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Tips for Selecting The Right Watercolour Paper

The Watercoloor paper you use can make or break your painting.

It comes in a wide range of sizes, qualities and even colors.

Whilst watercolour paper isn't overly expensive as painting materials go, in parts of the world where it has to be imported, its cost is proportionately higher.

Therefore,a few sheets ruined and the cost, time wasted and frustration stack up big time.

By understanding a few, simple principles, you can keep this wastage to an absolute minimum - though I strongly suggest you never throw any of your 'spoilt' pictures away. Then they're always there to provide proof that you are improving!

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Don't worry, you will make mistakes with your watercolor painting! It's part of the learning process.

And you may not think so at times, but it is part of the fun!

Any artist who has ever put paint to watercolor paper will lose a fair few sheets to experience. So what can you do to leapfrog at least some of the biggest obstacles?

Read on!


How Do I Buy Watercolor Paper?

Here's what's readily available when you buy watercolor paper:

Pads or blocks of between a dozen and 20 sheets. They come with a thick card backing you use as a drawing board.

Pads are normally spiral wire bound. Watercolor paper blocks are glued on all four edges ...see why further on.

Individual sheets from 30inches x 22inches (Imperial Full Sheet), 22 x15 (Half sheet) and 15 x 11 (quarter sheet).

You may still also see quaintly titled sizes such as Double Elephant (about 40" x 25") but I wouldn't recommend these if you're new to the watercolor painting technique, unless you want to cut your watercolor paper to a more manageable size.

You can buy watercolor paper in rolls - typically about 60" wide and 10 or more yards long. Although much more economical than the pads, they still represent a heavy initial investment and again, for the newcomer, I'd rely on the smaller sizes at first.


Paper Textures

Watercolor paper is put through different types of rollers

Some of these - such as for Hot Pressed - may be metal, hence the smooth surface. Others have various textures of felt giving the paper its distinctive 'grain'.

The grain or texture allows the watercolor paints to settle in the hollows of the paper to varying degrees.

This gives some very pleasing effects - especially when you know which colors are more prone to settle (granulate) in the paper... and as you learn to exploit this knowledge. Each brand has its own grain and many artists choose their paper for this reason alone. There are three types of textures.

Have a look at the picture above. The three main textures affect the deposit of color in different ways, as you can see. A heavyweight cartridge paper is also shown because that can be used as well as watercolor paper.

HP (Hot Pressed) - , a smooth texture ideal for detailed work or using a pen with your watercolors. Pen and wash incidentally, is very a popular and forgiving technique. (I've rescued many a picture that's been consigned to the 'Whoever Said You Could Paint?' folder by the selective addition of some pen work!)

NOT (Cold Pressed or Not Hot Pressed) - has a moderate texture and is the most popular surface for beginners and experienced artists alike.

ROUGH - as its name suggests this is the coarsest surface and is ideal where you want to lightly run your watercolour brush over parts of the picture.

This gives a lovely hit and miss effect where the brush bounces across the uneven surface. The white specks of unpainted paper add an unrivalled sparkle and with practice, you can really exploit the medium to the full.

BOCKINGFORD - an excellent student quality watercolor paper which can be obtained in a NOT and in a ROUGH surface.

It's a mass-produced paper and normally has a straight edge round all four sides. The more expensive, largely hand-made brands have deckled (ragged) edges.

Bockingford is a type of paper rather than a brand name and available from many firms, who put their own brand name to it.

It's also available in a variety of tints to add instant atmosphere to your pictures. A couple are shown here with the white paper, to compare the subtle changes in colors that take place.

Even though intended as a student paper, it's widely used by most artists. I've used it for years alongside the dearer art papers, with no problem at all.


Weight and Thickness

Watercolor paper is produced in various weights (thicknesses) - numbered either in lbs (pounds per ream) or gsm (grams per square metre).

Most common is 90lb (200gsm), 140lb (300gsm) or 300lb (about 620gsm). It looks and feels a bit like blotting paper.

However, the big difference is that watercolor paper has a coating of size on both sides which lets paint soak in, but not spread uncontrollably, as it would on blotting paper.

