Papers Influence Your Ink Wash

September 4, 2020
A single page from a Hahnemühle Nostalgie 8.75 x 11.75 or so inch journal. This smooth paper is great for ink work, and it loves ink washes. Hahnemühle makes all their papers with a vegetable/starch sizing.

I wish EVERYONE paid more attention to this.

You might say, “Roz, I don’t have a paper budget, I’ve got a grocery budget right now and I use what I use  for paper.”

Yep, I get that. I don’t have a paper budget right now either.

I do have some paper purchased for projects that didn’t happen because of health blips, eye issues, and deaths in the family. I’m fortunate to have those papers and am working my way through them.

If you would like to see me sketch with ink in the way indicated by these examples consider subscribing to my Patreon Blog. This month I’m working in ink wash specifically.

But what you can still realize is the PROFOUND difference papers make to the interaction of materials you place upon them. 

Then you can start to ask yourself what you want to do with your materials on a paper.

And then, when events and circumstances allow you can purchase new paper that actually will help you attain your goals.

That’s what I’m advocating.

Let’s Look At Something Obvious


With any paper you have to take into account its sizing. A good sizing on a paper will allow you to do a lot, regardless of the fiber content of the paper.

Fiber content is something people go on and on about, “I want to use only 100 percent cotton paper” they say. (I hear students say this all the time.)

Well I want to use paper that allows me to do what I want to do and sometimes that means paper with non-cotton fibers, but killer sizing.

Ink wash on Fabriano Artistico Cold Press watercolor paper. I find this vegetable/starch sizing very draggy. Also it doesn’t allow me to pick up the water-soluble ink that has dried. That’s an important part of the way I work with this ink.

Sizing is the additive added to the fiber slurry of a paper (for internal sizing) and to the surface of the finished sheet (external sizing). Some papers are only sized one way, others have both internal and external sizing.

The sizing determines how media put on the surface of the paper reacts with that surface. Most effectively it prevents inks or paints from seeping through a paper. Without sizing all papers would be blotter paper and simply absorb any medium placed on them. (With unpredictable results.)

What you do on the paper is the final key to whether that paper is sized appropriately for your work.

For me gelatin sizing has always been the best sizing to do whatever I want to do on a paper.

By that I mean, when I work on gelatin sized papers the materials I use (watercolor and inks specifically) flow and move more easily, with less drag. Pigments in watercolor are suspended above the paper while settling and drying, in ways that support the final look I want. All this matters to me.

But gelatin sizing is disappearing. Many famous brands of watercolor paper have switched to vegetable/starch sizing or synthetic sizing since 2000 through today.

Some think this is a response to pressure from animal rights groups and vegetarians. Perhaps. It’s most certainly economically based.

For me it has been frustrating to watch and then buy paper. I don’t believe in buying and hoarding paper. (It’s not economically viable or storage space viable.) So I just watch favorite papers change and become less useful to me.

But not all the papers I use are art-papers. Not all the papers I use have been gelatin sized, so I keep adapting.


If you are using art papers or non-art papers you’re still going to have to do some testing. I’ve written about this process several times on my blog. You can find a detailed post about testing non-art papers here. I won’t repeat myself.

What I will say is that you need to know your materials (paints, inks, tools, etc.) so that you can sense the differences between papers.

A page spread from a Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook. I used Pentel’s water-soluble Sepia ink Color Brush. I find this paper is too draggy for my work in this way. (For washes, the line goes on smoothly on this smooth-textured paper.) Some pick up of the dry ink is possible as you’ll see around the form of the dinosaur. However it is not easily picked up and there is more ghosting and haze on the ink, than this same technique on Stonehenge Printmaking Paper, for instance.

Working on a paper for three or more weeks daily will give you a sense of that paper’s capabilities. When you know the capabilities of a couple different papers you can do a similar project on several known papers over the course of 3 to 5 days and compare results in that way. All while working properties and experience is alive in your mind.

Your previous experience with those papers will also help you see a way forward with a given medium or technique on a particular paper.

Examples: Ink Wash on Three Papers

So in this post I have ink wash sketches done on three different papers. All are done with dye-based ink from Pentel. (One uses their Sepia ink.)

I love using the dye-based squeezy pens from Pentel for making quick ink washes. It’s much easier than getting out the ink bottle and making puddles of ink diluted to different values. (That can be fun too, but late at night if you want to sketch quickly and not set a lot of materials up, or when you’re sketching out and don’t want to spill ink everywhere these pens make it simple).

While the link in the above paragraph compares the squeezy pens to the Pentel Pocket Brush pen, and should be your starting point for understanding how I use these pens, this link breaks down the different types of Pentel Brush pens and might help you when looking for or ordering them. 

