Wetting watercolor paper – but only the back!

Wetting watercolor paper, but only the back, will help you paint better watercolor paintings. It will also make it easier to paint.
Wetting watercolor paper, but only the back will help you paint better watercolor paintings

Today I will be looking at the benefits of wetting the back of your watercolor paper. For most people this tip will make it easier for them to create better paintings.

One of the most common questions I get asked by my students is,  “Do I wet my paper?”

Now, when students ask this, they are referring to the front of the paper.

I usually respond by saying, yes, I do, but not the front of the paper. I almost always wet the back however. Very rarely the front.

I am going to cover why you might want to wet the back of your watercolor paper, how much to wet it, and when not to wet it as much, if at all. At the end I will also talk briefly about when you might want to wet the front of your paper.

There are 4 reasons why you should wet the back of your paper.

More time to paint

The most important reason is that it will give you a great deal more time to paint before the surface of your paper dries. This also means there is much less need to use a spray bottle to keep the paper surface at the right wetness level for wet-on-wet passages. I started wetting the back of my paper about two years ago when looking for solutions to the problem my students often have of their work drying too fast. In the past I used a spray bottle to keep the surface of my painting at the right wetness and I still do, but nowhere near as often. Where before I would use a water spray bottle multiple times with every painting, I now might only use it once or twice in one out of ten paintings.

Watercolor paper stays flat – not need to stretch it

The second reason is that it lets you paint on flat paper without any cockles. Wetting the back sufficiently makes the paper expand and sit very flat on your painting board. This makes it much easier to paint on.

Cockled watercolor paper
Cockled watercolor paper
By wetting the back your watercolor paper sits flat on my board. Just like it has been stretched.
Watercolor paper which has been thoroughly wet on the back. Just like it has been stretched.

Less stress when painting with watercolors

Thirdly you don’t have to rush. It is often said that a good watercolor is a quick watercolor. However, this technique lets you slow down a little, giving you more time to think as you paint.

Easier to lift watercolor paint from your painting

Finally, as the paper will have more water in it, the paint sits closer to the surface. This makes it easier to lift paint for corrections or to create positive shapes out of the background. This can be quite useful for painting subjects such as dramatic skies where a lot of edge softening and adjustment might need to be done. This point mainly applies to non-staining paints, however. Those that stain are very hard to lift if at all possible.

How much should you wet your paper?

To answer this question, you must understand why paintings dry too fast. I used to think that it was because the water on the surface of my painting was evaporating too quickly. However, the real reason is because the paper below the surface is like a sponge, and it can absorb a great deal of water.

After doing my drawing, I start by wetting the back quite heavily twice. Then while the paper is absorbing that water, I mix the starting colors for my painting. Once I have mixed enough paint, of the right color and tone, I go back and wet the back of my paper again. I then carefully lift the paper and wet my waterproof board as well.  

Just wetting the back of your paper once is not enough!

I mainly use 185 gsm paper. If you paint with the thicker 300gsm paper, you might need to wet it twice as much.

You will know when your paper has absorbed enough water when it sits totally flat on your support board. And when you turn it over the right way the front surface should be cool to touch but not wet.

I have heard of some artists that wet both the front and back of their paper and then dry the front before painting. I don’t see a need for this as you end up needlessly removing some of the sizing on the paper surface. This would alter how the paper responds to your paint. For experienced artists this is probably not a problem, but it can make it more difficult for beginners.

I am now going to talk about why I don’t wet the front of my watercolor paper.

 I almost never wet the front of my paper. The reason for this is if the working surface is wet then I can only produce soft wet on wet edges. I like more edge variety in my work. My skies usually have wet on wet areas as well as lovely dry brush strokes, which I would not be able to produce on a wet surface. Remember, once you lay down some paint, you have effectively wet the paper. If you go back into your wet wash, you are now creating wet on wet shapes.

Also, if you spend time mixing your starting colors, testing them on a scrap piece of watercolor paper for both color and tone, your tones will be incorrect if you then paint them onto a wet surface. The water on the surface of your paper will immediately dilute your paint making it a lighter tone than you had planned.

So, when would I wet the front of my paper.

If I wanted to slosh paint around on the surface of my painting, then I might possibly wet the front of my paper. With a very wet surface you can pick up your board and very easily make the paint flow around your painting.

Another occasion might be when doing a foggy or misty scene. In that case most of the edges are soft, with no white paper preserved. Then, provided you can make an allowance for the surface water diluting your paint mixture, you could wet the front to make it easier for subtle wet on wet passages.

When would I not wet the back of my paper.

If I am painting “plein air” in a cold environment, wetting the back might mean the paint takes too long to dry. In that case I don’t wet the back.

Plein air painting with watercolors in a cold climate
Watercolor painting plein air in cold climate

Also, if I am just doing a small sketch or using a watercolor sketch book then I don’t wet the back of the paper.

You must think about the effect you are trying to create and the environment you are working in before deciding if you are going to wet the back or the front of your paper. Hopefully this video will help you make an informed decision.

The benefits of wetting the back of your watercolor paper

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