This is part of my Watercolor Lessons series of posts, where I share personal experiences that I feel have not been sufficiently or succinctly covered elsewhere. If you’re interested only in the lessons and not my normal blog posts, you can easily select them in the categories box on the right. ”
Importance of Good Papers
I’m going to tell you a little secret. While some watercolor instructors will tell you that they’ve seen many students do their best work on El Cheapo Brand watercolor paper, you want to start using the good stuff as soon as possible. I keep some cheap paper around for quick color studies or testing colors before I lay them down, but that’s it.
Benefits of good paper:
- Colors will look more vibrant.
- Paint will apply to the paper better and more evenly.
- It just feels better to work on.
- Paper will definitely change the way you paint, so it’s better to learn and become accustomed to good quality paper from the beginning.
- The ladies love a man who knows the value of good paper.
There are many kinds of paper out there, and I’m not going to review them all. I’d suggest buying a sample pack from Cheap Joe’s and seeing what works well for you. When it comes right down to it, nothing I say can make that decision for you. What paper you use is a very personal choice, and probably one of the most important. I’ll talk about two kinds here which I love, but are quite different. Arches Aquarelle Rough and Fabriano Artistico Rough Extra White, both in 140 lb (300 gsm). Both are high quality professional papers.
Arches: Arches is a sexy paper. I absolutely love the texture, and the surface is quite durable. It allows for lifting and a fair amount of scrubbing. It’s very easy to lay down incredibly even washes, if you’re into that kind of thing. A negative point, in my opinion, is that it seems to really suck up the water. Maybe it’s just the way I work, but unless I really slop on a lot of paint and water, my brushes go dry much more quickly than on the Fabriano. Arches is considered by many to be the best of the best, and it’s easy to see why. It’s quite expensive, but worth the price. Up until recently, it was my go-to surface.
Fabriano Artistico Extra White: The manufacturer of this paper has been in the business since the 13th century, so you know they’re doing something right. This is what I use now. It has its drawbacks when compared to the Arches. It’s much softer and will handle neither scrubbing nor lifting well. Heck, even painting over an area too much will cause it to start to go “funny.” There are two reasons I use it. First, the colors seem to sit on top of the paper and are so incredibly bright, and with my style, this is important. I’ve tested it against the Aches, and when the painting is dry, the colors really “pop” more. The second point is a little more difficult to explain, but essentially, my washes tend to get these really cool looking runs and imperfections in them that I just love. It’s not a defect of the paper, but just the way it handles the paint. Lastly, it feels very comfortable and natural to me, and maybe that’s the most important thing. I just don’t struggle with it like with some other papers.
Preparing and Stretching
Some people will tell you to soak your paper in the bathtub, tape it to a board with butcher’s tape, sprinkle magic pixie dust on it, dance around naked under a full moon, and just do a whole lot of unnecessary work. I never do any of this (except for the naked moonlight dancing, but that’s unrelated). I tried it in the beginning, got sick of it, and quickly found the method below to be the most painless and offer great results.
Here’s what you need:
- Watercolor paper
- Artist’s masking tape
- Water resistant board
- Spray bottle
- Foam brush
- 5 minutes
Step One: Using a very wide roll, tape the paper to the board. Go all the way around, and if your board is cut just slightly larger than the paper, you can wrap the tape over the edge of the board to give a little extra strength. Carefully press the edge of the tape into the paper so the paint doesn’t bleed underneath. I use a very thin tape and it works perfectly. Be careful! Not all masking tape is created equal, and some will tear the paper when you remove it, or let loose when it gets wet. Buy some and test it on a scrap piece of the paper you’ll be using.
Step Two: Spray a mist of water on your paper. Make it enough to bead and soak into the paper, but not so much that you could float the Titanic on it.
Step Three: In even strokes, gently push the water off the edges of the paper using the foam brush. I do this almost immediately.
Step Four: Have a frosty beverage and wait for it to dry. You’re done!
Okay, so why do we wet the paper and use the foam brush? Most papers will buckle, bubble and warp (see photos above) when they get wet making them difficult to paint on. Some of them, are really, really bad about this. It’s like painting on the rolling hills of, er, someplace hilly. However, once it dries, it won’t buckle again the next time it becomes wet, or at least not nearly so much. It’s already adjusted. So by doing this first, when you do paint on it, it will stay nice and flat.
In the beginning I mentioned that some watercolor teachers say their students often do their best work on cheap paper. Why do you think that is? Lack of inhibition. The students aren’t worried about screwing up their El Cheapo watercolor paper, and they just paint freely. When you take the step to the good stuff, don’t tighten up because it’s more expensive. Watercolor should not be painted rigidly. If you find yourself working that way unintentionally, step back, shake it off, maybe grab some scrap paper and throw down some color, and get back into the right frame of mind. The subject and your style should dictate how you paint, not the cost of the paper. If it does, you’re just going to screw it up anyway.
What paper do you use, and why? Love to hear your comments and suggestions, as I’m always trying out new things, too. Next time I’ll be talking very, very briefly about paint.