Choosing the right surface for your watercolour painting is an important decision, because a well chosen surface can have a huge bearing on your work. This post will help you choose the paper that's best for you!
So, where to start? There is a wide variety of paper on offer and once you know what you need in terms of weight, texture, and quality, things get a little easier. After this your decision will probably come down to personal preference and affordability and no doubt you will soon come to have your own favourite brand - just like every watercolour artist I know!
So let's get on with it....
As with most art supplies, watercolour paper comes in two main grades, "Artists' Quality" or "Students' Quality". Artist grade paper is also called "archival" paper and is designed to last! These papers are acid free and won't become yellow or go brittle over time. They are also much stronger and will perform well with scrubbing and lifting techniques. The downside is that they can cost quite a bit more than student grade papers.
Student quality paper is great for beginners or for practicing, but will not stand the test of time! They are also a lot less forgiving if you make mistakes and the paints may not perform as well as they will on artist's quality paper. They are often much cheaper than the artists' quality papers so well worth considering if you are just starting out.
Watercolour papers are made from a mixture of water and cellulose fibres. In artist grade papers, these fibres are 100% cotton and the paper is usually sized internally and externally. (More about what "sizing" means below) Theses papers are great to work on, they are strong and pliable and won't buckle or suffer with a little rough handling. Paper made from cotton is often referred to as "rag paper" and depending on how the paper is made, it can have beautiful irregular textures which can really add to the beauty of your work. Artists' papers are usually hand made or mould made.
Less expensive or student grade papers are made using a combination of cotton, wood pulp and other cellulose fibres and are machine made so very uniform in nature. These papers are not as strong as pure cotton or rag papers and will be a lot less forgiving if you want to use scrubbing or lifting techniques.
Weight & Texture
Most watercolour paper is available in range of weights, but the most commonly used are:
140 lb. (300 gsm) or g/m² (grams per square metre) - the most commonly used weight
300 lb. (640 gsm) or g/m² (very expensive - but will not buckle under lots of water)
I usually use 300 gsm paper, and stretch my paper if I am using watercolour to ensure the paper doesn't buckle or warp.
Watercolour paper comes in 3 surfaces or textures.
- Hot press (HP) - has a very smooth surface and almost no "tooth". Great for detailed paintings and creating very smooth washes. (Perfect for manuscript illumination)
- Cold press (NOT) (meaning NOT hot pressed) in-between rough and hot-pressed paper, has a slightly textured surface.
- Rough - Has a lot of texture or "tooth" - feels rough to touch, very expressive and great for watercolour washes with lots of natural movement.
Sizing, Colour and staining
When shopping for watercolour paper, you may have seen statements like "sized internally" or "sized externally" (or both) - what this means is that it has had a substance like gelatine added to it. The point of sizing is to make the paper resistant to water and essentially this will allow ink or paint to sit on the surface and be slowly absorbed (until it dries). If the paper isn't sized properly, the paint will be absorbed right away, soak into the paper and spread out randomly and feather.
In terms of colour, most watercolour paper is white or cream, this allows light to reflect off its surface giving the paint a luminescent look. A lot of watercolour artists leave sections of their paper unpainted to show through as a substitute for white paint. Thats said, it is possible to buy tinted watercolour paper and this really comes down to your personal preferences. Another option is to stain or colour your paper yourself, which is very common practise amongst illuminators and miniature artists. Traditional stains include things like tea, walnut ink, and other vegetable dyes.
Watercolour paper can be bought loose, in individual sheets, rolls, pads or blocks.
Sheets: A standard imperial sheet is 22 x 30 in (56 x 76 cm) (this is slightly smaller than A1) Great if you want to create large paintings, or if you want to cut the paper down to a specific size. Remember, aim for paper that is 300 gsm or heavier, anything lighter will need to be stretched before you paint on it!
Watercolour pads are great for every day work or for practising on. The paper is glued together on one edge and individual sheets are easy to peel away and remove. If buying a pad - make sure you check that it is acid free.
Watercolour blocks are several sheets that have been glued together on all four edges. The idea is to paint on the top sheet and once your painting is finished and completely dry, you use a palette knife to gently slice through the glue and remove the top layer, leaving a new sheet underneath. These are a great idea if you don't want the inconvenience of stretching your paper, but can be pricier than pads or loose sheets.
Watercolour boards are basically sheets of loose watercolour paper that have been glued to a rigid board (like mount board) and are another great way to avoid the hassle of stretching paper. Just make sure you look for archival paper / boards so that your painting lasts!
SO NOW ITS DECISION TIME!
Remember, look out for paper weight, size, colour and texture. Think about the type of painting you want to do and which type of paper will add to the overall effect of your finished piece... Do you need a paper for fine work like botanical illustrations or manuscript illumination? Then try something in a "Hot Press" finish. If you want to create an expressive watercolour consider a cold press or rough surface to bring out the wonderful effects of watercolour paint.
One piece of advice I will give on this subject is to buy the best paper you can afford and USE it! I have often regretted not using good quality paper right away. The conversation in my head goes something like this...(yes..I talk to myself, a lot...)
"Jeea - don't use your best paper, its only a practise piece" Several hours or even days later, I finish the painting and discover it is some of the best work I have ever done, but it won't last because I didn't use good quality archival paper! I have abandoned a few paintings for this reason, so now as a rule of thumb I use the best quality paper I can get my hands on!
So I think we are almost done here.... but before I go here are a few personal recommendations:
For fine work like manuscript illumination or pieces where I want to use shell gold (where a smooth surface helps the gold to really shine) I almost always use Fabriano Artistico Hot Press Watercolour paper - 300 gsm, which I buy in blocks and in loose sheets.
If I want to do a more expressive watercolour I use Arches Aquarelle Cold Press - 300gsm and I usually buy individual sheets which I cut down to the size I want. I also love working on natural hand made khadi papers, but these can be challenging to work with because they have almost too much sizing sometimes!
I also really like the Daler Rowney Langton range in both hot and cold press which is a little more affordable than both the Arches and Fabriano.
For practise papers, I like the Daler Rowney student ranges or even the own brands from shops like Cass Art. The main thing to remember is to always buy paper that is acid free.
Right - we are really are done now! Phew....
Comment below if you have any questions and let me know if you found this post useful. I would also love to hear about which papers you guys are using and what your recommendations are as I love trying out new art supplies.
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