When painting with watercolours it is important to use the correct kind of paper. Watercolour paper is designed to be more robust and absorbent than other kinds of paper, to enable it to stand up to washes and wetting. Other papers would buckle, tear or deform in any number of ways which can very swiftly ruin your work or lead to sub-par results or an unprofessional finish.
The problem is that it can be confusing to navigate the world of watercolour papermakers at times so we hope that we can provide you with a brief but comprehensive guide to watercolour paper, and what you should be aware of when picking the right paper for your style of work.
Watercolour paper is made of either wood pulp or cotton and sometimes a mix of the two.
Wood pulp, specifically the cellulose in the wood, is used to make printer paper and cartridge paper but also the cheaper quality watercolour papers. Sometimes it is mixed with cloth rag to help fortify the paper slurry and produce a paper with some of the extra strength of cotton paper. If the paper does not state it is made of cotton the chances are it is a wood pulp mix. Wood pulp papers are treated to remove any lignin from the pulp (which breaks down over time and becomes acidic) to improve stability of the paint and protect against the paper yellowing and becoming brittle with age.
Cotton paper is sometimes called rag paper as rags of cotton are used to produce the pulp that it consists of. The fibres in the cotton overlay in random patterns during the moulding process which creates a strong paper with high absorbency, that can be saturated without coming apart making it ideal for watercolour work. Cotton paper is acid free and degrades less overtime than wood pulp paper making it the paper of choice if you are concerned for the longevity of your work. Cotton watercolour paper can be described as archival in their quality.
Sizing is a process in which gelatine is added to the pulp mix or the finished paper is soaked in a gelatine solution. This is a common practice as it affects the absorbency of the paper providing it with a little water resistance. Whilst this might sound counterintuitive this practice gives you greater control over the paint, allows the paint to flow more smoothly across the surface of the paper as well as preventing the colours from being drawn into the deeper fibers of the paper which leads to a distinctly less vibrant and faded finish. Not all watercolour paper is sized but it is safe to assume that, unless otherwise stated on the paper’s packaging, it will be sized.
For vegan watercolourist or artists generally looking to avoid animal based products, then you will be pleased to know that many manufacturers are seeking alternatives, or, have already moved away from animal based sizing products. Hahnemühle watercolour papers, Fabriano watercolour papers, Canson Heritage and Daler Rowney Aquafine watercolour papers all use synthetic or vegetable based size.
Perhaps the most important factor when it comes to picking a watercolour paper is deciding on which surface you want or need to use, as each will give your work a different look and finish. There are three surfaces of watercolour paper and they are hot pressed, cold pressed and rough.
Hot Pressed, also known as smooth, satin and HP provides a smooth flat surface which excels well when used for finely detailed work. It is the traditional choice for technical illustrators before the advent of bristol board and a good choice for detailed botanical studies and other kinds of keen observational work. Some people simply prefer the smooth finish although the lack of texture can make mistakes all the more apparent in your work.
Cold Pressed, sometimes NOT, Not surface, texture or CP is by far the most common surface used in watercolour work for its slight texture and versatility. If you have ever used a nondescript watercolour paper, it was cold pressed. The finish is smooth enough to allow for fairly detailed work and yet provides adequate texture to exploit the granularity of your watercolour paints and the natural texture inherent to its manufacturing process.
Rough watercolour paper does not really have another name or an abbreviation because it is what it is, highly textured with a more noticeably pitted surface than cold pressed paper. The uneven natural is prized by landscape artists for the opportunities it presents for utilising the paper's natural texture. This can accent elements of a painting as seen when dragging a wet brush across a dry piece of rough paper, and produces rougher brush strokes which may be desirable.
Watercolour paper is available in a variety of formats and it is best to choose the one you will be happiest working with.
Pads, sketchbooks and blocks are all somewhat similar. Pads either come with a spiral wire binding the pages together or a glued spine in place of the spiral. The pages can be removed from either pad by tearing or cutting them out.
Watercolour sketchbooks are available from various manufacturers and are perfect for tests and taking on the go. Hahnemühle produces an A6 sized sketchbook which will neatly fit into a bag, pocket or pencil case alongside a travel set of watercolours and work excellently with a waterbrush pen.
Blocks are a watercolour paper pad with glue on each side instead of just one. This serves to reinforce the sheets below the top one, which helps to prevent buckling when painting on it. They are great for taking out and about, painting outdoors or at a class for example where you might not want to carry a pack of loose sheets or stretch a piece of paper on a board.
Loose Sheets of watercolour paper and boards are available in packs of various sizes, quantities and qualities. As such you may wish to consider carefully what you need. For example, if you require a large sheet of a watercolour surface but do not want to stretch it, then a board would be the best choice. Fabriano offers a highly economical pack of 100 sheets of 15” x 11” so are great for practice or use in the classroom. Daler Rowney have professional quality Langton Prestige 30” x 22” watercolour boards which are perfect for large scale watercolour works and come in hot pressed, cold pressed and rough.
Boards tend to either be heavier paper stock more akin to a thick card or a piece of watercolour paper laminated onto a stiff board backing.
Rolls of watercolour paper can be a sound investment if you are in it for the long haul. With a roll you can cut pieces of paper to size and make them as large or small as you personally require and a roll of paper will generally last a while. It is generally recommended that you stretch paper if it comes off a roll, as it might be prone to curling due to having been previously rolled up. They require a little extra leg work on your part but you really do get a lot out of them.
If you are curious to learn more about watercolour techniques we recommend taking a quick look at our other watercolour articles listed below. They cover everything from stretching your own watercolour paper and getting it ready for painting, to making colour and dilution and colour charts for reference in your own painting.
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