Best Watercolor Canvas for Painting: Buy It or Prepare Your Own

By Iva Mikles •  Updated: Jan 17, 2022 

Watercolors won’t absorb into regular canvas like they do on watercolor paper, and can in fact just slide right off the canvas surface. But don’t worry – there’s an answer!

Instead of using normal art canvases as they come, you can easily prepare your canvas to best work with watercolor. Or, if you prefer the quick and easy solution, you can purchase pre-treated watercolor canvases and canvas boards. So let’s have a look at which one you should get!

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Painting on canvas seems like one of the most fundamental and universal of processes in art, and many artists naturally assume that they can use any paint – oils, acrylics, watercolors or whatever – on any canvas.

It’s only when they actually begin laying watercolors down on canvas that they realize that they don’t behave very nicely on a normal canvas.

You can’t really achieve any of the basic watercolor techniques, or any detail or definition, and even if you get a fairly coherent image on the canvas it won’t last.

In this article I will talk a little about all of this, with a section about how to prime canvases for watercolor, and the best supplies to use, as well as a section on the best pre-primed watercolor canvases and boards. We’ll even offer a few basic hints and tips for painting on canvas, to make sure you get the best results every time.

Option 1: Prepare Your Own Watercolor Canvas

As we’ve already mentioned, using watercolors on a normal canvas can be a big mess.

You may be reading this article because you have already tried doing it, and barely escaped with your sanity.

But if you haven’t, let me save you tons of frustration, and maybe tons of paint as well, by giving my first, and maybe my most emphatic, tip – don’t do it!

Really, save yourself the frustration, time, mess, money and supplies, and don’t try to work with watercolors on normal, un-prepared canvas.

The paint will go everywhere, will not absorb or adhere at all, and not only will more advanced techniques fail miserably, you won’t even be able to do the most basic flat washes or wet on dry painting.

You may, however, end up with a really colorful and beautiful abstract painting when you’re done, but it will most likely be on the floor beneath your easel.

But preparing a normal canvas for watercolor painting is actually quite easy, if a little time consuming (well, at least in waiting for stuff to dry), and a properly prepared canvas can not only respond beautifully to watercolors, and all basic and advanced watercolor techniques, but even offer some real advantages:

Preparing a Canvas for Watercolor Painting: The Basic Steps

All you will need to correctly prime a canvas or canvas board for watercolor paints are:

Gesso

I like Golden Gesso, which is superb quality and specially formulated gesso designed, but many fine artists prefer Sennelier Acrylic Gesso, which is also not too expensive and of similar quality, or the good and cheap Liquitex Basics Gesso.

Clear ground

Like the Golden Gesso, I also love Golden Absorbent Ground, but a premium choice, which is really beautiful to paint on, is Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground.

Soft brush or a roller

Get a great quality brush to make your painting surface as good as possible, like the excellent Liquitex Professional Freestyle Brush or the inexpensive Princeton Best Gesso Brush.

Good canvas or canvas board

Sargent Art 24 x 36 inch Stretched Canvas

Pack of 2, Blank White Canvases, Double Acrylic Titanium Priming, Perfect for Acrylic, Oil, and Art Projects, Acrylic Pouring & Wet Media


Preferably in a larger, money saving multi-pack  – I’ll mention a few more below, in the Bonus section, but my favorite affordable canvas is the Sargent Art 24 x 36 inch Stretched Canvas.

1. Priming with Gesso

The first step is to spread gesso onto the canvas to get it coated. Even if your canvas is already primed – which most are – for watercolor you will want to prime it again.

You want to paint the gesso on with long, even strokes, and really go over it several times to make sure it is nice and smooth.

You may see lines or clumps of gesso, like between or at the end of brushstrokes, so go over them again and again if necessary – you really want the smoothest and flattest surface possible.

You can even sand the gesso after applying it, but only when it has completely dried. And in this case, really completely dried – it’s recommended to wait 12 hours for the gesso to dry enough to add a second coat, but if you are sanding I would actually wait 24 hours. Also make sure to use a very fine grit sandpaper – 150 or even finer – and a light touch.

I normally apply at least several coats of gesso, and again you want the gesso to be dry before adding a second coat, which takes about 12 hours. Some say 8-12 hours, but for best results let’s just wait a bit longer.

When the second coat is on, and all is nicely dry and smooth, you are ready to add the clear ground. 

2. Coating with Clear Ground

Applying a clear ground gives the primed canvas a nice workable surface similar to the best watercolor paper, and will allow you not just to paint with watercolors, but also practice all of the basic and advanced watercolor techniques with complete success – although some of these techniques do work a tiny bit differently on gessoed canvas (see my Bonus section below).

