To get the best results when sketching and painting it makes sense to use the best quality materials that you can afford. Then upgrade those materials as your budget allows.
Recently a blog reader wrote in saying that she had upgraded her art supplies to artist level watercolors (mostly Daniel Smith), purchased some quality Kolinsky sable brushes from Escoda, but was still using Canson XL Watercolor Paper.
Readers of this blog know that I’m not a fan of the Canson XL Mixed Media Paper. Because of that I’m not interested in trying the line’s watercolor paper. I have watercolor papers I love using.
In an effort to upgrade her paper this reader purchased Arches 140 lb. cold press watercolor paper in 10 x 14 inch pads, cut it down to half size and started using both sides of the sheet.
She’d been told this paper was the “gold standard for watercolor paper,” but after two months of daily watercolor sketching she wrote,
“I have been trying hard to like it, but I just don’t. I am mostly going direct to watercolor with no preliminary drawings. I cannot get an even wash. I cannot lift mistakes, I cannot get any shading in a color, it all waters down to the same. I cannot get a nice mixed edge where two colors meet.”
Next she tried Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media paper (which I write about all the time as it’s one of my favorite papers). She found that paper to work “so much better in all of [her] problem areas.”
This left her wondering what she was doing wrong with Arches? Why didn’t it work well for her like everyone else?
She’s asking a great question. She’s listening to her experience. She has put in 6o consecutive days of testing. That’s all good.
At this point it is time for her to look at her painting skills and knowledge. It’s time for her to move on to other papers to experiment on, as she did with the Strathmore 500 Series Mixed media paper. Since she liked aspects of that paper she has a ready comparison to Arches. With those specific preferences of workability in her mind she can now go off and test other papers.
Next she needs to realize there is no gold standard in paper.
So how do you choose a paper that’s right for you?
First you have to look at what you’re using—so let’s look a number of factors at play in the above example in hopes that this examination will help you seek out and find papers that help you work the way you want to work.
I’m starting with the easy low-lying fruit first. The above reader said she’s using quality paints made with great pigments. She doesn’t mention which pigment colors she’s using, or her lifting methods. For everyone reading please note the following if you’re having trouble lifting from watercolor paper.
- Use non-staining pigments if you expect to lift well on any watercolor paper. Manufacturers label their pigments as to staining characteristics.
- Let the paint passage you wish to lift dry COMPLETELY before you try to lift. Use clean water. Use a stiff brush that is moist, but not wet (squeeze it out). Clean your brush and squeeze it after each scrubbing in an area, no matter how short in duration. (In other words don’t grind your pigments into the paper surface you’re roughing up.) Blot the area with a dry paper towel after each passage of scrubbing. This picks up extra moisture and pigment. This will also allow the area to dry faster. If the paper starts to pill or rough up, stop, let it all completely dry, and then reassess whether you can continue lifting without damaging the paper, or simply need to let it go.
- Use paper with surface sizing that floats the pigment on the surface of the paper instead of allowing it to sink in. (I would expect to be able to lift non-staining pigments from Arches without too much trouble as it’s heavily sized. Also the sizing is a gelatin size. I find that works better than papers with starch or synthetic sizings.)
- Plan better on how to reserve your lights and the white of the paper. With practice you can eliminate or decrease the need to lift.
- For minute areas you wish to lift like highlights, instead allow the area to dry and then add white gouache.
If you have just joined the ranks of watercolor artists or hobbyists chances are you’ll have heard how wonderful Arches Watercolor Paper is and has been for more decades than most of us have been around.
Remember something though—papers change over time. Mills burn down and the felts used to texturize the paper surface are burned and new ones made. Even subtle differences like that can change how a paper responds to you and your brush.
I know hundreds of artists who learned to paint a certain way in art school, with a brand of paint, a type of brush, and a line of paper. And in 30 years or more they have soldiered on and never varied their supply choices, though they do grumble now and then that results seem more difficult to achieve. Some put it down to their aging eyes and hands. Others were never sensitive or thoughtful enough in responding to their original materials to perceive the changes they are now encountering. They just know they feel vaguely unhappy when working.
