Prepare the Paper
Before you begin to paint, the paper needs to be prepared in a way that accomplishes your purpose. Changes to the paper surface influence the way water and paint react. Each brand, grade and weight of paper has different characteristics. These characterics can be altered in a variety of ways prior to applying paint.
Modify the absorbency of the paper. Watercolor papers come from the manufacturer with a gelatin coating called sizing. Sizing affects the hardness and absorbency of the paper. Heavily sized paper prevents the paint from soaking into the fibers of the paper; the paint bonds with the sizing instead. As a result, paint can be lifted easily without damaging the paper. The more sizing you remove, the more the paper will soak up the paint like a blotter. When you prepare the paper for painting, you can remove some of the sizing from one portion or from the entire sheet of paper.
In addition to altering the sizing, you can add a variety of media to the surface: Chinese white, lifting preparation, modeling paste, texture medium, and gesso.
Other methods of preparing the paper include mutilating the paper, glueing rice paper to the surface, glueing the watercolor paper to a board, and stretching the paper.
Select Your Method of Preparing the Paper
Soften the Sizing
Drench the paper with a spray bottle. Let sit for a minute or two, then lift the sheet to vertical, one corner lower than the others, and allow the excess moisture to drip off. Lay the paper flat to dry for a couple of hours before you start painting.
Create a "Workable Wet" surface
Tape your watercolor paper to a support board. Wet the surface of the paper with a soft brush. Let the water soak in until the sheen has disappeared. Re-wet the surface, and let the water soak in once again. When the sheen has once again disappeared, you are ready to paint soft-edged shapes.
Wet Both Sides
Place the watercolor paper, drawing side down, on a non-absorbent support board such as gatorboard. Saturate the back side of the paper thoroughly and evenly with a large brush. You can't get it too wet.
Turn the paper over and lay it on the support board. (The surface tension of the water will cause the wet watercolor paper to adhere to the smooth non-absorbent support board.) Saturate the front. Tilt the board and paper so that excess water runs off the low corner into a water pan.
Let the saturated paper sit for a few minutes, until the water is thoroughly absorbed.
If the paper buckles, it means the paper was not evenly wet. Lift the edge of the paper nearest the buckle and apply more water to the support board (not the paper) and lay the paper back down.
Gently wipe off any excess water by lightly dragging a large, squeezed-damp sponge across the paper. Never wipe the paper firmly or repeatedly, as this will raise the fibers on the surface.
An alternate method of removing the excess water is to cover the saturated paper with two layers of paper towels. Press your hands onto the center of the paper towels and push outward to the edge of the paper. Repeat for the next lower section.) Remove the paper towels. Now you are ready to paint.
Test the speed and extent of diffusion of the paint before you begin to paint. You don't want the paint to bleed beyond the boundaries you have set. Touch a brush loaded with paint in the center of a large background area. If the paint moves too far, wait until the paper dries a little more, and then try again.
If you are impatient, the amount of water in that area can be reduced by stroking with a thirsty brush or by lightly blotting.
If the paper begins to dry out before you have finished the soft-edged portions of the painting, lift the paper at the top edge and drop water between paper and board by squeezing a sponge. You can also re-wet the front with a spray bottle.
There are several ways to re-wet a painting after it has dried. (1) Submerge the painting in water for 5 minutes and then place it on the non-absorbent board again. (2) Spray a fine mist of clear water over the front of the painting while it is lying flat. (3) With a large flat brush lay a wash of clear water over the back of the painting. Lay the painting on the support board and apply a gentle wash of clear water over the front of the painting, overlapping the brush strokes as you go down and never going back.
Apply Chinese White
Apply a thin layer of Chinese white to your paper, let it dry and then paint over it with layers of transparent watercolor in the usual way. At any stage, you can lift, scrub or rub off color to achieve the effect you want. This technique, often called "blottesque," is ideal for lifting color where you want subtle gradations of tone. When you lift color laid on a base of Chinese white, the edges are soft and merge into neighboring washes.
Apply a Lifting Preparation
Winsor and Newton's lifting preparation must be applied to the paper first and allowed to dry. Once dry, continue painting as normal. Dry washes, including staining colors, can be more easily lifted with a wet brush or sponge.
Apply Modeling Paste
Apply a thin layer of acrylic modeling paste to create a highly textured surface before applying paint. Apply with a knife, trowel, or paint brush. It dries to a white opaque matte finish.
Apply Texture Medium
Texture medium contains fine particles and can be used to give the impression of depth and structure to watercolor paintings. Used with multiple washes, texture medium catches different layers of color and really gives a new dimension to watercolor painting. Texture medium can be applied directly onto the paper or mixed with watercolors first. More layers of color can be applied over the top. Texture medium is resoluble, but like all water color washes, some color will remain on the paper. Available from Winsor and Newton.
Coat the Surface with Gesso
Apply gesso to all or part of the surface with a brush, a palette knife, or an adhesive spreader. Create texture before adding paint by embedding such things as string, thin wire, aluminum foil, egg shells, sand, sawdust, or tiny beads. Make patterns in the gesso by scraping, imprinting, stamping, stenciling, or by applying plastic wrap. Mix paint with the gesso to create a colored ground.
Mutilate the Surface
Interesting effects can be created by physically altering the surface before painting. You can crinkle, crease, scratch, poke, sand, bruise, and wad up in a ball.
Glue Rice Paper to the Surface
Glue torn pieces of rice paper to the watercolor paper surface. The rice paper can be painted or unpainted before being applied to the watercolor paper.
Glue the Paper to a board
Permanently adhere watercolor paper to a panel (medium Density Overlay or MDO) using Golden Soft Gel.
Apply a uniform layer of soft gel to the panel. Bend a sheet of watercolor paper slightly and position over the center of the panel. Use a brayer to squeeze out any air bubbles and any excess gel. Lay a plastic sheet over the watercolor paper. Cover the plastic sheet with a second panel and place a weight on top. Allow the panel to dry for 24 hours. Trim off the excess watercolor paper.
Stretch the Watercolor Paper
Soaking and then stretching paper will soften or dissolve the surface sizing and reduce surface irregularities, making the surface more reliable and making washes go down more evenly. Stretching has the additional benefit of preventing the paper from cockling.
Click here for more information on stretching watercolor paper.
Paint on Watercolor Ground rather than Paper
Brush Daniel Smith's Watercolor Ground on any surface (canvas, paper, plaster, hardboard, glass, plastic, or metal). Allow 24 to 72 hours to cure, then add watercolor paint.