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Recover White


The techniques on this page can be used to accomplish a wide range of objectives, all related to removing paint.

You might want to remove just enough paint to lighten an area, return to an underlying color, add texture, remove a specific element and replace it with something else, or you might prefer to wash off the entire painting and start over. You might want to introduce a light shape into a previously painted dark area, such as a light tree trunk in a dark wood or a seagull in front of a dark cloud. You might want to lift paint to suggest clouds, fog, sparkles on the water, or highlights on a rock.

Whatever the objective, the process is simple: isolate the area, use one of the techniques to remove the previously applied paint, and then leave the area white or introduce a new color if desired.

The results will vary depending on three factors: the type of paper or painting surface, the type of paint, and the moistness of the paper.

First, some papers are better suited for lifting techniques than others. Those with external sizing are better than those without. Arches 140lb or 300lb papers perform better than lighter weight papers. Some prefer Strathmore's Gemini paper because of its tight weave and heavy sizing. This creates a surface where paint can be lifted easily and scrubbed out areas can even be re-painted.

A variety of media can also be painted onto the paper's surface to enhance its suitability for lifting. For example, either acrylic gloss medium (diluted 50:50) or Winsor & Newton Watercolor Lifting Preparation Medium can be applied directly to the paper and allowed to dry before painting. These preparations allow dry washes, including staining color, to be more easily lifted from paper with a wet brush or sponge.

All or parts of the paper's surface can also be coated with Chinese white. Once the Chinese white is dry, subsequent layers of paint can be lifted and manipulated to create hazy, misty effects.

The paper's surface can also be coated with Chinese white, creating a base that makes it easier to lift and manipulate paints

In addition to paper, Fredrix Watercolor Artist Canvas, Claybord and Yupo are three painting surfaces that are ideal for lifting techniques.

Second, the selection of paints makes a great difference. Paints such as viridian green, cobalt violet, manganese blue, and Naples yellow lift very easily. The pigmented colors such as burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, and the cadmiums lift pretty well. However, the staining synthetic colors, such as phthalo green, phthalo blue and the quinacridone reds and violets actually stain the paper and will not lift well. If a staining and a non-staining paint are mixed on the paper, lifting will reveal the staining color, rather than the white of the paper.

Finally, paint lifts much more easily when moist rather than dry. The more areas that can be lifted while the initial wash is still damp, the better. Heavier paper will stay wet longer, as will paper that has been wet on both the front and the back.


Use the angled end of your aquarelle brush, a palette knife, a single-edged razor blade, a piece of an old credit card, a piece of matboard, or even your fingernails to push damp paint off an area of your paper. If scraping is done while the paint is too wet (shiny), the paint will simply run back into the scraped area. On the other hand, if the paint is too dry, it will not move at all.


Any absorbent material can be used to blot or soak up moist paint. Your finger, a paper towel, facial tissue (not the ones with lotion in them), blotter paper, sponge, towel, soft cloth, cotton swab, cheesecloth, burlap, or textured fabric will each create a different effect. You can blot by lightly touching the paint, by pressing firmly against the paper, or by wiping. A paper towel can be used flat, crumpled, or twisted to achieve different results. A roll of paper towels can be rolled over a large area. Blotting is an effective way of creating clouds, fog, sky holes in trees, and highlights on rocks. The shape of the sun or moon can be blotted out with a spool of thread with facial tissue wrapped around one end and attached with a rubber band.

Some artists recommend blotting with toilet tissue. With two fingers tucked inside a tube of toilet tissue, roll off some paint, creating abstract light paths. Be careful to choose toilet tissue that does not quickly disintegrate when exposed to water.

The longer you allow the paint to dry before blotting, the darker the blotted area will be. If the shape is shiny wet, paint will quickly flow back into the blotted area. If the paint has just lost its sheen, blotting will remove most of the paint. If the paint is just damp, less paint will be removed.

Be sure to turn the absorbent material often, or you will transfer the blotted color back onto your painting.


A damp sponge can be used to blot small areas, lift a large area or wipe off the entire painting. Either natural sea sponges or cellulose sponges can be used, but the effects will be different. Cellulose sponges often come lightly sized to hold its shape before sale. They should be rinsed out thoroughly with clean water before using.

Soak up with Thirsty Brush

To create a thirsty brush, rinse the brush then squeeze it gently in a paper towel. This damp brush can then be used like a small sponge to lift paint in any stage of drying. Lifting with a thirsty brush will result in a soft edge. Lifting with a brush is more controlled than lifting with a paper towel, facial tissue, or with a sponge.

Some artists like to reserve one brush exclusively for lifting. They mark that brush someway to indicate that that brush should never have pigment on it.

A thirsty flat brush is an effective tool to lift horizontal white lines to suggest light on water.


All of the techniques for removing dry paint will alter your painting surface. After scraping, scrubbing, or picking out highlights with sharp or rough tools, it will be difficult or impossible to paint over the area again. The area will be rough, and it will absorb new paint like a blotter. It is generally best to apply these techniques at the very end of the painting process.

If you decide to paint over an area where paint has been lifted, it may help to burnish the area first with the back of a spoon, a bone folder, or some other burnishing tool.

Rewet and Soak up with Thirsty Brush

Rinse your brush in clean water and squeeze our the excess water with a towel. With the damp brush, dab or gently stroke the area you want to lift. Remove the paint from the brush by rinsing in clean water and then blotting it on a paper towel.

Don't try to remove too much paint at once. Allow the spot to dry completely, then lift some more paint in the same manner. Repeat as many times as necessary.

(This technique works with cotton swabs as well.)

