WATERCOLOR PAPER—WHAT I USE AND WHY

First, forgive the formatting, I’ve been struggling with it for an hour now… ugh. I’m just posting this as is.

Grain/press different textures of watercolour paper
Watercolour papers can have different textures:
• Rough press (which has a coarse, pronounced texture) This paper is pressed into a screen.
• Cold-pressed paper (or NOT), your typical watercolour paper texture. This paper is pressed into felt.
• Hot-pressed (or satin/smooth paper, which is a very smooth, almost textureless paper). This paper is pressed into metal.

I will have a post in the future on the paper-making process (Yes, you can do it at home! But maybe not for great watercolor paper)

I mostly use cold-press, it’s texture is rough enough for some nice dry brush effects, but it’s smooth enough for beautiful clean edges and wash blends. Granulation of certain pigments spreads out nice on it too, not clumpy – which can sometimes happen with hot press or rough papers.

Thickness
Papers come in different thicknesses that are described by their weights in grams per sq/m (i.e. Gsm) or lbs per 500 sheets. Usual copy printing paper is somewhere around 20-28lbs, and watercolour papers typically range from 90lbs to 300lbs (very thick). I use 140lb usually, and for larger pieces 300lb. If you are going to use very wet in wet techniques I would not recommend using anything thinner than 140lb, as the paper will buckle badly or even tear. 90Lb is okay for light watercolour sketching, ink and pen direct wet on dry washes – but even with stretching, the paper could tear.

Colour
Depending on the treatment of the paper, it may be a natural cream colour or the brightest of whites. Archival papers do not contain optical brighteners, i.e. chemical compounds that make papers very white and bright. They are usually more on the ivory, warm side – some more than others. Each make and finish will have it’s own tone.

Clay-based illustration board comes quite bright.

Absorbency

Papers may be more or less absorbent. Absorbent papers will soak wet paint or ink in quickly (although on a high-quality paper, the colour should not feather or bleed either). Water will stay on the surface a bit longer on a less absorbent paper, and sometimes even “bead” (especially on papers containing a lot of gelatine). This is more difficult to assess without trying the paper first-hand, but less absorbent papers often have a slightly waxy, gummy touch, and look slightly less matte. This quality will have a definite affect on your paints and how they flow… good quality paper is sized, usually with Gum Arabic, the amount depends on the make and finish of the paper. For pure watercolour directly applied wet this is very important and you will have to try different kinds to find the one that works with you, not against you.

For pen and ink with washes I have found hot press the best surface. For loose watercolour either rough or cold-press, for for loose paintings with texture such as landscapes, rough press gives some really interesting effects. Also if you wish to layer pastel over watercolor, rough press has lots of tooth to hold the pastel.

For solely pen and ink work I suggest trying the clay finished illustration boards… it’s super smooth and gives nice, crisp pen lines. I particularly like Bainbridge, but there are others out there.

Pastel paper (such as Canson mi-teintes) has no sizing, it will not stand up to wet media, at all.

Fibre
Watercolour papers can be made from either wood or cotton fibres. Paper made from cotton is sometimes called “rag paper”, and is considerably higher quality. If the fibre type is not stated, then it is safe to assume it’s wood fibre. I prefer cotton papers, hey have a smoother surface and better absorbency and seem to be stronger. Rag papers have a higher archival quality.

Archive Quality
Archive quality paper refers to whether a paper is meant to last over time. Paper is a delicate surface/substance and if you’ve ever found a very old book or newspaper, becomes quite brittle and discoloured with age.

Most papers contain acidic substances that, over time, will yellow the paper and degrade the colours of whatever is drawn on them. Archival papers are processed to remove acidic substances naturally present in wood pulp, and are made using a procedure involving different chemicals compared to regular papers. Archival paper will not react with your paints and with good care will last a long time. Non-archival papers can be used for roughs, sketches, and designs that are not meant to last – but for any type of artwork you may want to keep or sell, use archival paper. Most, but not all, watercolour papers are archival. The paper should say acid-free on the packaging with no optical brighteners.

Watercolour paper must be mounted and framed under glass or plexiglass if not fixed with acrylic or other (acid-free) protective coating.(Encaustic wax will seal the paper too)

Pads, Sheets and Blocks
Most makes sell watercolour paper both as pads of various sizes, and as large individual sheets (usually 22x30inches). It’s a personal preferences. pads are great for ready to use sizes and for storage/cleanliness, but I use sheets when I need to cut out a larger piece.

