the six stages of paper wetness

My experience painting with different types of paper, paints and paint mixtures suggests there are six stages of paper wetness, summarized on this page with characteristic visual and tactile indicators to distinguish one wetness stage from another.

I know of three watercolor books that describe the different stages of paper wetness in watercolor painting. Joseph Zbukvic, in his Mastering Atmosphere and Mood in Watercolor (2002), identifies four stages: wet, moist, damp and dry, which can be manipulated with 5 different paint dilutions (splendidly named butter, cream, milk, coffee and tea). Gail Speckmann, in her Wet-into-Wet Watercolor (1995), identifies eight: "pooled" wet, shiny, very damp and barely damp on paper saturated to the core; "pooled" wet, shiny and damp on paper wet only on the surface; and dry. And Ewa Karpinska, in Aquarelle: La Lumière de L'Eau (2002), explores wet in wet effects at six paper wetness levels (mirror, reflective, semi dull, cool dull, dry dull and dry) and three levels of paint dilution (thick, creamy, and very diluted), using five different brush techniques: drawing with three different quantities of paint, charging the paper with paint, and tilting the support.

Although Karpinska's system is the most accurate, all these wetness categories suffer from two problems: it's not clear exactly how to distinguish one paper wetness from the others, and it's unclear how to bring the paper to a specific wetness. My goal was to describe paper wetness using stages that are easy to identify by sight and touch, that capture important differences in paint behavior, and that can be created using simple techniques (other than waiting for the paper to dry). For more details, see the section on how wet is the paper?

Each stage is described as follows:

  • Label. The name of the wetness stage and a numerical code indicating relative wetness (5 = soaking wet, 0 = completely dry).
  • Time. The approximate amount of time (in minutes) at which the stage first appears, starting from a copious wash of water applied to level dry paper under normal studio conditions of heat and humidity. (Actual drying speed depends on the amount of water applied, the absorbency of the paper, and the ambient temperature and relative humidity.)
  • Procedures / Indicators. Methods the painter can use to produce each stage of wetness at will, or to recognize it (using visual or tactile cues) in a painting as it dries.
  • Effect on Paint Behavior. The wet in wet behavior and finished appearance of paints applied at each wetness stage, using four different paint dilutions: drybrush (raw paint or a 1:1 mixture of paint:water), creamy (1:3 to 1:4 mixture), watery (about 1:30 mixture), and pure water. (See the page six levels of paint dilution for more information.)
You may find in your own work that you need to recognize more, or fewer, or different stages of wet. It's only important to recognize the stages that matter, give the stages names that help you to remember them, and understand how to produce that wetness at will and manipulate it to create specific painting effects.
the six stages of paper wetness
 LabelTimeProcedures / IndicatorsEffect on Paint Behavior
• Surface is completely covered by 1/16" to 1/8" (1.5mm to 3mm) of water; if paper is not stretched then surface texture may be visible in scattered areas.
• If the paper is tilted from horizontal by the slightest amount, excess water flows to the lowest edge of the wet area.
best for blending large color areas and effacing all brush marks

Drybrush applies as a diffuse swirl, and dries as a shapeless cloud; brush marks disappear completely.
Viscous paint adopts a diffuse, "feathery" edge, penumbra of fine particles may expand very far around brushed area; mixes at edges with wash color.
Diluted paint flows outward to about 2 times the brushed area with very vague scalloping of edges and little or no penumbra of wash color; leaves moderately strong mark on a wash.
Pure water leaves no mark at all or a vague, shapeless lighter mark on a wash.

• Surface appears shiny but with most or all of the surface texture clearly visible. (Many hot pressed papers will show scattered, tiny bumps caused by tufts of fiber sticking up from the surface.)
• If the paper is tilted above 6°, more water flows to the lower edge.
best for pigment texture and diffusion with thick paint

Drybrush applies as a defined "contrail," but dries more diffuse; individual brush marks barely visible when dried.
Viscous paint flows into a "crinkled" edge with a large penumbra, and dries slowly; creates edge discoloration in a wash.
Diluted paint flows out from brushed area to about 1.5 times the brushed area with moderately defined scalloping of edges and very large penumbra of wash color; leaves very strong backrun with diluted center area on a wash.
Pure water leaves a large backrun with diluted center area on a wash.

• Paper has a diffuse, even, dull satiny luster that obscures most or all apparent surface texture under all angles of view.
• Paper is distinctly cool and moist to the touch; paints discolor if barely touched.
• If the surface is tilted to 15° little or no water flows to the lower edge, but some flow occurs if the paper is tilted to near vertical.
• Paints still have their intense, dark "wet" color.
best for soft backruns with diluted paint

Drybrush applies with an immediate fuzzy edge; dries to a more fuzzy streak, mixes with underlying wash color.
Viscous paint adopts a "crinkled" edge; shows a small penumbra around the brushed area.
Diluted paint flows outward from the brush area with a slight to strong "crinkled" edge; pushes out a narrow penumbra of darker wash color around it.
Pure water leaves moderately sized mark on a wash, lifting color to create a light spot.

