Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Tips on buying paper for watercolor media

Whichever watercolor medium you are using: paint, watercolor pencils, markers or even watered-down acrylic paint, you need to be careful of what papers you buy.

What's best?
When I started out in fine arts, of course I would buy the least expensive because I didn’t want to invest too much money into something I may hate. Seems to make sense. Except when you are using bad materials, you often have bad results. As a teacher once said, "A bad painting is either the artist or the materials." Hmmm.

As a case in point, I had a teacher who recommended Strathmore watercolor paper, what I now call wood-pulp paper. I was new to watercolor, so I went out and bought the stuff. But no matter how hard I tried, I never got the paint to look like anything I saw in magazines or books. The paint literally just sat on top of the paper, never really penetrating it.

Then, I took a weekend workshop on watercolor painting. Fortunately, the instructor supplied the materials (something I truly appreciate). This is where I learned about using the right paper for the right job. It's best to use 100% cotton, not the stuff that's made from trees and/or other materials.  The entire process changed for me. Suddenly I witnessed watercolor pouring and blending over the paper with ease. It was wonderful.

Below is an example of how watercolor paint reacts on wood pulp paper and cotton paper. Notice the rooster painted on the left is on the Strathmore paper, while the one of the right is 100% cotton. It makes a difference.

So, here's my best recommendation: don’t buy the cheap stuff.  And most importantly, if you are using a wet medium, your paper needs to somewhat thick and tough. Below you will find a chart for a variety of papers. 

Paper companies

All of the above paper companies are fine. I use them all; my favorite is Sanders-Waterford from England, but Arches (France) and Fabriano (Italy) are good as well. Stonehenge paper is wonderful. I use it for my colored pencils but have found it to be great for water-soluble pencils as well. In fact, Stonehenge has just come out with their "aqua" brand specifically for water media.

Paper characteristics
There are three basic types of paper: hot press, cold press and rough. Also, there are three ways to make paper. Let's talk about the former first. Paper can be:
  • Handmade with deckle edges on all four side (usually rather expensive)
  • Mold-made, although done on machines created with deckle edges on two sides (reasonably priced)
  • Machine, may have deckle edge,but made by machines, using wood pulp
All good artist quality paper is made from 100% cotton because of its strength and longevity. There's a belief that the paper will last one year equal to the amount of cotton in the paper. Thus, good paper should last 100 years. There's evidence regarding this with the preservation of many papers from our human history.

By the way, there are some papers on the market that have only 25% cotton that I like, especially for sketching. I often use Fabriano studio paper and Pentalic's Nature Sketching sketchbook, both of which have 25% cotton. My rule of thumb is that I don't spend a lot of money for sketching paper--it's not usually for a final, frameable  project. 

Beside the fiber content of your paper, you should always buy paper that is acid free which may not be the case with wood pulp paper. Let me tell you why. I once spend hours on a colored pencil project using newsprint paper. Today that lovely drawing has not only yellowed, but the paper is also beginning to disintegrate (another early days mistake). 

The surface of your paper is a major consideration as well. You can get cold press, which is a bit more textured or bumpy as I refer to it or you can get hot press, which is a very smooth surface, also called plate. The cold press paper is used worldwide by watercolor artists. The hot press can be use for ink, watercolor wash, water-soluble pencils and even colored pencils. I love the hot press paper that Saunders-Waterford create. And one thing, there is the rough surface, which is exactly what is sounds like--rough, toothy, gritty. It's hard to work on (for me).

As I said above when working with a wet medium, you need good sturdy paper. That's when paper weight comes in. You can buy paper of course as thin as your ordinary copy paper at 20# but I can assure you that if you try to use copy paper with watercolor, you'll have a wiggly, wobbly paper after you're done.

Papers come in higher weights but what you want to hone in on is at least 90#. This is the least weight that can hold wet, but it will have to be stretched. In other words. wet paper taped down on all edges to a board to keep it from causing hills and valleys. The same is true for 140#. I often buy papers in blocks where the paper is pre-stretched and glue to the edges. I used to love stretching paper, but have found it easier just to buy the blocks.

If you go higher than 140#, such as 156#, 200# and 300#, you'll find that you can eliminate the stretching, but I have to warn you, if you are going to use a lot of water on even the heavier papers, be warned, the paper can still ripple. In the end. I usually use 140# paper for my water-soluble pencil on hot press. I don't work on massive projects, so this combination really works for me. 

Paper colors
In recent years there have been two types of white watercolor paper introduced. Along with traditional white, you will see bright white or high white. The latter has such a brighter white that enhances vivid colors and brighter highlights.

I did some experimenting this past spring while preparing for a workshop and I found that Stonehenge (drawing) lends itself nicely to water soluble pencils, as you can see below. The colors went down beautifully and wetting never caused a wrinkle. Having said that though, I do not believe this paper would tolerate heavy washes; that's where the Stonehenge Aqua would a better choice.

Experiment using Stonehenge paper (drawing) for
watercolor pencil. Worked well.

How papers are sold: pads, blocks and sheets
As I mentioned above, you can purchase a lot of watercolor paper products in pad form or what’s called block. That’s when several papers are glued together, all way round the edge to avoid stretching. Although if you use heavy watered washes, you’ll still experience buckling.  The other way to purchase paper is by buying big sheets, usually 22” x 30”. I have a tendency to buy paper this way. I simply cut the paper to the size I want. Sometimes you can find real bargains on line, but generally, you can expect to pay five dollars or more per sheet.

A word to the wise 
Don't be like me (in my early art career). Buy the best paper you can afford. There's simply no substitute for using the right tools for the right job.