Why Is Your Watercolor Paper Peeling?

Consider this scenario: you’re happily working on your watercolor painting, and then you notice your paper is starting to peel. We’ve all been there, and it feels awful when this happens. But why does your watercolor paper peel, and how can you fix it?

Your watercolor paper peels because you’re using too much water, scrubbing and overworking your paper, or you’re using low-quality paper. You can fix these issues by testing your brush before you paint, ensuring you paint only one layer, and buying higher quality paper.

This article will explore the reasons your watercolor paper peels in further detail. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know how to avoid this common issue and get the most out of your watercolors possible. So, Why Is Your Watercolor Paper Peeling? Let’s find out:

Using Too Much Water

Different papers absorb different amounts of water, but all types of paper have a limit to how much water they can absorb. If you use too much water in your watercolor mix, you’ll be left with peeling paper and paint. 

Even if your paper and paint do not peel, there is a risk that your paper will become warped and deformed, affecting the final look of your artwork.

Fix: Test Your Brush

If you’re using too much water, the simplest solution is to ensure you’re using the perfect amount of water and paint. However, the “perfect amount” differs depending on the project you’re working on.

One of the effects of mixing your paints with water is that it lightens the color of your paints. If you want a very light shade of paint, you might have to use a lot of water to dilute the pigment.

So, to avoid ruining your main piece, use a small scrap piece of paper as a test sheet. Make sure this is the same type of paper you’re using for your main artwork. As mentioned, different papers have different water absorbency rates. If the paint creates puddles and drips, you’re using too much water and need to use more paint to balance it out.

If your paper has buckled due to using too much water, you simply need to wait for the paint to dryOpens in a new tab.. Also remember that it should dry properly before framing. Then, place heavy objects like a pile of books or your laptop over the painting and let it sit for some time to smoothen the paper back to shape. If there is still some painting for you to do, you can now finish it. 

Scrubbing and Overworking the Paper

Have you ever chosen a shade of paint that’s too light and decided to paint over it to darken it? Or simply added a second or third layer of paint to make your image look more even?

However, painting one section too many times can cause peeling. If you ignore the peeling and continue to paint the same section, it can cause your paper to start to tear or get worn away. This is also known as piling.

You can also overwork your paper before you ever lay a brush on it by drawing and erasing your image too many times, which causes the same issue that going over the paint too many times does. If you erase your pencil image one too many times, you’ll notice that you’re not just scrubbing away your drawing, you’re also scrubbing away the image. 

Fix: Only Paint One Layer

Since overpainting is more often the cause of overworking paper, the best way to ensure your paper does not pile, peel, and wear away is to ensure you only paint one layer of paint. 

If you must add a second layer, wait until the first layer dries completely. Then, gently go over the first layer with your paintbrush, ensuring you’re being extremely careful. This will avoid as much piling as possible. 

Additionally, make a preliminary drawing on a scrap sheet of paper before making it on the sheet you’ll be painting. This will allow you to perfect the image without having to erase it too often on your main sheet of paper, reducing the risk that you’ll overwork it in that way.

If you’re overpainting because you’re frustrated or a perfectionist, take frequent breaks while working so you can return to see what you’ve done with fresh eyes. Keep these breaks short, however, since you should ideally finish a basic watercolor painting within an hour. Working too slowly can affect the qualityOpens in a new tab. of your artwork.

Using the Wrong Paper

Technically, you can use any paper for watercolor painting. However, lower quality, cheaper paper is more prone to peeling than higher quality paper.

This is because the higher the quality of paper you’re using, the more cotton content in that paper. The highest quality paper is 100% cotton. The more cotton content in the paper, the more absorbent it is, and the more it can accommodate errors, overpainting, and too-wet paints. 

So, if you’re using lower-quality paper, you’re at an increased risk of peeling and buckling.

Fix: Buy Higher Quality Paper and/or Prepare Your Paper

The simplest solution to this issue is to ensure you buy high-quality paper. You can find such paper in most stationery and art stores, and if you’re unsure which to buy, you can always ask a store attendant for help.

Alternatively, my preferred paper for watercolor art is the Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor PadOpens in a new tab. from Amazon.com. Each pad comes with 12 acid-free, uncoated sheets designed to hold pigment and withstand water and repainting. 

Last update on 2024-05-19 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

If you’ve already bought lower-quality paper you want to use, you can try stretching the paper. Stretching your paper is a way to prepare it for the paint and reduces peeling and buckling. It is generally only done with lower-quality paper since higher-quality paper is better able to withstand excess water and pigment. 

To stretch your paper, you should:

  1. Soak your paper in cold water. You will need to submerge it completely in water for 3-8 minutes, depending on how heavy the paper is. The heavier it is, the longer it should soak for.
  2. Once the soak time has elapsed, drain the water. Do not touch the paper.
  3. Using a sponge, soak up water from your sheet of paper. Be careful not to soak up too much water.
  4. Place the sheet of paper on a board. A polystyrene board or plexiglass will do. 
  5. Use lightly dampened butcher tape to stick the paper to the board. Don’t wet the tape too much, or the adhesive will not work.
  6. Allow the paper to sit overnight.
  7. Your paper is now ready. You can cut away the taped sections with a knife and ruler and use the rest of the paper for painting.
Blick Art MaterialsOpens in a new tab.

Final Words

The main reason your watercolor paper is peeling is that you’re using too much water or paint. Lower-quality paper can only absorb a limited amount of water and using too much causes peeling. The best solution is to buy better quality paper or stretch your paper to be better able to absorb water before painting on it.

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

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