Do Watercolour Pencils Work on Canvas?

Watercolour painters are curious to practice their art on surfaces other than the common watercolour papers. Canvas is one of the readily preferred options due to its high-quality weave texture, and it’s lightweight. But can watercolour pencils work on canvas?

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

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

How Do Watercolour Pencils Work on Canvas? 

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

Watercolour pencils are used when:

  1. You require fine details in your paintwork.
  2. The painter or the brush is unable to attain the desired level of precision attainable only with a pencil
  3. Working on the intricate details of a small object in a painting 

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

Watercolour Paints

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

  1. A pigment: Microscopic particles responsible for paint colour
  2. A binder: Gum Arabic that holds the pigment in the suspension
  3. Additives: e.g., honey, glycerine that makes the paint more transparent, increases colour intensity, and solubility of paint.
  4. Preservatives: they alter the viscosity, durability, and colour of the pigment. 

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


One of the best painting surfaces 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 watercolours, thanks to its non-absorbent surface.

Before watercolours 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 impediment to using watercolour pencils on canvas is its non-absorbent surface. Fortunately, this can be fixed in two main ways:

  1. Priming 
  2. Using watercolour canvas

Watch this video to know how to prepare a canvas for watercolour painting:

How Do You Prepare Canvas for Watercolours?

Gesso Your Canvas

Gesso is a primer 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 confused.

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 Watercolour Ground to Gessoed Canvas

Watercolour ground is a paste-like substance that’s applied on surfaces to create a porous, paper-like texture that receives watercolour well. Here’s how.

  1. Apply a thin layer of watercolour ground using a roller, brush, or sponge applicator. Be careful to apply a thin layer as a thick layer is susceptible to cracking.
  2. Wait for an hour for the watercolour ground to dry
  3. Apply several coats of watercolour 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. 
  4. Let the watercolour ground dry for a period of between 24-48 hours. 

Your canvas is now ready. Get out your watercolour 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 watercolours still remain water-soluble. You could ruin your precious piece of art.

Lastly, seal your finished paintwork with a spray varnish 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 watercolour canvas, it lets you control size and surface to work, and it’s cheaper.

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

What Is Watercolour Canvas?

Watercolour 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 watercolour painters.

Watercolour papers are the go-to surface for watercolour 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.

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

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

Pros of Watercolour Canvas

  1. 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. 
  2. Watercolour canvas can withstand harsher treatment compared to paper.
  3. Watercolour canvas allows the paint to stay wetter for longer. This gives you more time to work on the paint and is also advantageous for blending.

Cons of Watercolour Canvas and How to Fix Them

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

  1. 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. 
  2. When watercolour 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.
  3. Sometimes the paint fails to stick to the canvas even after spraying an acrylic medium on it.
    Solution: This is the biggest headache you’ll encounter with watercolours. Fine-tune your painting by trial and error until you achieve a working formula. 

To begin using watercolour 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 watercolours wash off, and the best way to layer and blend your colours. 

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


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

Treating canvas with gesso and watercolour ground fixes this problem, and you can do that right in your art studio. Alternatively, you can purchase a watercolour 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.


Author: laverias an anthropologist interested in art history, Latin American art, and sustainable practices. You will find her trying to pick up some free furniture from the street and re-purposing old fabric. Spanglish speaker.

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