In much the same way as you did with the gesso (and even using the same brush or roller) apply a nice, even and smooth layer of ground to the entire surface. It’s best to make this layer thin, to prevent cracking and surface irregularities.

While the instructions on the jar of clear ground you are using may say that only one coat is recommended or sufficient, I would always add a second coat, and lots of watercolorists love more and more layers, to increase absorption and make some of the wetter techniques more predictable and successful. But remember that each layer should completely dry before adding the next – again, 24 hours.

Now here’s a great tip that many manufacturers don’t mention, and that a lot of artists don’t even know. When the final coat of ground is applied and dried, you will see a kind of powder on the surface, which can affect your paints and painting, making the watercolors a lot more opaque than they should be and not flow as well. But you can, and should, easily wipe this off before painting. Just use a clean, soft and wet (not just damp) cloth and wipe the surface thoroughly, rinsing the cloth once or twice and making sure the powder is really all gone.

Then, again – you guessed it! – wait for the canvas to dry.

3. Painting

Step 3 is, yes, finally, painting! 

Like I said, this is not a difficult process at all (and I actually find it kind of fun), but it does take a long time.

Not a lot of your time, as in doing something or monitoring something, but just time waiting for the drying.

As such, most artists will prepare as many canvases as possible at the same time, in a kind of assembly line process, which saves time and effort, reduces cleanup and then lets you paint to your heart’s content, without having to prepare a canvas (and wait days and days) every single time.

Option 2: Best Prepared Watercolor Canvases and Boards

  1. Fredrix Stretched Watercolor Canvas
  2. Fredrix Stretched Watercolor Canvas

    24 by 36-Inch + Different sizes 18 x 24", 12 x 16", 12 x 12"


    Buy Now on Amazon
  3. Phoenix Gessoed Watercolor Stretched Canvas 16 x 20 inch
  4. Phoenix Gessoed Watercolor Stretched Canvas 16 x 20 inch

    Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas for Watercolor Painting - 16x20 Inch/4 Pack - 3/4 Inch Profile Triple Primed for Water Soluble Paints, Mix-Media Paintings, Crafts & Pouring Art

    Different sizes available 10 x 10", 8 x 10"


    Buy Now on Amazon
  5. Phoenix Watercolor Painting Canvas Panels - 9x12 Inch/6 Pack
  6. Phoenix Watercolor Painting Canvas Panels - 9x12 Inch/6 Pack

    Triple Primed Cotton Flat Canvas Boards for Christmas Painting Watercolor, Acrylic, Gouache, & Tempera Painting


    Buy Now on Amazon

Of course there is another option, which involves, instead of supplies and preparation and coating and cleanup and days and days of waiting, simply tearing the plastic wrap off of your pack of new pre-prepared watercolor canvases.

How To Instead Simply Purchase the Best Watercolor Canvases for Watercolor Paints and Painting

Yeah, it’s no wonder so many watercolorists, from newbies and art students to advanced painters and fine artists, choose instead to just purchase canvases that are already prepared and ready for watercolor painting. 

Make no mistake, though – the process of preparing your own canvases does offer advantages, like more control over the thickness and texture over the surface.

And besides the waiting it’s not really such a big deal, although it can’t really compare to pulling plastic wrap off of a shiny new six-pack of watercolor canvases – seven days, meet seven seconds!

But if we’re going that route, let’s make sure that you’re pulling the plastic wrap off of the best watercolor canvases you can possibly get – not necessarily the most expensive, but the best.

I’ve tried lots of different canvases and boards that have been pre-prepared for watercolor painting, with the correct gesso base and ground, and can report that some of them are wonderful to work with, while others suffer from rough or unpredictable surfaces, poor absorption and/or adhesion, or sometimes just poor construction or material quality. Or sometimes all of the above.

So here I want to list a few of my favorite prepared canvases and boards, the ones I consider to be the very best for watercolor painting, with all of its basic and more advanced techniques. 

I’m going to include recommendations for both a premium quality stretched canvas and a less expensive but still really excellent option, and as far as canvas boards for watercolor I’ll just recommend my own personal favorite. 

And yes, the premium canvas from Fredrix is a bit nicer to work with – better surfaces, great absorption and adhesion, excellent build and durability and great response to any and all watercoloring techniques – the Phoenix stretched canvases are also very high quality, and ideal for watercolor painting.

In fact, as often happens when you know and buy the best art supplies, even the cheapest of them may be much better than other products from other companies that are a lot more expensive.

