Does canvas support water-based paints?

With so many paint options out there, it can be hard to know which medium is best suited for which painting surface. But you don’t have to learn the hard way. In this post, we’ll explore what paint to use on canvas by reviewing common painting media and explaining why they do or don’t work well on for painting on canvas.

Glossary › Painting

Painting is the practice of applying color to a surface (support base) such as paper, canvas, wood, or plaster in combination with drawing, composition and other aesthetic means in order to manifest the expressive and conceptual intention of the artist.

  • Acrylic
  • Gouache
  • Mixed Media (Painting)
  • Oil Painting
  • Pen & Wash
  • Watercolour

Polymer-based paints in which an acrylic resin serves as a vehicle. Acrylics differ from oil paints in that they have shorter drying times (as little as 10 minutes) and are soluble in water. These types of paint eliminate the need for turpentine and gesso, and can be applied directly onto canvas. Aside from painting with concentrated color paints, acrylics can also be watered down to a consistency that can be poured or used for glazing.

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Back to top Gouache

Gouache – pronounced “gwahsh” is derived from the Italian “guazzo”, meaning a place where water is found. Otherwise known as body colour, it is a paint consisting of pigment suspended in water with Gum Arabic as a binding agent. The pigment has larger particles than in watercolour, the ratio of pigment to water is greater, and the paint is given body by the addition of an inert white material such as chalk. Gouache is heavier and more opaque than watercolour, with greater reflective qualities.

Gouache is diluted with water for use. The paint generally dries to a different tonal value than when wet (lighter tones dry darker, while darker tones dry lighter), which can make it difficult to control colors. But it has the advantages of quick coverage and total hiding power, so that gouache lends itself to more immediate techniques than watercolour.

Back to top Mixed Media (Painting)

Mixed media describes a work of visual art that combines various traditionally distinct media, sometimes with materials not traditionally associated with art. For example, paint and ink may be combined with collage and found objects. In this manner, many different elements may be employed as a means of expression.

The use of mixed media began around 1912 with the Cubist collages and constructions of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque and has become widespread as artists developed increasingly open attitudes. Essentially art can be made of anything or any combination of things.

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Back to top Oil Painting

A paint made by grinding pigment in oil, usually linseed oil.

Modern oil painting evolved in the 15th century when Jan van Eyck found that linseed oil and oil from nuts could be mixed with pigments to create a flexible and durable medium with vibrant colours.

Oil is one of the most forgiving mediums – the paint has a long drying time, can be used layer upon layer with the correct techniques, can be easily manipulated on the canvas and can be wiped off with a cloth dipped in turpentine.

The extraordinary flexibility of oil colour lends itself perfectly to the traditional painting techniques of blending and glazing, impasto and scumbling on a multitude of surfaces.

Does canvas support water-based paints?

On the back of the canvas it says, “quality artists canvas panel- acrylic primed for use with all mediums. It does seem to have a weave, not very course. Anyway, do I coat it with anything first? Maybe I don’t put the paint on thick enough? Since I’m used to water colours? Thank you.

January 13, 2007 at 7:58 pm #1080363

Is it the white that is showing through or do you just not care for the weave? When I use water based oils I usually stain the canvas first with thinned paint in a color that will work with my design. It dries fairly quickly and then I can go ahead and paint over it. It keeps the white from showing through. Be careful though not to get it too thin. I treat it just as if I were working with turpintine, but use water instead. I don’t like the white to show through, but the weave is hardly noticeable from even a short distance. As you work you can build up layers that obscure the weave. It does take some getting used to after using watercolor paper. I hope this helps.

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January 13, 2007 at 8:24 pm #1080360

You should be able to safely paint on what you have. Some pre-primed canvases can be coated rather poorly, so an extra coat or two is not a bad idea. It sounds as though you may thinning these oils like watercolor, and they’re not intended to be used that way. You should use the water as you would use turpentine with regular oils; rather sparingly, or combined with an oil medium. I’d suggest just painting with them straight from the tube, lightly diluted, or mixed with a medium. Sometimes these oils can be rather stiff, but can be worked with a water-miscible medium some to soften them up. Not all are that way, in fact some are rather fluid as is. Winsor & Newton has some useful information at their site that can help you, especially in their Oil Colour Book download. Sean Dye has a book on these you might find interesting.

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January 15, 2007 at 5:35 pm #1080368

Hello, Boxwood! I’m painting with water soluble oils too. I’ve been working with acrylics for some time and have also been studying watercolor. So I’m coming from about the same place you are. I have found some canvas makers are stingy with their gesso and I usually give it another coat before starting any kind of medium.. acrylic or oil.. There is a very good book out about the use of water soluble oils.. I don’t know if it’s in wide circulation yet, but I asked for it for Christmas and it’s GREAT, but geared more to the person switching from oil paint to water oil paint rather than watercolor to water oil. Title is “Painting with Water Soluble Oils” by Sean Dye. What brand of H2O paint are you using? I hear that Holbeins DUO is the very best, but it’s pricey, so I am using Windsor Newton Artison paints with the mediums they have; Water Miscible Linseed Oil and Water Miscible Fast Drying Medium. I like them a lot, but also have the MAX2 oils. I’ve only done 2 paintings so far, but I like them a lot. Putting on a base coat is a good idea, but be sure it’s very thin. You CAN also use acrylics to do this base, if you want. I will be starting a class with an experienced art teacher next Monday and will soon learn a lot more! Good luck.. and happy painting! Gigi

The best types of paint for canvas


Mixing Acrylic Paint on a Palette

Acrylic paint is one of the most popular types of paint for painting on canvas, and with good reason. It’s easy to work with, requires minimal supplies and dries quickly. A primed canvas provides an ideal surface for acrylic, which can be applied with a brush or palette knife.

