watercolour on canvas

Can You Paint With Watercolour on Canvas?

For those who want to paint with watercolour on canvas, it is possible! Regular canvases will not absorb washes of watercolour, meaning that paint will run straight off the surface. However, there are canvases available to buy that have been primed specially to absorb watercolour layers.

In this guide, find the best watercolour canvases, how to paint with watercolour on canvas and how to prepare a regular canvas for watercolour painting if you want to try it yourself.

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Can you paint with watercolour on canvas?

It’s possible to paint with watercolour on canvas, but make sure that you paint on a canvas made for use with watercolour paint. Canvas should be prepared with a gesso that has been designed to work with water-based paints. You can either buy a specially made watercolour canvas, or prepare a canvas yourself with a watercolour paint ground.

Best watercolour canvas

Fredrix Stretched Watercolor Canvas - 16

The Fredrix Archival watercolour canvas is made from 100% cotton, and has been prepared with an absorbent gesso that can be used with all types of water-based paints. So you can use this canvas with gouache, watercolour and more.

Carry out a range of watercolour techniques on this canvas, colours will lift from the surface wonderfully and washes appear even. Another plus point to this canvas, is that the surface is 100% acid-free and archival quality. This means you can use watercolour canvas to create commission works or send to a gallery—you can be sure that the surface has longevity.

Fredrix make watercolour canvases in a canvas board format. So you can enjoy painting on canvas texture, on a sturdy, lightweight portable board. This could be an excellent painting surface for use with gouache or taking plein air to paint outdoors. You can get this canvas in two other formats, rolls and pads, so if you want to stretch your canvas yourself, opt for the roll!

What are the properties of watercolour canvas?

Watercolour canvases are durable, resistant to warping and buckling and have a distinctive woven texture, just like regular canvas. The canvas will have been prepared with a watercolour paint gesso that absorbs washes of colour evenly. Similar to regular canvases, watercolour canvases are lightweight, come stretched around a frame and come in a variety of sizes.

Canvas is a great substrate for painting highly contrasted, loose and expressive paintings. There are several properties of canvas that affects how watercolour behaves on the surface:


watercolour canvas texture

The woven texture of watercolour canvas can feel a little like rough watercolour paper. However, watercolour canvases come in a range of textures. Smoother surfaces are more suited to detail work and techniques like lifting.


Watercolour canvases are less absorbent than traditional watercolour papers. This means that colours will appear more vibrant as pigments will sit on the surface. The absorbency of the canvas affects the way that the paint lifts; carrying out the lifting technique is much easier with canvas compared to more absorbent paper. This means that you can fix mistakes easily, just wet a brush and remove the area you want to correct.

Drying time

Colours on watercolour canvas take longer to dry due to the absorbency of the canvas. However, colours still dry relatively quickly and much faster than other painting mediums, such as acrylic paints or oil paint.

How colours appear on watercolour canvas

Colours appear bright, luminescent and more contrasted on watercolour canvas. this means you can achieve deeper looking shadows and more intensely saturated effects.

Layering colours

Colours will reactivate more readily on watercolour canvas, so if you’re planning a painting with multiple layers, consider using a workable fixative between layers to prevent colours being removed from the surface.

Creating loose, expressive looking paintings goes hand in hand with watercolour canvas, this is because edges will blur into one another more, as previous layers become wet. Colours from previous layers may mix into consecutive layers if not fixed in place.

Watercolour canvas vs watercolour paper

The great thing about working on watercolour canvas is that there is no preparation required before starting a painting. When working on paper, artists usually stretch their paper before starting to prevent it from buckling or warping. However, with canvas you can get started straight away.

Watercolour paper is much more absorbent, meaning colours sink in to the surface and aren’t lifted as easily. However, this means that creating sharper edges and layering with watercolour paper can feel easier than with canvas.

What are the advantages of painting on canvas with watercolour?

Although watercolour paper is a great surface choice, canvas offers a few unique features. Canvas is a durable surface, that is less likely to get damaged compared to watercolour paper. It has a unique look, feel and texture, that many artists prefer working on. Watercolour canvases are versatile, as artists can carry out a range of techniques and work with different water based mediums.

