Lifting watercolor is a priceless technique to have in your tool box. It can be used to fix mistakes as well as remove pigment to add highlights. Knowing when to lift the color and how to lift it is also key.
The most simple way is to simply use your brush to lift watercolor, but you've likely seen artists use a variety of tools to do this, so which is the best?
This is a question I was asking myself after I saw an art hack video showing that you could erase dried watercolor with a magic eraser. It looked like magic, was this the ultimate solution? Around this same time I was doing some late night online shopping at Jerry's and I saw AquaLift, which as a bag of sponges marketed specially for lifting watercolor. It was around 5 bucks, and my curiosity was already piqued on the subject, so I thought, "Why not?" But did they live up to the hype?
That's a hard question to answer without testing it against all the possible options. So I gathered all the things in my studio that work for absorbing water and sat down to test all the options. In this blog article I will show you how well each of these work for lifting watercolor while it's wet as well as once it's dried. For each test I have painted a strip of a non-staining color (Blue) and a staining color (pink) so we can see how well it works for both staining and non-staining watercolors. The objects I selected for the test are: round brush, paper towel, shop towel, magic eraser, AquaLift, natural sponge, house sponge, and a cotton rag.
Let's see how they all worked!
The brush I use is a size 12 round brush with synthetic bristles. For the test on each strip of color while the pigment was still wet I tried lifting using a well dried off brush and then a damp brush. As you can see from the photo below the damp brush worked best and lifted the color well. Less, well on the staining color, but that was to be expected.
Then after the paint dried I came back and wet my brush so that it was damp and lifted the dried color. It didn't lift quite as well, but was still relatively successful.
None of the brush findings were surprising since I use this method frequently and so they serve as a good baseline.
Next up was a paper towel. A generic Kirkland paper towel to be exact.
Again I tested on wet paint and started the lifting with a dry paper towel and it was pretty successful at lifting the watercolor. The damp paper towel also worked quite well. The big difference between the brush and this was that this had more texture that it added to the lift.
Then again I repeated the step of lifting once it was dry and again, it worked pretty well. Again, these results were not very surprising since this is another method I use frequently. So this will serve as another baseline.
Moving on to the next one that is a little more unknown a shop towel. In case you're unfamiliar with shop towels, they are typically a blue paper towel. They are well known for being extra tough and durable as well as absorbent. You more than likely have seen these in your garage or even mounted on the wall of the shop you get your oil changed at. They are often used in places where they need to be durable and able to help wipe grease off. So with that being said, are they going to work better than your average paper towel?
The short answer for lifting off wet color is....no not really. They work actually a little worse. It still lifts, but just not as much as normal paper towels.
On the other hand they might work a tiny bit better on dry watercolor, but not enough to necessarily stock up on specialty paper towels.
Now on to the item that started this whole line of thought, the Magic Eraser. The one pictured here is a generic one and not a name brand one. In case you're unfamiliar with what a magic eraser is, it is a sponge of sorts that is made of a fairly dense and less porous looking material called melamine foam. This material is a micro abrasive. To the touch it feels fairly smooth, but when rubbed it is actually quite magic at removing surface stains by essentially finely sanding them from the surface. So can it work for watercolor?
The short answer is yes, the long answer is ....yesss?? As you can see in the image above using a dry magic eraser to lift wet paint does not lift, it merely smudges. However, using a damp magic eraser lifts it nicely! That's good news, right? Yes, but and there's a big but coming. That micro abrasive quality very easily damages the top layer of the paper and creates piling.
It does do a beautiful job of lifting dried watercolor. It could be used as a last resort if you are not painting anymore on the piece. Trying to paint over damaged paper is going to make your life more difficult.
Another new item for me that I was unsure of how it would stack up is the AquaLift specialty watercolor sponge. This feels quite similar to the magic eraser, but is produced in the shape of a makeup sponge. While it feels similar to the magic eraser, it does feel different, and doesn't seem to have the same abrasive qualities.
Similar to the magic eraser, it also doesn't lift when it's dry. Once wet it does a very nice job of lifting the color from the page on wet color.
Once the paint is dried this is where the AquaLift really seems to shine, it removes the paint quite well without the visible damage to the paper as seen with the Magic Eraser.
Art Sponge (Natural Sponge
The next up was another I haven't used in my practice, so it was a bit of a mystery. This is a natural sponge that I purchased many years ago in an art shop. It was in a bag of a bunch of sponges that I purchased to make textures in backgrounds of my paintings. This is the only one who survived the acrylic paint.
Similar to the last two when the sponge was dry it did not lift the wet water color well. It did lift better once it was damp, but overall this was the worse performer so far.
On the dried watercolor it did lift, but overall it wasn't as good as the rest of the items.
This is a standard house sponge that I saved from kitchen duty at the end of it's life. Sponges are absorbent, so in theory it should work great.
The dry household sponge worked better to lift the wet watercolor than the previous sponges, but not as well as the brush or paper towel. Once damp, it lifted the blue beautifully and because both were wet all I had to do was gently dab it, so there was no paper damage.
It also did a pretty good job of lifting the dried watercolor, but because it was dried it did require a little scrubbing and even though I was using the soft absorbent side it did damage the paper, you can even clearly see the piling on the pink stripe. I am not sure this is something I would reach for in the future because it was also kind of big and unwieldy I didn't feel like I had good control with it.
The final item I tested was this cotton rag that I use in my studio.
It preformed less well in both of the damp and dry tests to lift the wet watercolor, but it did lift some, so you could use this as well.
Even though you don't often think about rags being super rough, the texutred of the weave of the fabric was enough damage the paper as well. It lifted quite well, but it was definitely at the cost of the top layer of paper.
Below you can see all the tests together. You'll notice that many of them seemed to work about the same way.
However, when you zoom in on some of them you can clearly see that while they lifted well, there was considerable damage done to the paper.
So what would I recommend? I am going to stick to my brush and paper towel as my primary lifting tools, partially because they are automatically at hand when I am painting with watercolor and so I don't need to grab anything extra. Also, they performed just about as well as any of the others. I might start reaching for the AquaLift for particularly stubborn lifts because it did out perform the other by a tiny bit. It also didn't appear to damage the paper as long as I used a light touch.
Do I recommend the AquaLift? Yes....? I think it worked pretty well, but I don't think it's something you need to run out and buy.
If you'd like to see me test the lifting abilities in video you can watch it here: