Weapon of Choice: Watercolor Paper
Updated: Jul 1
Testing your watercolor papers might just save you time and money as well as piles of unused papers. To know which one I should be stacking up, I tested 21 of them in my possession.
Make or Break
Watercolor paper can make or break your artwork. Using the best paper also makes our life much easier only we, watercolorists could understand. Much like our preferred water-based media, we build a relationship with the base support and so we tend to just use the same paper for every project. What if that paper is unavailable in your favorite art supplies store? Of course you get the next best thing but you know in your purist heart, it cannot be compared to your No. 1 paper. Worst case scenario is that none of your go-to papers are in stock, then what do you do?
When I was starting, I would grab any watercolor paper I would find and afford and just be satisfied with my finished artwork. As I tried many papers, gradually I would notice which one is performing much better than the others and so I would always stock up and use this paper for most of my projects. In my case, I already have a favorite but the problem is, I could only get it in Germany, since it is a German brand. As you know I now live in South Africa and I would not dare to send any package into this country for fear of losing it along the way. My solution is to take every chance of acquiring the paper from Amazon and have it delivered to a German address and get someone to bring it to me whenever they come visit us here or I get it myself when I’m there.
The longer you use the media, the more familiar you become with the physical attributes of the paper and likewise discover the nuances that make your life a lot easier as a watercolorist.
Why insist on using this paper, you ask? Well, as I said, the longer you use the media, the more familiar you become with the physical attributes of the paper and likewise discover the nuances that make your life a lot easier as a watercolorist. You appreciate the subtle differences it does to your painting that only you could perceive—you realize that the texture of the paper complements your unique brush stroke or the way the water is absorbed and likewise the right amount of paint that sits on the surface, how quickly it dries to carry on with your layering techniques and how the pigments stay brilliant once dry all make your artwork more beautiful. A high quality watercolor paper, when stored properly, will also stand the test of time much better than canvases or wood panels, that may decay and require drastic restoration efforts. Moreover, the latest development in pigment and paint manufacturing provides better lightfastness properties in many artist grade water-based paints. Professional watercolor paper should be equally of archival quality. Naturally, when damaged, paper also require restoration. Being an organic material, paper is prone to damage and restorative works could be painstaking and irreversible. Therefore choosing an archival quality paper combined with proper storage (no moisture and direct sunlight exposure, please) is crucial if you want to preserve your artworks for the future generation to see. If you are also environmentally conscious, then informing yourself about the components of the paper and how it is manufactured would definitely be a deciding factor.
In addition, using paper has a pleasurable tactile experience that even avid digital artists look for a paper-like screen protector for their devices just to have that natural feel of an organic material. Side note: This reminds me of digital color grading projects that wanted a "film look", which has a softer image quality than those produced by digital cameras.
What do I want to achieve with this test?
Most artists also lack the knowledge in distinguishing the differences in the quality of paper they use. If you are a beginner like I was, you would probably just grab what’s in store and what fits the budget. But as you mature and transition into becoming a professional artist, like I am, you will begin to look for a better substrate for your most valued pieces.
But which deciding factor do you follow when purchasing your tools? Most of us will probably just rely on the name or the marketing devices of well-known brands, physical attributes like color, size, texture and weight, cost as well as retail availability. This test aims to evaluate the different characteristics of the paper that I have in my possession and those that are easily available in my area and likewise find out which one best suits my purpose. At the same time, I would like to find out which could be a better alternative to my first choice when stocks run out or when the work does not require the use of a top quality and expensive paper. Many artists are also afraid of using quality papers and so some practice papers might just be enough at the start.
This test aims to evaluate the different characteristics of the paper that I have in my possession and those that are easily available in my area and likewise find out which one best suits my purpose.
As you grow as an artist, you develop a process from scratch to finish. My typical workflow as a watercolorist who output digitally would be, to paint onto paper, scan, edit in Photoshop and save as web-ready, or print-ready digital formats. There are a few technical considerations here. First of all is to determine which technique I will be employing for the painting: Is it going to be wash, wet on wet, wet on dry, texture heavy, thick paint, etc.? This will then determine which paint medium I must use: watercolor, gouache or acrylic? Next and equally crucial is the paper: size, texture, thickness and at times color. Paper size is important especially when scanning is involved, since I only have an A4 flatbed scanner. The paper must also lie flat, and so warping is to be avoided, though minimal buckling can be fixed by using weights, such as books, onto the scanner.
I believe that each paper has its own merits and will be a suitable choice to anyone looking for the best material one might require.
Why Test Paper?
It is safe to indicate now that the result of this test is only based on my subjective opinion and in no way meant to discredit any brand mentioned here. I believe that each paper has its own merits and will be a suitable choice to anyone looking for the best material one might require. Likewise, none of these manufacturers asked me to review their products. I am simply a geeky artist with a background in media archiving and conservation wanting to explore my medium to get the best results in the most economical way.
Also, I am no watercolor paper expert but I have been using the medium on a day to day basis, which allows me to compare the differences even without this test. Conducting this only confirmed my observations as well as debunked my suspicions about the medium. For the test, I have looked for resources on how to conduct a proper test of watercolor papers. One suggestion is from an online forum in WetCanvas discussing How to Test Sample Watercolor Papers? and another from Bruce MacEvoy on his topic about testing watercolor papers and finally from the blog entry (in French) of Désiré Herman, 58 Different Watercolour Papers Tested. Art books like the Artist’s Everything Handbook by Kate Wilson and The Artist’s Handbook by Ray Smith were also used as reference for paper types.
After much deliberation, I have decided to follow the test suggested in WetCanvas, which I find simpler and fits the materials I have on hand that you may also try conveniently at home. While MacEvoy’s test is more scientific and much more expertly conducted, I find the requirements uneconomical for my own purpose, for example, use paper that is fresh out of packaging, which means I would have to purchase new paper that I may not use after this. Also his test was meant for loose large format watercolor paper sheets that I seldom use. I do have a few loose hot pressed sheets with only three brands, but I would not dare cut a portion just for the test. Although, his pigment reference and suggestion was very helpful. In the end, I have combined the information I have gathered together with my own techniques and created my personalized watercolor paper test.
Below is the list of the materials and media I have used for this test. Fortunately I have a nearly complete armory of art tools in my possession and so there was no need to purchase anything else. There is also a method to my madness that explains why I chose certain pigments over others. Following MacEvoy's recomendation, I chose single pigment paints that are 1. staining, 2. granulated, and 3. non-staining to produce particular effects when applied on paper.
Paint, Pen and Ink Media
Schmincke Horadam watercolor (single pigment, granulated PB 27, staining PV 23 and non-staining PR 122)
Schmincke Designer’s gouache (PB 29)
Holbein Acryla Gouache (PB 29)
Winsor and Newton Designer’s gouache (PB 15)
Winsor and Newton Gold ink
Winsor and Newton Indian Black ink
Winsor and Newton Ultramarine ink
Fine Tec Pearlescent Colours 1223 Crystal Gold
Various pen and ink
Various graphite pencils
Moulin B Aquarell Handmade, 100% cotton rag, 440gsm
Khadi Handmade, 100% cotton rag, 200gsm
Daler-Rowney Aquafine Smooth, hot pressed, 100% cellulose, 300 gsm
Daler-Rowney Aquafine Texture, cold pressed, 100% cellulose, 300 gsm (waxy)
Mont Marte Artiste, cold pressed, coarse grain, 100% cotton paper, 300 gsm
PrimeArt Bamboo, 90% bamboo 10% cotton, 265 gsm
Hahnemühle Bamboo, 90% bamboo 10% cotton, 265 gsm
Amedeo Mixed Media, cellulose, 200 gsm
Arches Grain Fin, cold pressed, 100% cotton rag, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, cold pressed, 200 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, cold pressed, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, rough, 200 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, rough, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, “William Turner”, 100% cotton rag, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, “Cézanne”, cold pressed, 100% cotton rag, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Mould-made, “Leonardo”, cold pressed, 100% cotton rag, 600 gsm
Hahnemühle Watercolor board, “Cornwall”, cold pressed, 450 gsm
Hahnemühle Watercolor board, “Cornwall”, rough, 450 gsm
Hahnemühle Watercolor board, “Britannia”, rough, 300 gsm
Hahnemühle Watercolor board, “Torchon”, 275 gsm
Hahnemühle Watercolor board, “Burgund”, cold pressed, 250 gsm
Composition gold leaf
Masking fluid (succeeding this test, I have also used pen-type masking fluids)
Washi and masking tape
No. 4, 6 round sable brushes
No. 12 flat Taklon brush
Cheap brushes for masking fluid and gold leaf size
Cheap synthetic flat brush for gold leaf
White rubber eraser
White light lamp
LED lightbox/light table
Scanner (HP DeskJet 3630)
Method to Madness
Most of the watercolor paper I have are blocks, which are quite practical and economical for me. Since most of my artworks are meant to be digitized, the paper has to fit my A4 (21 x 29.7 cm / 8.27 x 11.69 inches) flatbed scanner. The closest size in European made blocks would be the 24 x 32 cm / 9.4 x 12.6 inches paper, which I then cut into half or trim to an A4 size. For the test, I used half sized paper, the smallest being, A5 (14.8 x 21 cm or 5.8 x 8.3 inches).