If you’ve only ever used one paper in one way you’ve limited yourself and need to experiment more. But you need to do the experimentation intentionally and with set ups that allow you to repeat results, i.e., don’t change all your materials and tools at once. Change paints and see how that goes. Then change a brush, and so on.
I write a lot about this on the blog and make some comments at the end of this post so I won’t repeat myself here. I’ll just say that you need to have an understanding of where you want to go. You need to be willing to take notes about how your brush drags or doesn’t drag on the paper you’re testing; as well as lots of other notes so that you can compare tools and materials over time.
You need to train yourself to be sensitive to your materials. But that’s a huge part of the fun of making art.
What some new artists don’t realize is that it isn’t just changes at manufacturing facilities that result in changes in art supplies. Climate change has changed the fur growth and quality of sable fur. Sable brushes made with today’s fur are going to be respond differently from earlier brushes which contained a different fur quality. Changes in poultry diet quality changed the quality of eggs. This has made albumen photographic printing different from 100 years ago.
Sometimes changes are obvious but we don’t find out until we pull a new sheet of paper out.
Fabriano Artistico was a longtime favorite paper of mine and I still enjoy using it, but around 2000 they changed their sizing.
Sizing is an additive put into paper that keeps the paper from acting like a blotter and soaking up ink and paint. Watercolor sizing is particularly important.
Great sizing allows the watercolor paint to float on the surface of the paper for a short while, depositing the suspended pigments gradually as the water evaporates on that surface—thus creating the glowingly transparent finishes watercolor is noted for. It’s an interaction between the paper and the paint.
Great paint on lousy paper may still look good because the color will be saturated and an artist familiar with the paint can tweak his application methods to his needs. But the lousy paper immediately removes some possibilities for the artist.
I had a bunch of Fabriano Artistico, made before the sizing change, in my flat file when the change happened. It was extra paper purchased because of sales, and because of a long-term project I was working on for which I needed the same paper throughout the project.
I started hearing from friends that they were having trouble with the paper. These were accomplished watercolorists, sensitive to their paper and materials.
Sure enough, when next I purchased Fabriano Artistico it was with the new sizing and my brush was a lot more draggy. It was less fun for me to paint on that paper with the new vegetable/starch sizing.
While I still think Fabriano Artistico is a lovely paper, I realize it is a different “being” from what I first knew.
Artists of all levels need to realize that just because something has been made for 400 years doesn’t mean it’s exactly the same as it was. We need to be adaptable and adjust.
Most important we need to understand our own approaches, goals, and needs so that we can walk away from a paper (or other material or tool) that isn’t working for us.
How Artists Use a Paper
Many artists working with Arches Watercolor paper have elaborate ways of soaking the paper and stretching it, before they use the paper—this alters the sizing on the paper. Soaking a sheet for 30 seconds to just dip it and get it wet is vastly different from soaking for 20 minutes before stretching. Not soaking a paper, since it comes on a block and you can’t submerge the whole block, will change how you work on that paper. So if your mentor is a paper soaker, if you want the response she gets, you’ll need to adjust in that way and start working on sheets you can soak.
If you purchase paper in a pad or a block and then use it as is, but your mentor (either your teacher or an author whose works you read) tells you how they stretch their paper, you need to realize you’re not working with the same “being.” He is altering the paint acceptance and handling levels of that paper by soaking it. Even if you are at his skill level you will never have the painting experience he does.
It’s as if he were cooking an elaborate recipe using a gas range and you were trying to replicate it on an electric stove top. (Yes, I only cook with gas so this is a heavily weighted analogy.)
I don’t know what sort of edge work the reader mentioned above is going for, but if you’re going for the edges a paper soaker gets, start soaking your paper.
Paper in Blocks or Pads
In general I don’t buy paper in blocks or pads. I find that the blocking and padding processes flatten the tooth of the paper beyond what it is in the loose sheet.
I grew up as a color pencil artist so tooth matters.
