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Most watercolor artists start their work in much the same way as artists using other mediums: in a sketchbook or on paper. But once your skills level up and you feel up to a new challenge, it might be time to move onto a new surface. That’s where a watercolor canvas comes in.

There are several different options of painting boards to choose from, so we’re here to walk you through the best canvas for watercolor so that you can create your next masterpiece.

Canvas for Watercolor

watercolor flower
Painting watercolors on canvas is great for artists who want to sell or display their work.

You might be wondering, “Can’t I just use any old canvas for watercolor painting?” The short answer is no. The longer answer is… it depends. 

If you’ve used watercolor paints before, you’ll know all about their texture. And when you add a watery substance to canvas that isn’t made for watercolors, you’ll soon see your hard work sliding straight off the sides.

So what do you need instead? The reason the long answer is “it depends” is because you don’t have to use a specific watercolor canvas. In many cases, there are techniques that you can use to turn a non-watercolor canvas into one that’s suitable for your art. 

Using materials known as watercolor grounding, you can make your acrylic and oil classic canvases into watercolor canvas boards. You do this by mixing absorbent ground into acrylic primer and painting this over your board. The absorbent ground, once dried, means that the canvas will soak up the liquid that the paint produces and keep your artwork looking exactly as you want it to.

You’re probably thinking that that’s a lot of effort to go to, and why not simply use paper? While you definitely can, canvas is still a great surface to use. It’s more resilient than paper, so it will probably last much longer. Plus, canvas gives you the ability to lift or wash off paint if you make a mistake or want to start over.

Watercolor painting on canvas is the approach to go with if you’re looking for longevity in your work. So what’s the best canvas for watercolors? Let’s take a look.

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Watercolor Canvas Board

watercolor deer
Watercolor canvas boards are easy to transport and store.

A board is the standard canvas for watercolor painting that most artists of this medium use. They come pre-gessoed (that’s the name of the layer that makes the canvas absorbent), which means that you can start painting with your watercolors straight away.

Boards are made from canvas that’s glued to a stiff cardboard backing and can easily be framed in a regular picture frame or even hung unframed. They’re fairly durable thanks to their hard backs and are perfect for shipping your artwork to loyal fans and admirers wherever they are in the world. There’s no frame involved with a watercolor canvas board as the fabric is stuck straight to the backing to keep it sturdy. 

If you’re new to painting outside of a sketchbook, it’s natural to ask what the difference is between a stretched canvas and a watercolor painting canvas board. While we’ll get onto stretched canvas in a minute, a board is much flatter and generally less expensive than stretched canvas. 

This makes them ideal for beginners who are moving from paper to watercolor painting on canvas for the first time. They can also come in handy if you’re painting outside (or plein air) since they’re lighter and more portable than a larger, stretched canvas in a frame.

Aquaboard

watercolor
Aquaboard is the perfect next step when moving on from watercolor paper.

Aquaboard is a special type of canvas that is becoming increasingly popular with watercolor artists. The texture is similar to watercolor paper in a sketchbook but mounted onto a wooden board. It’s coated with an acid-free clay and mineral ground to give it that paper-like feel, but it maintains a level of absorbency like a traditional canvas.

One of the standout features of Aquaboard as a watercolor canvas is the vibrancy that it gives your paint colors. It’s just as forgiving as canvas, allowing you to scrape off or lift paint when you make a mistake or want to make changes, but keeps the density of color as natural as possible.

Although the name may suggest that you can only use it with watercolor paints, Aquaboard is a surface that’s adaptable for other paint mediums like gouache or acrylic. You can also seal your paintings using a special varnish sprayed directly onto the Aquaboard. This means that you can frame them without having to worry about damage from dirt or moisture.

Watercolor on Stretched Canvas

canvases
Stretched canvases are made from cotton fabric stretched over a wooden frame.

When you think of the quintessential artist-while-painting look in your head, you probably picture a canvas on an easel — and that’s exactly what stretched canvas is for. The clue is in the name here: It’s a piece of canvas that’s stretched over a wooden frame.

Since these canvases are already more expensive, save yourself the time (and potential for error) that comes with converting a traditional canvas by buying a stretched canvas already made for watercolor paints.

The texture of a stretched canvas is usually why artists choose this surface, as the fine cotton fibers keep everything smooth and highlight the natural tone of your paint. You won’t need to use a frame for this canvas, as a wire can be attached directly to the wooden frame for easy display.

One of the downsides to using stretched canvas is that you may need to re-stretch it over time, especially if you relocate to a destination with a completely different climate. While there’s no harm in doing this, and it shouldn’t impact your painting, it can be a hassle if you’re moving around with your work on a frequent basis.

Find a Surface That Works for You

There’s no right or wrong choice when it comes to the watercolor canvas you choose. 

You could experiment with boards and Aquaboard before moving onto a stretched canvas frame, or dive in at the deep end straight away. Selecting your surface is yet another aspect of painting that gives you plenty of room for individuality and creativity. 

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