Using Watercolor on Canvas Without Gesso | Is it Possible?

Watercolor painting is a popular art form known for its delicate and translucent qualities. Traditionally, watercolorists use paper as their canvas; however, some artists have started to explore the possibilities of using watercolor on canvas. This raises an important question for artists venturing into this technique: Can you use watercolor on canvas without gesso?

You can use watercolor on canvas without gesso. To achieve good results, choose a watercolor canvas, stretch it properly, apply paint in thin layers, and consider using alternative primers like watercolor ground or absorbent gesso for better adhesion and surface texture.

In this article, we’ll delve into the role of gesso in watercolor painting on canvas and discuss whether it’s necessary to prime the canvas before painting.

The Role of Gesso in Watercolor Painting

1. What is gesso?

Gesso is a white, acrylic-based primer that prepares surfaces, such as canvas, for painting. It is traditionally made from a combination of chalk, gypsum, or other minerals, mixed with a binder and water.

The primary function of gesso is to create a barrier between the painting surface and the paint, preventing paint from soaking into the canvas fibers and ensuring that colors remain vibrant and true to their original hue.

What is gesso
Picture Credit: Alyona’s Watercolour Creations on

2. Benefits of using gesso on a canvas

Using gesso on a canvas offers several benefits. First, it provides a consistent and smooth surface for painting, making it easier for artists to achieve the desired effects with their brushstrokes.

Second, it prevents the paint from reacting with the canvas fibers, which could lead to discoloration or deterioration of the artwork over time.

Third, gesso can enhance the overall appearance of a painting by preventing colors from bleeding into one another and helping to maintain the intended level of transparency and opacity.

Traditionally, gesso has been used primarily for oil and acrylic painting, as these mediums require a barrier to prevent the paint from soaking into the canvas and causing damage.

Watercolor painting, on the other hand, has mostly been done on paper, which does not require the use of gesso.

However, as artists have begun experimenting with watercolor on canvas, the question of whether gesso is necessary for this medium has arisen.

3. Traditional use of gesso in watercolor painting

In the context of watercolor painting, gesso can be useful for several reasons.

First, it can help create a more absorbent surface on the canvas, allowing the watercolor paint to adhere better and reducing the chance of the paint pooling or lifting off when dry.

Second, it can provide a more consistent and uniform texture, which can be beneficial when working with the transparent and delicate nature of watercolors.

Despite these advantages, some artists may still choose to work without gesso, and we will explore the potential challenges and alternative techniques for using watercolor on canvas without gesso in the following sections.

Using Watercolor on Canvas Without Gesso

1. Challenges that may arise from using watercolor without gesso

Choosing to use watercolor on canvas without gesso can present some challenges for artists.

One major concern is that the paint may not adhere well to the canvas surface, leading to paint pooling, beading, or lifting off when dry.

Additionally, without the barrier provided by gesso, colors may bleed into one another, making it difficult to achieve the desired level of detail and precision in a painting.

Furthermore, the absence of a consistent and uniform texture may result in uneven paint application and an undesirable final appearance.

Despite these challenges, it is possible to successfully paint with watercolors on an unprimed canvas by employing certain techniques and selecting the right materials.

Here are some tips for working with watercolor on canvas without gesso:

2. Tips and techniques for painting with watercolors on an unprimed canvas

a. Choose a canvas specifically designed for watercolor painting.

These canvases are typically made from a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers, providing a more absorbent surface that allows the watercolor paint to adhere better.

b. Stretch your canvas properly to prevent warping or sagging when exposed to water. This will help ensure that the paint remains evenly distributed on the surface.

c. Use a light touch when applying watercolor to an unprimed canvas, as excessive water can cause the paint to bead up or lift off the surface.

Experiment with different brushstrokes and paint-to-water ratios to find the right balance for your artwork.

d. Apply multiple thin layers of paint to build up color and intensity, allowing each layer to dry thoroughly before adding the next.

This can help prevent colors from bleeding into one another and provide a more controlled and detailed final result.

e. Seal your finished painting with a spray fixative or varnish specifically designed for watercolors.

This will help protect the artwork from dust, moisture, and UV light, as well as prevent colors from fading or shifting over time.

By selecting a watercolor canvas, stretching it properly, and applying paint in thin, controlled layers, artists can create captivating watercolor paintings on canvas without the need for gesso.

Tips and techniques for painting with watercolors on an unprimed canvas
Picture Credit: Scott Swinson on

Alternative Primers for Watercolor Canvas

While gesso is a popular and widely used primer for preparing canvas for painting, there are alternative primers available that can also work well with watercolor on canvas.

These alternatives can offer unique benefits and may be more suitable for specific techniques or styles, depending on the artist’s preference.

One such alternative is watercolor ground, which is designed specifically for use with watercolor paints.

Watercolor ground is an absorbent primer that allows the canvas to better accept watercolor paint, mimicking the behavior of watercolor paper.

It can be applied to various surfaces, including canvas, wood, and metal, providing a versatile base for watercolor paintings.

Watercolor ground typically dries to a slightly textured finish, which can add an interesting dimension to a painting.

Another alternative primer is absorbent gesso, which is different from traditional gesso due to its higher absorbency.

Absorbent gesso is formulated to create a porous surface, making it more suitable for watercolor painting.

This primer can provide a similar level of protection as traditional gesso while offering better adhesion for watercolor paints.

Watercolor Painting on Canvas Without Gesso – My Experiment and Opinion 

When I first decided to try watercolor painting on canvas, I was hesitant about using gesso.

I had always painted on watercolor paper, and I was curious to see how the paint would behave on an unprimed canvas.

To my surprise, I discovered that there were both challenges and unique opportunities in working without gesso.

One challenge I faced was achieving the right balance of paint and water. The paint would sometimes bead up or lift off the canvas, making it difficult to create smooth, even strokes.

However, with some experimentation, I found that using a light touch and applying thin layers of paint allowed me to achieve the desired effects.

I also noticed that working without gesso created a more textured appearance in my paintings. The colors would sometimes bleed into one another, adding an interesting element of unpredictability to my work.

While this might not be suitable for every artist or style, I found that it added a unique and captivating dimension to my paintings.

In my opinion, painting with watercolor on canvas without gesso can be a rewarding and creative experience.

It may present challenges, but with patience and experimentation, artists can develop their own techniques and adapt to the unique properties of an unprimed canvas.

If you’re considering trying watercolor on canvas without gesso, I encourage you to approach it with an open mind and enjoy the process of discovering new possibilities in your art.


While using watercolor on canvas without gesso presents certain challenges, it is indeed possible with the right techniques and materials.

The role of gesso in providing a smooth, consistent surface and preventing paint absorption is important, but alternative primers like watercolor ground and absorbent gesso can also be considered.

By selecting a watercolor canvas, stretching it properly, and applying paint in thin, controlled layers, artists can achieve beautiful results without gesso.

Embrace the opportunity to experiment with different techniques and materials, and continue to explore the vast world of watercolor painting.

Mehak Verma

I love creating both traditional and digital watercolour art. Why? As a kid, transitioning from sketch pens to paint brushes and water soluble colours was a big deal. Hope you find what you're looking for on my website.

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