Thursday 24 January 2019

let's talk about : watercolour paper

Fabriano watercolour paper full sheet torn to required sizes

After asking about pens and inks, the most common question I get from followers and students is about the best watercolour paper to use. While the choice of paper is often a personal one, I am sure that all watercolour artists will agree that the use of good quality watercolour paper is probably the most important thing that will improve your paintings. You can struggle along with a cheap brush and possibly even cheap paints and get along pretty well, but paper will make a big difference right away.

Basically, the more you pay for paper, the better the paper will be and, most likely, the less you'll struggle with painting in watercolours. But where to start? And what do all those words on the packing mean?

This a long article with lots of info. If you just want a list of what I use, then skip to the bottom ;-)

Paper weight

Thicker paper is less likely to buckle when you paint. While I wet and tape my large sheets of paper to a board before I paint, a thin sheet will still buckle. Hollows in a painting surface are a real pain. Watercolour pools there and can create unsightly unevenness in a wash. Plus it does look too great afterwards when your finished painting looks like it's been left in the rain.
Look for paper that is 300gms (300 grams per metre squared) or thicker. The smaller the piece of paper you are painting on, the thinner you can get away with.

Paper texture

You'll see the following words on your paper somewhere ... cold pressed, rough, fine grain, hot pressed, not, satin etc. They indicate what texture the surface of the paper has, how smooth or rough it is. For the most part the main terms you're probably interested in are...

  • Rough - having a very dimpled surface. Lovely to paint on. Very forgiving. Perfect for landscapes. Paint floats on the surface, settles in the dimples and is fairly easy to remove.
  • Cold Pressed - also called Not (which is "not rough"). Less dimpled than rough. It's the paper I use the most because I like to draw lots of details in ink before I paint and a rough surface not as ideal for this. Very forgiving. Paint can be removed if you use a good quality fine art paper. 
  • Hot Pressed - a very smooth surface. Beautiful for drawing on. Lovely for tiny details. Gives very sharp edges to your washes. Tricky to control watercolour though, so not suitable for beginners. I use this for fine illustration work, for instance when I draw and paint birds or botanicals, when the drawing part is more prominent than the watercolour washes. I also use this paper for painting acrylic paintings.
The other terms like fine grain, or satin, or torchon, will probably mean either one of the above terms, so something in between these. It's always best to see the paper in person, but if you can't then ask the supplier what the paper texture would be most similar to.

Paper colour

Some manufacturers (like Fabriano) have each of the weights and the paper finishes in either a traditional white or bright white. I use both depending on the subject matter. You can see the difference in the paper colours in the photo above.

Fabriano Artistico watercolour single sheets and watercolour block

Pads / Blocks / Sheets

  • Pads have a number of cut sheets in convenient sizes with glue keeping the sheets together at the top. They are usually, but not always, of a lesser quality than the same brands single sheets. Often they would not be classed as a fine art paper. Do some research if you can.
  • Blocks (seen above with the mosaic cover), are similar, but have glue on all four sides with a tiny gap in the glue on one side where you can separate the top sheet from those underneath. This means the paper can't stretch or buckle when you apply paint. I find blocks wonderfully convenient for painting outside, because I don't need to carry tape and a separate board to attach my painting too. Alternatively, if your pad is not too big, and your paper weight very heavy, then you don't need to tape or use a board. 
  • Single sheets are usually sold in full sheet size or half sheet size (ie pretty big). I find this the most cost effective way to buy paper. You can see my favourite Fabriano paper above. I buy these packs then tear the sheets to the size I want. You can see the torn sheets in the top photo. (Notice my torn edge on the papers, plus the original deckled edge on some of the papers.) Single sheets of fine art papers also often have a light watermark from the manufacturer down one side. The Mercedes badge :-)

Paper content / sizing / brand

The best papers are 100% cotton, but paper content can include a number of other things and paper choice in this regard can be very personal. Especially if you love handmade papers.
Sizing is a protective layer that is on top of the paper, protecting it from water absorption and wear and tear.
Paper content and what the sizing is made of is what influences my choice in the brand of paper. I am very concerned with animal ethics, and since sizing is often made from gelatine (from factory farmed pigs), I choose either Fabriano or Hahnemuhle papers which are vegan.

Fabriano watercolour sketchbooks for sketching and painting outside.


One big advantage I've found of loving Fabriano paper is that I can buy it in single sheets, pads, blocks AND sketchbooks. All the same paper. I'm used to this paper. I know how the pen feels on it, how the ink dries on it, how easily my pencil marks erase and how to control my watercolour washes on it. It's a definite advantage not to have to be comfortable on a number of different papers when I paint outside or inside or do illustrations or landscapes.
My sketchbook preference is spiral bound books, because they're easier to control when balanced on my lap when I'm sitting outside, especially in a larger book. And you can tear out a masterpiece if someone would like it ;-)

Now all this Fabriano plugging probably makes you think I'm sponsored. I'm not! Here's a quick summary of other sketchbooks I've used over the years.

  • Moleskine watercolour sketchbooks: love the little pocket ones. Love the binding method which allows the book to open completely flat. They look pretty classy. But in larger sizes the paper is too thin and, for me, not a very good quality watercolour paper.
  • Stillman & Bin (Beta Series) : beautiful paper, although it's not a true watercolour paper, more of a mixed media paper. Bright white paper, which gives nice, bright watercolours. Sadly, not vegan, so I'm not using them anymore.
  • Hahnemuhle watercolour sketchbooks : my new favourite pocket sketchbook for hiking or taking everywhere. (See my hiking setup here). Very lovely paper. Bright white. The pocket size has the thickest paper I could find in sketchbooks of that size, so minimal buckling with lots of water. Opens pretty flat. I'm tempted to try these in a larger size. Vegan.

Pocket Hahnemuhle watercolour sketchbook for hiking and sketching


What I use...

  • Hahnemuhle watercolour sketchbook, pocket size. For my tiny sketchbook which goes everywhere with me and goes hiking
  • Fabriano Artistico watercolour block, 25x36cm, (orange and black mosaic cover). For sketching outside when I don't want top paint too big, but when I'm not walking too far and can carry the extra weight.
  • Fabriano Artistico, 300gms, cold pressed, traditional white, single sheets. For almost all studio work and sometimes taped to a light board for outside work. I tear the sheets to the size I want.
  • Fabriano Artistico, 300gms, hot pressed, bright white, single sheets. For studio work, botanicals or fine detail illustrations. Also for acrylic paintings on paper. I tear the sheets to the size I want.

Until next time!
If you have any burning questions about my materials or process, please pop them in the comments below or find me on Facebook or Instagram.

My other tips and techniques are found in the top menu.

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