Square 4: Materials, paper

Having survived my exam today, I feel relaxed enough now to sit down and write about paper or substrate choice for painting with watercolors. Here, there are many things that can be done, but the simplest place to start is to purchase watercolor paper. Do not use any old printer paper, or envelopes or other papers that you have on hand or are lying around.

Sure, you will be able to deposit and move around color on ubiquitous and cheap printer paper, but your paper will warp and fold on itself, forming pale mountains and dark valleys of color. Also, wetting the paper will weaken it and it will be likely to tear. Finally, if you fought through these hurdles, you will still have a piece of paper that does not dry flat once you have wet it. If you are going for that effect, don’t let me hold you back, but I strongly advise against it.

I started off with the Canson XL watercolor pad. It was very inexpensive, less than $10 for 30 9×12 sheets of 140lb watercolor paper. It allowed me to paint a bit. In fact, the sheep I have posted to accompany this post was painted on that paper. However, once I tried another paper, I realized that there are much better options. But first, lets dissect paper into the qualities you will have to navigate, namely composition, texture, format, weight, and size.

Starting with composition, this is what the ‘paper’ is made from. Some really are paper, made of 100% cellulose. The Canson XL watercolor paper is really just a thicker paper that is made from trees. However, there are other ‘papers’ that are made of cotton – often referred to as some percentage cotton rag, preferably 100% cotton rag. These are sheets of cotton with sizing in them that allow the paper to hold its shape. These are often also more expensive per sheet or per square foot. I do highly recommend them, as working with them is like a night and day difference. When working with watercolor and a lot of water, I advise you to work with something with more cotton in it. This allows it to hold more water for longer within the sheet itself, and not on top of the surface, which allows wonderful washes and blending to occur. The more cotton in the paper, the less the paper will buckle with water addition, as well. I have only had experience with Arches 100% cotton rag, so I can’t speak for other brands or blends of cotton and cellulose papers, but I am very impressed with it and really enjoy working with it. However, I still use the more inexpensive cellulose papers, like the Blick house brand and Strathmore brands, for practicing techniques or for quick sketches. They are also okay for when you are working with less water, more dry-brushing, thicker pigment paint mixes. In my opinion, do stay away from the Canson XL when just starting because it can be discouraging when working with it. It really doesn’t perform so well. I have done comparisons, and I have much better results with higher quality (and higher $) watercolor papers.

Before continuing on I will also mention something I read elsewhere when doing my own research, and it was that you can also paint watercolors on canvases. I think it makes sense, after all, it is cotton, just like the more expensive watercolor 100% cotton rag. However, it has to be pure cotton, without any primer coatings or gesso on the surface, because that would interfere with permeation of the watercolor. So, if the surface is primed with something that is good for painting with acrylic or oils, then that will just cause the watercolors to slide over the surface, without really sticking.

The next point is texture. This is what the surface of the paper looks and feels like. It does vary a bit between brands of papers or their composition, but there is not much to tell. If you buy cellulose papers, I noticed that the surfaces are quite smooth, and one side of the paper is often smoother than the other side, so keep that in mind. Also, this is more significant when you go to the store or go online and look at the cotton rag available – rough, cold press, and hot press. This is pretty easy. Rough is the roughest texture. It is good for some painting techniques. Hot press is the smoothest. It is made by heating the rollers that the paper is pressed through during processing. Finally, cold press is between the roughness and smoothness of the previous two choices. It is also the most used, sort of like a default choice for most people. I have only used the cold press so far, but I have a pad of rough and a pad of hot press waiting at home for when I feel brave enough to try one (or both) of them out.

Moving on we have the format of the papers. Here, I mean the way in which you can purchase these papers. They come in large separate sheets, which are often on the order of 22 or so inches by 30, or something. Just think large, like what I would think of as a painting (hah! good luck reading my mind). Then there are pads or spiral-bound notebooks, and these have all of the papers organized into a bound form, connected together at one end. I have only used this form. And finally, you can purchase something called a block of paper. This is a stack of papers bound on all four sides. They are all good options, but the looser the paper, the more potential it has to move around when you add water. So, the loose sheets or pads need to be fixed in place with tape or clips or stretched in some other fashion. I find binder clips to be pretty good. But, next time I will try to buy the large single sheets of cotton rag and cut them down to size, because it is the most cost effective way to get the best quality product that is easiest to work with.

Approaching the end we have the weight of the paper. This is an easy one. The higher the weight rating of the paper, the thicker it will be. Paper weights I have seen for watercolor are 90, 140, and 300 pounds. The one most readily available is 140lb paper, and that seems to be pretty versatile. It is standard in stores and online. It is all I have used, so far. I don’t think that 300lb paper is available in anything other than sheets, while the lighter papers are available in pads, blocks, and loose sheets as well.

Finally, let’s talk about money. How much you are going to be investing in your paper. Well, other than investing your time and energy, you have to shell out some money. Honestly, it is pretty reasonable, and there are often very good sales and deals in the art retailers and online, so cost really shouldn’t be that much of an issue. It also depends on how prolific you will be, as well as how you plan your painting sessions. The cheapest per square yard is going to be the sheets or rolls of whatever paper you buy. However, that is often hard to manage for a beginner, so I suggest just buying a pad or spiralbound notebook of watercolor paper and starting with that. They are priced somewhere in the middle, and the most expensive are the blocks of paper. Honestly, since I paint indoors, I have found no reason to purchase the blocks, but they could be convenient if you want to paint outside on some location. Now, this price gradient is applied within each paper type. So cellulose-based papers will be the cheapest, and cotton rag will be more expensive. That is something to keep in mind. When starting out, it is good just to pick up whatever paper you are comfortable with and just practicing technique on it. I know that I love my Arches paper, but I did start out on Canson XL. I do sometimes paint some studies on the Blick house brand watercolor, because I got a pad of large size sheets for half price during their summer sale. Also, keep in mind that you can cut those papers into halves, quarters, circles, it doesn’t matter. You can even paint on the backs. I do this all the time for paintings that I am not happy with, but I didn’t want to waste the paper.

Wow. It’s just paper, but I had so much to say. I hope you find it useful. Let me know your thoughts, especially if you have painted watercolor on canvas – because I am not so sure I believe that one, and am not ready to try it yet.

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