How to Paint with Watercolors on Wood?

For many people, the true joy of painting is found in a diversity of expression and an almost limitless capacity for experimentation. While we tend to associate watercolour painting with canvas and paper, beautiful works of art can be created on a variety of surfaces.

Due to their robustness, ease of use and distinct style, watercolour paints can be applied to glass, parchment, fabrics and even wood.

Today, we’re discussing the relationship between watercolour paints and wood to help you expand your artistic skills and create extraordinary new pieces.

While you may not think of wood as being particularly compatible with paints, its natural grain adds elegance, atmosphere and interest. In comparison with canvas artworks, wooden pieces are tougher, easier to display and look exceptionally striking when hung in homes, workplaces and studios.

If you’re interested in applying watercolour paints to wooden surfaces, there are a few things you should know about prepping and using the material. This article will give you tips and advice on getting the best possible outcome.

Is My Wooden Surface Ready for Watercolour Paints?

If you purchase a piece of wood that has been designed for painting – some art and craft stores sell pre-prepared materials – you may not need to do any of your own prep work.

If you’re working with wood that you’ve found or claimed, it will need to be readied for the watercolour paints. Depending on its source, salvaged wood is likely to have rough surfaces that will manifest as lumps and bumps in your painting if not corrected.

Step 1: Sanding

The first step is to smooth the surface of the wood using fine-grit sandpaper or something similar. or something similar.. Our recommendation is sandpaper between 360 and 600 grit.

Any rougher and you won’t create a smooth enough surface. Any finer and it will be so smooth your watercolour paints have nothing to grip onto; this may result in a sloppier painting with colours and lines running haphazardly together.

Don’t forget to work in a well-ventilated location. The finer your sandpaper, the lighter any loose particles are going to be.

If possible, wear a mask and goggles to prevent those tiny particles from irritating your eyes, nose and throat.

Step 2: Dust Removal

Once you’ve finished sanding, you’ll need to carefully remove all of the fine particles and shavings from the surface of the wood.

That is unless you’re hoping to create an original watercolour with a specific type of texture. It is possible – though tricky – to creatively incorporate wood shavings.

For most, the shavings are just debris which needs removing so the surface is smooth and ready for paint. The quickest way is to do this is to simply blow the loose material off the surface.

However, we recommend using a thin vacuum attachment. Hold the nozzle firmly against the surface but don’t press too hard. Work both against and with the grain; this is a clever way to create an almost canvas-like surface with intersecting striations.

What Is the Best Way to Prime a Wooden Surface for Paints?

It is more than possible to apply watercolour paints to a finely sanded wooden surface.

Technically, this is enough prep work for a painting. You may find, however, that your watercolours don’t move as fluidly or as freely as they do on canvas.

Most watercolour paints contain gum arabic and it’s a material that’s slightly tacky. It will stick to wood but not as willingly as paper or canvas.

For a fully prepped surface, we recommend using a primer to make the wood even more accommodating. In the next section, we’ll introduce some commonly used primers and their respective advantages and disadvantages.

Using Gesso As a Primer

Gesso is the primer of choice for many, many artists of various calibres, styles, and inspirations. It is suitable for almost any type of surface and compatible with both oil and watercolor paints.

I would recommend the Utrecht Studio Series Acrylic Gesso or the Blick Artists Acrylic Gesso. Both are excellent choices and they are both not very expensive. You can check the prizes by clicking on the links above.

When applied to canvas, for example, gesso reduces the amount of paint that gets soaked deep into the fabric. It holds the paint on the surface where it can be manipulated and moved freely.

If you buy any painting surface (canvas, wood, etc) at an art or craft store, it will almost certainly have been pre-prepared with gesso or another type of primer. So, if you already have a prepped piece of wood, you can skip this part.

The problem with using gesso to prime wood is that, ironically, it can be too effective. If the reason you’re using wood is to incorporate the natural grain in some way, gesso is likely to cover and conceal it.

The best ways to prevent this are to apply the thinnest coat of primer possible or follow the primer with a second (very light) sanding. In any case, the grain of the wood will be covered up to some degree.

Using Watercolour Ground As a Primer

Gesso’s over effectiveness on wood is one of the reasons some artists prefer to use the watercolour ground as a primer.

Though it is a less well-known product than gesso, it can be purchased online or from some art and craft stores. Watercolour ground renders absorbent surfaces, like wood, suitable for watercolour applications.

My Favorite Watercolor Ground is Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground. It is easy to apply and quite cheap as well.

It comes in a variety of shades and colours including one that’s completely transparent. You can also pick up coloured tints such as pearlescent white, iridescent gold and titanium. These are useful for artists who are trying to create specific finishes.

If this is your first time using watercolour ground, it’s probably best to start with a transparent product. If you’re a little more experienced, we recommend a gold tint because it adds a beautifully warm tone to paintings without looking overly synthetic.

