Watercolor Paper Selection

How to choose the best watercolor paper for your painting?

You can’t just paint a watercolor painting on any type of paper. You need to use artists’ quality watercolor paper if you want to produce good work that will survive the test of time.

Some cheap papers have little or no sizing on them which makes them behave more like blotting paper rather than watercolor paper, making it impossible for you to create beautiful watercolor washes.

Some of the well known watercolor paper manufacturers are Arches, Saunders Waterford, and Fabriano, but there are many more.

These professional watercolor papers are designed specifically to allow you to get the best results with your watercolor paint.

Not all papers are the same however, even though they may still be quality watercolor products. Watercolor papers come in different weights and sizes though generally there is a similarity between manufacturers as far as that goes.

Watercolor paper colors do vary from brand to brand and also within a brand, some are even colored. For example the Arches watercolor paper I use is slightly whiter than say the Saunders Waterford brand, which I also use; it has a slightly beige tint. I choose one or the other based on the painting I am doing. It all depends on the effect I am trying to create and which paper color will most assist my painting.

They also have different textures and sizing quantities which causes them behave differently. This I also take into account before making my selection. Again there is no general right and wrong with regard to textures or paper color or the sizing variations, you just have to choose based on what is best for the particular watercolor painting you have in mind.

So what am I saying here, well basically, go with a well known watercolor paper brand, especially when you start out as you will not have the experience to know which paper is behaving correctly or not. Also try different brands of watercolor paper till you get a feel for how they each perform so that, with experience, you will be able to select the best paper for the particular painting you are going to do.

Which is the correct side to use of my watercolor paper?

I am often asked in my workshops or watercolor classes if there is a correct or right side to watercolor paper. The front side of professional watercolor paper is the side that shows the readable watermark when you hold your paper up to the light. If the writing appears back to front then you are looking at the back of the paper.

Having said that; for Arches and Saunders Waterford paper I use there is no problem using either side. The main difference is that the front and back have different textures. With some papers the variation is barely detectable and with others it is quite noticeable. For this reason I choose the side which provides me with the type of texture I want to use for the particular watercolor painting I am going to paint.

If I am painting a watercolor landscape painting with lots of tree foliage then I use the roughest side of my paper. If I am doing a brightly colored sunset with soft cloud shapes I will most probably use a less textured paper like cold pressed watercolor paper. When I do my pen and ink and wash paintings of often use the smoother side of cold press paper – this still has a little tooth to catch the nib of my ink pen which I like, but not so much tooth that the pen actually gets stuck in the paper.

Watercolor Painting Exhibition: Tate Britain Gallery London

Tate Britain Gallery

I am currently visiting the UK and Ireland on a holiday and have just been to see the Watercolour Exhibition at the Tate Britain Gallery in London. What a wonderful exhibition. It covers the history of watercolor in Great Britain and treats such topics as:

  • History of watercolor paints and pigments including Gum Arabic and other binders
  • History of watercolor paper and its manufacture
  • Watercolor brushes and other tools and materials
  • Developments of watercolor techniques flat wash, scraping, dry brush, etc
  • Use in botanical art
  • Use in recording biological subjects e.g. birds and animals
  • Art of representational landscapes
  • Watercolor during the war
  • Watercolor through the ages and how its use has developed from a tool to render quick sketches and topographical studies to a fully fledged artistic medium
  • Development of Exhibition watercolors
  • Watercolor landscape paintings
  • Modern and abstract art with watercolor
  • The above topics are all supported with wonderful watercolor paintings through the ages including some great work by J.M.W.Turner, Alfred William Hunt, John Fredrick Lewis, John Sell Cotman through to more contemporary artists.

If you get to London I highly recommend you visit this exhibition!

Happy painting

Joe Cartwright