Skip to Content

Do watercolor canvases exist?

Watercolor painting is a timeless art form that has been popular for centuries. The translucent and luminous nature of watercolor lends itself beautifully to capturing fluid movement and subtle gradients in color. As watercolor has grown in popularity among artists, so too has the range of surfaces available for painting in this medium. Traditionally, watercolor painters have used paper as their support. However, canvases designed specifically for watercolor provide an interesting alternative surface. In this article, we’ll explore what watercolor canvases are, how they differ from paper, advantages and disadvantages of painting on canvas compared to paper, and provide recommendations on the best watercolor canvases to use.

What Are Watercolor Canvases?

Watercolor canvases refer to canvas surfaces that have been specially primed or coated to accept water-based paints. Canvas has long been used as a support for oil and acrylic painting. However, regular cotton painting canvases lack the sizing present in watercolor paper that prevents over-absorption of the water and paint. Untreated canvas will result in the paint sinking into the weave of the fabric and the colors mixing unintentionally. Watercolor canvases provide a solution by applying sizing to the canvas to create a surface with some tooth that can withstand the fluid nature of watercolor.

Types of Watercolor Canvases

There are a few main types of surfaces marketed as watercolor canvases:

  • Acrylic-primed canvas – These canvases have an acrylic gesso ground that has been modified to be more absorbent. They provide a smoother surface with some texture.
  • Cotton rag canvas – This type of canvas has a rich, textured surface. The fabric is more finely woven than regular canvas.
  • Watercolor board canvas – These are made from canvas glued onto watercolor boards. They provide a very smooth, rigid painting surface.

Within these broad categories, you can find variations in surface finish – rough, medium, or smooth tooth – and different fabric types like linen and cotton. Thicker, high quality cotton will hold up better to repeated washes and scrubbing.

How Do Watercolor Canvases Differ from Paper?

Watercolor paper and canvas each have characteristics that affect the painting process and results:

Watercolor Paper Watercolor Canvas
Texture Variety of paper textures from ultra-smooth to very rough Canvas has a more uniform, fabric-like texture
Absorbency Sizes paper to control absorbency Priming adds sizing to control absorbency
Stretches Paper buckles when wet Canvas stays tightly stretched on frame
Portability Thin paper is easy to carry Requires being framed and glazed

The key differences center around the inherently more absorbent nature of fabric versus paper, and the structural support provided by a fabric mounted on a frame. Paper can be made very smooth or very textured, while canvas has a more natural, less uniform surface. Canvas provides a platform for achieving layered, graphical paintings with crisper edges because it stays stretched tight when wet. The canvas grain can also add interesting visual texture to areas of flat color. Painters need to account for the tendency of colors to soak and spread more on canvas though.

Advantages of Watercolor Canvas

Why would a watercolor artists choose canvas over the more traditional paper? Here are some of the main benefits:

  • No buckling – Canvas stays perfectly taut while painting, whereas paper needs to be stretched or secured to a board to avoid ripples and buckling as it gets wet. This gives canvas a distinct advantage for very wet techniques.
  • Sturdier surface – The fabric support can withstand vigorous scrubbing and repeated washes better than paper.
  • Frame optional – While commonly framed like oil or acrylic paintings, unstretched watercolor canvas provides a painting surface that doesn’t require framing. The canvas can simply be wrapped around thin stretcher bars.
  • Oil/acrylic compatibility – Many watercolor canvases accept oil and acrylic as well. This allows mixing media in one painting.
  • Distinct visual texture – The fabric weave lends a tangible texture and pattern to flat painted areas.
  • Portability – Unframed canvas paintings roll up for easy transport.
  • Clear edges – The medium resists bleeding and offers great control of edges between colors.

For artists who enjoy working wet, appreciate textured surfaces, or want to paint large washes without worrying about paper buckling, watercolor canvas provides an appealing surface to work on. The availability of very smooth canvas options also makes the transition easier for painters used to paper.

Disadvantages of Watercolor Canvas

Working on canvas also comes with a few limitations to consider:

  • Requires framing for display – For a finished painting, canvas really needs to be framed and presented behind glass like oils and acrylics. Unframed canvas is prone to gathering dust in a way paper is not.
  • Colors are absorbent – They soak in and mix more than on sized paper, which can create blooms and muted areas if not careful.
  • Limited surface options – While paper comes in a huge variety of textures and absorbencies, canvas has fewer choices.
  • Challenging level of polish – It can be harder to achieve the same luminous glow and delicate blending that watercolor is known for unless using a very smooth canvas.
  • Less portable – For plein air painting and sketching, canvas requires being stretched or mounted to boards first.

The tendency for colors to spread presents the biggest technical hurdle. Because sizing is less controlled on fabric, painters need to account for greater diffusion and less crisp edges in their work. Framing also adds expense compared to matting paper pieces.

Best Watercolor Canvases

Within the crowded market of watercolor canvas options, a few stand out for their quality and versatility. Here are top picks to consider:

Brand Product Details
Fredrix Red Label Watercolor Canvas – Acrylic primed
– Light texture
– Cotton duck fabric
Windsor & Newton Canvas Paper Pad – Watercolor canvas paper
– Cold press
Artists Loft Fundamentals Watercolor Canvas – Primed linen and cotton mix
– Affordable price
Blick Studio Watercolor Canvas Pads – Various textures
– Paper and canvas options

Fredrix offers one of the highest quality traditional watercolor canvases, while Windsor & Newton’s canvas paper provides the convenience of a pad. For an inexpensive introduction, Artists Loft has a good beginner canvas. Blick Studio’s pads let you sample different textures. Always check the fabric content and coating when selecting canvas – cheaper cotton/polyester blends with minimal sizing don’t perform as well.

Tips for Painting on Watercolor Canvas

While not difficult, painting on canvas requires adjusting some techniques used on paper. Here are tips for making the most of watercolor canvas:

  • Stretch or mount canvas on a board first to prevent buckling when wet
  • Use larger brushes and more deliberate strokes
  • Avoid overworking an area to prevent muddy colors
  • Allow extra drying time between layers
  • Take advantage of lifting and scrubbing abilities unique to canvas
  • Mask off edges with tape if seeking very sharp lines
  • Apply sizing before painting for a harder edge
  • Use rough canvas for dry brush effects

Planning the composition in layers, allowing paint and canvas to fully dry between applications, using broad strokes, and embracing the fabric texture will lead to best results. Canvas holds up well to vigorous techniques that might damage paper.


For watercolor painters seeking a durable surface with excellent wet stability, watercolor canvases offer an exciting option. They allow fearless, flowing painting without concern for paper buckling. The availability of canvas-paper pads provides the convenience of painting on sheets with the advantages of canvas. Yet framing expenses, more limited surfaces, and tendency for colors to lift and mix mean canvas has downsides too compared to traditional paper. As with any medium switch, canvas requires adjustments in techniques to accommodate its absorbency and texture. With care in surface selection and handling, watercolor canvas can be a compelling alternative surface for vibrant, lively watercolor paintings.