Watercolor Canvas: Tutorial & Tips

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By Home Decor Contributor Alyssa

How to Paint Watercolor on Canvas

One of my favorite artistic mediums to play with is watercolor. I love how unpredictable it is, and how easily you can fake a masterpiece when you use it. It’s a little intimidating at first, but honestly, it’s pretty easy to master.

What’s the key to mastering watercolor? Start simple and don’t be afraid to use water. I think where most people go wrong is either using colors on opposite ends of the color wheel and having them blend into a muddy mess, or not using enough water and ending up with a dry, brushed on look rather than the common fluidity and water-stained look that watercolor is known for. In this DIY, I hope you can take a look at my piece and some of the techniques I used, and pull away some inspiration.

What you will need:

  • Schmincke AQUA-Grund (AQUA primer, coarse) – see image below for reference when you’re looking for it
  • A canvas. (If you’re going small, CreateForLess has canvases that are already covered with watercolor paper, but the biggest is 8 x 10 inches.)
  • A rubber spatula (although a kitchen spatula might work for this, I’d suggest getting one from an art store! They’re called rubber “blades” there)
  • Watercolors
  • Paintbrush
  • Cup of water
  • Mixing tray (optional)
  • Paper towel

The AQUA=-Grund primer is what we will use to prime our canvas and give it the coveted watercolor surface that will not warp or bend. I get mine at Dick Blick, and I’m not going to lie, it’s not cheap (this tub was $20). But in my opinion, the effect is worth the money, and you will be able to prime multiple canvases with just one tub. Imagine how much you could spend on a single piece of art at a shop like World Market or Pottery Barn – art’s not cheap!


I want to go over a few things about this primer before I go straight into the tutorial. Do not expect a flawless, smooth, identically porous surface like the one you will get while using watercolor paper. While the purpose of this primer is to mimic that, it will not recreate the properties of paper identically. This stuff creates a similarly porous surface that covers up the waxy coat of primer on most store-bought canvases. Don’t be nervous when you go to paint with your watercolors on the new primer and it looks and reacts differently – it’s supposed to. It will still dry with a look similar to watercolor paper. The purpose of this stuff is typically to correct mistakes made on watercolor paper, but it can also be utilized as an entire surface. It’s also great because while watercolor paper has the tendency to warp while drying, your canvas will not.

When you are priming the canvas, it will be nearly impossible to get a totally smooth surface. While I prefer the texture this primer gives the canvas, especially for somewhat flat and geometric patterns like the one I used here, you may not. Try playing around with different application methods, such as using a large piece of cardboard to drag the primer down the surface of the canvas and give it an even coating.

Start by opening your primer and mixing it thoroughly, so there are no watery spots.

Go ahead and slap some globs of primer on the canvas. Like I said, if you want a less textured look, be a little more methodical in your application.

Start at the top of your canvas and drag down with very little pressure. The key to applying this stuff is to be gentle. If you push too hard the primer will not stick to the canvas and you’ll just push it around everywhere. Thickness is also important. I would suggest adding multiple layers of the primer after each drying period.


Once your canvas has dried (although it’s dry to the touch pretty quickly, I usually let it dry overnight just to be safe), you can start painting!


Some tips for using watercolor:

  • When you’re new to it, try practicing your pattern or shapes/color combinations on watercolor paper first. I suggest using simple, repeating shapes, but adding variety by forgoing perfection. Let the water drip or pool in some places. That’s where the interest and beauty comes from!
  • Use LOTS of water. In fact, often when I am working with watercolors, I create my entire shape with water tinted lightly with a color of my choice before I even start painting with my watercolor paints. This will allow you to not only wipe away any accidents with a paper towel before you commit, but will give the paint something to work with besides a dry surface. Don’t be afraid to add water after you’ve laid your paint down as well, or drip it on there. Some of the most beautiful spots in watercolor pieces are the places where the water has stained the color.


  • Watercolors are awesome because you can play with the shade of each color depending on how much water you use on the surface, then adding the color to that. It’s always easier to add color and make the shade darker than it is to take it away.
  • If you want to mix a color and consistently use it throughout your piece, use your mixing tray! Use just a little water and a lot of paint to create the new color in one of the divots of your tray. You can also do this with different shades of one color.
  • Let your colors bleed into each other, but when they starkly contrast each other, do not mix them. This is where muddiness will be created. Bleeding colors are pretty, red and green turning brown is usually not.



  • Don’t get carried away and try to add a bunch of different shades and water spots and blended areas in one place – this could make your piece look really busy and less cohesive. Unless that’s what you’re going for.
  • When blending/creating an ombre effect, use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel and blend to your heart’s content!

In my piece, I went with the same shape repeated but imperfect and I really wanted the colors to bleed into each other. To make this happen, I used a lot of water where the shapes were touching. I also really played with shading is some areas, adding lots of water and little color next to spots with lots of color and less water to create more opacity. Repetitive shapes are very easy to create and play with, and almost always look interesting and stylish.

DIY Watercolor Canvas

Don’t be scared! The beauty of watercolor is never knowing what you will get, and knowing it will almost always turn out unique and beautiful. And, another fun thing about this primer: if you hate what you made, you can always let your watercolor dry then add more primer over it and try again. J


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About Alyssa

Hello! My name is Alyssa. I am a, as they say, “real girl” crafter. I make stuff for my home that virtually anyone can make, no matter their crafting experience or expertise. I love practical, beautiful home décor that often does double-duty, and include the crafting mistakes I make so you can avoid making them in the future. We all mess up, so embrace it! I find inspiration in things with hefty price tags, usually followed by the famous last words, “I could make that.” I love the outdoors, live music, my sisters, and admiring strangers’ dogs from afar. Although I currently reside in Seattle, I’m a small-town girl at heart who can often be found daydreaming in front of my office computer or on the couch with my overbearingly affectionate cat, Kristoff, who, if he’s lucky, will receive a very weird-looking, hand-crafted kitten sweater sometime in the future.

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