Monday, March 20th, 2023

Learn How to Paint Watercolor on Canvas Easily & Successfully

Watercolor on Canvas

There’s simply no denying it – watercolors are some of the most versatile painting materials that you can buy.

However, each painting material brings with itself some unique methods as well as precautions. One such method is using watercolors on canvas – this method yields a weight and longevity which watercolor paper can’t ever match, no matter how expensive.

Hence, it’s crucial to know the best methods to paint on canvas using watercolors. Following these methods successfully will lead you towards paintings which can bring out the best in your artwork.

Getting watercolors to work on canvas is no trivial task – but if you follow the steps below, the task becomes much easier.

Featured Image by lightsome-dreamer

Learn How to Paint Watercolor on Canvas

watercolor on canvas

Painting by lightsome-dreamer

Canvas which behaves like watercolor paper

The first thing you need to understand is that watercolors cannot be painted on canvas directly. The surface of canvases is directly compatible with paints such as oil and acrylics. But you can achieve a similar finish by using two essential components: a gesso (a common tool used by canvas artists), as well as a new product in the market called a watercolor ground.

You need to layer on both the materials over the canvas in smooth, strong brushes. Once you’re done with the process, you’ll have a surface which resembles watercolor papers you see in stores.

The importance of gesso in the studio

As a brief aside to our discussion on making canvas into a surface suitable for watercolor paints, it’s important to discuss how important gesso is in the studio. Oil, acrylics and watercolors are all equally good to go with gesso. Artist grade gesso is much better than the primer you generally see in stores, even though it’s cheaper and claims to do the same job gesso does.

Primers come with a number of problems such as impurities and a chemical odour. Hence the consensus is, spend a little more on gesso – it’s more than worth it.

Watercolor ground makes canvas shine with watercolors

Watercolor ground is an amazing new product on the market, which is very versatile. Not very well known even in the art world, it has proven results on a number of surfaces – including canvas, wood, plastics etc.

Gesso is primarily used for providing a number of rigid properties and preventing too much paint from getting absorbed on the surface which you’re painting on. However, using a watercolor ground helps you gain in terms of rigidity, and will provide a much better texture to the paint as well.

The beauty of this pairing is that once you’re done layering on both of these materials on your surface, you’ll get a surface which is eerily similar to the watercolor papers. Both in the texture of the painting that you will get once you’re done, as well as the overall feel of the painting in terms of transparency, permanence and the lightfastness of watercolor paints.

You also get a number of gessos which are colored other than the most generic color, which is white or off-white. A few brands offer up to 10 color choices for your gesso – perfect for replacing your watercolor papers with!

Watercolor grounds are compatible with metal and glass as well, should you want to give that combination a try.

drawn orange watercolor 76542 58

Preparing a Canvas for Watercolor Paints

Now that you have an idea of why we’re using the components that we are, you should get started with actually preparing the surface so that your watercolors come to life.

The things you’ll need

Here’s what you’ll be needing in order to get a perfect watercolor paper-esque finish:

  1. A canvas, preferably stretched for a better finishing
  2. A brush which is wide enough to cover the surface of the canvas in a few proper strokes
  3. Acrylic Gesso, preferably on the lighter tones
  4. Watercolor ground as described above

Steps you’ll need to follow

The first step is to take that canvas, stretch it as much as you can, but not too much. Then, with the help of the paintbrush, you have to layer the gesso on to the canvas. Don’t overdo it – while gesso does give a beautiful shimmery finish, you must remember that we’re dealing with watercolors. Too much and it’s wasteful – two or three layers of gesso ought to suffice for this.

That was it for the first layer.

Now, on to the next layers – after the first two coats of gesso, layer on the watercolor ground. Watercolor ground is a fundamentally thinner surface than gesso, so you will require many more layers of ground than gesso. Around 5 to 10 is a wonderful number, although you should be deciding based on feel.

Then, you must let it dry for at least a day, if not a day and a half. You should have no problems with painting using watercolors on this new, watercolor-ready canvas surface!

