A beginning watercolorist has a lot to learn in both product knowledge and technique.
Paints, brushes, paper and preparation methods are all hazy concepts a student needs to corral and tame as he learns color theory, technique and basic painting skills.
Learning about the differences in watercolor paper takes away one of the misgivings a student may have and gives him an opportunity to paint on a paper best suited to his style.
Watercolor Paper Thickness and Weight
Watercolor paper thickness is measured by weight, and this figure is expressed as pounds per ream. Standard weights are 90 lb, 140 lb, 260 lb, and 300 lb. Thin papers need to be stretched if there will be considerable water applied to the surface to prevent warping and buckling. Generally, paper less than 260 lb should be stretched.
Watercolor Paper Fiber Content
Historically, watercolor paper was made of linen rag or waste material. Today, modern manufacturers use the term rag to designate natural fibers. Cotton has replaced linen as the primary fiber in watercolor paper, but paper with rag content at less than 100% add hemp, flax, synthetic fibers or wood pulp to the blend. These are sold as student grade papers and are inexpensive to use for practicing technique or for casual sketching.
Watercolor Paper Surfaces
Whether paper is machine made or handmade, there are three surfaces available. Different manufacturers have their own variations in the tooth or texture of their paper, but the industry lists three basic standards for paper surface texture.
Cold Press Paper
Cold press paper is also known as NOT. This denotes that it is not hot pressed. Cold press is the most popular paper, as the texture lies between rough and hot press papers. This paper is a good choice for a beginning watercolorist, as it provides texture to create interesting effects and still allows precise detail. It is a forgiving support that withstands abuse. The paper also holds paint well for multiple layers of color application.
As the name suggests, this paper has a highly textured surface that works well with dry brush technique, leaving white highlights of paper unless a wet wash is applied. When used in a juicy wash, settling and granulated pigment paints will dry with interesting results on this paper. The pigment settles in the crevices of the paper and leaves the crests much lighter in tone. This random effect is great for impressionistic and abstract painting.
The paper withstands scratching with a knife or razor blade. Use this paper when detail is unnecessary or when you want the surface tooth to make an impact in your composition.
Hot Pressed Paper
Hot pressed paper is a very smooth surfaced paper that has virtually no tooth. This paper is suited for large expanses of even color application. However, this is no job for a beginner.
This surface, with its minimal friction, is difficult for a beginner to use. Glazing takes a deft and gentle stroke to avoid lifting paint from earlier layers. Paint tends to slide, as there is no tooth to hold the pigment in place.
Removing paint to repaint an area generally will result in an obviously reworked passage, so this paper is not the best choice for an artist who doesn’t have a clear vision of their painting in mind.
The ability to do precision rendering and a consistent surface that does not interfere with the brushstroke of the artist make this a preferred surface for realism and ultra realistic painting.
Watercolor Paper Sizing
Watercolor paper is treated to reduce the absorption rate. This sizing is applied either externally to the surface of the pages or infused into all layers of the paper. Untreated paper is too absorbent for painting, so all modern watercolor supports have sizing.
If you want greater absorption when painting, wet the page with plain water to dissolve some of the surface sizing. This is useful when you want a solid, unblemished wash of color.
Watercolor Paper Dimensions And Packaging Options
Paper is available in many sizes and packaging formats. A full size sheet of watercolor paper is 30 inches x 22 inches. It is also available in half sheets and quarter sheets. It may be sold individually or in blocks or pads. This packaging is convenient, but it is more costly than loose sheets.
Paper produced in a block allows the student to paint without stretching the paper. The paper is held on all four sides so there is minimal buckling when wet.
The most economical way of purchasing watercolor paper is by the roll. The standard sizes are 44-1/2 inches x 10 yards and 51 inches x 10 yards.
Watercolor Paper Manufacturers
Arches is one of the best-known paper manufacturers, and their watercolor paper is 100 percent cotton rag. This French manufacturer has a wide selection of sizes and weights for the professional artist.
Fabriano watercolor paper is created in Italy and is 100 percent cotton. This paper is available in both white and extra white colors. The paper is sized both internally and externally for consistent absorption.
Bockingford paper is milled in England with alpha wood pulp. This paper is less costly than rag paper, but it is a good value and is of archival quality.
House brand watercolor papers are available from a number of art supply merchants. These papers generally cost less than name brand products. The sizes, weights and surfaces of the papers will vary.
This is just a small selection of paper companies. There are many paper manufacturers and handmade paper producers.
Choosing a watercolor paper can take some time and experience. As your skill grows, your tastes and preferences will change. Different techniques have different requirements for paper tooth and weight, so one paper is never enough.
As your skill increases, try out various manufacturers and products in your quest for paper perfection. You will have a few favorites and some failures, but that’s part of the excitement of watercolor painting.