Watercolor Paper

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artists’ Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Oriental watercolors and watercolor papers have been around long before Ts’ai Lun patented papermaking in China in A.D. 105. Western watercolor papers, as we know them today, were developed during the second half of the eighteenth century and are, therefore, a relatively modern achievement. James Whatman paved the way for the development of watercolor paper when, under commission in the late 1750s, he replaced the traditional coarse laid wire screen of the papermaking mould with a wire screen so fine that it was called “wire cloth.” This allowed for an even formation of the pulp fibers without any textural impressions left on the surface of the newly formed paper. This new style of paper was called “wove” paper and was primarily developed for printing. Whatman found that various textures could be imparted to this textureless paper. He discovered, for example, that when felt blotters of various textures were applied to the stillwet paper surface and pressed, impressions of those textures were imparted to the paper.

Whatman made paper available in three finishes-“hot press,” “not” (which meant “not hot press,” and has come to be called “cold press”), and “rough.” During this time, watercolor papers were still classified as drawing papers. Whatman has been credited with the adaptation of the “hard size” (alum-gelatin sizing) for use in watercolor papers. Sizing is particularly important in these papers because it allows the color to stay on the surface as the water sinks in. This gives watercolors their brilliance, which would be lost if the color were to sink below the surface with the water. An additional benefit is that the color can be reworked because of its accessibility on the surface of the paper. Arches watercolor paper has retained its popularity because of its “hard size” as well as its double sizing, both of which permit erasure and repeated washes. The heavily sized paper gives excellent control of watercolors.

Several manufacturers have attempted to resolve the problem of acidity due to alum hardening by simply not using alum. This approach produces a watercolor paper that is not popular with artists using traditional watercolor techniques. Watercolorists who do abstract expressionist work, however, often prefer the softer look that colors have on the surface of this type of paper.

Strathmore’s 100 percent cotton watercolor paper has the new synthetic sizing called Aquapel, which can be buffered. (Eventually all fine watercolor papers will convert to this kind of sizing.) Strathmore’s paper has two deckled edges and two cut edges, which makes it less popular among watercolorists who like to use the whole sheet and prefer to show four deckle edges in framing.

Whatman, Saunders, and Strathmore papers, as well as Fabriano and the Royal Watercolor Society paper, are still among the world’s finest. Today’s watercolor papers come in-many different sizes, weights, and packages, such as pads and blocks. There are still only three categories of finishes available, but each category varies from brand to brand, allowing somewhat more choice for the artist.

Hot press has a smooth vellum surface with a very fine tooth. This finish is excellent for soft drawing materials, pen and ink, brush linework, wash, and airbrush. This type of paper is not as popular for traditional watercolor techniques.

Cold press, or semirough, is the most popular finish and is especially good for beginners. Cold-press finish is excellent for traditional watercolor technique and, because of its moderate texture, will handle some detail. This finish is also excellent for charcoal, pastel, and paint sticks.

The purpose of the texture in watercolor paper is to create a sense of depth. One of the ways to accomplish this is by varying the ways that the finish receives the color. A wet wash will cover the peaks of the finish as well as penetrate the valleys. One color will tend to look like two because of the difference in the ways that the light strikes the peaks and the valleys. When a second, drier wash is applied, it will tend to cover the peaks without penetrating the valleys, and will also miss some of the peaks. A painter can rapidly develop many textural effects with a minimum of effort. How the individual artist develops this technique is what makes this simple medium so versatile. Some experimentation with styles of cold-press finish, such as irregular versus laid, should be done to determine what is best for you.

Rough finish has pronounced peaks and valleys; even wet washes tend to be speckled with some spots of white showing through. This finish is not for beginners, but unfortunately for them, most of the less expensive watercolor papers are available only in a rough finish. Many people give up watercolors only because they started with this finish. It takes advanced skills to handle rough finish successfully. The large peaks and deep valleys tend to produce errors that are difficult to hide. When the finish is used by an experienced watercolorist, however, the results can be amazing. Rough finish can be used effectively with acrylics, paint sticks, and some pastels.

Watercolor paper is packaged in several forms: pads, rolls, sheets, and watercolor blocks. A watercolor block is a stack of watercolor paper, between 90 and 140 lb., that is gummed together at the edges, making it possible to do a painting without prewetting and stretching the paper, as is usually required for papers of weights under 200 lb. After the painting is completed on the watercolor block it is allowed to air dry, without the help of the sun or a blow drier. Air drying eliminates the risk of splitting the gummed binding that holds the paper together.

Arches watercolor paper is the brand most readily available in sheets, rolls, pads, and watercolor blocks. Arches paper is mouldmade in France only during certain times of the year because the water from the river used to wash the paper becomes muddy during the winter. This accounts for the slight variations in whiteness from batch to batch as the water begins to change. Arches comes in the largest variety of weights, sizes, and packaging of all the watercolor papers available in North America. The weights for 22″x30″ range from 90 lb to 400 lb. Sheet sizes range up to 40″x60″. Arches has recently introduced an excellent student-grade paper called Archette. It consists of 25 percent cotton fiber; the balance is alpha pulp, and is 270 GRS/m2 or 127 lb in size 22″ x 30″. At the present time, Archette is only available in cold press finish. This paper is significantly less expensive than Arches 100 percent rag version, yet its handling characteristics are almost identical.

Fabriano also makes a wide variety of watercolor papers. This company is particularly known for its Esportazione series, the finishes of which are quite rough. This paper is one of the few entirely handmade 100 percent rag watercolor papers available today. Fabriano also produces a watercolor paper named Artistico, which is a mouldmade paper of 100 percent rag and is more affordable than the Esportazione. The 300 lb. rough in the Artistico series is said to be produced on an especially slow-running papermaking machine, which allows the water to drain slowly. This process creates a paper with characteristics close to those of a handmade paper.

T. H. Saunders watercolor paper has undergone a number of changes in the company’s attempt to make a more archival and better-quality paper. The current product is quite good and is certainly less likely than most to acidify with age. This may also be said of Strathmore watercolor paper. Canson Mi-teintes, which comes in thirty-five colors, was originally developed as a lightweight watercolor paper, but today is used more often as a pastel paper. It is currently only 66 percent rag, and buckles considerably when wet. Most of these companies make both mouldmade and machine-made papers, with different grades of pulp and qualities of finish.