If you’ve watched any of the old, great Bob Ross shows, you might have noticed that he paints on a wet canvas. This has become known as the wet-on-wet technique and it’s really popular with oil painters. It might sounds strange, but there’s actually a really good reason to do it.
The wet-on-wet technique involves applying a coat of liquid white to a canvas before starting an oil painting. An artist will paint on the wet canvas to achieve brighter and smoother colors.
Painting on a wet canvas is really easy to do once you get the hang of it, but we’ll talk about some tips you need to keep in mind. We’ll also talk about how you can make your own liquid white at home without needing to run to the art store.
Once you’re finished, you DON’T want to get your oil painting wet. This will ruin it. But, you CAN you water to your advantage as you’re creating it.
What Does Liquid White Do?
You may have heard the terms liquid white, fluid white, and magic white. They’re all the same thing. Magic white is what famous PBS painter Bill Alexander branded and sold. Liquid white is what his famous PBS rival Bob Ross branded and sold.
All of them will do the same thing. In fact, the ingredients are pretty simple, which we’ll talk about when we dive into the section about making your own.
Liquid white is an oil-based primer used to coat oil paintings before getting started with them. The trick is to paint on the canvas while it’s still wet and the liquid white is still glistening. This makes your canvas really bright and smooth, letting your colors blend more easily than if you painted on a dry, unprimed canvas.
Liquid White and Gesso Aren’t the Same Thing
It’s easy to confuse liquid white and gesso because they’re both primers, but they serve two really different purposes. You’ll need both for Bob Ross’s wet-on-wet technique though, so pay attention.
Gesso is an acrylic based primer that is meant to be used when dry. Pre-primed canvases come pre-coated with gesso, but sometimes it isn’t enough. It’s a good idea to add another layer of gesso and let it dry before your liquid white.
Liquid white should be applied AFTER your gesso has dried. As we talked about, liquid-white is an oil based primer and it will stick well to the acrylic-based gesso. So, here are your priming steps. Make sure to do them in this order!
- Apply a layer of gesso
- Apply a layer of liquid white
When applying your gesso, you can have it be as thick or as thin as you want. It’s really up to personal preference. If your gesso is too thick from the get go, dilute it with a little bit of water. After each coat, let it dry and see how you feel. If you think you’ve overdone it, you can use sandpaper to subdue it and smooth it out.
What about applying your layer of liquid white be? I’m glad you asked.
Tips for Applying Liquid White or Magic White (same thing)
As we talked about, liquid white is pretty straightforward once you get the hang of it, but you’ll want to keep a few things in mind for your first go around. Painting on a wet canvas has a lot of great benefits, but it can be tricky to start with.
1. Make sure your gesso is dry first. We already talked about this, but it’s really important, so it’s worth repeating. If your gesso isn’t completely dry before applying your liquid white, you’ll have a hot mess. Gesso dries pretty quickly, so go watch some Netflix and you’ll be fine. Don’t rush it.
2. Apply a “film” not a “coat” of your magic or liquid white. I love this video by Wild4Games because he makes a very important point about how much liquid white you should apply. Instead of applying a full coat, think of applying a film. It should cover your canvas, but not soak it.
Wild4Games also shows a great technique for achieving this. Instead of heavy brush strokes, the goal is to make wispy brush strokes that graze the canvas.
3. The amount of magic or liquid white you apply impacts the drying time. The more liquid white you apply, the longer it will take to dry. We all know that oil paints take a long time to dry in general, but a heavy coat of liquid white can add to it if you aren’t careful. I’ve heard some people needing to wait weeks for their paintings to dry!
If you only use a thin layer of magic white, you may only have a few hours to work before it dries. If you applied a heavy coat, you could be looking at days or weeks. Keep this in mind as you apply your liquid white so that you time your progress appropriately and you know what to expect.
4. You will probably apply too much the first time. It’s ok. There really is a learning process with applying liquid white. Eventually, you’ll figure out your preferences, but it will take some time. 99% of the time, you’ll need less than you think. The first couple of times, you might struggle with applying too much. That’s ok. It’s all a part of the learning process. If you wind up with too much on your first few go arounds, just scrape it off and put it back in the jar.
Here’s a trick for seeing whether your liquid white layer is thin enough. If you touch it with your finger, you should have such a fine film on it that you can still see your fingerprint. No globs or drive. Just a fingerprint.
Now, We’re Ready for the Wet-on-Wet Technique
Once you’ve applied your liquid white, magic white, whatever brand you choose, it’s time to start painting on your wet canvas. Again, it’s important that your canvas is still wet when you get started with your painting.
Even though it’s most popular with oil painting, you may have heard of the wet-on-wet technique with watercolor painting as well. With watercolors, it can get really dramatic really fast. Because there’s a lot of water involved, the colors bleed, spread, and blend really quickly. This dramatic effect is what we often think about when we think about painting on a wet canvas
It doesn’t work that way with oil paints.
Remember that we’re applying a very thin layer of liquid white. Even though it’s still wet, it’s not nearly as wet as watercolors would be. And, it’s oil based without any water at all, which means that it acts very differently than watercolors would.
When you start applying your oil paints onto your liquid white covered, wet canvas, you won’t notice any bleeding, spreading, or mixing in any dramatic way. The point of the liquid white is to facilitate blending in a typical oil painting, not to create some unique effect.
Basically, it’s a helper. It helps you use your oil paints in a more smooth and easy way.
Once you apply your liquid white, get started with your painting right away. You want to take advantage of it being wet. That’s how you’ll get the most bang for your buck with the liquid white helping you with blending and softening your strokes.
How to Make Your Own Liquid White
If you’re not a DIY kind of person, you can buy liquid white on Amazon or any art store. Like we talked about, it comes by a few names, but it’s all the same thing.
- Liquid White is what Bob Ross branded
- Magic White is what Bill Alexander branded
- sometimes you hear it called fluid white
- whatever you call it, it works!
A bottle of liquid white might seem expensive, but it should last you a LONG time. If it doesn’t, you’ve been applying too much for your canvas.
But, there’s no need to spend a penny. Liquid white is pretty easy to make at home. There’s nothing proprietary or unique about liquid white. It’s just a neat mix of ingredients that Bob Ross and Bill Alexander put together and realized were really great for priming oil paintings. See, never stop experimenting!
Here’s what you need:
- 50% Titanium White
- 50% Linseed Oil
I’m not kidding. That’s it! Now, you’ll have to figure out which ratio works best for you. I know I know, this post is very much about experimenting and finding your personal preference. I’m sorry, but that’s how it works with oil painting. Heck, with art in general!
Start off with a 1:1 ratio and adjust it from there.
Be sure to watch the video to see how it’s done!
Whether you buy Bob Ross’ famous liquid white or you decide to make your own, always use it with your oil paintings. You’ll be much happier with the end result and the process overall.
Diana has been an artist for over 25 years and has training in drawing, painting, digital drawing and graphic design. Diana’s latest obsession is digitally drawing with Procreate and creating t-shirt designs with Canva. Diana has experience selling her art across a number of platforms and loves helping other artists learn how to make money from their art as well.