This Is Why Your Watercolor Is Cracking – Six possible reasons

Watercolors have multiple benefits and advantages with their affordability, ease of use with basic materials, and portability. Furthermore, watercolour paint, just as gouache paint, does not expose users to harmful fumes nor pose a significant risk to the environment. For all its numerous merits, watercolors typically require extra attention due to scenarios where they can crack.

Your watercolor could be cracking because of shrinkage, the use of low-quality or inexpensive watercolor brands, the high water content in tube brands, the use of poor-quality ingredients, unfavorably hot climate, or poor storage.

The bulk of this article shall delve into an overview of the ingredients of watercolors, how they play a role in causing cracking, the different formats of watercolors, what typically causes watercolors to crack and crumble, and how to keep watercolors from cracking. Without further ado, This Is Why Your Watercolor Is Cracking – Six possible reasons:

Advantages of Using Watercolors

As the tool of choice for many art enthusiasts, professional painters, and hobbyists, watercolors have various considerable pros:

  • They are a quick medium for sketching.
  • They are extremely portableOpens in a new tab. and do not require any mediums except water.
  • Dried watercolors are easily reusable. And the drying process is much faster than it could be with other pigments such as oil paint.
  • They are easy to clean up from clothing and your brush or watercolor brushes, with no odor or requirement for extra studio space.
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They comprise both translucent and opaque options. Though their beautifully translucent attributesOpens in a new tab. stand out as they capture light like nothing else.

Which Ingredients are Found in Watercolor Paint?

Ordinarily, the two main principal ingredients in watercolor paint are pigment and a binding agent. In effect, the pigment provides the color while the bonding agent holds the pigment together until the water is introduced to the mix.

As an illustration, the pigment is normally a powder, and for this powder to be usable, it requires an agent. Under such circumstances is where the binding agent (commonly gum Arabic) comes in. That said, the binding agent combined with the powder pigment usually determines the exact type of paint. 

Which Formats of Watercolors Exist?

Fundamentally, watercolors typically come in two major formats: watercolor pans and watercolor tubesOpens in a new tab.

Watercolor pans are sold in plastic pans called “cakes.” They are usually dry to the touch but are activated once water is introduced. More importantly, watercolor pans are easier to transport since they are fully dry and tend to last longer.

In contrast, watercolor tubes are sold in tubes like conventional acrylic and oil paint. For context, watercolor tubes contain more concentrated watercolor pain and thus are more vibrant when applied. However, on the negative side, when watercolor paint from tubes gets dried on the palette, it is harder to reactivateOpens in a new tab., though this is dependent on the manufacturer and the quality. You can also try using watercolor pencils; more on that in this article.

Why Watercolors Crack

Since we have gotten a brief on the ingredients and formats of watercolors, we now have a foundation to navigate the various factors that could cause watercolor cracking. Here are some of the probable factors that could cause watercolor cracking:


Tube watercolors are more likely to crack due to shrinkageOpens in a new tab.. Some pigments might be more prone to shrinkage than others as this depends on the binder and how much of it the manufacturer utilized in formulating the color. This is more typical with less expensive paints but not uncommon in professional-grade watercolors.

On the other hand, watercolor pans have a lower probability of experiencing shrinkage since they are poured in thin layers, with time to dry before another layer is added, ultimately minimizing any shrinkage. 

High Water Content

In reality, watercolor tubes are more likely to crack when dried because of their initial higher water content. Some tube paints are not expressly formulated to be dried onto pans for long.  In comparison, pan watercolors tend to get a bit wet on the top layer and thus are not as likely to crack. 

Climate Considerations

Though considered a minor factor, watercolors might be more prone to cracking in areas with a notoriously dry climate. Since watercolors in tubes contain water, when squeezed into pans, the chances are that the water will evaporate over time and hence possibly shrink.

This can support a hypothesis that an unfavorable climate can affect the ability of pain to crack with time. That said, it is also worth noting that humid weather can also ruin an unprotected watercolor painting.Opens in a new tab.

Low Quality & Inexpensive Paints

When using watercolors that are not artist-grade colors, the chances of cracking increase significantly. When choosing a brand, few painters extensively research to find out the extra details like if it shrinks, cracks, or if it meshes well with the other brands/pigments on their palette. Most just focus on the affordability and cost, which is unfortunate as poor-quality brands will most likely experience cracking.

Thick Application of Watercolors

In some cases, watercolor paint can crack when applied too thick. This is common with watercolor tubes as they tend to have a higher concentration, as mentioned previously.

Poor Storage

Unfortunately, exposure to heat and dry conditions sucks moisture from watercolor paints, which could lead to cracking, which is why airtight storage in a cool place is typically recommended. For example, some experts advise painters to leverage their refrigerators or keep their paint away from air in specialized wood or metal boxesOpens in a new tab..

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How to Keep Watercolors from Cracking

Cracking is highly undesirable for any painter and can be quite frustrating, or at the least, become an inconvenience. So, how does one suitably keep their watercolors from cracking? Here are a few tips to get you started:

  1. Always purchase watercolor tubes of brands that dry well, or as an alternative, buy pre-poured pans.
  2. Make sure to choose a palette with a watertight gasket, and if possible, painting regularly can help the pans stay wet and prevent eventual cracking.
  3. If you’re aware of a particular color that cracks, try applying a drop or two of warm honey when you pour the color from the tube onto the pan. Honey is a common moisturizer commonly utilized in watercolors. However, other artists do prefer to utilize glycerin as a plasticizer or employ a drop of both each to achieve the desired effect.
  4. When using watercolor tubes, only pour what you believe you will use. Furthermore, ensure to always pour the same color into the same pan as a dot or two of paint will more often dry down better than a panful.
  5. Finally, you could try adding a little more of the Gum Arabic binder to mitigate cracking. 

Purchase Handmade Watercolors

Alternatively, one possible way to combat watercolor cracking is by employing handmade watercolorsOpens in a new tab.. Such watercolors typically do not contain any fillers or preservatives (unless specified by a manufacturer). This means that handmade watercolors consist of pigment and binder (Gum Arabic or Acacia Gum).

Occasionally, glycerin is implemented as a softener for certain pigments that require a lot of moisture when setting. It enables the watercolors to be more flexible and less prone to cracking. Furthermore, handmade watercolors are usually made in small batches with extra care taken to ensure the setting of each color and, as a result, are at a lesser risk of cracking.

Becca Hillburn- Comic ArtistOpens in a new tab.

Final Words

Ultimately, since watercolors, whether in tubes or pans, only need water as a medium, they can be utilized almost anywhere. This allows for unprecedented portability, which is not achievable with its alternatives as watercolor collections are compact and easy to carry.

Despite all these attributes, it is important to make sure your watercolors are used to achieve the desired end product, and that means mitigating any cracking. Does cracking significantly affect the paint’s functionality? One could say no unless the paint is completely crumbled. However, it is imperative to purchase high-quality paintings and store your watercolors appropriately to utilize your resources effectively.


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Caraca's self-taught artist based in the UK, Ines explores unconventional materials and sustainability.

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