The subject of paper is one that causes a great deal of consternation for those new to the medium of watercolour however this need not be the case once you have the essential facts which I have tried to convey as concisely as possible for you here.
Watercolour paper is available in either Hot Pressed, NOT (or Cold Pressed) and Rough.
Hot-pressed watercolour paper has a fine-grained, smooth surface, with almost no tooth. This means that paint tends to dry a bit faster on this surface than it does on the other two which makes it ideal for large, even washes of colour. Personally unless you are intending on producing anything with a great deal of detail in I tend to advise students to steer clear of this surface at least to begin with as it can be trickier to handle and why make things unnecessarily difficult.
NOT or Cold-pressed watercolour paper has a slightly textured surface, somewhere in between rough and hot-pressed paper. This is the paper used most often by watercolour artists and the surface that most students will start with while they are developing their style.
Rough watercolour paper has a prominent tooth, or textured surface. This surface is particularly suited to landscape painting because it makes it easier to achieve textures whether that be through dry brush effects or through pigment granulation and is the paper that I personally recommend. Bockingford for some reason refer to their Rough watercolour paper as Extra Rough – Don’t ask why because I don’t know however rest assured that it is just regular Rough surface paper.
So those are the three different surfaces available.
That seems easy enough I hear you say however that’s not quite it. There is unfortunately no universal standard for watercolour paper so the surfaces of watercolour paper can differ slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer. This means that the only way to really decide which paper is best for you is to experiment not only with the different kinds of paper but also with various brands of paper.
Most art supplies shops will very often do sample packs which contain a number of different types of paper for you to try but if you are just starting out and would like a straight recommendation from a professional then I always recommend a pack of ten quarter imperial size sheets of Bockingford NOT 425gsm (200lb) to get you started. You can pick up a pack of this by clicking here.
I use four different brands of watercolour paper myself and the one I pick on the day is completely dependent on the subject I am painting because I find certain surfaces work better for certain subjects. This is something you will find with experience and not something you need to be worrying about if you are just starting out.
Incidentally the brands I use if you are interested are:
Bockingford Watercolour Paper
Arches Watercolour Paper
Saunders Waterford Watercolour Paper
Two Rivers Watercolour Paper. (This is a beautiful handmade watercolour paper made by the Two Rivers Paper Company in Somerset)
The thickness of watercolour paper is indicated by its weight which will be displayed clearly on the cover of the pad or pack – if this information is not available don’t buy it! Paper weights are measured either in grams per square metre (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb). Usually both weights will be displayed on the packaging so you can make an informed choice.
The standard weights available are as follows:
- 190 gsm (90 lb)
- 300 gsm (140 lb)
- 425 gsm (200lb)
- 640 gsm (300 lb).
There are a number of other weights available that are brand specific but these are the most popular weights that you will find commonly on sale.
To Stretch or Not To Stretch
So should I stretch my watercolour paper to stop it cockling as advised by many. Hmm a thorny question indeed and one that has caused several small scale wars over the years. Did you know that both Churchill and Hitler were painters – makes you wonder doesn’t it. Anyway bad jokes aside the general consensus is that anything under 300gsm (140lb) should be stretched however I personally feel that this is a tiresome process that eats into your creative time so if you can afford to go up to the 425gsm (200lb) paper then I would advise you do this although to be honest I very rarely stretch the 300gsm (140lb) either. Yes I know – Lazy! But life is too short to spent time doing things like that. One other way round this issue is to buy paper in blocks, these are glued on each side so that the paper does not cockle.
I usually tape my paper to my board using a self-adhesive tape which I feel does a much better job than the traditional gummed tape which everyone else seems to blindly recommend. Gummed tape (even the good stuff) I have found has a nasty habit of either coming away half way through the painting process or ripping your painting when you try to remove it at the end. Some people counteract the first of these issues by adding a little insurance in the form of staples however I find this ruins your drawing boards very quickly so is best avoided. Plus you also run the risk of injury when you try to remove said staples – take it from someone who stopped using this method after ending up with one stuck in my fingernail – ouch! You won’t have any of these issues with the tape I recommend.
If however you do decide to follow the masses and insist on stretching your paper then I would advise that you at least use a purpose made paper stretching board which you will find on sale in any decent art supplies shop. This will save you at least a percentage of the time that you are just about to waste.
Watercolour paper is usually white however some manufacturers also produce a range of tinted watercolour papers which can be nice to work on. Be aware that even though white is the standard this will still differ between brands for example Fabriano is a different colour to Arches but they are both white.
Important Note: This difference in white is something that you should bear in mind if you intend to produce prints of your work as you will need to have a print profile made to suit as the white in your paintings is unlikely to match the white of the paper you use to produce the prints
Other Watercolour Paper Terms
So what else do you need to know? Well not much really because most of the decisions you will make about which type of paper to use will and should be made based on trial and error and actual painting experience but here are a few terms that you may find it helpful to know the meanings of:
Sizing: This refers to a coating that is applied to the surface of the watercolour paper. This is what makes the paper react correctly to your paint so it is extremely important that you store watercolour paper in a cool, dry place where there are unlikely to be major fluctuations in temperature. If your painting gets damp the sizing will be ruined and your watercolour paper will act more like a sponge that soaks up any paint within ½ mile.
Different papers have different amounts of sizing and you will be able to determine this on how they react to your paints. For example I use Bockingford when I am likely to be using scratching out or wiping out techniques because it has a hard sizing which means the paint tends to sit on the surface of the paper a little more than it would on a paper like Arches for example which has a softer sizing. It is worth bearing in mind that cotton rag papers like Arches and Saunders do tend to have a softer sizing than machine moulded papers.
Cockling: This is what happens when your paper gets wet and starts bending and warping on the board. This is usually prevented by stretching the paper on a board while wet and allowing it to dry taut before using it to paint on.
Practise Paper: This is the name given to a type of paper that certain art supplies companies have started to produce in recent years that is supposed to provide the student with a cheap watercolour paper that they can use while they are learning.
I have tried this stuff and it is not watercolour paper – please do not use it. If you have any take it to the bottom of the garden and burn it or use it as toilet paper! Whatever you do with it please do not try to paint a watercolour on it as you will be doing yourself and watercolour a great disservice. This stuff does not react and work the way watercolour paper does and will set your learning process back a mile it is awful stuff and should be avoided at all costs! Rant over.
Quarter, Half and Full Imperial: These are the standard sizes you will find watercolour paper available to buy in. Some manufacturers have introduced other sizes such as A-Sizing but the vast majority of watercolour artists tend to stick with the old system as the dimensions tend to suit them better – especially if you paint landscapes. A quarter imperial size painting just looks better than an A3 – not sure why but it just does.
Anyway that’s about it you now know everything you need to know about watercolour paper. The main message you should take away from this though is that the best way to find out everything else is to go buy a few packs and get painting. You will soon find what suits your particular way of painting and what doesn’t.