Need a Lift?

When an oil painter needs to correct a mistake or change a color, all she has to do is scrape the paint off the canvas. We watercolor artists, alas, have it a little tougher. For our purposes, there’s lifting—a procedure for removing watercolor paint from the surface after it’s dried. It’s not difficult to do, but it requires an understanding of the pigments and your brushes or other lifting materials.

There are a couple of reasons for removing paint in a watercolor. The most common is to make a correction in either the tonal values, colors or details of the painting. Perhaps you notice that an area of your painting is too dark and it’s drawing attention away from your focal point. Or you want to remove a specific element altogether—a tree, a figure—and replace it with something else.

Alternately, you might try lifting as a way to create textural effects. Sometimes artists deliberately apply an excess of paint from the very beginning just so they can remove some of it after it dries. You can get a wide variety of looks by using different “tools” to lift paint. The specific effect also depends upon the texture of your paper surface, as well as the method you use to remove the paint.

Soaking It Up
The most commonly used tool for lifting watercolors is a regular artist’s paintbrush. In fact, use one of the brushes you already have on hand, preferably one that’s older and a little timeworn. A soft sable or sablelike brush is good for light lifting; stiffer bristle brushes can be better for heavier lifting.

Be aware, though, that lifting can be rough on a brush, particularly the softer kind. And the pressured, scrubbing-type motion used to lift paint can also be brutal on the paper’s surface, especially when using a bristle brush. Your results will depend on the brush you use, the surface you’re working on, and the amount of lifting you do. Beyond brushes, you have the option of lifting paint with blotting paper, a crumpled-up or twisted paper towel or tissue paper, a cotton swab, or any similar absorbent object.

The corrective lifting technique itself is really quite simple. First, make sure that the paint you want to remove is thoroughly dry before you try to lift it. Your brush, if you’re using one, must be damp (but not sopping wet) with pure, clean water. Use the brush to pick up some of the excess paint either by dabbing it or gently stroking it with a circular, scrubbing-type motion. Remove the paint from the brush by rinsing and blotting it on a paper towel.

After the spot you were working on has dried completely, repeat the process until you’ve removed as much of the remaining paint as possible. Be patient with this process—for best results, don’t try to remove too much at once. (This technique works with cotton swabs as well.)

Another approach to lifting is to wet the dried paint with a light wash of water to loosen it. As you do so, be careful to minimize the drag of the brush’s hairs or bristles across the surface of the paper or board. Such friction can lift the paint and reposition it in a way that you don’t expect or want. Moreover, avoid putting too much water on the surface, because excess water may spread out when you go to blot it.

Once the surface paint has been properly loosened, press it with a flat piece of blotting paper, paper towel or other absorbent material. Make sure you apply the pressure straight down, avoiding any lateral movement that can smear the paint. Then lift the paper straight up to remove it.

Other Lightening Methods
Here’s a good tip that illustrators sometimes use when working in watercolor: If you have a spot from which you’ve already lifted out most of the paint but it still isn’t quite light enough, you can lighten it a bit more with a white charcoal pencil. You won’t be able to see the white charcoal marks unless the spot you’re trying to lighten is too dark to begin with. In this case the correction will be conspicuous and quite unsightly.

Another method for lightening that some artists use is applying a solution of chlorine bleach. However, despite the nice visual effect this creates, I don’t recommend it. There are serious concerns about the long-term technical soundness of this practice, because the bleach will deteriorate both the paint film and the paper surface over the years to come.

So stick with lifting. Like every other skill, it takes practice to get it right. With a little experimentation you can learn its capabilities and limitations, then really put the lifting technique to work for you.

Jennifer Ball is an assistant editor for The Artist’s Magazine.

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