Using Watercolors on Canvas | Your Complete Guide


Watercolor painting on canvas has been gaining traction among artists, providing a versatile and exciting alternative to traditional watercolor paper. As more people explore this medium, questions and concerns about the best practices and techniques for using watercolor on canvas are common.

To use watercolor paint on canvas, select the desired canvas (cotton, linen, or acrylic), prime it with a watercolor ground, and let it dry. Adapt traditional watercolor techniques for canvas. Manage drying times, ensure vibrant colors and smooth washes, and mount finished paintings using adhesive, stretching, or floating methods.

This article aims to address these queries and guide you through the process of creating beautiful watercolor paintings on canvas, highlighting the unique advantages and challenges of this approach, and offering tips to help you achieve stunning results.

Can You Use Watercolor on Various Types of Canvas?

Watercolor is a versatile medium, and while it’s typically associated with watercolor paper, many artists have ventured into using it on different types of canvas.

In this section, we will explore the possibilities of using watercolor on regular canvas, acrylic canvas, and cotton canvas, as well as the pros and cons of using these surfaces for your watercolor creations.

1. Regular or Cotton Canvas

The regular or cotton canvas is a popular choice among artists for its affordability and adaptability.

When using watercolor on cotton canvas, proper preparation is crucial to ensure the paint adheres well and the colors appear vibrant.

Priming the canvas with a watercolor ground creates an absorbent surface, allowing the watercolor paint to bond with the canvas similarly to how it would on watercolor paper.

Pros:

  • Affordable and widely available
  • Durable and less prone to damage compared to watercolor paper
  • Can be easily framed or displayed without glass

Cons:

  • Requires proper preparation with a watercolor ground to achieve desired results
  • The texture of the canvas may make it more challenging to achieve smooth washes and fine details compared to watercolor paper
Regular or Cotton Canvas

2. Acrylic Canvas

Acrylic canvas, also known as acrylic-primed canvas, is prepped with a layer of acrylic gesso, making it suitable for acrylic paint.

Although not specifically designed for watercolors, it’s possible to use watercolors on an acrylic canvas.

However, the surface may need additional preparation with a watercolor ground to create a more absorbent surface.

Keep in mind that painting with watercolors on an acrylic-primed canvas may produce different results than on watercolor paper, as the paint may sit on top of the surface rather than being absorbed.

Pros:

  • Provides a sturdy and durable surface for your paintings
  • Can be more easily displayed without glass, like regular canvas
  • Allows for experimentation with different painting techniques and mixed media

Cons:

  • May need additional preparation with a watercolor ground for better absorption
  • Watercolor paint might not adhere as well as on watercolor paper, leading to potential lifting or reactivation issues
  • Can be more challenging to achieve smooth washes and fine details

3. Linen Canvas

Linen canvas, made from the fibers of the flax plant, is a high-quality and luxurious option for artists.

It is known for its strength, durability, and fine texture, making it an excellent choice for a variety of mediums, including watercolor.

When using watercolor on linen canvas, proper preparation is crucial to ensure the paint adheres well and the colors appear vibrant.

Priming the canvas with a watercolor ground creates an absorbent surface, allowing the watercolor paint to bond with the canvas similarly to how it would on watercolor paper.

Pros:

  • Stronger and more durable than cotton canvas, ensuring the longevity of your artwork
  • Offers a finer texture that can enhance the appearance of your watercolor paintings
  • Can be easily framed or displayed without glass

Cons:

  • Generally more expensive than cotton canvas
  • Requires proper preparation with a watercolor ground to achieve desired results
  • The fine texture may still make it more challenging to achieve smooth washes and fine details compared to watercolor paper

Preparation for Using Watercolors on Canvas

To achieve successful and vibrant watercolor paintings on canvas, it is essential to properly prepare the surface.

In this section, we will discuss the importance of prepping the canvas, how to wet a canvas before painting, and the role of gesso application in watercolor painting.

1. Why It’s Essential to Prep the Canvas

Watercolor paint relies on the absorbency of the surface to bond with it and create smooth, vibrant washes. Traditional watercolor paper is specifically designed for this purpose.

Canvas, however, is generally less absorbent and may not provide the same results without proper preparation.