If you want to produce work with a toothier and harder surface, you’ll need to find a gritty sandpaper, and work on the different layers with that sandpaper. You should do it to the extent that your work is closest to what you intend for it to be.

A few notes on the process of preparing your surface

This process is one which takes practice, determination and time to master because it’s not an exact science. There’s no way to know whether a particular surface is prepped “right” or not, simply because different paintings call for different surfaces. Some are more somber, while some are punchier – so you’ll need to tweak your priming process as per need.

You should also take some time out simply to prepare canvases according to your painting style. This is better because you don’t waste time on simply preparing your canvas when you can be painting. You have to be extra careful while preparing surfaces, so it’s better to fully concentrate on preparing the surfaces and then getting to work on them.

Watercolor on Canvas

Watercolor Panels –  a Simpler Way Out

If you want to enjoy the benefits of watercolors on something harder and thicker than a simple watercolor paper but don’t want to spend time in preparing your own surface, there is a shortcut. This one, called a watercolor panel, comes with a number of shortcomings. These panels are primed with materials which play incredibly well with watercolors.

However, these aren’t really a long term solution, per se. The finish, quality and the level of customization that your own canvases will afford you are leagues ahead of what a watercolor board can provide. This effect comes to the fore when it comes to darker backgrounds and settings. For lighter tones, the panel sometimes works well.

This is recommended for people who intend to try the feeling of watercolors on surfaces other than just a watercolor paper. If you’re a beginner with watercolors, we definitely recommend going for watercolor boards – they are cheap enough to experiment with, but deliver much of the same benefits without the time outlay or skill requirement of canvases.

Some guidelines you must follow

Since dealing with a heterogeneous surface and medium can become quite a task, you should always take care of a few things while painting on canvas using watercolors:

– Since watercolor is still susceptible to the effects of stray water even after it has been put on the prepared canvas surface, be very careful with stray water droplets getting on the surface.

– Once you’re done with painting, the next step to follow is to place a varnish on the painted canvas. This is crucial in ensuring the stability and long-term safety of the painting – since watercolors aren’t exactly the most stable or permanent paints.

– When you’re applying gesso and ground to the canvas, do make sure you paint multiple thinner layers rather than a single thick layer. This is because you want to ensure that these layers to not break, and thicker layers have a stronger chance of breaking off.

Transitioning from plain canvas to watercolor-capable canvas

Once you start layering on gesso and watercolor ground on the canvas, the original feel of the canvas will start to disappear and be replaced by a more watercolor-like texture. This can radically change the way in which your painting starts to look. For maintaining the canvas texture, you should not layer on more than 1 layer of gesso and 1 layer of ground.

For doing away with the texture entirely and switching to a pseudo-watercolor like texture, you should have at least 2-3 layers of gesso and 5-10 layers of watercolor ground as described earlier. In any case, leave the canvas out to dry for a sufficient time before you start preparing it for varnishing and further framing.

UV Protection is important

Now, if you consider protection of your painting from the elements, varnishing just isn’t enough. Varnishing can help protect from the elements, but the effects of light can never be discounted. Simple camera flashes can have a devastating impact on the longevity of artworks, and hence, we recommend going in for strong UV protection for all your watercolor based works.

Watercolor on Canvas

Bringing it together

Today, we’ve seen a detailed discussion of how to make watercolors and canvas sing together – an unlikely combination, but one which has a number of unique attributes. A number of things must be taken care of, and you must always use the highest quality of gesso and watercolor ground you can get your hands on.

You must also take care of your painting well after you’ve finished it. Varnishing and UV protection ensure this.

You’re now done with knowing all about the process – now go out there and paint your heart out with watercolors on canvas! Happy preparing and painting!

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Sudarshan Kar

Sudarshan Kar

As Lead Editor of Homesthetics for almost a decade now, Sudarshan knows the website inside-out. His journalistic experience shaped the editorial and integrity guidelines that define the platform today.

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