Sometimes I just want to do something that seems backwards, out of the norm.

I had already experimented with the process of adding salt on top of wet watercolor, but I wondered what would happen if the salt was under the paper.

For an experiment like this, watercolor paper would not do at all. Its too thick for anything to saturate it completely, which is normally an important feature but, for my purposes, I needed something much thinner this time. I found a box of paper “hand towels”, also called disposable guest towels, in one of my many teaching/art supply drawers, and thought they would work perfectly. These are thicker and stronger than the usual roll paper towels, but still designed to absorb water well.

When it came to salt, I chose to go with the coarse sea salt I use most often in my kitchen. I was hoping the bigger size would create a more intense spreading, or resistance, to the watercolor paint.

Getting the salt to stay still on the paper beneath the hand towels was challenging, so I decided to try and create an environment where there was more stability. In my first experiment, I taped the hand towel to a sheet of watercolor paper beneath it. I was worried the hand towel would move too much when the watercolor was applied, so I affixed it to a more stable surface. It did not end up working well. The paper hand towel did not shrink up the way I wanted it to, and the tape ripped the edges when I was trying to remove it. It was a hot mess, so I didn’t repeat that part of the project.

After that failed attempt, I just sprinkled the salt down and gently laid the hand towel over the top. I was careful to avoid moving everything around too much and mindful when applying my watercolor paint. I did add more water than usual to this project, as the water is vital to breaking down the salt (I’m not an expert in chemistry, but here’s a brief breakdown of what happens when water and salt mix to form a solution:,bonds%20in%20the%20salt%20molecules.)

The wait time for the paint to dry is a bit long, but well worth it.

When the paint was dry, I wasn’t immediately thrilled with the results. The images I was trying to conjure, of a landscape and of a still life with flowers, did not come through the way I wanted them to. But when I lifted the dry towel off the watercolor paper below, I made such a wonderful discovery! The paint that pulled through to the paper below was a striking image and would make a fantastic background for an additional step that would, hopefully, bring forth the subjects I painted.

So what was that next, unplanned, step? I decided to tear the paper and reconstruct the painting using collage techniques. There were too many beautiful colors and interesting patterns created by mixing the salt with watercolor paint to toss it as another failed experiment.

I’m so glad I tried it! The paper hand towels ripped in a unique way, with fuzzy edges that I found exciting. As seen in the video, I opted to leave those textured edges unglued and raised off the background for some three-dimensional interest.

What I used for this project:

  • A paper hand towel (sometimes called a disposable guest towel)
  • A sheet of watercolor paper
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Watercolor paint
  • A paintbrush
  • A cup filled with water

The steps I took to create this watercolor and collage project:

  1. Place a sheet of watercolor paper down, sprinkle it with the salt, and lay an unfolded paper hand towel over the top of the salt.
  2. Begin to paint over the hand towel with watercolor paint. I tried to create an abstract version of a landscape and of flowers.
  3. Let the paint dry
  4. Lift the paper hand towel off the watercolor paper.
  5. Tear the paper hand towel into collage pieces.
  6. Glue the pieces of painted hand towel down on the painted watercolor paper to create the desired image.

All in all, I was pleased with the result of my break the rules/do it backward/find out what happens moment in this art project. It didn’t end up how I planned and imagined before I started, but what a lovely way to take something that did not quite work out and turn it into something new.