Prepping the canvas ensures that the watercolor paint adheres well, prevents the colors from lifting or reactivating, and maintains the vibrancy and texture that watercolor artists love.

2. How to Wet a Canvas Before Painting

Before applying any primer, you may want to wet the canvas slightly to help the primer absorb evenly into the surface. To wet a canvas before painting, follow these simple steps:

a. Lay the canvas flat on a waterproof surface or cover the surface with a plastic sheet to protect it from water.

b. Fill a spray bottle with clean water and lightly mist the entire surface of the canvas, ensuring it is evenly damp but not soaking wet.

Alternatively, you can use a large, soft brush to gently apply water to the canvas.

c. Allow the canvas to dry slightly until it is just damp to the touch. This should take only a few minutes, depending on the humidity and temperature in your workspace.

How to Wet a Canvas Before Painting
Picture Credit: Liz Chaderton on YouTube.com

3. Gesso Application and Its Role in Watercolor Painting

Gesso, a mixture of binder, pigment, and chalk, is traditionally used to prime surfaces for painting.

While acrylic gesso is widely used for preparing canvases for acrylic and oil paints, it is not ideal for watercolor painting, as it creates a non-absorbent surface that may cause the watercolor paint to lift or reactivate easily.

Instead, watercolor artists should opt for a watercolor ground, which is a specially formulated primer designed to create an absorbent surface suitable for watercolor paint.

I have also written an article on whether you can paint with watercolors on canvas without gesso. Do check it out!

Watercolor ground is available in a variety of finishes, including cold press, hot press, and rough, allowing you to achieve the texture and absorbency that best suits your painting style.

To apply watercolor ground to your canvas, follow these steps:

a. Ensure the canvas is clean and free of dust or debris. If needed, wipe it gently with a dry cloth.

b. Use a large, soft brush or a palette knife to apply a thin, even layer of watercolor ground onto the damp canvas, following the manufacturer’s instructions.

Make sure to cover the entire surface, including the edges.

c. Allow the watercolor ground to dry completely, typically for at least 24 hours, before painting. The surface should be dry and slightly textured, similar to watercolor paper.

Techniques and Tips for Using Watercolor Paint on Canvas

Watercolor painting on canvas can offer a fresh perspective and exciting challenges for artists.

To make the most of this medium, it’s essential to adapt traditional watercolor techniques, prevent paint from lifting, manage drying times, and ensure vibrant colors and smooth washes.

I have written a huge guide on eighteen different types of watercolor techniques. It’s a fun and informative read.

In this section, we will explore these aspects in detail, providing valuable tips and insights for using watercolor paint on canvas.

1. Adapting Traditional Watercolor Techniques for Canvas

While the fundamentals of watercolor painting remain the same, working on canvas requires slight adjustments to traditional techniques:

Layering or Glazing: When working on canvas, it’s essential to be more cautious with layering.

Since the paint may sit on the surface rather than being absorbed, too many layers can cause the paint to become muddy or lift off the canvas.

Use fewer, more deliberate layers and allow each one to dry thoroughly before applying the next.

Glazing works well on canvas, but it’s essential to let each layer dry completely before applying the next one. This will prevent unwanted blending or lifting of the previous layers.

Lifting and Scrubbing: Lifting and scrubbing techniques can be more challenging on canvas, as the paint may not bond as strongly with the surface.

Use a gentle touch when lifting or scrubbing, and avoid overworking an area, as it can cause the paint to lift off entirely.

2. Preventing Paint from Lifting off the Canvas

One of the main challenges when working with watercolors on canvas is preventing the paint from lifting or reactivating. Follow these tips to minimize lifting issues:

Proper Preparation: Ensure your canvas is adequately primed with a watercolor ground, creating an absorbent surface that allows the paint to bond more effectively.

Avoid Overworking: Be cautious not to overwork an area with multiple layers or excessive brushwork, as this can cause the paint to lift from the surface.

Let Layers Dry: Allow each layer to dry completely before applying the next. This will help the paint bond more securely to the canvas and reduce the risk of lifting.

