Technique of the Week — Demystifying Watercolour Paper

Since I was testing watercolour paper yesterday, this article that I wrote up for my watercolour students came to mind to post for this week’s technique. I’ve inserted some  of my watercolour paintings so it isn’t all dry, dry text! I hope you painters find this useful as a reference!

"Willow Banks" — part of a large wetland park at the base of Montana's Mission Mountains that I visited once.

“Willow Banks” — part of a large wetland park at the base of Montana’s Mission Mountains that I visited once.

Watercolour Paper:

Watercolour paper comes in a dizzying array of types, enough to make the uninitiated quail when presented with drawer upon drawer of different papers at the art supply store. I hope the following  information will help you feel more confident in choosing the right paper for you.

I recommend trying a lot of different kinds at first; buy one sheet of this and one sheet of that, cut or tear them into smaller sizes, and play with them. You could even share with a friend or two. Get scientific and conduct the same tests (for example, washes, lines, scrubbing-out) on each kind and keep notes. You will finally develop preferences, and then you can just stick to the ones you like.

Paper surface:
First of all, you will notice that watercolour paper comes in different surfaces; some manufacturers offer all, some only one or two:

Hot Pressed has a fairly smooth, glazed surface, resulting from pressing the paper between heated rollers. It is good for detail work and even washes, although the paint tends to slide around on the surface, making it a little harder to control washes.

Cold Pressed or NOT (not hot-pressed, that is) has a slightly textured surface resulting from pressing the paper between unheated rollers. A good compromise between hot pressed and rough, allowing good detail as well as expressive texture.

Rough: has a prominent “tooth”, giving it a pebbly surface, resulting from minimal pressing after sheet formation; washes collect in the indentations, making grainy textures; excellent for drybrush technique, where a brush with a relatively dry load of paint is skimmed over the tops of the surface bumps. Not a good paper choice for fine detail, but very good for painting in a loose, expressive style.

Soft-Pressed: a few manufacturers offer this surface; it is generally described as being between hot and cold pressed, with a slight tooth. It is quite absorbent, sucking in the paint, so it is more difficult to paint dark or intense colours (it takes more paint).

Wickaninnish Wind — This tree stands by the parking lot at Wickaninnish Beach , in Pacific Rim National Park.

Wickaninnish Wind — This tree stands by the parking lot at Wickaninnish Beach , in Pacific Rim National Park.

Paper Weight:

Watercolour paper comes in different thicknesses, or weights, measured either in grams per square metre (gsm) or pounds per ream, which is 500 sheets (lb). The standard weights are: 190 gsm (90 lb), 300 gsm (140 lb), 356 gsm (260 lb), and 638 gsm (300 lb). Paper weight is not an indication of the quality of the paper! Some very beautiful papers come in the entire range of weights.

Thinner paper is more likely to warp than thicker paper, and generally, paper thinner than 356 gsm needs to be stretched or at least taped down (there are some good videos on you-tube on how to stretch paper). However, it depends on how wet you paint, so experiment with different weights to see what works for you. The thicker the paper is, the less likely it is to warp, and the more abuse and multiple washes it will take.

"Bones of the Earth" — a mountain in the Montana Mission Range that has an oddly shaped top above the treeline. It is not a volcano, but I suspect there is a hollow at the top with a lake. However, I did not climb up there to see.

“Bones of the Earth” — a mountain in the Montana Mission Range that has an oddly shaped top above the treeline. It is not a volcano, but I suspect there is a hollow at the top with a lake. However, I did not climb up there to see.

Machine-made vs. Hand-made:
There are three ways watercolour paper can be made:

Machine-made: A sheet of paper produced on a rapidly moving machine called the Fourdrinier, which forms, dries, sizes and smoothes the sheet. Uniformity of size and surface texture marks the machine-made sheet. These papers are generally the cheapest; the surface is regular and can be mechanical looking, with cut edges on all four sides of the sheet. The working qualities are often poor and uneven, especially in the cheapest grades, resulting in frustration to the artist.

Mould-made: A sheet of paper that simulates a handmade sheet in look, but is made by a slowly rotating machine called a cylinder-mould, resulting in deckle edges* (see below) on the two outer sides, and cut or machine-torn edges where the sheets are cut from the roll. Most medium priced papers are mould-made, of cotton fibres, and combine economy with good working qualities.

Hand-made: A sheet of paper, made individually by hand, using a mould and deckle, resulting in deckle edges all around. These are generally pricey, but well worth treating yourself to, after you gain some confidence.

*Deckle Edges: These are the feathery edges left by the mould on mould-made and hand-made paper. Some people leave them on as decorative edges, some people cut them off. It’s all personal preference. You can simulate a deckle edge by tearing (after creasing) rather than cutting when you need to make your paper a smaller size. Wetting the crease before tearing makes the tear more feathery.

