February 15, 2012

The Advantages of Producing Large Watercolors on Canvas

Catching the Post-Season Sun -- watercolor on canvas, 28 x 40.5" 
A few days ago, I said that I'd give some examples of large works that could be produced using watercolor on canvas.

Although it is possible to produce large watercolors on paper, I've always found that there are a few problems that arise when working on too large a scale that have to do with the nature of paper itself.  First, paper of any kind is relatively soft, so if you reach over it when working, you run the risk of marring the it in a way that isn't easy to take back.  For instance, if you push down too hard when you are drawing, lifting color, or erasing, from then on, you have created a spot that will grab on to more pigment than the flat areas (because water flows to the lowest point) -- whether you want that effect or not.  And, since you tend to need to work essentially flat  when doing any kind of wash or wet-in-wet work in watercolor (unless you are really fond of the drips of Jackson Pollock) it's hard for someone of my height (5'5+") to NOT lean over a piece that is that large while painting.

Comrades in Fishing -- watercolor on canvas, 32.5 x 42.5"

Another advantage of using canvas as a painting surface for a large watercolor is how much easier it is to frame the finished pieces.  Watercolor paper is absorbent, soft, and thin and the paper tends to bleach in the sun.  Thus regular watercolors need to be framed under glass or "acrylic glass" to protect the paper from harm, and the paint from water and sun.  You also have figure out some way to keep the paper away from the "glass", as well as to provide a subsurface (like foam board of some sort) to fit under your watercolor paper.  All of those things add significant cost and weight to the final piece.
The Gourmet Capital of Ireland -- watercolor on canvas, 24 x 36

     However, when you paint on a properly-prepared surface (with acrylic gesso, not oil-based gesso) and then later coat the finished piece with a clear acrylic spray, framing becomes much easier.   You can present your watercolor as you would an oil painting: as is or with a frame (as I've done with both Catching the Post-Season Sun and The Gourmet Capital of Ireland) or unframed with a prepared edge (as I did with Comrades in Fishing.)

In the next week, I'll update my website with more information about these pieces for those who are interested in finding out more about them.   If you have any questions or comments about this blog, or the pieces, I'll be happy to hear from you.


  1. Hi Tracy, caught this article on Empty Easel and thought I'd visit your blog. Firstly, wonderful paintings!
    Secondly I am intrigued about painting watercolours on canvas. You prime the canvas with acrylic gesso first, does the surface being less absorbent than watercolour paper make it much harder to work wet into wet? I suppose I should try it! I haven't painted with watercolours in years. Anyway, thanks for an interesting article.

    1. Dear Kathy,

      I'm so glad that you like the site. Actually, I don't prime the canvas myself. It's cheaper for me to buy inexpensive commercially made ones, and I've found those ones (primed with Acrylic Gesso, not Oil-based Gesso) work really well. The first workshop I attended on the topic first had us buy the special watercolor canvas' made by Frederix. I felt they were quite expensive -- particularly since I was just learning, so I tried the inexpensive canvas's I described, and found them to work at least as well. I like the bounce the thinner canvas has, and I'm guessing that they don't do as many coats of Gesso as a premium canvas would use.

      At first I thought I'd need to sand and wash them, but I actually like the look I get without doing that, and the paint seems to have less uneven absorption (there really isn't much of that. One thing, though is that because it isn't very absorbent, you have to be careful when doing glazes. There are also some other techniques/tips that help when doing it.

      There is someone on the web who talked about doing wet-in-wet painting on canvas, so you might search for that. Would it be helpful if I did a tutorial showing my technique for doing it? I've been thinking about it, so I got a little digital video camera, and I'm working up the courage to do such things.

      -- Tracy

      P.S. If I do the tutorial, I may reuse some of what I wrote here.

  2. Hi Tracy,
    I also found your blog through Empty Easel. I am a watercolor artist who has recently started painting in acrylic inks on Fredrix watercolor canvas. I use exactly the same loose wet in wet techniques as when painting in watercolor. I am far more familiar with paper and love the effects it produces. Canvas is not exactly the same and I find that some of the pigments granulate more than I would like when used in really wet washes, but I decided I really wanted to get away from having to frame under glass, so I'm persevering with the canvas. Have you used watercolor canvas?

    1. Yes, I have used watercolor canvas. For me, it was OK, but not really better for the technique I use, and the much higher cost of the specialty canvas didn't seem worth it for me. However, I've never been really comfortable working really wet on wet as some do -- even though I love the feel/look that others are able to achieve. I'd love to see some of your work and hear how you do that. I will use the link you provided to do that.

      About the granulation issue with really wet washes, I found acrylic gloss glazing medium helpful. I first experimented with using it because I was frustrated by the fact that sometimes on some areas of the watercolor canvas, my water colors just weren't able to grab. The experiment worked. When I mixed a little of the glazing medium with the watercolor and the water and used it on those problem areas, the paint grabbed when it hadn't before. I also found using the same technique helped when I wanted to glaze one color over another.

      There can be a downside, however, if you want to lift color after the paint has dried: it becomes almost impossible to lift the glazing-compound enhanced areas. However and to help with color mixing. I think it does produce a smoother glazing of color as I work. However, I don't know how it would work with very wet washes.

      Good luck, and if you try it, tell me how it went.

      -- Tracy Feldman

    2. I resolved the over-granulation issue by using Gold Liquid Acrylics. They are, as the name suggests, far more liquid, and as a result I have only seen the kind of granulation I want to see in my work! Still enjoying the watercolor canvas from Fredrix and the ability to display my work without mat and glass!

  3. Hi Tracy,
    I,as well,have found your website through Empty Easel. Your work is beautiful! I am a fairly new watercolor artist after working in colored pencil and graphite for years (www.sallyfranklin.com) and craving the loose flowing feel of watercolor. I love it! I'm very interested in trying to paint on canvas. My teacher has tried gesso on canvas and said that the paint lifts from the gesso and you can't work over the same area. Do you find this to be true or do you have another technique that I might try. I'd love to hear from you. Sally

  4. Hi, Sally,

    It is more challenging to work over the same area when doing watercolor on canvas. Using an acrylic gloss medium -- that helps acrylic artists use to help them do glazing helped me with that. Someone else asked about this, and it got me thinking. I used the "gloss" version of that medium, but I wondered if it would be easier to glaze over things if I used a matte version of that acrylic medium on the lower levels -- thinking that the slight gloss might make it harder for the subsequent upper layers to stick as I wanted it to do.. Thus, this weekend I bought the matte version of the medium, and I'll do some experimenting with it this week and report back what I've found.

    -- Tracy

  5. Thanks for your reply Tracy. I will definitely be getting out the water colours to try on canvas. I will try using my inexpensive primed (acrylic gesso) canvasses I have for my acrylic painting. I would be interested to hear how using matte glazing medium went.

  6. Hi, Kathy,

    Using the matte medium went well. If you look at the blog discussing my "Hammers of the World, Unite!" piece (earlier this week), I discuss that in a little detail. I found that it helped glazing and I could pretty easily paint over the glaze. As I suspected, the medium fixes the color to the surface when it's dry. That means, of course, that you need to wash out your brushes much more carefully when you are done using the water/medium/color combo. Good luck with trying it yourself. I'd love it if you send me a picture of what you do.

    -- Tracy


I look forward to your thoughts and comments.