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How To Correct Mistakes in Watercolor

Author: Johannes Vloothuis, Associate Editor

One advantage of oil painting and acrylics is that fact that errors can be corrected such as painting over or removing paint. One set back that has kept many artists from using watercolors is the fact that it is widely considered uncorrectable.

I have found ways to correct and change unwanted areas by regaining white paper.

This will only work on high quality watercolor paper such as Arches.

One thing to consider before attempting to remove undesired paint from your paper, is to take into account if the pigment is *staining or not. Staining pigments are harder to remove. For example Ultramarine blue or burnt sienna are very easily removed from the paper. Colors such as Hookers green, alizarin crimson, windsor blue, etc will make the task more difficult.

Correcting an Area Done with Non Staining Pigments

These are not very difficult to remove.

Step 1. Isolate the area with masking tape
Step 2. Wet the area first with a fine mist bottle.
Step 3. Wait minute to allow the water to be absorbed.

Step 4. Rub rub off the paint with a clean moist sponge. Apply the necessary pressure. Rinse the sponge often so the removed paint doesn't seep back in again. If possible do not scrub too hard because it will remove the sizing from the paper making it harder to repaint the area. Better a little at a time.
Step 5. Remove the masking tape. Allow to dry completely. Some residue will remain. That's ok. You will paint over it.

Correcting an Area Done with Staining Pigments

Here is where my technique comes in handy. When the paint you wish to remove becomes stubborn and the residue persists. Do the following: Follow the same instructions above with these variations. Scrub the area with a worn oil brush or cut the bristles down in size. Some pigments are so strong that even this won't work, so here's the next step:

Old oil brush with bristles cut off.
Dip the bristle brush into Chinese or graphic white opaque paint and scrub. Once you have removed the undesired paint, lift out the Chinese white by sucking it up with a sponge until you take out as much as you can. This is to ensure that the new watercolor you put in doesn't acquire a milky look. You are now ready to go in again and repaint.

Note. Hard scrubbing will remove the sizing from the paper. As a result it will not be easy to control the new pigment from spreading out of control. By using Chinese or graphic white you will regain a certain degree of control. Somehow it replaces the sizing.
If the pigment is still too stubborn to come out, use chlorine. This will react with the pigment molecules removing all the pigment, not without eating up the first layers of the paper. Peeling will be the consequence. If you do this sparingly, it will only affect the first layers of the cotton (This is the real substance of watercolor "paper"). Once it dries you can remove the parts that start to roll up as a result of the peeling with sandpaper or by scraping with an exacto knife.

To have smooth paper again, remove the peelings.

  • Do not try to correct by overlapping thick watercolor paint. This will only make the colors go muddy and compromise the transparent look.
  • If you wish to save an area from getting erased cover it with masking tape. This is useful to conserve straight edges.
  • It's easier to erase pigment on cold pressed watercolor paper than with rough paper.
  • If you stay away from staining colors, correcting will be much easier. For example instead off using Hooker's green switch it for Prussian blue plus yellow.
  • Make sure the surface is bone dry before repainting the corrected area.

*Strong pigment that enters the fibers of the surface of the paper and is not easily absorbed by rewetting and lifting out.

  Johannes Vloothuis is a Canadian born artist who specializes in landscape painting in watercolor and oils. He has held exhibitions throughout Mexico, Canada, and Italy.

Besides painting, he has been teaching for over 20 years and feels proud for having helped so many amateur artists turn into professionals. He doesn't believe talent is necessary to become a good artist. Correct guidance and constant practice will achieve great results. He will not hold back "professional secrets". He is well known for his clear explanations.

Johannes is the resident WetCanvas! art reviewer, providing free electronic critiques of artwork submitted by our readers.