Watercolor on Canvas

watercolor on canvasAs a watercolor artist, I have always wanted to create art that could be handled in the same way as an oil or acrylic (i.e., framed and hung without glass or backing). Works on paper are beautiful, and I love the way the paper and pigment interact. But when it comes to creativity, I want to stretch the boundaries so as to have as many options for expression as possible. Another consideration, for me, is the apparent value perception through which the general public views works on canvas versus those on paper. Those of us who work in the art field know that watercolor paintings are just as durable as works on canvas. We see plenty of evidence of these watercolors in museums, with over 500-year-old illuminated manuscripts, masters’ watercolor paintings, naturalist, and botanical paintings that are holding up just as well as oils. Despite this, the popular perception is that works on canvas or wood panels are more valuable, and the “Sold” price for canvas vs. paper (as reported by curators) reflects this perception.

The Ultimate Inspiration

Earlier this year, I visited the J Paul Getty Museum’s hosted exhibition, J.W. Turner: Painting Set Free. Within this exhibit, which included approximately 50 paintings on loan from the Tate Gallery and various private collections, there was a room of about twenty rare watercolors. While examining these paintings in great detail, I was amazed at the way Turner handled watercolor on paper much the same as oils on canvas. How did he achieve these visually stunning paintings?

Turner painting

According to the curator’s notes, Turner used a variety of non-traditional methods to accomplish these fantastic effects. To begin with, he had a paper manufacturer create a paper for him that was specially prepared with an animal-based glue. This substance made the paper less absorbent and immensely more resilient. With this ground, he used many experimental techniques, such as: 

  • Allowing the colors to bleed before blotting; 
  • Scratching away painted layers to create intense whites; 
  • Using brown paper for night sketches;
  • Using a complex system for layering color to create diffused light effects; 
  • Pressing his thumb into wet paint to create texture effects;
  • Glazing in striated layers;
  • Glazing thick layers of pigment for physical objects and thin layers for atmospheric effects. 

The results he achieved were truly incredible! I had never before seen watercolor art look like anything like this. This experience inspired me to find a way to experiment with watercolor using different surfaces.

Searching for Answers

I scoured the Internet for methods of painting with watercolor on canvas. At first, it was discouraging. Most of what I found, posted on several blog sites, was the exact same directions—copied and pasted word-for-word—with no specific details and no samples to show how the technique worked in practice. This made me suspect the information was unproven, so I decided not to try it. Then, I went to a nearby art supply store. I found a European brand-name “watercolor canvas” panel that was supposed to be specially prepared for absorbency. It was expensive, especially considering the size of the panel, but I eagerly purchased one to try.

In my experience, this canvas did not work as promised. I actually achieved somewhat better results with simply experimenting on a regular gessoed canvas, because at least there was some adherence to the regular canvas. I worked on a painting daily for two months on the so-called watercolor canvas. The paint lifted off the canvas no matter what I tried. I varied the pressure of brush strokes, the wetness, and dryness of the brush, etc. No matter what application technique, adding a layer of paint would lift up the first layer. Even when I used feather-light strokes with a barely loaded brush so as not to pick up previous layers, it created hard edges and pigment pools. I had to keep starting the painting over and over again. Finally, I was convinced that it was not going to work no matter what techniques I tried. The canvas was not absorbent at all. Just to prove it, I tried using water-mixable oil paint on that canvas and it was still “slippery” and would not hold the paint.

Temporarily thwarted, but not defeated, I began searching again. This time I found a few artists online who had experimented with watercolor on canvas using other methods, such as gessoing their own canvases or mixing antique recipes with white dry pigment or chalk, animal-skin glue, and binders such as linseed oil. (The recipe for this ground can be found in Watercolor Handbook: Learning From the Masters by Ettore Maiotti.) I also read an artist’s blog that described using regular gessoed canvases and “sticking” the paint layers by mixing watercolors with clear acrylic glaze. This method didn’t appeal to me, as I do not enjoy working with synthetic materials and it would also make changes and blending less possible.

I finally decided to order the ingredients for the centuries-old glue recipe that was most likely used by Turner. (According to The Watercolor Handbook, this substance was used by the Impressionists with watercolor paintings.) While looking for these ingredients through online art suppliers, I stumbled upon Daniel Smith’s Watercolor Ground. (Golden has a similar product, but I chose Daniel Smith because it had better reviews.) Daniel Smith’s watercolor ground comes in four shades: transparent, titanium white, buff titanium, or mars black. It can be used to prepare almost any surface, including canvas, wood, and paper, for watercolor painting. Deciding it was worth a try for the price, I ordered it through my local art supply store (because they are cool and I want them to stay in business!).

The Experiment

After preparing a pre-gessoed canvas with the watercolor ground, I began to paint.

While the watercolor ground surface does not quite have the feel of working with paper, it’s close enough that it will feel familiar to watercolorists. Wet-into-wet technique produces the same results as on paper, including bloom and hard edges if that’s the result you want to achieve. The pigment stays put and you can layer and wash and lift and rework to your heart’s content. You can also apply masking fluid and other media in the same way as you would on paper.