Tooth relates to the surface quality of the paper. A paper with a soft and not heavily sized surface tends to have a toothier surface where the fibers of the paper haven’t been compressed down tightly. These toothier papers take the dry pigments of color pencil and other dry media more readily. And this is regardless of the surface texture of the paper—cold press, hot press, laid, wove, kid, vellum, plate etc.
Recently I bought some papers from Hahnemühle that are only available in blocks. I rarely work in color pencil these days (and certainly not in my old detailed style). I didn’t buy the paper for that type of work. It took my brush pen well and that was enough for me. That’s an example of how you can use your awareness of your goals for a paper (using ink not color pencil) to make a suitable choice.
Find someone who is doing what you hope to do with the use of his materials. Take a class from that person. See how he is using the paper. Replicate those conditions. Put in your practice time to develop your own skills. Then you’ll understand what those materials can really do with those approaches.
Anything else is simply comparing apples to oranges.
Remember: There are exceptions to every rule. I don’t buy blocks or pads—but I do buy pads of Hahnemühle Nostalgie (because I can’t get sheets) and Strathmore 500 Series Plate Bristol. I use both papers for ink work so if the padding process flattens them more I’m fine with that.
Develop your rules, be specific and rational about your exceptions.
What’s Up With Arches Watercolor Paper?
I don’t use Arches Watercolor Paper enough to tell you that there are changes happening to the paper—I have too much on hand that is from “old” batches. I haven’t heard any “known-to-me” artist complain about the paper.
I think that the reader having trouble with Arches needs to look at her technique and see if she is trying to do something that only someone who soaks the paper does, or if her water usage isn’t regular and controlled.
It amazes students who watch me work to see amount of water I use varies drastically paper to paper, effect to effect. There is a timing to when you put another wash in another area for every type of paper, and that timing is something you get with practice, and which you then build your whole “attack” of executing the image. But it also takes into consideration things like changes in temperature and humidity in your painting environment.
I don’t know at what level of proficiency or nuance the reader having trouble with Arches is working at. And I haven’t heard from sources I know that the paper has changed.
Because of those two things I would suggest that she, and anyone in a similar position, find an artist working with Arches and take a class from him.
Go in prepared with your questions, ready to watch the demos closely. Take notes. In this way you can learn to rethink your approach in a way that makes the best use of the qualities of that paper.
If you can’t find someone local who teaches but know someone in your sketching group who paints on the paper you’re interested in, ask if you can buy a couple hours of his time to watch him paint and ask some questions. Some artists aren’t willing to paint in front of others so be prepared to be told “no” several times before you find someone. (Urban Sketcher groups are full of people who sketch in front of others all the time. That’s a good place to start.)
Alternately you can find someone online who streams demos. Watch those carefully. He might not answer your questions but with some careful viewing you’ll be able to work out what’s happening.
In general botanical art needs careful management of water and paint ratios. Even if you don’t want to paint botanicals you might take such a class to learn better water management. Keep in mind that many botanical artists have some slavish rituals from their own “upbringing” that might not be directly usable by you, or might causes bad habits in your own work—so keep your goals in mind. Use what is useful and move on.
Rose Martin and Meriel Thurstan’s Botanical Illustration Course with the Eden Project outlines a lovely approach that I recommend to students interested in learning to work in a detailed way with high control over the water they use.
Contrast that with any book or DVD from Charles Reid (I recommend The Natural Way to Paint for the book; look online for DVDs). His work will show you the other end of the spectrum of watercolor painting—which seems very splashy. Just pay attention and be aware that he also carefully controls his water!
Not Every Paper Is Available in Sketchbooks or Journals
Keep in mind that art papers are expensive. Not every art paper is available in book form because manufacturers couldn’t create an affordable, salable book with that paper.
As you learn about papers and discover those which work for you it might be useful for you to learn about bookbinding.
Having the paper I wanted to use in a book that was physically the size I wanted is why I started binding books.
I cannot tell you how happy bookbinding has always made me. You can read the blog posts over the past 11 years and get some sense of it, but in the early days, long before the blog, you would have to be passing the house to hear the shrieks of delight as I finished a book. I’ve been binding as an adult for almost 40 years now and the delight has not diminished one jot.