Do I Need to Use an Easel When Applying Watercolours to Wood?

As with any type of material, it’s best to work in the way that’s most comfortable for you. Consider the same issues you would if you were applying your watercolours to a traditional canvas.

If the paint is very thin, there is a greater risk of uncontrolled runs and drips. You should be aware of this but, of course, it’s only a problem if you don’t like the end result. There are lots of reasons you might intentionally incorporate running lines into your work.

The thicker you apply the paint, the less likely is it to run so there are fewer complications when using an easel.

To prevent watercolour runs and drips, lay your piece of wood horizontally on a flat surface. Ultimately, it depends on the nature of your prep work, the effectiveness of your primer and your own artistic preferences.

It’s worth remembering, though the primer is essential for a smooth surface, the associated reduction in absorbency is going to keep the paint exactly where it’s supposed to be – right on top of the material. You may need to work with thicker paint to stop it from running.

Do I Need to Use a Particular Painting Technique for Wood?

We’ve touched upon the issue of paint consistency though it isn’t a consideration unique to wooden surfaces. The way you choose to apply the paint depends on your preferred style, surface size, artistic goals and myriad other factors.

So, the following tips are merely suggestions; if you’ve got a different method which works well for you, embrace it.

We recommend applying the watercolour paints in a slightly thicker manner than you might when working with canvas or paper. Thicker applications with less water will stick to the wooden surface easier and drip far less.

You could also engrave each differently coloured section to keep the tones separate and distinct. It can be a very effective technique but it’s only suitable for specific painting styles and it involves more prep work.

The alternative to applying thicker paint is to apply a much greater amount of very, very thin layers. The tricky part is getting the right balance between watercolours thin enough not to drip but still thick enough to make a visual impact.

The idea is, instead of ‘daubing’ the paint, the artist builds up the colour with many, many layers of thin paint. Unsurprisingly, this can take a very long time.

Blending

Careful blending can be used to create convincing shadow effects. To use this technique, select a colour and create a dark and a light version of it.

Apply either shade first. Then, while the paint is still wet, add the second shade and gently blend the two together.

Ombre

Ombre is another popular visual effect which sees a shade run through many different iterations as it travels from dark to light.

For instance, you might start with deep black shade and make it progressively lighter until it’s almost a dazzling white.

The quickest and easiest way to do this is to ‘wash’ the wood with a thin layer of water first. Then, add your selected watercolour pigment to its bottom. Keep adding pigment and wash it down as you move upwards.

When working with water washes in this way, be ready for a bit of mess and a much less controlled result. The paint will dry thinner, is likely to bleed into other shades and create a more unstructured, ‘romantic’ aesthetic.

Unless you can work very quickly, we recommend you apply the water wash while your wood is on a horizontal surface (rather than an easel).

How Do I Set and Hold My Watercolour Paints on Wood?

As wooden surfaces are rarely protected with glass frames, it’s especially important to consider setting and holding options. You may never need to ‘set’ your finished watercolours on a canvas; once it’s framed, they’re largely untouchable.

Glass frames are an effective way to protect your paper and paints from humidity. It’s harder to frame wood so a varnish is necessary for setting the paints instead.

It’s worth mentioning the difference between watercolour paints and oil paints. Oil paints stick more firmly to the painting surface. Whereas, the gum arabic contained in watercolours is slightly more fragile and degradable.

It’s certainly more vulnerable to moisture than linseed oil. It’s just another reason why varnish is essential for watercolour painting on wood.

There are all kinds of paint varnishes on the market. Most artists have a preferred product which they exclusively use throughout their careers. You’ve got to find it first though! New artists are encouraged to shop around and try different varnishes until they land on that ‘holy grail’ product which delivers everything they need.

Krylon is an example of a popular varnish which many artists praise for its compatibility with wood though there are many other choices out there. We’re particularly fond of this brand because its high-quality varnishes leave no trace.

It’s quite common to apply a varnish, let it dry and then discover it’s added a yellow tinge to your painting; this won’t happen with a premium varnish from a trusted source.

Varnish needs to be applied in the right conditions because it’s susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity. For this reason, the ideal application environment is a space with a temperature between 65 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

The humidity level should be no greater than 75% and no lower than 50%. When varnish gets too warm, it dries very quickly, and air bubbles can form which stop it from adhering fully to the surface.

On the other hand, if it’s too cold, it will dry very slowly and pick up particles from the atmosphere.

The Final Word on Working with Wood

Wood can be a wonderful medium for watercolour paints. Though it may require more prep work than paper or canvas, it creates some unique and interesting effects.

Even if you’ve never considered painting on wood before or don’t have much experience, the process is a worthwhile experiment. Not only is it fun, but you can also learn much about the way watercolours respond to different surfaces.

The more you know, the more you dare and discover, the better an artist you’ll be.