These Are The Best (and, Ugh, The Worst!) Paints To Use on Canvas

Your canvas is ready, and so are you. Time to create your masterpiece! But there's a big decision you still need to make: what kind of paint to use.

The rows of gorgeous-looking paints at your art-supply store are giving you all the feels, and you kind of want to buy everything you see. But before you binge, keep in mind that only certain types of paint work well on canvas. The wrong ones will either ruin your artwork or fade over time.

Don't learn the hard way. Let's review the kinds of paint out there, so you can pick what you want and start painting ASAP!

Best paints for canvas


It's no surprise why acrylic paint is one of the most popular for canvas. It's easy to work with and it dries quickly. Plus, all you need to paint with acrylic is a primed canvas and a brush or palette knife.

You'll see thick and thin varieties in the acrylic paints aisle. The thicker type (sometimes called heavy body) works best on canvas. If you'd rather use the thinner kind (aka fluid acrylic), just know that you'll need a lot more paint to create an opaque layer—and the thin fluid will usually drip downward if you're painting on an easel. 

Oil paint

Oil paints and canvas are made for each other. The thick, viscous texture of oil paints calls for a heavy-duty surface to rest on — one that won't be degraded by oil — and a primed canvas provides exactly that. You can choose from traditional oil paint or the water-soluble kind. Either way, you can use a brush or a palette knife to apply the paint, same as you would with acrylic. You can even skip the tools and use oil pigment bars, which are sort of like oil pastels.

So-so paints for canvas


Gouache paint is like a cross between acrylic and watercolor paint. It's made from color pigment and a binding agent like gum arabic, and often has a solid white pigment (chalk or even acrylic) mixed in. The blend gives gouache a much heavier texture and higher opacity than watercolor alone, but not quite the opacity of acrylic.

You can use gouache on canvas, but you'll want to apply a fairly thick layer and keep the water to a minimum. Gouache works well on smaller paintings, or for effects like the gouache resist technique. But if you're painting on a big canvas, you'll use up the gouache super-fast. For those large paintings, choosing acrylic instead is a smart move.


Ever heard of "egg tempera"? Ages ago, tempera paint was made by using egg as a binder for the pigment, but now tempera paints are just pigment mixed with water-soluble binder.

Even though tempera does work on canvas, it's not always an ideal choice. Like fluid acrylic, tempera paint can drip downward if your a canvas is set on an easel.

Also, tempera paint usually isn't permanent or archival. So even though it's inexpensive and fun to experiment with, you'll want to choose another kind of paint if you're creating an artwork for the ages. 

Latex paint

Fact: Picasso used house paint to create many of his masterpieces. Hard to believe, but true — and actually, house paint does work pretty well on a primed canvas. It's usually fairly opaque and lightfast, and you can buy it in bulk for relatively cheap.

The problem? House paint isn't designed for painting on canvas, and its longevity can vary hugely, depending on the brand and other factors. Acrylic and oil paints are designed to last for centuries, but the same can't be said for house paint. So if you're looking to create a masterpiece you can hand down to your grandchildren, steer clear of that stuff.

Paints to avoid on canvas


Sure, you can make stunning paintings with watercolor , but if you're planning on using canvas, walk on by. The water-based paint tends to dry irregularly and form beads on canvas, especially primed canvas.

You can have lots of fun using watercolor to add effects to a mixed-media painting. But trying to create a complete artwork on canvas using watercolor could drive anyone nuts.

Still want to try your hand at watercolors? Have at it, but here's a tip: Stick with absorbent watercolor paper instead.

December 17, 2018
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These Are The Best (and, Ugh, The Worst!) Paints To Use on Canvas