Good watercolour paper is usually 100% cotton, and has sizing (starch) incorporated into the fibres to control pigment absorption. The amount of sizing can vary from one manufacturer to another. Cheaper watercolour paper is machine-made from wood pulp and the sizing can be very uneven.

"One Perfect Rose" — an anniversary card I made for my husband some years ago.

“One Perfect Rose” — an anniversary card I made for my husband some years ago.

Other paper considerations:

Right side or Wrong?
Watercolour paper generally has a different texture on each side of a sheet, with one being slightly rougher than the other. You can paint on either side; in my opinion there is no right or wrong side, just a choice of textures. At least one manufacturer of handmade paper even offers custom two-surfaced papers (for a fee, of course)! Use the rougher side for more expressive work, the smoother side for more detailed.

Colour:
While most watercolour paper is white, white comes in different shades! Some paper tends towards either warm (ivory or cream) or cool (blue-white); and some manufacturers even make a variety of pastel colours. They are interesting to try, but be aware that the paper colour will affect your paint colour, even the ones that are very close to white. This can be used to advantage, for instance using a cream coloured paper to give a warm unifying tone to your painting. When you are just beginning, don’t worry too much about the colour, but be aware of it as you paint so that you will learn how different paper tints affect your paints. If you want to get fancy, there are handmade watercolour papers that have pastel colours and even flecks from the natural fibres or recycled materials included in them.

"Sunshine" — funny how cats always find the warm spot in the house!

“Sunshine” — funny how cats always find the warm spot in the house!

Sheets, pads, or blocks?
As if all those other choices weren’t enough, watercolour paper can be purchased in a variety of different forms and sizes, bound or single sheets.

Watercolour sheets come in standard sizes, the most common being 22”x30”. Some manufacturers offer extra-large sheets or rolls, and some make smaller sheets. These can be torn (if you want to keep the “deckle look”) or cut into half sheets or quarter sheets, or any other size and format you choose. This is the most flexible, and generally the cheapest, way to buy watercolour paper; it can be especially economical if you buy it in multiple-sheet packages, usually 10 or 25 (and wait for a sale!).

Watercolour pads can be glue-bound or spiral-bound, and are handy for carrying around for sketching. They come in many different formats and sizes, and are available bound in “landscape” or “portrait” orientations. Their main disadvantage is that they may curl if you use very wet washes, and all the paint will run around and pool in ways you didn’t intend! But you can tape the three unbound sides and get around this trait.

Watercolour blocks: I love these! Although it is a bit more expensive this way, the paper doesn’t have to be stretched because it is bound all the way around the edges with glue, except for a small area, generally either a corner or the middle of one side, where you insert a dull blade to cut the paper loose when the painting is finished. The main disadvantage to these is that you have to finish the painting before you can cut it off, so if you work on several paintings at once, you need several pads. But I find these extremely handy for travel, so I pack several small ones.

"Mount Baker Dreams" — The ferry from Sidney BC to Anacortes , Washington puts in at one of the islands in between. This is what I saw from the dock.

“Mount Baker Dreams” — The ferry from Sidney BC to Anacortes , Washington puts in at one of the islands in between. This is what I saw from the dock.

Get the good stuff
As you can see, there is a world of paper out there to choose from, and it is one of the great pleasures of being a watercolour artist. Painting on a good quality paper is a sensual experience! In paper, as in many things in life, you get what you pay for,  so don’t buy the cheapest brands; you will only find yourself frustrated in trying to achieve the effects you want from the paint.

Text and Images © Karen Gillmore 2014

5 responses to “Technique of the Week — Demystifying Watercolour Paper

    • Hi Claudia — funny you should say that! I was just trying to explain to someone yesterday about blogs and what you could do with them, and one of the things that occurred to me as I was explaining was that I could make a book. Hmmmmmmmmm… Well, another hundred or so posts and I’ll think about doing that!

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  1. Echoing your praise of watercolor blocks. I use small ones for plein air painting and they perform wonderfully, even though I use acrylics. Thanks for all the great info, the more I read the more I want to break out the old (and probably terrible and dry and in need of replacement) watercolor tubes. Like Claudia said, you should write a book. I had to buy a $200+ art history textbook (did I spend that much? Hell no) and you explain supports and mediums way better than that textbook.

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    • Thank you so much, what a great compliment! If I write a book, I promise it will be (a lot) less than $200! As to those old dried up watercolours — you can slice open the tubes and get the colour out and keep it in little jars or a palette — it will rewet just fine, like the watercolours you buy in dry block form, just not as neat and, well, blocky.

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  2. Pingback: Technique-of-the-Week — Demystifying Watercolour Paints | Karen Gillmore Art·

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