Become a Paper Pro

Once you start to ask questions and explore your paper options, you’ll quickly discover that the different qualities you’re looking for are generally best discussed using the proper paper “lingo.” To put you on the same page as the person you’re addressing, here’s a glossary of common paper terms:

  • Handmade. Considered the high end of the paper world, each sheet is individually formed with great care, and no two sheets are exactly alike. Handmade paper has a general lack of surface grain, which allows for smoother, more even washes.
  • Machine-made. Used by many artists, this type is known both for its consistency (the process allows each sheet to be exactly the same) and its affordability. But there are differences among the various brands, so experiment to find what’s right for you.
  • Mould-made. Probably the most popular choice among watercolorists, this paper variety combines the mass-production of machine-made paper with some of the distinctive characteristics of handmade paper.
  • Hot-pressed. This is the term used to describe papers with a smooth surface produced by passing the paper through heavy rollers (usually hot). Hot-pressed papers tend to be less absorbent, so the paint stays on the surface longer, allowing for extra manipulation time. They’re generally the choice of very detail-oriented artists.
  • Rough. Achieved by various means, a rough surface is just what it sounds like—not smooth. Its overriding characteristic is that paint tends to deposit in between the peaks and valleys in a paper, leaving uneven coloring. If you work in large washes and aren’t too concerned about tiny details, the rough surface might be for you.
  • Cold-pressed. In between a hot-pressed and a rough surface lies cold-pressed paper, sometimes known as “not” (for not hot-pressed). Because they accept washes more readily than hot-pressed paper, yet allow you to work in more detail that rough paper, cold-pressed papers are probably the most popular watercolor paper type.
  • Sizing. Sizing is what controls a paper’s absorbency, and nearly all papers are sized to a lesser or greater degree. There are generally two kinds of sizing: Internal sizing, which is added to the paper pulp itself as it’s being beaten, and tub sizing, which is external and added after the paper is made and dried by passing a sheet through a tub of sizing.
  • Wove vs. laid. Also related to a paper’s surface, a wove surface is formed much like the woven surface of a piece of cloth and is generally smoother and softer in texture. A laid surface is impressed with a series of parallel lines generally ingrained into the paper pulp by a wire mesh when it’s still wet.
  • Acid-free. This has to do with the archival qualities of a paper. Basically, acid is a main culprit in the deterioration of paper, and therefore any artwork you make on paper, so look for papers labeled acid-free, archival quality or neutral.
  • Weight. For our purposes, weight describes the thickness of a paper, and is expressed in pounds. The higher the weight, the thicker the paper, so 140-lb. paper is thinner, for example, than 300-lb. paper.
  • Tooth. This term describes the surface texture of a paper, and is a characteristic of cold-pressed and rough paper. Tooth is most often referred to in discussions about pastels or charcoals, both of which require a paper with enough “tooth” to hold the pigment to its surface.
  • Hard vs. soft. This quality can generally be determined by feeling the surface, and is the result of a variety of papermaking processes. In general, hardness is the result of a lot of sizing and pressing.
  • Deckled edge. This is the rough, uneven edge that results during the handmade and mould-made papermaking process. A true deckle, however, while apparent on all four sides of handmade paper, is only found on two parallel edges of mould-made paper, which is typically made in rolls (the other two deckled edges result when the mould-made paper is torn into the appropriate size).

After studying at the Cornish School of Art in Seattle and at the Art League of California in San Francisco, Mary Ann Chater had a successful career as an art director for an advertising agency before taking up painting full time. Of her current career in watercolor, she says, “If someone I’m meeting for the first time asks me what I do and I say I paint in watercolor, the reaction is usually, ‘Oh that’s so hard.’ I don’t want anyone to think that making art is easy, but I’m always tempted to say, “Oh no, it’s not!’ “

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