And binding doesn’t take any time from my painting. It supports it. (I’ve got posts on how to work binding tasks into your daily life.)
Remember too—binding doesn’t have to be a labor intensive process. You can sign up for my free pamphlet class at any time.
Make a few pamphlets with paper you’ve been told is great by someone whose work you admire. (But listen to what they say is specifically great about that paper, because a paper great for color pencil might not be great for your watercolor experiments!)
Then journal and sketch in those pamphlets one after the other, noting what you like or don’t like about a paper. Write those notes right on the back pages of the pamphlet; double column on the last page will probably be enough. (Don’t whine about writing on watercolor paper.)
You can go on to take classes for hardcover bindings if you fall in love with the binding process, but you can also simply keep binding pamphlets.
Pamphlets are easy to carry with you, look great filling up a shelf in your home, and are a simple way for you to paint on the paper you love in book form.
Artists Love Paper
If you’re ambivalent about paper you need to ask yourself why? Maybe you need to be sculpting instead? Maybe the iPad Pro and Procreate would suit you just as well or better? Amazing digital art is being made these days with digital tools!
But if you love natural media it has to go onto some surface, and typically that surface is paper. So you need to find out as much as you can about the paper you are using: including how to use it successfully.
J. M. W. Turner wrote begging to TH Saunders for some more of that “wove” paper he’d had a sample of.
Turner knew it was different. He knew the new wove paper was special. He knew if he could just get some more of that paper his life would be so much more fun, OK productive (which actually was fun for him). He knew that on that paper he could use paint in the way that he wanted to make his vision manifest in the world.
He needed the right paper.
We all do.
We Are All Different
While we all need the right paper, we don’t all need the same paper.
We live in an age where there is a paper explosion. There is paper made of bamboo, paper made of stones (!), and paper made specifically for just about every art medium you can think of from watercolors to markers.
We can find papers sized (coated) and sized (physically dimensioned) to suit our needs for whatever we want to do.
We have to work to get the skills and understanding so that we can make the most of all those opportunities lining the shelves of every art supply store we walk into.
But what we also have to realize is that what we want to say on the page is going to be different from what someone else is saying in her art.
There is no gold standard in paper.
In 1757 when James Whatman invented wove paper, the texture of which was so delightful to paint on (since it didn’t have those repetitive lines found on laid paper) he changed the world forever.
His paper changed painting forever.
That’s huge. Let it sink in.
Yet remember we are all different and every single one of us uses paper in different ways.
I can train 10 people to paint botanical drawings or portraits and each student will be slightly different in his approach.
One student might be the patient sort who really gloms onto the idea of glazing—letting everything else dry completely before restating or adding. Patience becomes a cornerstone of his practice. Another student might splash paint around in what seems a haphazard way. Still another student might combine both of these attitudes within his approach to painting.
Each will have a way that suits him and his goals. What is the individual’s vision for what he wants to get on paper?
As a teacher I’ll have encouraged that. They’ll understand the basics of approach and the properties of their supplies. (Find teachers who really understand their supplies. I cannot stress this enough.)
The thing my students have in common is how they think about their approach, how they think about their goals, how they organize their actions to achieve those goals.
If I’ve done my job well every single one of those 10 students will have a different favorite paper to work on. Each will be able to specifically name those characteristics of the paper which appeal to them.
Additionally, every single one of them will know exactly what to do when their favorite mill burns down, old felts get retired, or sizing changes from gelatin to vegetable/starch, or synthetic, or something else happens to interrupt the availability of a paper.
What Are We Supposed to Do?
To start, learn your medium from the best teacher you can find. You need to be able to ask that teacher details about her chosen medium. How is it supposed to work? How is she using it within and outside of those constraints.
If she says she’s used the same paper for 25 years and never tried something else, don’t sign up for the class. If you are asking how you find your favorite paper take lessons from someone who knows how to experiment and understands materials!
Next ask manufacturers questions.
Go to store-held demonstrations where you can try out the materials. Then ask more questions. Typically an artist who uses those materials is on hand to speak to how she uses them.