Rewet, Scrub with Stiff Brush, Blot

Non-staining pigments can be scrubbed out after they have dried completely. Many staining pigments can be also be removed partially. The basic steps are isolate, moisten, scrub, and blot. For a sharp edge, isolate the area where the pigment is to be removed with low-tack masking tape or a custom template. Moisten the area and wait a few seconds. Scrub the area with a stiff bristle brush, like those used for acrylic or oil painting. Some options are a Fritch scrubber from Cheap Joes, a Creative Mark Scrubber from Jerry's Artarama, a toothbrush, or a stiff bristle brush such as the Loew-Cornell Fabric Dye Flat that is designed for painting on fabric. (Avoid using your good painting brushes for lifting paint. Their soft bristles and fine tips can be worn down easily.) Finally, blot the area to remove the loosened pigment.

Rewet and Blot

Carefully define the area you want to lift by wetting that area with clean water. Apply the water with a light touch to avoid lifting and repositioning the paint before it is blotted. (At times you may not want to touch the surface with a brush at all. In that case, spray the area with a fine mist of clean water.)

Allow the water to soak in for 20 to 30 seconds. Blot with a paper towel, facial tissue, or a soft cloth. Make sure you apply the pressure straight down, avoiding any lateral movement that can smear the paint. Once the area has dried, you can repeat the process to make the area even lighter. Avoid putting too much water on the surface, because excess water may spread out when you blot it.

The entire sky could be lightened. Place a towel over everything except the sky. Spray a mist of clean water over the sky and wait a few seconds for it to soak in. Then roll a roll of paper towels across the painting, from one side to the other, pushing down as you go.

Rewet, Blot, Scrub with Towel

Paint water in the shape you want to lift. Allow the water to soak in for 20 to 30 seconds. Blot the area lightly, then scrub vigorously with a terry cloth towel. You can vary the amount of paint you lift by adjusting the time the water soaks in and how hard you rub with the towel.

Rewet and Scratch/Scrape

The technique of scraping away paint to create the impression of light grass against a dark background can be accomplished even after the paint has dried. Simply rewet the area, wait for a few seconds for the water to soak in and loosen the paint, then scrape the area with the angled end of an aquarelle brush.


A hard eraser, like a typewriter eraser, an ink eraser or an electric eraser, can be used to remove paint. (A plastic eraser and a pink eraser will also lift paint, but to lesser degrees.) The eraser can be used with a ruler to create straight lines. This is a useful technique for adding sunbeams. An eraser can also be used with a stencil or erasing shield to erase a precise shape. Erasing should only be done on heavy paper (140.b or heavier), if you don't want to end up with holes in your painting.

Lift with Negative and Positive Stencils

A stencil can be cut out of stencil paper, mylar or acetate if you want to lift a specific shape. When you cut a stencil, there are two parts: the positive shape that is cut out and the negative space that is left behind. Both shapes can be used as a aid to lifting.

Place the negative space of a stencil over the area to be lifted. Then, with a dry eraser, rub off the paint. Alternatively, you could use a moist toothbrush, a sponge, or a damp bristle brush to lift the stencil shape. Be careful not to use too much water as it may run under the stencil.

Place the positive shape of the stencil over an area of the painting and sponge away the paint surrounding it.

An erasing shield is ideal for lifting small shapes.

Lift with Masking Tape

Masking tape can be used to define the edges of the area to be lifted. The horizon line can be masked with one piece of tape, then the area next to the tape can be sponged off to lighten that area.

A light tree against a dark background can be achieved by placing two pieces of making tape near each other and then lifting the paint between them.


Sandpaper can be used to lift highlights on water. Quickly draw 100 grit sandpaper across the dry paint. One or two passes will likely be enough. Blow away the paint particles and paper fibers and check to see if you achieved your goal. If not, repeat the process.

Remember that sanding is destructive. The abrasive surface of the sandpaper rips layer after layer of paint and paper away with each stroke. If you do this on paper that is lighter than 140lb, you may end up with holes in your painting. If you try to paint over a sanded area, your paint will be absorbed into the bare areas like a blotter.

Experiment with different grades of sandpaper to achieve the results you want.

Scrape with Knife or Razor Blade

Using the edge of a knife or razor blade, scrape the painting where you want a highlight to be. Blow away the resulting paper fiber and evaluate the results. Repeat until you achieve the results you want. This is a great way of adding sparkle to water.


A damp sponge can be used to blot small areas, lift a large area or wipe off the entire painting, even after the paint has dried.

Trigger Spray

The sheer force of the water shooting out from a trigger spray bottle can remove paint. If sprayed directly at the painting a circular area will be lifted, creating the impression of a soft round light area. If the spray is directed at an angle across the painting, light rays can be created.

Cut and Remove Layer of Paper

A dramatic way of recovering the white of the paper, is to literally cut out the first layer of the watercolor paper.


If after lifing, the area is still not quite light enough, you can lighten it a bit more with a white charcoal pencil.

As an alternative to lifting, opaque white paint can be added on top of the watercolor. If white gouache is used, it should be titanium white, such as Winsor & Newton Designer's Gouache Permanent White.

Another option is to have latex interior house paint mixed to match the color of your watercolor paper. This can then be painted over the top of the watercolor paint.

Finally, Aquacover is a new product from Creative Mark that comes in 5 shades of white that match the most popular watercolor papers used today. Once applied it dries in seconds. It is permanent, non-cracking and non-yellowing. You can apply color directly over it. Aquacover comes with a dropper for application, but this applies the liquid too thickly; it would be best to apply it with a brush instead. Aquacover is available from jerrysartarama.com

© 2009 Scott Brown. Website design by Clarion Design.