvas

An artist painting a watercolor abstract on canvas

Can you use watercolor on canvas? Yes, but remember these important things before starting. Watercolors will not adhere well to the surface because the canvas is not absorbent. 

However, there are hacks and tips you can try to improve the absorbency of the canvas so you can use it for your watercolor paintings.

To prime the canvas, apply gesso using a cheap brush without diluting it with water. Mix the gesso well to remove the lumps, then apply in layers, letting them dry first before adding more layers. Paint the canvas using watercolors, then seal with a clear acrylic varnish.

What is a watercolor canvas?

an artist’s canvas on an easel

Normally, artists use watercolor paper to paint with watercolors because the only oil and acrylic applications use canvas. Watercolor canvas has a modified surface that absorbs the paints similar to paper. 

Because of this lack of absorbency in a normal canvas will warp and buckle, which does not create a pleasing effect when viewing your paintings.

The characteristics of watercolor canvas

The watercolor canvas surface is not as textured as traditional watercolor paper. The canvas has a much higher lifting capacity than paper, even if the paint is completely dry. It simplifies adjustment and improves transparency. 


  • More durable compared with paper
  • Stays wet longer, allowing you more time to work on the watercolors
  • Easier to make corrections even if the watercolor has dried
  • Stretched canvas doesn't warp, curl, or bunch after painting
  • Durable and withstands changes
  • Acid-free with good archival qualities
  • You can work on larger paintings


  • Less permanent finish
  • Difficult to glaze
  • Needs additional steps to prepare it
  • Difficult to add details
  • Watercolor may bleed if not applied properly

Tips When Applying Gesso on Canvas

applying gesso on canvas

Avoid using your good brushes

Instead, use a cheap, flat brush because you don't want to damage your good brush. 

Use the gesso straight from the container

Do not dilute the gesso but mix it well to get rid of clumps. Remove any lumps by using a roller or a flat brush dipped in clean water. 

Apply more layers

Apply at least 2 layers of gesso for watercolor ground by Daniel Smith, or both. Let the layers dry completely before adding the next layer. 

Apply in batches

Apply gesso on several canvases to save time.

Seal your watercolor painting

Dry the finished painting thoroughly, at least 24 hours before applying clear varnish. The longer you wait, though, before applying the varnish, the better are the chances that the watercolor painting is completely dry. 

Quick Fixes to Watercolor Canvas Issues

Fix your colors by applying clear acrylic varnish

To prevent inordinately lifting the watercolor paints from the painting, apply clear acrylic varnish to that portion and let it dry before adding more colors. 

Only do so when you are already confident of the result and don't want to damage the painting. 

Refrain from using overly wet brushes

Because the watercolor canvas is less absorbent than watercolor paper, the watercolor paints tend to pool on one portion of the canvas board, which may damage the overall look of the painting. Wipe the brush to nearly dry on a piece of paper towel before applying it to the canvas. 

Don't be afraid to experiment.

Using watercolor paints on stretched canvas, even after applying absorbent ground or gesso, is challenging, and many artists shy from it. 

However, to improve your techniques and skills, you have to be ready to commit mistakes. These 8x10-inch canvases are the perfect choice for practicing abstracts and negative paintings using watercolors. . 

Watercolor on Canvas FAQ

1. How do you prepare a canvas for watercolor?

Apply several coats of watercolor gesso or watercolor ground if you want to use canvas for watercolors. Gesso is a chalk-like primer, which you can use as an underpainting and conventional primer for many painting surfaces. It behaves like watercolor by adding tonality when combined with it on paper.

Remember, though, that even after applying gesso, you may still find difficulties blending and overlaying colors, so we advise beginners to take caution when using watercolors on canvas. 

Watercolor gesso transforms the surface of the paper, but it also takes watercolor differently. You can take advantage of applying gesso in certain places and leaving other parts untreated for added effect. 

Watercolor ground (also called absorbent ground), on the other hand, leaves a textured surface and a fibrous feel on the canvas, making it feel like watercolor paper. It also makes the canvas more receptive to watercolor paint than gesso. 

2. What kind of canvas do you use for watercolor?

There are several brands of canvases specially designed for watercolors. They are usually made with long-staple cotton to improve absorbency and diffusion. Some of the more popular brands are Phoenix and Fredrix

3. How do you seal watercolor on canvas?

When you finish a watercolor painting on canvas, seal it with a spray varnish to ensure that your masterpiece can withstand temperature and humidity changes. 

You may need more than one coat for full waterproofing. Once everything has dried completely, you may display it directly or frame it.

4. Can you use watercolor markers on canvas?

You may use water-based markers and watercolor pencils on gessoed canvas or ready-to-use watercolor canvases. Watercolor markers may behave differently from watercolor pencils on canvas, so try it on a small canvas before working on a larger one. 

Other artists favor canvas boards over framed canvases since they can frame them in a glass. They are also less bulky than normal canvas.


So if you've been itching to get started with watercolors, but want a more durable surface than watercolor paper, try the hacks and tips listed in this article. To understand more about the journey of watercolors as a medium, read more about its history here.  

Find the watercolor canvas that works best for your needs. Experiment with your watercolor paint and discover how it behaves in different techniques. 

Have any other tricks up your sleeve? Share them in the comments below so we can learn from one another!

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