Working on Saturated Paper to Practice Wet-into-Wet Techniques

It’s a good idea to practice techniques on a scrap piece of paper BEFORE using them on a painting in progress. But what if you want to practice a wet-in-wet technique and your stretcher bars or Gatorboard are already in use, or your scrap is too small for your stretchers?

This video shows you how to work on saturated paper so you can practice wet-in-wet techniques on any size scrap without worrying about buckling.

NOTE: This video has caused more confusion that any other video I’ve ever produced, because people watch the video without reading the accompanying lesson. PLEASE, after watching the video, read the lesson material to learn when this method is suitable.

Can I just use this method for my whole painting and skip stretching entirely?

It is possible to use this method for entire paintings, but there are some drawbacks.

  • With the back of the paper completely saturated, the wash on the front takes a long time to dry. That’s great, if you’re still working on it, but not so great when you want it to dry so you can glaze over it.
  • The paper DOES still buckle as it dries, unless you staple it to a support before it starts drying. If you’re done with the painting, that’s no problem. You can mist the back and gently iron it flat. But if you’re planning to add another layer, you need to carefully re-saturate the back without getting any water on the front to get it flat again. This works, but it tends to make the paint layers easier to lift, so it’s harder to glaze without disturbing your initial washes.
  • As the paper begins to dry, there is the possibility of blooms developing along the edges. It’s possible to prevent this by lifting the edges and mopping up any excess, or by monitoring the drying process and using a hair drying to make sure drying happens evenly. There is probably a set of “best practices” used by people who work primarily with this method—please consult someone who does, if you want to know more about using this method for complete paintings!

For these reasons, this method works best when you are using a strategy that allows you to finish the entire painting (or at least, everything but some small finishing details) in one work session, starting with wet-in-wet effects and gradually shifting to less water as the paper dries. This is a very traditional way of working, and many watercolor painters DO work this way, especially en plein air in drier environments. I use this kind of strategy myself sometimes. But it’s not well-suited to the strategy of multiple glazes used in this course.

But, isn’t there some way I can avoid stretching my paper?

Yes, I know. We all keep hoping that someday, somehow, we’ll stumble on a way to avoid stretching paper entirely.

The bottom line is this: the physical characteristics of paper that cause it to buckle are the same characteristics that help produce all those lovely soft edges, blends and other wet-in-wet effects that are the hallmarks of watercolor.

You can paint on other surfaces that don’t buckle . . . but they don’t produce the same (mostly)-controllable soft edges and blends.

You can find ways to control the water so you don’t ever add enough to cause much buckling, such as painting on an upright easel or never applying a lot of water in the first place. . . but then you have to either work only with techniques a lot less water, or use drips and runs as part of your painting style, or both.

You can work on thicker paper, such as 300-lb paper or watercolor board, so that it takes more water to completely saturate the paper . . . but then it also takes a lot longer to get each layer completely dry (and it’s more expensive). Blocks work in a similar way, because of the layers of paper underneath, but if you over-saturate a block, it can simply come apart at the edges, so blocks are both more expensive and less likely to work well if you use a lot of water.

You can work on completely saturated paper, as in this lesson . . . but then you have to restrict your techniques to those that work on completely saturated paper. And figure out how to handle the buckling and possible blooms that can happen as it dries.

Or, you can put up with the nuisance of stretching your paper.

ALL of these strategies work, and all are in commmon use. Many watercolorists use several of them, depending on what they think will work best for the painting they’re working on. None of them is a perfect solution.

None of them is “just throw down the paper and do whatever with no buckling, ever”.

I’m not going to tell you to stop looking for that solution—I’d love for you to be the one to invent it! But you can stop searching around on the internet or begging instructors to tell you the secret. If and when someone invents a surface that acts exactly like watercolor paper but doesn’t buckle, you’ll know. It will be the only thing the watercolor community talks about for months, if not years.

In the meantime, get to know the pros and cons of the various partial solutions, and use the one that seems best for the painting you’re working on, or that best suits your style and personality.

For this course, you’ll have much better odds of success if you stretch your paper (preferably on stretcher bars). If that’s just not your thing, no problem. But, in that case, you’ll be better off studying the methods used by people who handle paper the same way you want to handle your paper. There’s no right or wrong way to paint in watercolor, but it does make sense to match the techniques you are using with the situations where they tend to work best.

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