The most common (140lb) is probably better when stretched but I know a lot of artists who don't bother. And some of the gummed pads in this weight are designed so you don't need to pre-stretch it.

The lighter 90lb will always need stretching if you're using heavy washes. 90lb is cheaper, but can be more trouble at first for the beginner, until you learn how to stretch watercolor paper properly - every time.

The heavy 300lb probably doesn't need stretching but it is quite expensive and doesn't always have the same texture of its 140lb equivalent.

Personally I tend to stick to the 140lb weight, using different textures depending on the subject.


Watercolor Pads & Blocks

Although more expensive than plain sheets, Watercolor Pads and Blocks have their advantages... especially if you're painting on the move.

Pads with a spiral binder are excellent for keeping your paintings as a collection.

Perfect for a painting holiday, when flicking through all the pictures months or even years later, it conjures up instant memories like a photo never can!

Watercolor Blocks, glued on all four edges, are designed as a mini-drawing board. The heavy card support lets you rest the block on your lap if you like - and without the need to stretch your paper either...

When you've finished, slide a palette knife or similar under the top sheet in the gap in the glue you'll find on one side. Carefully ease it all around the sheet, lift it off and there's a clean sheet underneath, ready for your next masterpiece!

Watercolor Pads and blocks are readily available in art supply stores from 7inch x 10inches up to around 24 inches x 16inches. Actual sizes vary by brand name.

You can also get Bockingford paper in a handy postcard-size watercolor block, glued down just one edge,so you can paint a holiday scene and send it homewith a message on the reverse to your friends. (Put in an envelope to protect it though!)


Some Final Hints When Buying

Watercolor paper is manufactured in various ways and in many cases, is still a largely handmade process. Because of this, sizes, weights, qualities and finishes do vary - sometimes within the same brands.

In many ways this adds to the charm of watercolor - you never quite know what to expect! Paper technology and its development can be traced back to ancient Chinese times and every brand, texture and type has its supporters.

There is no one best art paper, only what works best for you. I've put together a few more tips below, which don't readily fall into any of the other sections we've looked at. Remember, at the end of the day, your best guide is to try different watercolor papers and see what you like the best.

  • Check your watercolor paper is acid-free - this is standard with all the better brands. Any acid deposits in cheaper paper will attack your watercolor over time, damaging both it and the paper.
  • Different brands vary in whiteness. This can subtly affect your picture.
  • Whilst some are advertised as allowing you to easily lift off color during painting, they may be more difficult to work with in the first place eg: laying a smooth wash.
  • The HP, NOT & ROUGH textures vary in density and pattern from brand to brand.
  • There is a very slight difference in the front of a sheet to the reverse. The front side can be identified by holding it up to the light to check the watermarkreads the right way round.
  • Don't be afraid to use the reverse. After all, you've paid for both sides!
  • Always try various surfaces and weights to see which works best for you.
  • Some art stores have 'variety packs' so you can try several different brands and textures of watercolor paper at once before you lay in larger stocks.
  • Check your paper isn't dented or scored when you buy it. If it is, reject it before you use it. It's almost guaranteed to show up as a dark mark when you paint, which you won't get rid of. Sod's Law says it'll be right in the middle of that fabulous sky you've just created...
  • in the same vein, check individual sheets carefully before you buy from an art store. People come into the shop, pick a sheet out, put it back and get something else. You're left with fingermarks or maybe greasy deposits on the paper that you only notice when you get home.
  • Blocks and pads are often shrink-wrapped, so you shouldn't have this problem.
  • Paper is cheaper when bought by the sheet and certainly by the roll. Pro rata, about half the cost of a watercolor block or pad.
  • Ask the assistant to roll it. Never fold it to fit the carrier bag.
  • When you get it home, unroll it and put it under other sheets or between a couple of large boards to flatten it. Cover these with kitchen towel or similar to keep the paper clean.
  • Store paper and pads flat in a cool, dry area. Don't put uneven heavy objects directly on the paper, which might gouge the surface

This article should help you go and buy your watercolor paper with confidence.

Now go and get a sheet of watercolor paper, think a nice thought, and paint a line round it!


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