Does watercolor paper need to be wet before painting?

Some artists swear by wetting their papers before painting with watercolor; others would never think of it. What is the best way to do this?

Wetting watercolor paper can help spread paint pigments more evenly. Water spreads paint pretty well in general, but occasionally more pigment will accumulate on the edge. Given that you didn’t make the paper yourself and would therefore need to stretch it, you don’t need to wet the paper before painting.

watercolor painting teacher and student

Is it necessary to wet the watercolor paper before painting?

Wetting watercolor paper before painting on it can be useful in a number of situations.

Firstly, wetting the paper in order to stretch it

A lot of artists like to stretch their watercolor paper before starting to paint on it, especially if they make their own.

The paper is stretched by soaking it in water and stretching it softly over a long period of time. 

As a result, a smoother surface with fibers arranged in the appropriate order can be created. Using un-stretched paper might cause some fibers to clump up, limiting how well you can paint.

Additionally, wetting one side of your watercolor paper before painting has another effect, which I will elaborate on in just a moment. Keep reading to learn how it improves your painting experience.

Painting on wet paper (also known as the wet-on-wet technique) can also create some interesting effects.

Here’s how.

Does wetting the watercolor paper while painting help?

Sometimes, it can be helpful to wet your watercolor paper throughout the painting process. In the last section, I teased a handy effect which you can find out more about if you read on.

A handy effect can be created by applying small areas of water to the paper. It will act as a sort of spreader for the paint pigments.

When applying paint to such areas of water, the pigments in the paint will naturally spread across this surface, creating an even layer of paint.

The only drawback is that more pigment tends to accumulate at the edges of this tiny puddle, but that can easily be removed.

Speaking of erasing: This is another great method of using water throughout the painting. If you apply very small amounts of water to dried up paint on your painting, you can remove it and therefore erase it.

However, you must be very surgical about it. Too much water can quickly wash away some of your paint, leaving you with a ruined painting.

Ideally, you should practice on a watercolor doodle first.

If you’d like to find out if laminating your watercolor paintings would be a good idea, I’d recommend checking this article out.
And if you’re unsure whether hairspray will be able to seal watercolors, you should read this one.

watercolor brushes next to watercolor paint

Wetting your watercolor paper can reduce buckling

Let’s finally get to the part I teased you with in the last two chapters. How to make your watercolor painting experience even more enjoyable.

If you apply a bit of moisture to the back of your painting, you will be able to expand the fibers.

This will keep the paper in balance (more or less) since the fibers on the front side of the painting expand as you paint, which is counteracted by also enhancing the ones on the back side.

This will significantly reduce warping or buckling of the paper. Don’t get me wrong, it will still happen, but you will face far fewer problems.

The combination of this with masking tape applied throughout the painting process should leave your painting in pretty good shape.

All you need to do now is press the painting once it has dried up.

You can use this little tip to make the painting process and the post-painting process so much easier, as it allows you to paint for longer periods without having to deal with warped paper.

Whenever I create a painting, this is the method I use. It takes a few tries to figure out how much water to apply and how often to reapply it, but you’ll see how the paper reacts over time.

You just need to adjust it however you like. You don’t need to wet the paper very much if you’re painting slowly. 

If you apply large amounts of paint at once, you should do also apply a lot of water on the backside, to even things out.

I’ve also been asked if ironing a watercolor painting might be a good idea to flatten it. To find out just click here, you might be surprised.

What is the difference between painting on dry and wet watercolor paper?

There are some key differences between painting on wet or dry watercolor paper.

The paint and water applied to dry watercolor paper will just be absorbed instantly. This is how you will usually paint. 

Since watercolor painting involves so many layers, you have to wait for your painting to dry. 

With wet paper, you can now create some interesting effects. In case you missed it, I have already discussed this previously:

If you wet your watercolor paper before spreading paint over its surface, it will make your life easier. 

In addition to using this method, you can also apply cling film to this water puddle after it has been painted.

You can use this method when painting elements of nature with seemingly random color patterns, such as flowers and butterflies.

If you’d like to learn about the use of an easel when it comes to watercolor painting, I’d recommend checking out this article.
And if you’re unsure whether you should pour your watercolors down the drain, read this one.


Before painting, wetting the watercolor paper can help spread paint evenly over a larger area. This, however, is not necessary. You can do your entire painting without ever wetting the paper. You can reduce buckling by wetting the backside of your paper, though.

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