Watercolour Blocks are another way paper comes, it’s a pad of paper that is glued on the sides all the way around so that stretching or taping the paper is not necessary. I find these work really well in the smaller sizes, up to 8×10 or even 9×12, but after that they are kind of awkward to work with, especially if you like to tip your paper, I also find the raised ‘edge’ gets in the way of my arm. They are more expensive than the regular pads, so for me, if I am working bigger I just remove sheets from pads and tape them down to my support. The smaller ones are great for plein-air watercolour sketching… no tape or support to drag along!

Stretching
Watercolour paper should be stretched. (wetted thoroughly and taped with gum tape/stapled to a waterproof support and left to dry before painting) I haven’t done that yet 🙂 Because I’m lazy, and when I want to paint – I just want to paint. But I will, and I will post on that soon.

I do tape my paper down. This prevents the paper from warping and buckling when using a lot of water – mostly. 300Lb paper should not need stretching, but I would tape it down anyway when using lots of water.

THE REVIEW
I have not tried out every single watercolour paper out there, but these are the ones I am familiar with.

ARCHES arches
My absolute most favourite paper, it never fails to respond the way that works for the styles of painting I use. A very high quality paper and the only one I will use for pieces that are watercolour only.
I have both the 140lb hot-pressed , 140lb and 300lb cold press and 140lb rough finishes They are soft, a warm ivory-tone and nicely absorbent surface on which watercolours flow beautifully. Archival, acid-free, and the texture is gorgeous and consistent. They come in pads, blocks, sheets and rolls. I can’t say enough about Arches… it’s beautiful paper, but it is not cheap.

SENNELIER
A close second to Arches. I have tried only the 140lb cold-pressed paper. Again, very high-quality archival cotton paper, colours flow nicely. It is a little less absorbent than the Arches, and not as yellow. I’ve only seen it in pads. I think the best way to purchase this would be online.

CANSON XL canson-water-color-paper-pad
I keep this around because it’s very inexpensive (you can usually find it on sale at Michaels) and it is acid-free. It’s a little warmer than the Montval and a little finer textured. It’s a good paper for practicing, for beginners, and for sketching. It is actually nice with pencil crayon, especially oil-based ones like Faber-Castel Polychromos. It’s not as absorbent as the Arches and again watercolour does not flow quite as nice on it.

CANSON MONTVAL montval
I used Canson Montval for quite a while, but have recently switched exclusively to Arches. I used the cold-pressed one, but it also comes in rough. It is a wood fibre paper, with a very white colour. The surface is quite scratchy, and not highly absorbent. It is acid-free but I wonder about it’s archive rating because of it’s brightness and because it’s not a rag paper. It comes in pads and sheets. It’s decently priced for a watercolour paper and more than good enough for beginners. I have found that my brushes drag on the surface, and watercolour washes don’t blend very well on it, which is why I switched. If you are just starting out I’d say give it a try.

LANGTON PRESTIGE BY DALER-ROWNEY
Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige – Honestly, Daler-Rowney is fine for crafts and children’s art, but I’ve not found any of their products all that great. I do buy their cheap craft brushes for acrylics and masking fluid, that said… It is a cotton archival paper and comes in all three finishes. It is very white, and has a very hard, not very absorbent surface—watercolour just kind of pools on it, and it wouldn’t take my pencil crayons well. If you like a harder surface where you can correct and re-apply colour, it is easy to lift colour from the surface, then this may work for you. I think it would be better for mixed media work as it also looks like it could handle scratching and scoring as well. It may be good for paper sculpture techniques! It comes in pads only, and on the plus side, it is quite inexpensive.

STRATHMORE strathmore
I have probably used Strathmore but I don’t remember what it’s like. When I see some I’ll give it a go and post on it. I have heard many watercolour painters say they use Strathmore, so…

HANDMADE PAPERS
Handmade papers are lovely, but I’ve had to size them by wetting them down with a mix of water and gum arabic and then stretching them… it’s still very experimental at this point. I may try some rabbit-glue or gelatine at some point. I will write a post when I’ve done some more mucking about!

RICE PAPERS, BAMBOO PAPERS, AND YUPO
I have not tried these yet, but I’ll post when I do.

Let me know what you think of these, or any other papers, or if you have any questions or comments.

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