In terms of what type of acrylic paint to use, a thicker acrylic paint (sometimes called “heavy body”) will work best on canvas. Thinner acrylic paint (sometimes called “fluid acrylic”) will require a lot more paint to create an opaque layer, and can drip downward if painting on an easel.

Oil paint

Mixing Oil Paint for Canvas

Whether it’s traditional oil paint or water-soluble oil paint, oils are very well suited to painting on canvas. Their thick, viscous texture requires a heavy-duty painting surface to rest upon that won’t be degraded by oil, and a primed canvas provides just that. Like acrylic, oil paint can be applied either with a brush or a palette knife; it can even be applied without either, by using oil pigment bars (sort of like oil pastels).

So-so paints for canvas


Gouache is a unique type of paint that has characteristics of both acrylic and watercolor paint. It is composed of color pigment with a binding agent such as gum arabic, often with a solid white pigment such as chalk (or sometimes even acrylic) incorporated. These two factors give gouache a much heavier texture and higher opacity than watercolor alone, but not quite the opacity of acrylic.

Gouache can be applied to canvas, but it is best to apply a fairly thick layer, with minimal water added. While gouache can be used on smaller paintings or to create effects like the gouache resist technique, painting on canvas can use up gouache very quickly, and you may find that using acrylic paint is a better choice.


Tempera paint is made of pigment with a water-soluble binder (in old times, the binder was egg, hence the alternate name: “egg tempera”). Tempera can be used on canvas, but it’s not always an ideal medium. Like fluid acrylic, tempera paint is not extremely thick, so it can drip downward if applied to a canvas on an easel. Additionally, tempera paint is typically not permanent or archival, so while it is a great and inexpensive medium to explore painting with, it is not an ideal medium for painting on canvas in the long term.

Latex paint

Did you know that Picasso used house paint to create many of his masterpieces? Truthfully, house paint works pretty well on a primed canvas; it’s usually fairly opaque and lightfast, and it can be bought in bulk for a fairly inexpensive price. The problem? House paint is not designed for painting on canvas, and its longevity can vary greatly. Where acrylic and oil paint are designed to last for years, the same cannot be said for house paint, which is designed to last for a few years, but not centuries. So don’t use house paint to create the masterpiece you want to hand down to future generations!

Not suggested for canvas


Watercolor on Canvas

Watercolor is a beautiful painting medium, but it is not well suited to painting on canvas. The water-based paint tends to form beads and dry irregularly on canvas, especially a primed canvas.

While this could be fun to add effects to a mixed media painting, working in watercolor on canvas will likely be frustrating for creating a complete work of art. An absorbent watercolor paper is a far better choice.

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12 Responses to “The Best (and Worst) Types of Paint to Use on Canvas”

  1. Dennis July 23rd, 2023 I would like a question answered without you trying to sell me something because they are a sponsor. My question is what is the best ‘hair’ to use for painting on canvas and WHY. Reply
  2. Sarah September 22nd, 2022 Can you use bingo daubers on stretched canvas? Reply
  3. Avnee September 3rd, 2022 When I paint with oil pastel on canvas I paint first layer but it start to contract and i can clearly see the white dots of canvas . Therefore I have to do much hard work in order to make that layer opaque. It’s ok for if I am painting on big surface but delicate areas like face and eyes it’s very very hard to use oil pastel . Why this is so can anybody tell me what is my mistake and plz suggest me paint colours that left an opaque layer in one shot . Reply
    • Fran December 26th, 2022 I have painted successfully with oil pastels on plain sketchbook paper. I cover paper with a layer of white pastel then continue with painting on top. I can then scrape mistakes off to reveal white again and repaint. Reply
  4. jerry ryan June 6th, 2022 very precise answer to the question Reply
  5. Madan Samuel March 17th, 2022 Nice axplanation Reply
  6. Sherri Brower September 10th, 2021 This info helped me a lot…I need the best option to use on my canvases Reply
  7. Paul July 20th, 2021 Thank you so much for this overview. My absolute favourite is acrylic paint since it is very versatile, the second best is water-soluble oil paint. I love the thick texture and work with pallette knives. Great post! Reply
  8. Margaret June 15th, 2021 Great information, which answered my question. Thank you Reply
  9. Kiara December 30th, 2020 Thanks ,your information will be usefull for me Reply
  10. AliceGallery December 29th, 2020 very nice info! Reply
  11. Tabitha Woertz November 1st, 2020 Info was great Reply
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