Toolkit How To Paint Watercolor On Canvas


Watercolor Ground & Gesso | Watercolor Painting On Canvas | How To Watercolor On Canvas | Simple Floral Watercolor Exercise

Before heading into the world of painting watercolor on canvas, why not have a look at the different Watercolor Brush Sizes. Find out which ones you really need for your watercolor painting adventures.

Artists by nature are curious and explorative creatures. After getting well-acquainted with the basics of watercolor painting, our minds just start to wander and then wonder… What else can be done with watercolors? Can you use watercolor on canvas? On wood panels perhaps? And the answer to that question is yes, BUT with some extra prep work. 

TABLE OF CONTENTS: Looking for something in particular? Jump ahead using the links below:

Watercolor Ground & Gesso
Watercolor Painting On Canvas
Preparing For Painting Watercolor On Canvas
How To Watercolor On Canvas

Simple Floral Watercolor Exercise

Watercolor palette shown above is the Allegro Palette from ZenART Supplies.

Canvases are generally used for oil and acrylic painting, you can stretch one yourself and do all the priming with gesso that it needs before painting on it. Or you can buy already stretched and primed ones that are readily available nowadays in most art shops or arts and crafts stores. If it’s already primed with gesso, can I paint on it with watercolor, you ask? Yes, but it won’t be the same experience as when painting on paper. If you want to be able to paint on canvas and keep the characteristics that are the hallmark of watercolors, then you have to add an additional “primer” that is the watercolor ground. To understand it better let’s first briefly talk about the difference between gesso and watercolor ground.

Top: Stretched canvas mounted on an easel. Bottom: Impasto acrylic application on canvas pad. Canvases are generally most often used for oil and acrylic paints.

Watercolor Ground and Gesso

Watercolor Ground

This is a kind of primer that you can apply on surfaces to make them absorbent and more receptive to your watercolor applications – as well as other water media. It can be applied to canvas, paper, hardboard, plaster, wood panels, and non-absorbent surfaces like glass, metal, and plastic. Though it’s best to sand or abrade these smooth/shiny surfaces to give them tooth so the watercolor ground will adhere to them better.

Watercolor grounds are acrylic based primers just like the regular acrylic based gesso you get from stores. But they have been formulated to be much more absorbent than gesso. After all, watercolors need a porous enough surface to be absorbed, but not too porous that the pigments sink in too deep. There are many kinds of watercolor grounds available nowadays, from thinner formulations to much thicker ones that you can apply with highly textured finishes. It will all depend on your preference or the style you want to achieve when painting watercolor on canvas.


Gesso is a primer that is applied to surfaces like canvases and wood panels to prepare them for painting. There is the traditional gesso that’s more absorbent than the acrylic gesso and the most suitable for oil paints, but is quite challenging to mix and apply. So nowadays, most people generally opt for pre-primed canvases (oil primed and otherwise) or the store-bought acrylic gesso that’s much friendlier to use. 

Canvases primed with acrylic gesso have the tiniest bit of absorbency. Nowhere near a paper’s level of absorbency, that’s for sure. After all it’s meant for acrylic and oil paint that you actually want to stay on the surface. Watercolor applied on acrylic gesso primed canvas or other substrate tends to mostly stay on the surface, so it will be difficult if you plan to do a lot of glazing and layering. The color below can easily lift off and mix with your succeeding layers if you’re not careful. So it’s best to work quickly on any additional layer, and not repeatedly go over or rub too much on re-wetted areas. Though this also means it will do well on the color lifting side of things if you’re looking to do that. 

Gesso is usually white, but there are also colored ones (clear, black, other colors) available. Or you can always stain your white gesso a different color by adding your chosen acrylic color to the mix. Mixed media artists have painted watercolor over gesso, so you can try it out for yourself and see how it works. And what sort of applications and techniques you can use.

Watercolor Painting On Canvas

Lately I’ve found some watercolor canvas pads and watercolor canvas panels/boards for sale that have already been primed and ready for use. You can try those out or you can buy watercolor ground and prime your chosen substrate yourself. There are also different kinds of watercolor ground that you can choose from.  Transparent ground, light ground, watercolor ground, and cold-press watercolor ground are just some of those available across various brands. So depending on the effect and texture you want, it’s best if you read up on each one before deciding which to get. 

The pros of watercolor painting on canvas:

  • Durability – since canvas is sturdier than paper, it can handle rougher applications. You won’t fear so much tearing your surface when you do your blotting, scratching, or scraping. 
  • No more buckling – when using a pre-stretched canvas or panel, you can just paint right away after you’ve applied the watercolor ground. No need to do any extra stretching that you need to do with watercolor paper to avoid it from buckling especially when painting a lot of very wet washes.
  • Color-lifting – easy color lifting for corrections, or for those special color-lifting effects like highlights. No need to use masking fluid or work around the whites of your surface to preserve the whiteness. This also means you’ll have more time to work on your details since the absorption time is quite slow.
  • Framing options – with watercolor on paper, you usually need to have it framed behind glass and with a rigid backing for support as paper can be easily damaged. But with stretched canvases, boards or panels, there’s no need for placing behind glass. As long as you’ve fixed and varnished your work, you can hang it framed/unframed. You can also easily hang it on the wall by just attaching hanging hardware to the stretcher at the back. 

Preparing For Painting Watercolor On Canvas

You start by choosing your canvas – pre stretched or not, pre-primed or not, canvas panel/board, canvas pad, you can try it out on each of those one at a time. I used a sheet of canvas pad as my trying out choice. I’ll paint on the gesso primed canvas, the watercolor ground primed canvas, and watercolor paper for comparison. 

Once you’ve chosen your preferred canvas, start by reading up on the instructions of the watercolor ground you have on hand. Different grounds across varying brands have different application instructions. Try to follow them as best as you can to start with. You can always fiddle around with the mixtures/application later on once you’ve already tested them out.

The watercolor ground that I have (Titanium White) has the following instruction for example: 

“Directions: An excellent ground for watercolor on all surfaces. Absorbent surfaces: Canvas, Paper, Plaster, Hardboard. Non-absorbent surfaces: Glass, Plastic, Metal – for best results these will need to be abraded before application of the ground. Thick. Brushable and heavily pigmented. Allow 24-72 hours to cure before applying Watercolor or Acrylics. Can be thinned up to 10% with water. Wash brushes immediately after use. “

Don’t use your good brushes for this, I have regular cheap brushes that are just for gesso application that I also used for the ground. I also just applied one even layer across the canvas pad. I wasn’t looking to cover the texture of the canvas, I actually wanted it to show through for this trial. The canvas’ texture has its own charms that I wanted to explore. When I get my hands on some cold-pressed watercolor ground, I’ll try a more heavily textured application to mimic the rough watercolor paper’s surface. 

Then I allowed the applied ground to cure for 72 hours. It was dry to the touch after 12 hours but I left it alone just to be on the safe side. It dried with a fine rough texture with a chalky finish. 

How To Watercolor On Canvas

Once it’s fully dry, you can now start exploring and watercolor painting on canvas! I set up a comparison exercise of using watercolor on hot press watercolor paper, cold-press watercolor paper, and watercolor ground on canvas pad. 

I prepared 3 strips, one for each substrate to test my watercolors on. To test them out, I decided to do a graded wet-on-wet wash, a flat wash which I then color-lifted a section of when it dried, and a basic glazing/layering. Using Prussian Blue, Crimson, and layering of Prussian Blue and Viridian from the Espresso Palette of ZenART Supplies.

Watercolor used is the Espresso Palette from the Aspiring Artist Series, and the brushes are from the Turner Collection, both from ZenART Supplies.

Watercolor On Hot-Pressed and Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper

This is a good starting point if you’re interested in exploring watercolor painting on canvas. Doing a side-by-side comparison with two kinds of watercolor paper will show you what the similarities and differences are between painting on paper and on watercolor ground. Start out by doing the basic exercises for the different watercolor techniques. Here I tried out 4 different techniques, you can certainly do more for a full exploration.

