Do Watercolor Pencils Work on Canvas?

Watercolor pencils don’t work well with canvas as it’s not absorbent enough. The watercolors would easily slide off even if the canvas has been gessoed, making blending or overlaying of colors difficult as the watercolors would easily ‘lift’ off. But that can be fixed using the watercolor ground.

The balance of this article will explain concepts related to this question in considerable detail, including how watercolor pencils work on canvas, how to prepare a canvas for watercolor pencils, and what is watercolor canvas, considering its pros and cons.

Do Watercolor Pencils Work on Canvas? How?

Watercolor painters are curious to practice their art on surfaces other than the common watercolor papers. CanvasOpens in a new tab. is one of the readily preferred options due to its high-quality weave texture, and it’s lightweight. But can watercolor pencilsOpens in a new tab. work on canvas?

As a painter, watercolor pencils become essential when you must execute some very fine details.

Watercolor pencils are used when:

  • You need fine details in your paintwork
  • The painter or the brush is unable to reach the desired level of precision attainable only with a pencil
  • Working on the intricate details of a small object in a painting

We will now take a closer look at watercolor paints and canvas to better understand how they relate. Shall we?

Watercolor Paints

Watercolor paints are soluble in water and have four key components:

  • A pigment: microscopic particles responsible for paint color
  • A binder: Gum Arabic that holds the pigment in the suspension
  • Additives: e.g., honey, glycerin that makes the paint more transparent, increases color intensity, and solubility of paint.
  • Preservatives: they alter the viscosity, durability, and color of the pigment.

Watercolors are thinned with water. For this reason, the surfaces on which they are applied must be absorbent.


One of the best painting surfaces Opens in a new tab.available is the canvas.

It’s finely woven to produce a high-quality weave texture. It’s easy to display finished work by simply hanging (without the use of a picture frame). Its lightweight makes it ideal if painting large sizes of the canvas rolls make it easy to move while working.

For these reasons, the canvas is the preferred surface for artists working in acrylic and oil-based paints. However, it’s rarely used with watercolors, thanks to its non-absorbent surface.

Before watercolors can be used on canvas, it must be specially prepared to increase its absorbency. 

Read on to know exactly how that happens.

The Verdict: You Can Treat Canvas to Increase Its Absorbency 

The main obstacle to using watercolor pencils on canvas is its non-absorbent surface. Fortunately, this can be fixed in two main ways:

Liz ChadertonOpens in a new tab.

How Do You Prepare Canvas for Watercolors?

Gesso Your Canvas

Gesso is a primerOpens in a new tab. that makes your canvas ready to receive paint. It protects the receiving surface from components in the paint that could damage it.

Note: “Gesso” is also used as a verb to denote the act of applying gesso to a surface. So don’t get confusedOpens in a new tab..

To apply gesso:

  1. Gently sand the canvas to remove uneven spaces.
  2. Apply gesso using brush or roller.
  3. Wait for an hour to dry.
  4. Apply a second coat and let it dry.
  5. Sand if the surface is uneven.

Tip: To properly fill the grains of canvas for superior paint reception, apply the first coat of gesso horizontally, then the second coat vertically.

This step isn’t necessary if you’ve purchased canvas that’s already gessoed. The label usually bears this information. If in doubt, check out whether the canvas is bright-white since the unprimed canvas is usually cream or off-white.

Apply Watercolor Ground to Gessoed Canvas

Watercolor groundOpens in a new tab. is a paste-like substance that’s applied on surfaces to create a porous, paper-like texture that receives watercolor well. Here’s how.

  • Apply a thin layer of watercolor ground using a roller, brush, or sponge applicator. Be careful to apply a thin layer as a thick layer is susceptible to cracking.
  • Wait for an hour for the watercolor ground to dry
  • Apply several coats of watercolor ground to give the surface paper-like properties. Apply at least 5 times, giving time for each layer to fully dry before applying the next coat.
  • Let the watercolor ground dry for a period of between 24-48 hours.
    • Your canvas is now ready. Get out your watercolor pencils and display your artistic genius.

Tip: You may dilute your ground slightly to fill in the canvas weave

Once you’ve painted your canvas, avoid spillages to the canvas since the watercolors still remain water-soluble. You could ruin your precious piece of art.

Lastly, seal your finished paintwork with a spray varnishOpens in a new tab. to waterproof it. Several coats of the spray will be needed to ensure it is fully waterproof.

Preparing your canvas is laborious and requires precise execution. However, unlike ready-made watercolor canvas, it lets you control size and surface to work, and it’s cheaper.

But if you prefer a ready-made watercolor canvas, here’s what you need to know.

What Is Watercolor Canvas?Opens in a new tab.

Watercolor canvas is a pre-primed canvas that’s been treated with a special formula to improve its absorbency. This is a fairly recent addition, widening the options available to watercolor painters.

Watercolor papers are the go-to surface for watercolor painters. Although they’ve multiple textures to work on, they do not match the feel of canvas.

The papers are relatively fragile, and this can be particularly problematic for an aggressive painter. The papers are prone to tear or can accidentally get too wet while working. Except for its absorption deficiency, canvas offers a superior surface.

Besides, the canvas is less likely to tear while in use, giving artists the latitude to work with greater confidence, and without fear, they’ll damage the surface.

Watercolor canvas delivers the advantage of canvas on a surface that is as porous as watercolor paper. That’s just fantastic.

But like any other product, the watercolor canvas has its pros and cons.

Pros of Watercolor Canvas

  • It is easy to “lift” paint. The surface is quite forgiving, allowing for corrections and can even allow you to “wash” off the paint entirely and start anew.
  • Watercolor canvas can withstand harsher treatment compared to paper.
  • Watercolor canvas allows the paint to stay wetter for longer. This gives you more time to work on the paint and is also helpful for blending.

Cons of Watercolor Canvas and How to Fix Them

Moving from painting on watercolor paper to canvas, or any other medium is a learning curve. You’ll need to prepare for the changes.

  • Moving paint around the surface without ‘lifting’ the underlying layer of paint is difficult.
    Solution: ‘Fix’ a layer of paint with a clear acrylic medium then let it dry.
  • When watercolor isn’t properly absorbed, it will tend to pool on the canvas.
    Solution: Experiment with your paint to determine the right quantity of water to use.
  • Sometimes the paint does not stick to the canvas even after spraying an acrylic medium on it.
    Solution: This is the biggest headache you’ll encounter with watercolors. Fine-tune your painting by trial and error until you achieve a working formula.

To begin using watercolor pencils on the canvas that’s ready, first perform test paints before you can launch into your actual painting projects. You’ll establish the appropriate paint concentration, how and whether the watercolors wash off, and the best way to layer and blend your colors.

Finally, remember to spray varnish or medium to waterproof your finished work and give it further protection.

Final Words

Canvas is a formidable painting surface that offers numerous advantages. However, an artist using watercolor pencils may not readily use it as its surface is non-absorbent. Absorbency is crucial for watercolors as they’re diluted with water, and excess water needs to be absorbed into the surface.

Treating canvas with gesso and watercolor ground fixes this problem, and you can do that right in your art studio. Alternatively, you can buy a watercolor canvas that already primed to work in a water-based environment.

Working with a primed canvas isn’t the same as painting on a paper medium. It’s a learning curve. You’ll need to experiment with your paints and fine-tune to attain what works best for you.


Was this article helpful?


Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

Recent Posts