• Paper is nonreflective but somewhat darkened with moisture, and appears to have "just dried."
• Paper is moist and cool to the touch; paints discolor if rubbed gently.
• Distinct coolness on lip using inhaling test.
• Very subdued, spongy surface texture.
• Paper is limp (this varies with amount of water that was previously applied), corner makes a dull flapping sound when flicked with finger.
• Paints have begun to dry shift (dull and lighten) away from their wet color.
best for crisp backruns with diluted paint

Drybrush applies with slight fuzziness, and dries slightly more diffuse; sometimes mixes at edges with underlying wash color.
Viscous paint flows and dries slowly; leaves no mark on a wash.
Diluted paint flows out slightly from brush area, adopts a moderate "crinkled" edge and dries more slowly; leaves a noticeable mark on a wash.
Pure water leaves a noticeable mark on a wash.

• Paper is dull (nonreflective) and appears completely dry.
• Paper seems dry to the touch and has a normal temperature; paints smudge or discolor if rubbed firmly.
• Slight or no perceptible coolness on upper lip using inhaling test.
• Slightly softened surface texture.
• Paper is slightly limp; corner makes muffled snap when flicked with finger; the whole sheet has a soggy rattle.
• Paints have almost completely dry shifted.
subtle, unpredictable and sometimes undesirable painting effects

Drybrush applies normally, but may dry with slight fuzziness (if paper has been wet for a long time).
Viscous paint flows and dries normally; leaves no mark on a wash.
Diluted paint flows normally, takes longer to dry; leaves no mark on a wash.
Pure water may leave slight marks on a wash.

• Paper is light, dull (nonreflective), appears completely dry.
• Paper is dry to the touch, has a normal temperature; paints unchanged if rubbed firmly.
• No coolness to touch or upper lip.
• Very fine, crisp surface texture.
• Paper is stiff; corner makes loud snap when flicked with finger; paper rattle is bright and clear.
• Paint dry shifting is complete.
best for sharp edged painting effects and pigment texture in diluted paints

Drybrush applies and dries normally.
Viscous paint flows and dries normally; leaves no mark on a wash.
Diluted paint flows and dries normally; leaves no mark on a wash.
Pure water does not mark a wash.


Two visual examples will exemplify the verbal descriptions. The first is a backrun created by floating a moderately diluted yellow paint onto a light blue wash; the wetness rating describes the wash.


wetness effects on paint backruns
samples photographed when completely dried

The backruns that occur in this situation are very beautiful, if they can be controlled. They have different behavior at each wetness step:

  • Soaked (5). The surface of the wash is still in solution; the added paint floats in this solution with a very diffuse boundary. There is little or no darker blue fringe around the spot, because there has been no capillary diffusion.

  • Shiny (4). The added paint diffuses over the surface of the paper, carrying the blue pigment before it; this creates a darker "penumbra" around the yellow spot, which ceases to flow outwards when the surface has dried to wetness 2.

  • Satin (3). The diffusion outward is less aggressive, and the outer contour of the penumbra shows a characteristic "crinkling" or crenelation, which for active pigments can be very intricate.

  • Moist (2). The paint diffuses outward, but there is little or no penumbra distinct from the edge of the yellow paint. The outline of the backrun is crinkled or crenelated, although this is hard to anticipate because drying at this stage can happen quickly.

  • Damp (1). The paints behave as if the undercoat is completely dry. The only effect of the dampness in the paper is that it noticeably delays the drying time of the yellow paint.
A second characteristic mark is drybrush on white paper. I used a #4 synthetic bristle fan brush, dipped in undiluted tube paint and stroked lightly on the paper surface. Here are typical results:


wetness effects on drybrush marks
samples photographed when completely dried

Drybrush shows the most obvious differences across the stages, and is a reliable measure of wetness to use until you can identify wetness from the appearance of the paper alone:

  • Soaked (5). The drybrush marks diffuse into a vague cloud: it is not possible even to see the direction of the brushstroke.

  • Shiny (4). The drybrush marks diffuse into a vague cloud, but the remnants of the original brushstrokes are just visible.

  • Satin (3). The drybrush marks apply in "contrails" of color, that dry with a fuzzy texture; but the individual marks are clearly visible.

  • Moist (2). The drybrush marks apply as if the paper is dry, but diffuse slightly as they dry.

  • Damp (1). The marks behave as if the paper is dry.
For accurate visual tests, a direct light source (a lamp, or the sun) is necessary. Indirect light (reflected from the ceiling or wall, or from the sky through a window or in a shady location) will not show the transitions from stage 5 to stage 2 very clearly.

The tactile tests require a moderate ambient temperature with no wind. Wind will increase evaporation off the surface, but the paper remains wetter than you are used to just under the surface, and will feel cooler than you expect for a given wetness.

To identify a moist wash, most artists suggest you touch the paper to determine if it is cool. However, this touch can leave a mark. The method I use is to put my nose and mouth almost touching the paper, and very slowly inhale (as if sniffing the wash). If the paper is moist, I feel a distinct cool spot on my upper lip, just below my nose, and get a very strong "wet paper" smell.

Moustached painters will have to use smell alone, or the old finger test.



Last revised 06.15.2010 • © 2002 Bruce MacEvoy