Hot-Press Watercolor Paper

Hot-press watercolor paper has a fine and smooth surface due to the way it’s manufactured – hot pressed between heated rollers. It doesn’t absorb water and pigment quickly, so this gives you more time to work with and play around with. It’s great for precise and fine detailing making it a popular choice for illustrators.

Layering and glazing on this paper is exciting as it vividly shows the watery marks and blooms. But because of its smooth surface, it doesn’t hold on to the pigment as well as cold-press. So be careful not to overdo your layering as the more you layer on, the latter layers will tend to just stick on top instead of fully adhering to the paper. This characteristic makes it easier to color-lift from hot-press paper as well.

Cold-press Watercolor Paper

Cold-press watercolor paper is pressed between rollers that are NOT hot, giving it its unique textured surface. This paper is more absorbent than hot-press, so you have to work on your details faster. It also makes it harder to color-lift, you can still lift some but expect more staining on the paper. It’s quite durable to heavy washes, it can definitely take more than hot-press paper, making it the more popular choice overall. Because of its heavily textured surface, water and pigment tend to pool around the bumps and grooves. This is a trait that artists actually like and take advantage of as it adds to the overall look and finish of the work. 

Watercolor Ground On Canvas Pad

I find that painting watercolor on canvas (primed with watercolor ground) has more similarities to painting on hot-press paper. The water and pigment are not easily absorbed by canvas, and tend to stay on top for quite some time. Again this gives you more time to work with. How the washes bloom and spread is quite similar to hot-press paper. The edges are not as crisp, but good enough for some detail work. Color-lifting is also easier because I don’t need to worry about the dangers of rubbing too much as I would with paper, the canvas can take rougher handling. Though this means that I have to be extra careful when doing some glazing or layering as the paint below can easily be lifted when re-wetted.

The main difference I noticed is that there’s more tooth on the canvas despite its relatively smooth surface. So expect some pull on your brushes that’s a bit similar to cold-press paper. This is nothing new if you’ve gone through the testing of various watercolor papers. You just need to get acquainted with the quirks of each new one and adjust your technique accordingly. So whichever watercolor ground you end up getting, just test it out and explore what you can do with it.

From top to bottom: Graded wash in Prussian Blue, flat wash with color-lifting in Crimson, and glazing/layering with Viridian and Prussian Blue. All from the Espresso Palette of ZenART Supplies.
Here’s a close up of each one for a closer look at the granulation and the effect of the canvas’ texture. 

Simple Floral Watercolor Exercise

I tried a really quick floral painting exercise to try it out, and I didn’t find it difficult to use. The edges of the lines came out clean and I mostly did basic layering. I found that as soon as it was fully absorbed into the ground, the pigment sunk in a bit. So just find out how your watercolor ground behaves and adjust the intensity of your mixes if needed. 

Using colors from the Espresso Palette and brushes from the Turner Collection, both from ZenART Supplies.
Simple floral watercolor painting on canvas that’s been primed with watercolor ground. The texture of the canvas is still visible and makes for a new and interesting surface.

Painting watercolor on canvas has its own challenges, but what new medium or substrate isn’t at the start of things? It was certainly very interesting for me as I haven’t really thought to explore it so much before. Canvas certainly has the great benefit of being hardier than paper, this makes me want to further explore that characteristic. I suggest you try it out first by testing all the various watercolor techniques and brush strokes. Once you’ve learned more about how watercolor behaves on this new surface, then you’ll have more confidence in creating a painting next. Don’t stress too much about it, just enjoy the exploration and experimentation. This stage is all about learning and getting to know this new surface. 

We’d love to hear back from you!

Are you considering watercolor painting on canvas? What do you find most appealing about painting watercolor on canvas? Which kind of surface do you usually prefer, a smoother one or a more textured one? What future content would you like to see from us? Let me know in the comments below, and I’ll happily get back to you. Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint! 

Looking for some inspiration and guidance into painting some Watercolor Still Life For Beginners? That’s next on our Toolkits, until then have a wonderful time exploring watercolor painting on canvas!


Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She’s a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewelry designs.