You can use repeated lifting techniques on canvas without worrying about damaging the surface. Paper can warp, buckle, or even tear with too many washes, or by subtracting too much colour from the surface. Canvas on the other hand can take heavy washes whilst remaining stable and flat.

Additionally, with canvas, artists can hang their finished pieces straight on the wall, without glass or a frame if they choose.

How to paint with watercolour on canvas

Watercolour canvases are less absorbent than watercolour paper, so the surface reacts slightly differently to the paint. However, this makes certain techniques such as lifting feel easier.

Painting on canvas can feel tricky at first with watercolour paint. You may need to get a fixative to seal colours in place. However, it’s worth experimenting on a small canvas first to try out your regular painting techniques and get used to the surface, to see what works for you and your painting style.

Can you paint with mixed media on watercolour canvas?

Yes! watercolour canvas is a versatile surface that can be used with different water based mediums. So you can use it with gouache, watercolour, acrylic, watercolour pencils and more.

Can you paint on regular canvas with watercolour?

The short answer is no. Regular canvases will have either been primed with an acrylic gesso, or an oil-based primer. Both of these types of primers are not absorbent enough to work with watercolour paint. That means that he paint will not adhere to the surface evenly and it may just run straight off.

You can, however, prepare a canvas for use with watercolour. This way you can create your own surface, if you are stretching a canvas yourself, or if you want to use custom materials, for example linen instead of cotton.

How to prepare a regular canvas for watercolour painting

It’s possible to prepare a regular canvas for watercolour painting. You will need to apply additional foundation layers of specialist primer over a gessoed cotton or linen canvas.

The specialist primer you can use is the Golden Absorbent Ground, which dries to an absorbent, paper-like surface. It’s flexible and lightfast, making it the perfect archival primer for use with watercolour and other water media paints. Apply several layers, waiting for each layer to dry and sanding between applications.

Should you use fixative with watercolour on canvas?

When working on watercolour canvas, there’s no need to use a fixative. However, if you want to be extra cautious or are working with other water based mediums, then you can use a water-based fixative such as the Golden Archival Varnish. This will protect your work and keep colours vibrant. It’s also non-yellowing and flexible, so it won’t crack as the canvas expands and contracts.

Although it’s not necessary, we would advise using a varnish with watercolour on canvas. This is because the surface is less absorbent compared to paper, so artists can lift colours more easily. You may inadvertently remove paint from the canvas if it gets damp, if you have not fixed colours in place.

Another reason why you might want to consider spraying varnish over your finished artwork is that, if you choose to hang your painting on the wall without glass protecting it, then colours could fade in direct sunlight. This is because UV can cause certain pigments to fade, unless artists seal the painting behind uv resistant glass or varnish.

How to use fixative with watercolour

First, choose your varnish. The Golden Archival varnish spray is an excellent, conservation quality varnish that protects colours from ultraviolet rays, humidity, moisture and dust.

When using fixative, make sure to spray outside. Some brands of fixative spray allow for inside use. If this is the case, spray in a well ventilated room that has two windows, open both windows to allow air to circulate.

Spray around three light coats of the varnish on the canvas, waiting for each coat to dry before applying the next.

Can you frame a watercolour painting on canvas?

You can of course frame your canvas, if you want to add a new dimension to the artwork and make it a centrepiece on the wall.

There are several options when it comes to choosing a frame for your watercolour canvas painting. Gallery frames come with a glazing, are simple and contemporary looking. Make sure you choose a gallery frame deep enough to accommodate a canvas. Canvas frames are the most traditional option, choose a wide wood frame, or a plein air frame for smaller paintings. Floater frames give the appearance that the painting is floating within the frame, these also give a contemporary look. If you want to know more about framing options, read our guide to choosing a painting frame.

Because canvases come stretched around a wooden frame, you don’t need to buy an additional frame in order to hang it. That’s the beauty of painting on canvas, as you can hang it straight on the wall as soon as your varnish has dried. Additionally, Fredrix canvases are gallery wrapped, so you don’t need to cover the sides of the artwork with a frame; you can choose to paint the sides of the canvas if you wish.


Now that you know all about watercolour on canvas, it’s time to get painting! Experiment with different techniques and mixed media to see what works best for you. Have fun and happy painting!

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