The Perfect Paper

If you?re the type of painter who concentrates so hard on the picture that you don?t like to worry about anything else, you?re not alone. That?s one reason why many artists choose the type of paper they?re most familiar with and stick with it. If you?ve found what works best for you, then consider yourself lucky, but don?t forget that a new surface can open up whole new possibilities for your style. If you?re still getting familiar with what papers are available—or if you just like to mix it up—you?re more likely to master your subjects when you know as much as possible about what results you?ll get from each of the different surfaces.

Quality and permanence are the prime considerations for the professional painter. The best papers are acid-free and archival, and in the case of natural papers (as opposed to synthetic) they?re composed of 100 percent cotton fiber. Natural papers will also have internal sizing that affects the absorption of watercolor washes. More sizing usually produces a ?harder? paper, holding paint on the surface and making colors appear intense, while less sizing lets more of the paint be absorbed into the core of the paper and tends to mute the colors.

Here I?ve compared five common papers, each of similar weight but varying in surface texture and sizing qualities. Personal taste will be the biggest factor in deciding which paper works best for you, and certain subjects may be suited to fine textures while others demand coarser surfaces. But your taste should be based on your knowledge of the options, and nothing is better for that than experimentation. Even if you?ve been painting for decades, try out unfamiliar textures and weights occasionally, and revisit the old standards or sample new papers as they come out on the market from time to time.

Notice what happens to Off the Italian Coast Near Portofino (watercolor, 9-?x15) when it?s painted on a variety of different papers.

The Middle of the Road
Arches 140-lb. cold-pressed paper is a warm white paper with a fine to medium surface texture, and the sizing holds color washes on the surface. Color can be lifted fairly well, and the surface holds up to scrubbing techniques. There?s noticeable texture in the washes along the cliff and sky areas of this painting, but the brushstrokes tend to be smooth, with colors blending easily. The drying time on this paper is somewhat fast, but there?s enough absorption time for adjacent washes to mingle. The paper quality also allows for some staining of the paper, as can be seen where dried color was removed for highlights on the rocks.

Smooth Sailing
Strathmore 500 Bristol three-ply vellum is a very white paper with a fine surface texture. It?s about the thickness of 140-lb. paper but is more rigid, and it?s great for detailed subjects and hard-edged, direct painting techniques. Softer, more subtle effects, however, can still be achieved with flowing washes, color staining in layers and color lifting techniques. The color lifting ability is good and the surface holds up well to scrubbing. In this painting, a somewhat faster pace was required to maintain smoothness in washes, which dried quickly. With such a hard surface, the color is lively and edges become sharper. Notice the smooth texture of washes in the sky and rocky cliff areas. Brushmarks are prominent and color globs sometimes appear at the end of brushstrokes.

Surface Patterns
Fabriano Uno 140-lb. cold-pressed paper has a medium, canvas-like, linear surface. The sizing holds washes on the surface, making it rather firm and showing some brushmarks as a result, but lifting and scrubbing techniques can quickly damage the surface. I especially enjoy the linear quality of this texture, which gives a fine regularity to drybrush and edge manipulation. In this painting, the texture of washes in the sky and rock areas is a medium grain, and some watermarks are present in the rocks, with the vegetation showing some color ponding. The drying time is fast and sometimes irregular, but the machined texture is nicely enlivened by some fingerpainting and edge softening.

A Generous Texture
Winsor & Newton 140-lb. cold-pressed paper has more surface texture, with a sizing that holds color washes on the surface. The color lifting ability is good, but scrubbing techniques seem more difficult. Where sediment effects are desired for a subject, this paper?s sizing and surface texture help make that possible—notice the sediment effects in the cliff area of this painting. The color is lively as it sits on the surface of the paper, and the highlights on the rock shapes were easily accomplished through color lifting, but continued scrubbing showed some damage to the paper.

The Synthetic Alternative
YUPO is a synthetic, very white paper composed of polypropylene. It?s waterproof and has a plate-like texture—after adapting my style to this paper I felt ready for the challenge of painting on glass next! With such a hard, slick surface, color lifting is excellent and scrubbing out doesn?t damage the surface. In this painting it?s evident in various shapes that watercolor washes do their own thing. With the paper at a slight angle, pigment slides across the surface and puddles at the bottom edges. Dust or grit can be noticeable in certain areas, but white areas are easily obtained by lifting out paint.

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