The good, the bad and the ugly of watercolour paper – advice on 7 things to look for

Your watercolour paper is more important than your paints or brushes, but no one seems to mention it. It REALLY, REALLY matters!

Why? Well in watercolour your paper is the lightest area – it becomes your white paint. So bare unpainted paper is usually visible. Lots of beginners think that they will wait until they improve to buy decent paper and just use cheap stuff to practice on. The trouble is that the cheap stuff is so unrewarding that it puts them off for life.

You can paint well with poor paint on good paper, but great paint on bad paper will not work.

Don’t take my word for it (and I am not in the pay of a giant paper mill!). This is what Susan said when I posted a film on YouTube:

– I certainly wish someone had told me this when I started in watercolour. I spent a year wrestling with cheap cellulose paper which was absolutely foul. I thought I was useless at painting and gave up for many years, thoroughly dispirited. I know how offputting it can be to fork out for the good quality papers as I am on a small, limited income but oh, the difference is just amazing and worth every penny. Good paper is a real joy and lifts your spirits, instilling confidence and enthusiasm, so thank you for pointing this out and saving people a lot of wasted money and heartache from the get-go.

Susan, YouTube

Good paper enhances your painting experience. It keeps your colours bright and clear and lets them move. Bad paper, makes you miserable. You will question why you are so bad at watercolours – it’s not you, it’s the paper.

Look at the same paint applied to different papers:

Top left was sold by a major art retailer – truly foul paper, top right Bockingford, bottom left a poorly sized handmade paper and bottom right, a High Street paper (which should be burnt)

I started painting on very cheap paper and a friend tutted at me and (very generously!) gave me some Bockingford & Arches as a present. It was a world away from what I’d been using – the paint moved so much better and the colour was so much brighter, I felt like I’d suddenly got better at painting! I buy in sheets & blocks now, it’s definitely worth the extra money.

Kate on YouTube

But decent paper does not have to be expensive. Let’s look at 7 things to consider when buying paper: texture, weights, acid free, fibre content, format, sizing and storing.

Texture

Watercolour paper comes in three general textures, though be aware that these are not standard across mills. Hot press is smooth and great for detailed work, but is not as absorbent and water is hard to control. Not or Cold Press is a medium texture. It is very versatile and tends to be a favourite. Rough has a pronounced texture which is great for dynamic brush marks and especially landscapes.

Weight

Paper weight is measured in pounds per ream (500 sheets) or grams per square metre. The heavier the paper, the more expensive it is. Thin paper will buckle and cockle when you use a lot of water on it, so 90lb will need stretching. For a small painting with not too much water, 140lb/300gsm will not need stretching. But for a larger painting and more water, do consider thicker paper. A heavier paper absorbs more water and will remain wet for longer, giving you more working time too.

Archival/acid free

Always look to see if your paper is acid free or archival whether it is a wood or cotton based paper. Archival means it should last for 100 years without yellowing or becoming brittle. Acid from the wood will need to be removed to give the paper longevity. Just think how newspaper turns yellow in the sunshine. This is the acid at work.

What’s it made from?

Watercolour paper can be made from cotton, wood or bamboo or a mix. Cotton is considered the best, but be warned you can get nasty cotton paper! The long fibres mean it is robust. Wood based paper gets a bad rap, but I love Bockingford and this is wood-based. It is also called cellulose. Bamboo papers are considered ecologically more sound due to the sustainability of the plant. I have no direct experience of this paper.

Format

Paper comes in sheets (a full imperial sheet of paper is 56x76cm approx), in pads (stitched or spiral bound) and in blocks (glued on all sides). While blocks and pads are convenient, loose sheets are more versatile and economic. You can cut them to size to suit your project. The danger of buying pads is that every painting ends up the same size.

Sizing

Manufacturers add sizing (traditionally gelatin) to paper to control its absorbency. It can be added during manufacturing (internal sizing) or coated at the end (external sizing). Look for vegatarian alternatives if you wish to avoid animal products. Sizing can break down if your paper is not stored well. It shouldn’t, but if your washes start going blotchy, that might be the cause. You can coat your paper with a sizing liquid, dilute Gum Arabic or gelatin to control the absorbency. If too much sizing is in place you can soak and dry your paper to remove it. Internal sizing should be more consistent and not as easy to remove, so if you plan to soak and stretch your paper, internal sizing might be a good idea. A hard sized paper lets colours sit on the surface and a soft sized paper means they will sink in. Harder sizing is good for wet in wet work.

You can get tinted watercolour paper which will set the mood for your painting

Storage

Stored well, paper should last for 100 years, but high humidity, extremes of termparature, and acid will degrade papers with time. Acid might be present in wooden drawers, or the greyboard of cardboard. If you are not convinced about your storage environment, don’t buy too much at a time and use fresh paper.

Just look at the difference that poor paper (left) has – it has an obtrusive texture and dulls the colours. You might find the surface pills badly too

I have done a short YouTube film if you would like to see some examples and more information about paper: https://youtu.be/9xu_kDRFwDs

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