The three main supplies for watercolour are paint, brush and paper. And out of the three, it is probably more important to have good paper than brush or paint. Nowadays, you can get decent paint and brush at affordable prices, but good watercolour paper is always expensive. So in this article, we will see whether good watercolour paper is worth the money. And more specifically, explore the characteristics of good and bad watercolour paper.
This article is one of two parts. In the second part, I'll talk about watercolour paper texture.
By the way, the website Handprint has an extensive article on watercolour paper. You can read that to get more information. My article and tests below just serves to provide visual comparison.
In short, good watercolour paper should allow you to perform all watercolour techniques and have them perform predictably.
Two important attributes of watercolour paper is the cotton content and sizing.
Cotton content is, as the term suggest, the amount of cotton used to make the paper. Paper with high or 100% cotton content will be more durable and stand up to various watercolour techniques. For example, you can scrub and lift colours off cotton paper and the paper surface will still be intact. Do that on lousy sub-standard cellulose paper and you will see the paper fiber starting to come off. Cotton paper also allows you more flexibility in glazing, more specifically, allows you to add more layers of watercolour, again without damaging the paper surface.
Sizing is basically coating the paper with gelatin or some other material so that water does not get absorb totally into the paper. When paint remains on top of the paper, colours are most vibrant.
100% cotton paper that does not have sizing will not work well with watercolour. One example is the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Paper which has 100% cotton paper. The paper quality is excellent but because the paper does not have sizing, watercolour techniques do not work well on that paper.
For my tests, I've used three watercolour techniques. The first is to blend two colours together, the second is to charge in colour to a wet wash, and the third is to blend colour into the white of the paper.
I've grouped the paper into three groups, paper without cotton content, some cotton content and 100% cotton content. Below are the results from some of the watercolour paper that I have.
Daler Rowney Aquafine 300gsm, 0% cotton content
The colours do not move much when added to an existing wet wash. It is most noticeable in the second wash where I painted horizontal lines. Those horizontal lines are still visibly intact with slight feathering at the edges but you can definitely see the horizontal lines. This paper has a rather pronounced texture which to some people may look unnatural.
This paper is actually my favourite paper for use in my Youtube videos for demos because it's affordable and the colours can retain their vibrancy very well on it. The only downside is wet on wet techniques don't work well. And glazing beyond the second layer will weaken the paper structure significantly and you may even start to see paper fiber coming off.
Stillman and Birn Beta series sketchbook, 270gsm, 0% cotton
The colours are even more stationary when applied to an existing wet wash. For quick and basic watercolour sketching, this paper is still considered good enough. But you have to go in and get out quickly. Charging in colours is not going to work with this paper so getting gradation or colour blends is challenging. Having said that, there are artists who can make this paper work, but you really need to have the skills. Brenda Swenson is one of them.
Bee Paper Company Watercolor Art Journal, 260gsm, 25% cotton
This so called watercolour paper is just incapable of handling basic watercolour techniques. Because of the horrible sizing, paint that is added to wet washes just sit there and won't move. In the first wash, you can almost see the sharp edge from the second colour even though it was added to the wet wash. This problem is visible again with the horizontal strokes. Charging colours into washes with this paper is just impossible. In the last wash, I wanted the paint to flow down but it just stayed there. This is very disappointing watercolour paper. You can see similar performance in Denise Soden's video review of the paper.
Kunst and Papier 160gsm 35% cotton
This paper was able to handle wet on wet techniques quite well. However because the paper is rather thin, it is not suitable for heavy wet washes which will make the paper buckle significantly.
Fabriano Rosaspina printmaking paper, 200gsm, 60% cotton
This paper is in one of my Arkademie sketchbook. This is actually printmaking paper. For some reason, it can handle watercolour very well.
With the first wash, I was able to blend the colours nicely. Note that I have the paper tilted at an angle to allow the water to flow downwards, and even so, the second colour that I added was still able to diffuse upwards. In the second wash, those vertical lines have almost blended into the wash.
Note the beautiful fine grain texture on this paper. Having such good paper in a sketchbook really makes you feel like you want to use the sketchbook more.
Arches 300gsm, 100% cotton
The paint was able to move freely in the wet wash. The horizontal lines have diffused and spread out nicely. The performance is very similar to the Fabriano Rosaspina paper early.
The Arches paper is a thirsty paper and you need to use more water than usual. Note the dry brush edges that are visible.
I want to reiterate that is is the combination of cotton content and sizing that contributes to the paper quality. 100% cotton paper without sizing will not be suitable for watercolour. 0% cotton paper with good sizing can be good for watercolour, but may not be durable. Having some cotton content and good sizing can be a a good compromise between quality and price. Based on paper I've used so far, good 100% cotton paper is still significantly better than even the mixed cotton content paper.
Sketchbooks usually use paper with no cotton content and that's such a shame because many of the watercolour techniques are so difficult to perform on those paper. Painting with watercolour is already difficult enough and using lousy paper makes it even worse. That's why we have people who are so frustrated that they went to make their own sketchbooks, like The Perfect Sketchbook and Arkademie. Even myself have gone to commission others to make such cotton sketchbooks because I was getting increasingly frustrated by lousy paper. The last straw for me came when I brought the Bee Paper watercolour journal for an overseas trip.
Unfortunately when we are at art stores, we can't tell the quality of the paper just by looking at the packaging. You could certainly go for trusted brands like Arches and Fabriano. Those would be safe bets. But for people who want to enjoy watercolour but have limited budget, they may have to consider mixed cotton content paper and that's where the quality of those are not clear.
Hopefully this article will give you some insight to watercolour paper or help you understand the paper you are already using.
In the second part of the article, we will look at the surface texture, paper colour and weight.