Papers Buckling When Using Wet Media

September 16, 2020
In this page from a commercially bound journal there pages completely inked alternate with lined pages. All of it is the same paper. Note paper for writing ink or pencil notes. You can see from the shadows in the scan, how much the paper is buckling from the moisture on the other pages before and after it. But that buckling didn’t hamper my sketching on this spread. And it doesn’t hamper my enjoyment of the sketch.

Awhile back a student wrote to me about her problem with buckling papers in her journal.

Buckling happens when wet media is used on papers. The moisture soaks into the fibers that make up the paper. The fibers swell, the buckling ensues. The artist may become grumpy.

But that’s like being grumpy at clouds for momentarily blocking the sun.

Even art papers with sizing added internally and externally to accommodate wet media will buckle. It’s one of the reasons artists working on loose sheets of watercolor paper “stretch” the paper in various ways, mounting it to a board before use, so that it will snap back to its original “flatness” when it dries.

That doesn’t prevent them from buckling. The sizing for wet media helps them through this process, and of course keeps the wet media from seeping through the page, but ultimately the paper is still going to buckle.

I’m getting ahead of myself…

What My Student Asked

My student wrote to me…

One thing that I want to try soon: stretching a piece of paper or using a block and trying washes. I find that no matter what, when I do them in a sketchbook, the paper buckles and I get puddles. Which, for 99.9% of my stuff if just fine. But I am feeling like I want to learn a bit more about washes and control, and I seem to be defeating myself by continuing to practice in my sketchbook.

Have others found ways to stop buckling and puddling with wet washes in books? Or is it just a condition of the books (right now using the Strathmore mm 500, from class)?

I had a LONG look at a “pad” of Aquabord™in the store yesterday… Noted that Stephen Quiller uses it a lot and I think Roz used it or something like it for her most recent fake journal. Maybe on a wish list.

What I Responded

I was unaware that Aquabord™ came in pads. I know that Canson has made their illustration paper (which is heavyweight to begin with) into boards that are available in pads, but I didn’t know that Aquabord™ was doing this. I was using Arches Watercolor Board cut to the size I wanted to work in my 2016 fake journal and I loved it. I’m still using it for quick sketches around the house and beyond.

I do a lot of finished paintings on Aquabord™ which is what Claybord™ Textured is called. I particularly like boards of any type for gouache work because they push back on the brush.

You definitely don’t have to worry about buckling with a board product.

I find that buckling of paper in a journal isn’t important to me. With the heavier weight papers like 140 lb. watercolor paper or other art papers (including Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media) I don’t have much if any buckling. It’s a matter of water control and for some papers it’s easy to come to an accommodation.

Note: Strathmore Aquarius II is engineered to be buckle resistant. It contains synthetic fibers that don’t swell. When working on this paper you may see some very slight buckling, even with heavy water use, but the paper quickly dries flat. Those fibers are doing the “stretching back” for you.

Then there are other papers, papers I simply want to use, or which are in commercially made books which are totally unsuitable for wet media and I use them ANYWAY, and almost nothing you do can allow you and the paper to come to an accommodation and you’re going to have buckled papers.

In the same commercially made book I’ve painted on this page, then returned later to sketch with the brush pen. The paint had buckled the paper, but It was still fun to sketch on it in ink and do ink washes.

I personally love this. If you watch my videos of journal flip throughs you’ll find in some books how I go on and on about the buckled papers and the cool noise they make. 2009 Fake Journal springs to mind, or any of my Japanese Lined paper journals.

So we use what makes us happy, touches some childhood memory perhaps when allowance didn’t stretch to fine art papers but we made do anyway. Or I just simply love the tactile nature of the buckled papers.

But if it bothers you try adjusting the water that you use. Because I typically work very dry with gouache (compared to watercolor) there is less buckling when using gouache even on the same paper, even if that paper is unsuitable for wet media.

Papers I routinely use that buckle when wet media is applied include the following:

  • The commercially bound notebooks with random papers like the pages shown in today’s post, and the Japanese Lined journals I love to use. 
  • Canson 180 Sketchbook
  • Handmade journals I make with 90 lb. watercolor paper
  • The Seawhite of Brighton journal

But some of my favorite pages are in those buckled pages. 

Think about your goals and where you want to push your drawing and painting skills when choosing which book or paper to work on.

But don’t forget the fun factor of working on non-art papers. It’s the thing that keeps you working.

Are You Holding Yourself Back From Learning Watercolor on Non-Art Papers?