The examples today look at using these pens on three different types of paper.

When I use these pens I typically work fast and like to move the ink around. There are particular brush strokes or “marks” like to see. I’m constantly feeling around for them on the surface of the paper. I am constantly comparing the experience of working on one paper with the other papers mentally, and by taking copious notes so I don’t have to rely on vague recollections.

Some of the Things That Matter to Me:

Drag on the brush (the texture and the sizing of a paper will influence this)

The ability of the paper to float the ink on the sizing long enough for me to move it about. (The sizing will influence this.)

The ability of the paper to release water-soluble ink when that ink is dry but then rewetted. (Sizing will have to hold the ink from sinking deep into the paper before I ready for it to do so.)

The ability of a paper to take increased layers without the ink bleeding through to the other side. (When I was young bleed-through was a deal breaker. Now that I know what is important in life—the fun process—bleed-through doesn’t matter as much. It’s a continuum of how much bleed-through is acceptable for a given situation. Also I’m better at controlling my water levels.)

Of the papers looked at today Nostalgie is an ongoing favorite despite having a starch/gelatin sizing. (Profile of man.) The smoothness of the paper and its weight (it’s a heavyweight paper) make it appealing to me. Not only is it great for any type of ink work I like to do, I also find it is great for painting in gouache on it.

I also show you a sketch done on Fabriano Artistico cold press. (Front view of bald man.) I don’t often work on cold press papers, the texture of those papers effects the outcome, but the issue here is really the sizing, which is now a vegetable/starch sizing. I find this sizing exerts a lot of drag on my brush. It makes it difficult for me to move the ink around. You can see this in the strokes. Additionally I’m not able to as easily lift this water-soluble ink when it dries.

The last example is with sepia pen and is on Stillman & Birn’s Zeta paper. I’m not a fan of the paper and you can read my review elsewhere on my blog. Again there is a drag issue. There is also a slight odor issue for me when wet media is applied to this paper. While I can lift the water-soluble ink for a period of time on this paper it is not easy to do so, and there is a milkiness that results which I’m not a fan of. I do not use any Stillman & Birn papers in my regular practice.

You can compare the Stillman & Birn example with this sketch on the Japanese Lined Journal.

While there is more drag on Stonehenge Printmaking Paper and lifting ink is not as easy as on the Japanese Lined Journal, the results on Stonehenge Printmaking Paper are more satisfying than the Zeta paper.

I do not use Stonehenge Aqua. You can read my many-part review by using the blog’s search engine.

The Result of Testing

The result of such testing is always to find which paper suits you best, for the working methods you want to explore.

Because of this you frequently see me using non-art papers like the Japanese Lined Journals you can find in the category list or the blog’s search engine. 

There’s an example of a paper not meant for sketching, which in fact turns out to be great for what I want to do. 

You can also search for examples from my Green Lined Journals.

Given a 100 percent cotton paper with a vegetable/starch sizing and a non-art paper with sizing that is nowhere specified (but is probably low-grade vegetable/starch sizing because it is after all an inexpensive non-art paper), ditto the fiber content, I’ll pick the non-cotton paper 99.9 percent of the time for these types of sketches. (And for other work as well.)

Life is too short to not work with a paper that helps your vision. 

Work to find something that fits you drawing approach and your budget.

A Word on “Archival”

By now you’re saying to yourself, “Roz you’re advocating that I use non-archival paper and materials.”

Well, yep. That’s right. For sketches you do archival isn’t going to be a necessity. For client work if it’s for print it isn’t a necessity. 

Scan your work and use the digital file of your non-archival materials sketch as the original.

If you’re working in fine art you have a different decision to make.

Do you want customers/collectors to buy your work as an investment?Then use archival materials.

Do you believe you need to follow your creative voice and use whatever materials are at hand? If so join the ranks of many artists (including Turner) who used non-archival materials (he knowingly used some fugitive reds) and left the “fixing” up to the future art conservators. 

I’ve said this all before in other posts. My thoughts have not changed. Be realistic about the choices you make. 

Life is too short to not be making the marks you want to make.

    • Tina Koyama
    • September 5, 2020

    Thank you for the explanation on sizing (as well as your usual wisdom on these matters). I, too, hear a lot of people go on about 100% cotton, but I find the sizing to be more critical in how wet media react than the cotton content. I didn’t know enough about sizing to explain it, but I can tell when it’s the kind I like. And sizing is way more important than paper weight, which others also go on about. I’ve seen some very interesting thin papers withstand wet media with some kind of crazy sizing.

    1. Reply

      People hear “buzz words” and such like 100 percent cotton, and that’s all they absorb. Happily, if people stick with sketching and journaling for any length of time, like you, they understand what really matters!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Close Cookmode

Pin It on Pinterest