Ask yourself whether you like the art that artist creates. If you don’t, then keep looking for someone who creates work you do love and who understands her materials. Ask her questions. Be prepared to pay for those answers. Artists have spent years developing their expertise.
Now you’re ready to experiment with those materials.
Don’t move from brand to brand of paint when you’re testing paper. Have controls; change only one variable at a time, and keep that variable in place for at least a couple weeks to get a feel for it. In that way when you encounter differences you know where those differences are emerging from. Keep notes.
Understanding comes with daily practice and familiarity with materials.
How Do I Know This Works?
I know understanding comes with daily practice because it has worked for me.
As a child I wasn’t given much art instruction. In fact during art class I was often sent out of the classroom into the public park to sketch birds. (I was a disruptive student in the classroom.)
But I paid attention in life.
My mother, a self-stifled artist who gave up her painting practice before I was born (as many women did in her generation) loved visiting artist studios with her two children in tow. I watched. I asked questions.
When I was older and my father took me to work I’d end up in the art department. In an age before YouTube videos I had found artists I could watch work. I could see their thought processes unfold as they moved paint across the paper. I could ask questions. I took notes.
I budgeted my money so I could test supplies. I read art catalogs for the specifications on the paper—fiber content, type of sizing.
I devised projects for myself and then executed them using a set of materials I was testing.
I created series paintings using different materials on the same paper, repeating the same subject.
I set “failed” experiments aside as I went off in search of new information. I wrote letters (postal!) to mills and manufacturers, asking them for information about their products. (Sometimes not hearing for months!)
I spent a ton of time in art galleries staring at paintings and deconstructing them.
You can do all this. And much more easily with the internet and YouTube.
This is the way you find your favorite paper. This is the way you understand what constitutes a gold standard in your mind and practice.
This is the way you fall in love with paper.
Understanding comes with daily practice and familiarity with materials.
But great joy comes with that understanding!
We all make choices in life. You can continue to believe that there is one right way to paint, one right brand of paint to use, only one suitable brush to paint with…
Or you can choose to set out and discover for yourself what tools and materials allow you to make your artistic voice heard.
My advice to you is “Don’t Wait Any Longer.” Get busy experimenting now. Get busy asking questions, reading, practicing now. Own what you like even if others don’t agree with you.
Choices require that one thing is given up for another. That’s how a choice works.
I made the choice to love paper and paint at a young age. I don’t really see what I gave up, perhaps because it was such an early choice.
I know it meant that certain people would not like me, other people would think I was weird or unwomanly or something else intended to be derogatory—something that really said more about them than it did about me.
Maybe because I budgeted so much for paper over my lifetime I didn’t buy the newest car, have matching furniture in my studio, or ten thousand other material things so many people tend to crave and desire.
Those things never mattered to me. (Strangely people mention them all the time to me, perhaps to justify their own choices.)
The choices I made brought great joy into my life. There was no place for scarcity in my life.
I hope the same for you. Get started today.
Remember: No gold standard for any supply or tool. There is only what you determine, through experimentation, works for you.
And yes, I have to mention the corollary to that…
Budget for artist quality materials, even if it means giving up your gourmet ice cream, or that new car!
Artist quality pigments, papers, brushes, they really all do make a difference in your life.
Quality is on a sliding scale. You might not need sable brushes (which are expensive and may not be as good as even when I was a child). But synthetic brushes by companies like Princeton have become rather marvelous when compared to their early cousins. You may find, that synthetic brushes give you the workability and characteristics you need. That’s still about quality!
Being able to specify to yourself what you need to make the art you want to make also means you’ll be immune to fads and fancies as everyone around you rushes to buy the next hot thing.
Trust yourself. You know what gives you joy. Simply stop and listen when you finish painting. Hear what you’re telling yourself.
Now go paint or sketch.
When you finish painting use the money you didn’t spend addictively buying supplies you’ll never use, to buy a dish of gourmet ice cream—I still enjoy Vanilla Haagan Dazs. Or go to a local shop that sells ice cream with very low overrun. More joy.