The watercolor paper you use can make or break your painting.
Watercolor paper comes in a variety of sizes, textures, thicknesses, amounts of sizing and a range of quality.
Watercolor paper is available in full sheets (22 x 30 inches) as well as in blocks, rolls and pads in various sizes.
Surface textures include hot-press (very smooth), cold-press (lightly textured) and rough (heavily textured).
Weights range from 90 pound to 300 pound.
A good place to start is a full sheet of Arches 140 pound cold-press. This can then be torn or cut into any size you wish.
Texture describes the surface finish on the paper. This surface finish is sometimes referred to as a paper's "tooth." The more tooth a paper has the rougher it feels to the touch.
The type of paper you choose gives you different effects with the paint. You may want a smooth paper for lots of detail or a textured surface to make sparkling reflections on water. You can choose from four main surface textures:
- Hot press: Hot press watercolor paper is the smoothest texture available and preferred by artists who use lots of detail in their artwork. Hot press watercolor paper is milled through a set of hot cylinders to smooth the cotton fibers down. The effect is similar to ironing a cotton shirt with a hot iron. It's more difficult to make soft transitions when using this paper, so you may have more hard edges than you want. (One way to paint soft edges with hot press paper is to "prime" the paper first, using a method popularized by Susan Harrison-Tustain. For more information, go to the section of the website on applying paint and click on Priming.)
- Soft press: Soft Press is a new watercolor surface offered by Fabriano. The velvety texture of Fabriano Artistico lies between traditional hot and cold press.
- Cold press: Cold press paper is the most popular among watercolorartists. Cold press watercolor paper has a texture that is between smooth hot-press and rough. This texture may not be suitable for extremely detailed work. The texture allows artists to fill the texture pockets with paint or avoid the pockets by brushing lightly over the ridges. Cold-press watercolor paper, like hot-press, is also milled through a set of cylinders, but in this case the cylinders are cold. (In British publications, cold-press paper is called NOT paper, because it is not hot press.)
- Rough: Rough papers have a rough and irregular surface because they are pulled directly from the mould and are not run through cylinders at all. This surface has the highest tooth of any watercolor paper. This surface is good for exaggerated rough texture techniques.
Weight and Thickness
All watercolor paper has a number associated with it that indicates how heavy or how thick it is. The higher the number, the heavier the paper. Common weights are 90lb, 140lb, 260lb, and 300lb.
The weight of the paper is calculated by weighing a stack of 500 full size sheets. Five hundred sheets of the lightest watercolor paper weighs 90lbs, five hundred sheets of medium weight paper weighs 140lbs, and so forth.
- 90lb is the lightest and least expensive of the watercolor papers. It causes problems for beginners, because it buckles when applying washes.
- 140lb is the most commonly used weight because it works well for most artists' purposes.
- 260lb is sold in sheets that are 25-3/4 x 40 inches rather than the traditional size of 22 x 30 inches.
- 300lb is the thickest watercolor paper. The main advantage of 300lb paper is that it does not buckle when using very wet washes.
Sizing is solution added to watercolor paper to both hold it together and to make it less absorbent. Sizing usually contains a mixture of gelatin, water and a preservative. The sizing affects the hardness and absorbency of the paper and consequently the way in which the paint will react on it.
Sizing can be added at two stages. Internal sizing is added to the paper pulp before the sheet is formed and chemically bonds to the paper fibers. External sizing is applied to the surface of the finished sheet of paper after it has dried, sometimes by dipping the entire sheet into a tub of sizing solution (known as tub sizing). External sizing, makes the paper less absorbent of the pigments and keeps them from bleeding.
Unsized paper absorbs paint like a blotter, preventing manipulation of the paint. The more sizing you remove, the more the paper will soak up the paint like a blotter. Small amounts of sizing will be removed when wetting an area with a sponge. The amount of sizing is also reduced when the paper is soaked before stretching.
