Whether you are starting out with watercolour, have had a bit of practice or are a seasoned user you will probably know that watercolour requires a specific type of ground to work on. Due to the essential use of water, sometimes in large quantities, in the process normal drawing papers are often not suitable for your work, as paper can buckle or spoil effects due to the way it absorbs liquid
So you might be thinking, grand, give me some watercolour paper then, and suddenly have found your self with another heap of confusing letters, numbers and textures to choose from. If you are feeling a bit at sea about which water colour paper you should be using, never fear, we are here to break down the options for you.
To begin with let’s set down some basics. Watercolour paper comes in different surfaces and weights. When you are looking at watercolour paper you should see a piece of information which tells you the GSM (Grams per Square Metre) of the paper. This tells you how thick the paper is. Standard machine weights of water colour paper are 190gsm, 300 gsm, 356 gsm, 400 and 425 GSM. As a frame of reference normal printer paper is generally around 80 GSM, so this should give you an idea of how much thicker watercolour paper generally is. Paper which weighs less than 300gsm will probably need to be stretched before use or warping may occur. Heavier paper does not need to be stretched but is generally more expensive, so this is another consideration you may have to factor in to your choice.
Stretching paper does not have to be an ordeal but it is another stage of preparation which takes time if you choose to do this.
It is basically done in two steps.
- First, place the paper on your drawing board and wet it thoroughly and evenly with cold water and a small sponge (you can use another tool but a sponge is the best way to get an even wetting). Do this quickly and carefully because you have to move on to step two whilst the paper is still wet.
- Stick the paper to the drawing board using brown gummed paper tape all round the edges. It should overlap the paper by about 2cm. Leave the paper to dry naturally before using. Do not worry if it looks wrinkled as it will flatten as it dries.
If you still don’t feel confident with stretching your own paper, you can watch this detailed tutorial, to see what we’re talking about.
Textures of Paper
The second piece of information you will have to decipher is the paper texture.
Machine- made watercolour papers come in three textures:
Hot pressed watercolour paper is the smoothest option. Its fine grain and low level of tooth (so basically lack of textured surface) makes it better for large even washes, fine detail and work which combines pen and ink work with watercolour. Because the smooth surface does not allow the paint to collect in pockets, paintings on this kind of paper will also dry quicker.
Cold- Pressed (or NOT)
Cold-Pressed paper (also known as NOT because it is not hot- pressed) is more heavily textured than Hot-Pressed paper, but less so than rough papers. This intermediate texture makes it the standard choice for watercolour artists as you can get the benefits of a bit of texture without having to deal with some of the technical issues involved with a really rough paper. This surface may not be suitable for very fine detailed work, especially if it is linear as it can distort your lines due to the texture. For all other kinds of work this paper is the most versatile of the watercolour paper textures as most other types of work can be carried out on it. It is probably the best surface for beginners or if you are still unsure about your technique, or will be using a variety of techniques.
Rough paper does exactly what it says on the tin. It has the most textured surface (or tooth) of the watercolour papers and creates very specific effects due to the way that the paint pools in the indentations on the papers surface. The bigger and bolder your work is, the more likely that rough paper will work for you and it is not really suitable for fine detail drawings.
It is worth baring in mind that there is no international standard for what constitutes any of these textures and so while this gradation will always be similar different manufacturers may have slight differences. For example you may find that one manufacturers rough paper if more textured than another’s. It is worth trying different brands to see which one works best for you. Also bare in mind that the way that you work and the effect you want to produce will largely dictate which paper is best for you so what is good for someone else may not be what is best for you.
Choosing your Format
Watercolour paper is generally available in several different formats the majority of which we stock here at iartsupplies. You can buy your paper in gummed pads, spiral pads, blocks or single sheets from us. There is also the option to buy your paper in rolls or by metre but unfortunately not from us. If you would like to check out the ranges of watercolour paper we carry you can find the selection here, or visit us in store.
Again the format of the paper that you choose is probably largely going to be dictated by the type of work you are going to produce and also where you are going to be producing it. If you want something more portable you may want to consider a spiral pad, whereas if the conditions under which you are painting favour it you may select a larger single piece of paper. Remember that it is important to consider both the limits of the conditions in which you will be working as well as the desired outcome to produce a positive creative experience.
Did you Know?
Bockingford and Saunders watercolour paper, two very well known watercolour papers which we stock are both made in St. Cuthburts Mill. They have been making paper sine the 1700 and still use one of the only cylinder paper moulds left in the world, which is over 100 years old and was built in 1907. Here’s a nice little film they put together to show you their process. Cylinder mould paper making is a craft and a lot of skill goes into making sure the process runs smoothly, and this is reflected in the quality and the price of the paper produced.
Hopefully, this little breakdown has helped clarify some of the confusing information out there to do with watercolour paper. The important thing to do is not to panic, and remember that the choice ultimately is yours. The best thing you can do to help make your decision the right one is have a clear idea of the result you want, or be open to the varying results you can achieve whilst you experiment and find what is right for you. In the creative game this is one of the most important elements which we often forget, that what feels right is also an important consideration. The only way to find that out is to give it a go.