Demystifying Watercolor ‘Paper’
The usage of the term “paper” with regards to watercolor is a misnomer. In a way, this name devalues the price for watercolor paintings in galleries. It suggests the surface is not permanent because the image is painted on paper, and isn’t much different than a print or a poster.
If manufacturers of these materials dispelled the word “paper” and substituted it for “cotton sheets,” watercolor would have more associated formality because oil and acrylic paintings are also painted on cotton surfaces. This will not only add value to watercolor paintings but collectors may also stop viewing their investment as having a short life span.
Be careful when buying watercolor paper. Art stores actually do sell wood pulp paper watercolor blocks. Unless the product says 100% cotton on the cover, you may end up with the wrong product that will terribly hinder your watercolor success. These student watercolor blocks are a waste, in my opinion. I refuse to do any touch-ups on my workshop attendees’ paintings when they bring these.
The surface of professional watercolor paper is real cotton and 100% acid-free, which means the white surface will not turn yellow over the years. Consider cotton baby diapers: Add a gelatin sizing to it, compress it and you have a sheet of compressed cotton that absorbs wet paint. The sizing reduces the sheet’s flexibility when dry and allows a slow seeping of wet paint into the fibers.
The amount of pressure during the compression process determines the different kinds of watercolor paper surfaces: hot pressed (very compressed), cold pressed (semi-compressed) and rough (loosely compressed).
The pressure of watercolor paper is important to know because the degree of compression results in the fibers being closer or more separated from one other. This will make the paper behave differently by the sheer absorption process.
As an analogy, it works like this: A kitchen towel sucks more water than a cotton shirt. That’s because a towel has more gaps between the fibers, which allows the water to penetrate deeper into the fabric.
Knowing watercolor pressure will help you make the right choices. Read on for a closer look at the applications and setbacks of each grade.
Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper
- Very little pigment penetrates beyond sitting on the surface.
- Hot pressed is not adequate for general watercolor painting.
- It’s suitable for fine detail, such as pen and ink.
- This type of paper works well with gouache.
- Wet-on-wet application with diffusion will not work.
- Glazing will lift the underlayer.
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Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper
- Some pigment penetrates deeper into the fibers.
- A painting on this type of paper ends up with a nice velvety look.
- Diffused wet-into-wet application can be achieved on cold pressed, but there’s a risk of losing the forms from excessive pigment bleeding. The artist working with this paper must be quite skilled at controlling the degree of fugitive paint.
- It works well for scraping out rocks with a credit card when painting landscapes.
- Cold pressed is not optimal for glazing because the new layer tends to disturb the first layer.
- It’s too smooth to apply the dry brush technique many artists use to create bushes and trees when creating landscapes.
- This type of paper makes it easier to spray off an area that needs correction.
- It has an excellent surface for combining pastels with watercolor, especially pan pastels.
Rough Watercolor Paper
- The pigment seeps even deeper into the fibers of rough paper.
- The wet-into-wet application works well on this type of surface.
- Glazing works better because the paper grips the first layer quite well.
- It does not work well for scraping out rocks when painting landscapes.
- The rougher surface is conducive to dry brushing, which is great for creating the illusion of foliage.
- It’s harder to remove unwanted paint (with water from a spray bottle).
Get Your Weight Know-How Up
Each of the three paper types discussed comes in 22- by 30-inch sheets, which you can cut into various sizes. The stocks are as follows:
- 90 lb. is not ideal for painting with watercolor, but it is good for printing copies.
- 140 lb. must be stretched to avoid buckling.
- 300 lb. does not require stretching but is more expensive. It will still curl like a potato chip if it’s moistened in large areas, so I recommend fastening it to a stiff surface.
Watercolor blocks are handy for plein air painting and transporting to workshops but, with the 140 lb. version, the paper still buckles*, which basically defeats the purpose of paying the extra money.
The 300-lb. blocks are handy, but you’ll pay considerably more for them. If you use 140-lb. sheets, I highly recommend working with a Guerilla Watercolor board, a fantastic product that stretches the paper so it won’t buckle when you rewet it.
Knowing how to prevent buckling is important. When cotton paper is soaking wet, it will expand, creating bumps like hills on an uneven terrain. This makes respecting the contour of a form during wet-into-wet application more difficult because the paint settles into the paper’s grooves.
Stretching the paper before you begin painting is a necessary practice. Wet the paper, fasten it to a stiff surface, then allow it to dry. When you rewet the paper, the expansion will be less, which will reduce the buckling.
How to Choose Your Ideal Paper Grade
Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each of these papers, I suggest selecting the grade based on the subject you are planning for your painting. For me, I love painting landscapes. When I paint tons of close-up foliage, I turn to rough paper. Likewise, this paper type works well if there is a lot of edge diffusing that requires some control.
If a scene contains rocks and not many soft edges, I go for cold pressed. This grade of paper also works well when I want to incorporate pastels to create the appearance of mist, add texture or enhance my watercolors. Additionally, the velvety look with cold-pressed paper works well for flower paintings.
Determining Brand Loyalty
When it comes to watercolor, there are several different brands to choose from. Arches is one of the most common, as well as Fabriano.
Recently, I discovered Daler Rowney Langton Rough, which is not as grainy as the other papers but offers an in-between of cold and rough, and has many of the advantages of both. Although there are brands I have not yet tried, I am sticking with Daler Rowney for now.
Stonehenge Aqua is a new paper emerging in the market. If you want to create detailed realism or portraits, this brand works well because it still offers the velvety aspect of cold pressed compared to other brands but has the absorption capabilities of rough paper. This means when you work on top of a pre-existing layer, it won’t disturb the layer underneath as much.
However, choosing the right brand for you will come down to trial and error. If you’re new to watercolor, try experimenting with a few different brands until you find your perfect fit.
And, if you’re also trying to figure out which watercolor paints to use, I review different watercolor pigments and their properties, as well as explain how to control fugitive wet-into-wet application and offer recommendations where these should be present in your artwork in another blog post, which you can find here.