Shapes, Sizes, and Formats
- Pads usually contain 12 to 50 sheets of watercolor paper. These can be either spiral-bound or glued along one edge. Pads come in a range of sizes from postcard-size up to 18 x 24" (45 x 60 cm).
- Full Sheets are 22 x 30 inches. They can be purchased individually or in packages of 5, 10 or 50. Full sheets can be torn into any size you want.
- Blocks contain 20 to 25 sheets of 140lb paper, glued together on all four sides. The advantage of blocks is that the glued edges prevent the paper from buckling when applying washes. After a painting has been completed on the top sheet of the block, locate the 2" space along the top edge where no glue has been applied. Insert a plastic knife between the sheets at that location, gently run the knife around the edges and remove the top sheet. Now you are ready to paint on the next sheet of the block.
- Rolls are usually 44 x 60 inches wide and 10 yards long. If you use the same paper for all of your paintings, rolls are the most economical in the long run. Rolls are the only option if you want to create paintings larger than 22 x 30 inches.
The brightness of the paper can affect the look of your finished painting. Some artists prefer a very bright white paper, while others prefer a softer off-white. Arches and Fabriano offer both off-white and bright white papers.
Student Grade Paper
Student grade paper will behave differently than artist grade paper when taping, masking, painting, and when performing many techniques such as lifting and scraping.
Student grade papers include Fabriano Studio, Canson Montval, Strathmore 300 Series and Strathmore 400 Series. You should consider using these papers for practice work but not for a work that is for sale.
- Not Archival: Student grade watercolor paper is not made of archival grade materials. Although it is acid buffered, the buffering will eventually be used up, depending on air quality, and the paper will begin to discolor and deteriorate.
- Made from Wood Pulp: Student grade paper is made from wood pulp; artist grade paper is made from 100% cotton. Consequently, the water and paint will behave differently than they will on artist grade paper.
- Surface Sized Only: Student grade paper is surface sized; artist grade paper is sized both internally and on the surface. As a resuls, student grade paper will not hold up to scrubbing, scrapping, erasing, or masking with tape.
- Coarse Surface: Student grade paper has a coarser appearance and a more regular pattern than artist grade papers.
Artist Grade Paper
- Arches Watercolor Sheets are professional grade watercolor paper of the highest quality. 100% cotton, cylinder mouldmade with natural gelatin sizing. Arches paper is both internally and surface sized.
- Fabriano Artistico Traditional White (formerly known as Artistico Off-white) is 100% cotton, surface sized, and pH neutral.
- Fabriano Artistico Extra White (formerly known as Artistico Uno) is 100% cotton, acid-free and mouldmade, with four deckle edges. Naturally bright white in color with no optical whiteners or bleaches. It is made from chlorine-free natural combed cotton. Externally and internally sized. The sizing is gelatin free. Fabriano Artistico Extra White is the only paper that offers a "soft press" sheet, a luxurious texture that falls between hot press and cold press. Papers are synthetically sized both internally and externally so that no animal by-products are used.
- Strathmore Gemini is a traditional, white, "old world" paper with excellent surface strength that allows extensive reworking and paint removal. Each cold press, 100% cotton sheet contains four deckle edges. This paper has a random texture but with uniform performance. Available in 140lb or 300lb weights.
- Strathmore Aquarius II is made with an innovative combination of cotton and synthetic fibers that work beautifully with all watercolor techniques. This lightweight 80lb sheet was created to reduce buckling and swelling.
- Strathmore Imperial 500 Series is very strong, and is harder sized than "Old World" papers, providing greater water hold-out for improved color lifting and blending. This paper has a random texture but with uniform performance.
Cleanliness is important when working with watercolors. It is generally best to purchase paper that is still sealed in a package. Individual sheets are often smudged, dented, or folded as customers rumage through the stack. Always check to make sure the paper is clean before buying it. Remember that oil from fingers is not always visible until it resists paint.