So here’s my short list of the best pre-gessoed boards and canvases for watercolor painting:

Best Premium Stretched Canvas for Watercolor Paints

Fredrix Stretched Watercolor Canvas

24 by 36-Inch + Different sizes 18 x 24", 12 x 16", 12 x 12"


Fredrix Professional Watercolor Stretched Canvas – a professional grade woven fabric canvas loved and recommended by fine artists, here in several different sizes:

Best Budget Stretched Canvas for Watercolor Paints

Phoenix Gessoed Watercolor Stretched Canvas 16 x 20 inch

Blank Cotton Stretched Canvas for Watercolor Painting - 16x20 Inch/4 Pack - 3/4 Inch Profile Triple Primed for Water Soluble Paints, Mix-Media Paintings, Crafts & Pouring Art

Different sizes available 10 x 10", 8 x 10"


Best Canvas Panels for Watercolor Paints

Phoenix Watercolor Painting Canvas Panels - 9x12 Inch/6 Pack

Triple Primed Cotton Flat Canvas Boards for Christmas Painting Watercolor, Acrylic, Gouache, & Tempera Painting


Phoenix Watercolor Painting Panels – with great absorbency and adhesion and an ideal tooth, these inexpensive watercolor boards are my favorite – and a great value.

Bonus: How To Paint with Watercolors on Canvas

Although primed canvas does act very much like the best watercolor papers, there are some differences.

The gesso won’t absorb as completely or deeply as paper does, which can make a difference when painting. Also, canvas is much stronger than paper, which can affect your approach and your techniques in other ways.

These and other factors make painting on even a perfectly prepared watercolor canvas different, and so I wanted to close this article on the best watercolor canvases with some basic tips on how to achieve the best results painting with watercolor on canvas:

Start with the best quality canvas or canvas board

I have a few personal favorites, some expensive and some suspiciously cheap, but all provide excellent results. Again, you can get canvases already gessoed for watercolor (see the section just above), but the recommendations below are for normal art canvases, pre-primed but not especially prepared for watercolor – which, despite the extra time and effort of additionally priming and applying gesso, will give you the best results.

Sargent Art 24 x 36 inch Stretched Canvas

Pack of 2, Blank White Canvases, Double Acrylic Titanium Priming, Perfect for Acrylic, Oil, and Art Projects, Acrylic Pouring & Wet Media


Prime your canvas anyway

Even if the canvas is pre-primed (which pretty much all stretched canvases or boards are), I strongly recommend priming anyway before you add gesso. This will increase absorbency nicely and lets you control the tooth, or surface texture.

Wipe off the residue

As I mentioned earlier, after you have let gesso completely dry you will see a chalky substance or residue on the surface. This powder can keep water based paints from flowing well and will make them too opaque, losing their lovely washy watercolor quality. You can, and should, simply wipe this residue off with a wet cloth before painting.

Batch process the priming

Prime as many canvases as possible at the same time – especially once you are down with the technique. This will give you lots of material for painting, experimenting and improving your watercolor techniques, and when inspiration strikes you’ll be ready!

Experiment

Even with gesso, a canvas won’t be as absorbent as watercolor paper, so all of your painting methods and techniques will be a little different on even the best prepared canvas. Let yourself experiment, and expect to change your approach a bit – especially with washes and wet techniques.

Be patient

Remember also that gesso takes a little longer for even workable dryness, so you need to be a little more patient with techniques like wet on dry and glazing. Along these lines, lots of people like using a slightly softer brush for watercolors on canvas, especially for glazing.

Use harder brushes

At the same time, harder brushes can still be great for texturing and dry brush techniques, and since canvas is a lot stronger, and a lot less prone to damage, you can let loose a bit! Remember, though, that too vigorous of techniques can damage, or at least change, the gesso surface – for better or worse.

Easily change direction or fix mistakes

Because of the lower absorbency and adhesion of gesso versus watercolor paper, and the longer drying time, you can really thoroughly lift pigment from the canvas – much more deeply and completely than from paper, and so easily change direction or fix mistakes. Again, though, you will eventually affect the finish of the gesso itself.

Wait before using the fixative

Again, because watercolor takes longer to dry on gesso, you should wait longer before spraying on a clear fixative – at least 24 hours, but maybe even more, especially in humid conditions.

Thanks so much for reading my latest article – The Best Canvases for Watercolor Painting: How to Find Them or Prepare Your Own –  and please visit my blog – Art Side of Life – for tons of other inspiring ideas, resources, articles, buyer’s guides and a lot more!

Other articles in the Watercolor series

Iva Mikles
Hi, I am Iva (rhymes with “viva”). I am an artist, illustrator, teacher, and the founder of Art Side of Life™️. I've worked as a commercial artist since 2009. I believe that we are all creative in infinite numbers of ways so I’ve made it my mission to teach you everything I know, to contribute to waking up your creative genius.

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