What to paint watercolor on! (Lots of options!)

Artists like to work on many different surfaces and in various ways. Which surfaces are good for watercolor paint?

You can use watercolor on paper, canvas, wood, and cardboard, but it will produce the best results on paper. Watercolor is difficult to control on wood, as the paint will get into the fibers and spread out. Plastic is not suitable either, since the watercolor can’t soak in, so the pigment ends up dried up, but can be removed fairly easily.

Which surface is best for watercolor painting?

In general, paper is the best surface for watercolor painting, since it is able to enable watercolor paints to perform as intended.

It is the fibers in the paper that make it different from other surfaces, which I will discuss later. 

In general, watercolor is just water mixed with paint pigments and other ingredients. The water acts as a sort of transmitter, bringing the pigments into the paper’s fibers.

The pigments will stay in the paper once the water dries and show their true colors. Most other mediums cannot show this afterwards.

In fact, they aren’t even able to absorb the paint and pigments, so the pigments just dry on top of it, leaving it vulnerable to smudging.

Some artists argue that canvases are the best option for watercolor painting, but I have found that they don’t hold up to a sheet of paper. More on that will follow.

If you were wondering, how to make watercolor dry faster, you can find it out here.

What is the best type of paper to use for watercolor painting?

As for paper, you will also need to choose carefully.

Especially if you’re trying to create a full-blown painting and not just a sketch, I recommend not being cheap on paper.

If you struggle with paper tearing and buckling throughout the painting process, quality paper can help.

Even if you’re just sketching or testing colors, I would always recommend 100% cotton paper. Other papers will behave differently, and the outcome will differ.

In terms of thickness or weight, I like to use very thick sheets, since they are very durable. 

Thick paper allows you to use very little water since it can absorb a lot without tearing.

Further, you will have less of a problem with your painting buckling or warping.

Of course, it also adds a lot of value to the painting. The feeling of having a painting painted on thick paper is immediately superior to having the same painting on thinner paper.

As a result, I recommend buying paper that weighs 140lbs/300gsm. It’s what I always use, and I wouldn’t want to switch to a thinner one.

I’d also advise reading Does Watercolor Paper Need To Be Wet Before Painting?

watercolor paintings with sharp white edges

Is there an alternative to paper for watercolor painting?

Despite the fact that paper is the best choice for watercolor painting, there are still some other options available. Let me explain.

H3Watercolor painting on a normal canvas

The most common alternative to paper is probably canvas, as most artists are familiar with it.

A lot of painters are naturally drawn to them since they appear more professional and are of a higher quality.

Acrylic and oil painting can certainly benefit from this, but watercolors aren’t exactly suited to canvases.

It is the ability to absorb water and paint that is problematic. As I’ve mentioned before, paper is an incredible medium for watercolors, bringing out the pigments and protecting them from damage.

A regular canvas just isn’t cut out for this type of use case. But there’s another option

Using a watercolor canvas

This is where things get interesting. Over the past few years, watercolor canvases have become increasingly popular as a reliable mixture between paper and canvas.

The material can absorb watercolors and their pigments into its surface, bringing them to life, while also providing the form and structure of a canvas.

Even though I’m not the biggest fan of using canvas for watercolor painting, they are definitely worth trying out if you enjoy the way a canvas works.

Watercolor painting on wood

Painters sometimes prefer to work on a natural surface, such as wood. No matter if it is cut up into planks or a slice of a log, the surface remains fairly similar.

Watercolors don’t work very well on wood, especially if the wood is not primed or anything.

Wood fibers have a difficult time handling and processing watercolor and paint pigments.

In this case, acrylic paints would be better. It is possible, however, to use watercolors on wood, if you really want to.

When you apply some gesso onto the wood and let it dry, you create a layer on which the watercolor can dry.

Still, it’s not the best surface for watercolor paintings, so I wouldn’t recommend painting on wood. 

Painting watercolor on cardboard

This is also something that people like to try out when they make signs or when they just want to make use of the cardboard before throwing it away.

While acrylics work reasonably well on cardboard, watercolors aren’t the best choice. To make cardboard behave like paper, you would need a surface that’s very close to paper, and cardboard simply can’t do that.

You could use gesso on cardboard and make it somewhat viable for watercolor painting, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.

In that case, I would just stick to paper. If you want to paint a sign, either use acrylic paint, some other type of regular paint or paint watercolors on a sheet of paper and adhere it to cardboard.

This would save you a lot of headaches, be faster and more accurate.

If you’d like my in-depth article about shipping watercolor paintings, you can find it here.

Can you paint watercolors on anything?

In theory, you could paint watercolors on pretty much any surface. The problem is: It won’t turn out the way you want it to.

A lot of surfaces are unable to absorb water properly and bind paint pigments with them.

Most of the time, the water will just evaporate over time, leaving a layer of pigment. The problem with this layer is that it is easily removable, like a dust layer.

Due to this, the colors will not come out well and wouldn’t even last for a very long time as they could simply be blown away by the next wind.

While you could try to fixate the pigments, using a varnish won’t work, since it would just smudge everything, as they are not meant to be used on watercolors.

It’s also not the best idea to use a fixative spray, as it doesn’t work perfectly and the colors still won’t look the way you’d like them to.

You can use watercolor on just about anything with gesso. One or maybe two layers of gesso on a surface can help you paint on it.

However, gesso is much better suited to acrylics, oils, and gouache than to watercolors. Because of the unique way watercolor works, it is very difficult to create an “artificial” surface for it.

In order for watercolor to function properly, you need some sort of paper or canvas.

Nonetheless, if you insist on painting on a special surface, I’d suggest using gesso and painting on it rather than directly on the surface.

If you’d like to learn more about watercolor painting, you should also read Here’s How To Erase Watercolor (Avoid These Mistakes) and Are moleskine sketchbooks good for watercolor painting?


Paper is the best surface for watercolor paintings. It should be made of 100% cotton and have a thickness of about 140 lbs/300 gsm. You will need to prime the surface with gesso first if you intend to use other surfaces, such as canvas, cardboard or wood, so that the watercolor can adhere to it properly.

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