There is another important part to the question from this student—she wants to learn to manage her washes but feels defeated because of the buckling of her pages in her journal.

In general one shouldn’t have much of a buckling problem with Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper in their journals. 

That this student was having a problem with buckling indicates she was using an excessive amount of water.

Something that students new to watercolor often don’t understand is that a lot of water is not needed. You need enough water to activate the color; enough water to move the color on the page; but neither of those actions require a lot of water.

It’s therefore important, if you aren’t in a class where a teacher is demonstrating painting in a style or approach you like, then you need to find someone online who is. You need to see the water content someone is using to get an effect.

At the same time you need to understand that humidity is key in watercolor painting. On a humid day, even before you have put your waterbrush to paper the paper is already taking moisture on from the air. You’ll want to use less water on such days to avoid maxing out the amount of water. And you’ll need to be patient because the paper will take longer to dry on humid days.

Despite all this you can see me (any year but this because the Fair was cancelled due to the COVID-19 Pandemic) at the Minnesota State Fair, standing in the barns sketching animals in very hot and humid conditions. So much humidity in fact that it trumps the heat and you sometimes wonder if your paper will ever really dry! But it will eventually.

The important thing is that you need to learn how to manage the water use.

And the best way to do that is to work on watercolor paper—paper sized to use wet media.

The sizing incorporated into the fibers of a paper and the sizing put on the surface of a paper made for watercolor use helps you move the paint around. It helps you get the effects you see your favorite watercolor artists achieve.

So if your goal is to improve your watercolor painting skills then it is important to get some quality watercolor paper and practice on it.

I like Fluid 100 because it has a gelatin sizing and I like the way my brush feels on it. Fabriano Artistico switched over to starch/vegetable sizing around 2000 but it’s still a lovely paper to work on.

In fact a friend just called me as I was writing this section of my post and in our Facetime talk she held up a monster sketchbook she made with removable pages. The pages were Fluid 100, Kilimanjaro (a cold press watercolor paper from Cheap Joe’s), and Stonehenge Printmaking and Drawing paper. 

She’s going to use the 11 x 14 inch pages of this large journal to work on her waterpainting approaches. She can take a page out and work with it flat if she wants. She can work large or very small. It’s perfect. I’m really excited for her and all the fun she’s going to have filling those pages.

Even so, I don’t know that she’s going to pull those pages out and tape them to a board, she could, all the time or only some of the time.

The main thing is that she is going to learn which of those papers she enjoys working on the most, with the approaches she most likes to use. And she will learn how to manage water differently for each paper as necessary.

I think it’s important that we are realistic about our journals. Sometimes conditions in them might not be ideal. If buckling paper is frustrating you so much that you aren’t getting the results you want then maybe it’s time to work on single sheets of paper. Tape that paper to a board so it dries flat before you put  your next wash down. Learn what that looks like, feels like, smells like.

But don’t give up sketching in the journal on less than ideal paper—there are so many reasons to keep going on non-art papers. My blog posts over the past 12 years have made those points. 

If you want to work on a particular skill, set up the conditions to work on it.

But when you aren’t working on that skill remember to keep journaling, every free minute.

    • Joanne
    • September 18, 2020

    Thank you for this post. I think it is something that will help many of us who are learning about the amount of water to use. It’s interesting to me how different that can be with so many factors affecting water use. Thank you too for mentioning the fun aspect of figuring this out.

    1. Reply

      I’m glad you find in helpful. I think people get caught up in a right way to do something instead of experimenting in their existing conditions (humidity and such) and finding what works for them. And all of this is fun, it’s the process of sketching. Hope you’re busy sketching right now!

    • Donna McMenamin
    • October 13, 2020

    For me, it is all about the drawing process….I love graphite and fountain pens…neither which like cold press watercolor paper very much. I still use watercolor in my sketchbooks though…..and mostly use wet into wet….I just let the paper do it’s thing then. Seawhite of Brighton books are great for me!

    1. Reply

      Yep, the drawing part is key. I like working on hot plate watercolor paper mostly, esp. if I’m going to use ink. For me it’s a drag thing, I like certain pens on certain papers because of the lack of or amount of drag.

      I liked using the Seawhite of Brighton, and there are a few blank ones on the shelf that will get attention some day. Have you seen my review of the book here?

      And I really liked that book’s paper for blue pencil work

      Buckling pages, it seems they are such a fixture of my life that they became a plus probably about 40 years ago.

      Keep enjoying that Seawhite!

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