Preventing Paint from Lifting off the Canvas
Picture Credit: Liz Chaderton on YouTube.com

3. Managing Drying Times on Canvas

Drying times on canvas can be different from watercolor paper, and it’s crucial to adapt your painting process accordingly:

Humidity and Temperature: The drying time of watercolors on canvas can be affected by the humidity and temperature of your workspace. Be aware of these factors and adjust your painting process if needed.

Absorbency: Since canvas is generally less absorbent than watercolor paper, the paint may take longer to dry. Be patient and allow sufficient drying time between layers to avoid unwanted blending or lifting.

Hair Dryer: If you need to speed up the drying process, use a hair dryer on a low heat setting to gently dry the surface of the canvas. Be cautious not to overheat the paint, as it can cause it to crack or lift.

4. Ensuring Vibrant Colors and Smooth Washes on Canvas

Achieving vibrant colors and smooth washes on canvas may require some adjustments to your painting technique:

Color Intensity: Due to the reduced absorbency of canvas, you may need to use slightly more pigment to achieve the same level of color intensity as on watercolor paper.

Experiment with different pigment concentrations to find the right balance for your artwork.

Smooth Washes: To create smooth washes on canvas, use a larger brush and work quickly, applying an even layer of paint before it begins to dry.

You may need to practice this technique to achieve the desired results.

Wet-on-Wet Technique: The wet-on-wet technique can be more challenging on canvas, as the paint may not spread as evenly as on watercolor paper.

To achieve smooth wet-on-wet effects on canvas, pre-wet the surface with clean water using a large brush or spray bottle.

Then, apply your paint while the surface is still damp, allowing the colors to flow and blend more easily. Be cautious not to use too much water, as this can cause the paint to pool or lift when it dries.

Attaching Watercolor to Canvas

Mounting watercolor paintings on canvas is an alternative approach that allows artists to display their work without the need for traditional framing with glass.

In this section, we will explore various methods for attaching watercolor paintings to canvas, along with the pros and cons of different mounting techniques.

Methods for Mounting Watercolor Paintings on Canvas

1. Adhesive Mounting

One method for attaching watercolor paintings to canvas is to use a pH-neutral adhesive, such as acrylic gel medium, PVA glue, or archival double-sided tape.

Apply the adhesive evenly to the back of the watercolor paper and press it onto the canvas, ensuring there are no air bubbles or wrinkles.

Allow the adhesive to dry completely before displaying or framing the artwork.

Pros:

  • Provides a secure bond between the watercolor paper and canvas
  • Archival adhesives will not damage or discolor the artwork over time

Cons:

  • Can be challenging to reposition the watercolor paper once the adhesive is applied
  • Adhesive may cause the paper to warp or ripple if not applied evenly

2. Stretching

Another method for mounting watercolor paintings on canvas is to stretch the paper over a wooden frame, similarly to how canvases are stretched.

Use staples or tacks to secure the paper to the back of the frame, taking care to keep the tension even to avoid warping or buckling.

Pros:

  • Creates a professional and polished appearance
  • Allows the artwork to be displayed without glass, similar to traditional stretched canvas paintings

Cons:

  • Requires precise measurements and careful handling to avoid damaging the artwork
  • May not be suitable for very delicate or heavily textured watercolor paintings

3. Floating Mount

The floating mount method involves attaching the watercolor painting to a foam board or mat board using archival tape or adhesive, and then attaching the board to the canvas.

This creates a small gap between the watercolor paper and the canvas, giving the appearance that the artwork is “floating” above the surface.

Pros:

  • Adds depth and visual interest to the artwork
  • Allows for easy repositioning or removal of the watercolor painting

Cons:

  • May not provide as secure a bond as adhesive mounting or stretching
  • Requires precise alignment and attachment of the watercolor paper to the board
Floating Mount
Picture Credit: LION Picture Framing Supplies Ltd on YouTube.com

Conclusion

Watercolor painting on canvas offers new possibilities and challenges for artists.

Key points to consider include choosing the right type of canvas, proper preparation, adapting traditional techniques, and mounting methods.

The best approach may vary for individual artists, so it’s essential to experiment and find what works best for you.

Embrace the unique characteristics of watercolor on canvas, and enjoy the creative journey as you explore this versatile medium.

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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