You will have to modify some of your usual techniques to get the best results. For example, glazing doesn’t work the same on the ground as it does on paper. The reason is the lift-off. It is true that the ground will “hold” your color, but the paint doesn’t actually absorb into the ground. This has its pluses and minuses. I used wet, damp and dry brush techniques to achieve the results I was looking for. For example, I used soft brushes (Kolinsky sable) for glazing and firmer, shorter synthetic-mix brushes for lifting colors or for creating textures.

One drawback I experienced immediately was that one of my transparent pigments appeared chalky and opaque instead of transparent. I had to lift the initial layer back to bare watercolor ground and reapply the pigment. With more careful observation and experimentation on another prepared canvas, I discovered that after the watercolor ground dries there is a fine, “chalky” residue on the surface. All you need to do to avoid this is to wipe the canvas with a lint-free, wet (not damp) cloth to remove this layer before beginning your painting. Then your colors will behave just as you expect them to. Although I still didn’t get that pure “glow” from transparent colors that comes with a paper ground, this was offset by the ease in creating the appearance of reflections. I simply had to lay the correct colors down and it was right. It’s just a different kind of luminosity.

Last, the one issue that caused me much frustration with this particular painting was the application of glaze layers to the pier poles. I much prefer to obtain chiaroscuro effects than outlines. Due to the way the pigment remains on the surface, it was difficult not to create outlines with the vertical lines in this painting. I had to work and rework and rework again to remove the lines that were caused by the many layers of glaze applications. This would not have been an issue had I been working on paper.

Steps and Tips to Painting With Watercolor On Canvas

1. Apply a watercolor ground to a gessoed canvas or wood panel. (For best results, follow the manufacturer’s directions on the container. I use Danial Smith's.) To apply the ground, I used a very fine bristled wash brush in order to keep brush marks from showing. But to achieve a smoother surface, one can also apply with a roller and/or sand the ground-prepared canvas using very, very fine sandpaper. The directions state that only one coat of the ground is necessary. However, since they also say that more layers will make the ground more absorbent, I thinned the mixture with 10% water and applied three coats, allowing 24 hours drying time between each coat.

2. After giving the final coat 24 hours to dry, wipe the chalky white residue from the canvas with a very damp, lint-free towel.

3. Transfer your drawing to the canvas with light pencil lines. (I do not recommend using graphite transfer paper as it leaves behind a greasy residue that will not lift.)

4. Apply masking fluid as usual to protect white areas.

5. Apply light background washes for the base painting.

6. Continue painting, glazing/layering colors and adding details as your painting progresses.


  • Just as with paper, be careful not to drop water unless you intend to create water “blooms” with hard edges. If you drop water by mistake, quickly lift the drop by lightly placing a paper towel over the spot.
  • Brush lightly with a damp brush to glaze layers. Keep in mind, the pigment does NOT “become one” with the canvas as with watercolor paper. The pigment does adhere to the ground, but, unlike a paper surface, the pigment can still be completely lifted out. Remember to brush lightly with a damp brush and the previous layers will remain.
  • Carefully lift off any mistakes with a damp (not wet!) brush. For correcting larger areas, lift in small sections at a time with a firm brush, then blot gently with a paper towel to remove pigment.
  • You can also scrub or scrape as a texturing technique or to remove mistakes. The ground is soft enough that you can scrape with your fingernails if nothing else is handy. You can also use spatulas, toothpicks, cotton swabs—it all depends on how deeply you want to lift and on the effect you want to create. One great thing about working with this medium is that you can repeatedly do this without worrying about tearing paper. I found that I couldn’t scrub too much, thank goodness because I had a lot of corrections to make!
  • If you do feel like you’ve made too many mistakes in an area, no problem. Just re-coat the section with a watercolor ground, let it cure for at least 24 hours, and start fresh.
  • When your painting is complete, allow it to dry for at least 24 hours before applying a protective spray varnish to your painting. Krylon and Liquitex have archival/professional quality, UV-protection spray varnishes. These varnishes dry to touch in approximately 10-15 minutes but wait at least two hours to ensure your painting is ready for handling and framing. Apply at least three coats of varnish to make sure your painting is completely protected. Then frame and hang your finished work of art.
  • Be sure you are finished with your painting before applying the varnish. Supposedly, you can paint on top of the protective spray. However, I have tried this on regular watercolor-on-paper paintings, and I found that no matter how many coats of varnish I’ve sprayed, the pigment will lift if I try to rework any areas. If you aren’t certain, let the painting sit for a week then come back to it before varnishing.

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About the Author

Miste Caulder is an artist and photographer based on the West Coast. A member of GNSI since January 2015, she is attracted to the wonderful member wildlife and botanical art. Visit her at mcaulderfineartist.com

Notes and Acknowledgements

This article is included in the 2015 no.3 Journal of Natural Science Illustration.

Thanks to the Getty Museum for use of their J. W. Turner image, made possible through the Getty Museum’s Open Content Program.

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