Each paper is labeled at the back according to brand name, weight, surface and composition. It is also divided into eight sections with each block labeled according to the test categories using waterproof black ink.
In a dark room, I placed the plain and clean paper on a white LED light table and examined the paper composition with unaided eyes, magnifying lens and digital camera. As suggested by MacEvoy, I looked for:
density variations in the paper caused by irregularities in the furnish or (for handmade papers) in the shaking of the mould during draining
visible areas of lightness (thinness)
lumpy or "cottage cheese" texture (see Hahnemühle Torchon)
"papermaker's tear drops" (small round areas where light shows through)
folds or tears
(on the wire side) impurities or inclusions (bits of darker fiber or plant matter, hairs, dirt, etc.) that sank against the wire when the pulp was cast
The pulp composition will indicate the quality of the paper and also give you an idea how the paper was made. Obviously, handmade papers, for example, show more irregularities and impurities compared to machine-made ones. They also show thinness near the edges that are quite undesirable for my taste. The colors of the paper against the light also vary quite dramatically in which some appear much more yellow than the others despite the labels on packaging stating "pure white" paper.
Still in the dark room and this time using a white light from a desk lamp, I examined the paper by holding it up in various angles to visually observe the surface texture and feeling it with my fingers. Paper textures, especially rough and cold pressed ones will vary from one manufacturer to another. How you choose one will depend entirely on your own preference. Personally, I refrain from using very rough papers unless it is intentional to add more texture to my painting especially when using gouache. Scanned heavily textured paper would also be detrimental when removing the white paper background in Photoshop, as it would require a lot of cleaning up. Since I also use metallic leaf in some of my compositions, a smooth surface (hot pressed) is much more desirable even with large format sheet papers. On the other hand, I find a few papers less adhering to wash techniques with paint gathering on the edges looking like blotches. MacEvoy explains that “this is caused by individual fibers sticking to the hot calendar rollers as the sheets were pressed” especially with hot pressed papers.
Pen and Ink
Using various pens and black ink, I drew parallel vertical lines onto the first box and with Prussian Blue/PB 27 wash, brushed over the lines in a single stroke. Drawing the lines onto the paper showed the paper’s absorption of the ink, whether it will bleed or smudge especially when painted over. This also gave me a feel of how the nib would run along the paper’s surface. Naturally, water-based inks washed off when brushed over with paint, whereas alcohol based inks would bleed especially on handmade and thinner papers.
a. Artline calligraphy pen 3.0 (pigment),
b. Mungyo Fine Calligraphy 2.0 (water-based)
c. Sakura brush (pigment)
d. Sakura Koi Coloring brush pen (water-based)
e. Touch brush (alcohol)
f. Touch medium broad (alcohol)
g. Copic Ciao brush (alcohol)
h. Copic Ciao medium broad (alcohol)
i. Touch liner 0.8 (pigment)
j. Touch liner 0.05 (pigment)
k. Stabilo Fine 0.4 (pigment)
l. Copic Multiliner 0.3 (pigment)
m. Unipin 0.8 (pigment)
n. Unipin 0.2 (pigment)
o. Winsor & Newton black Indian ink No. 1 flat nib
p. Winsor & Newton black Indian ink No. 1 flat nib
q. Winsor & Newton black Indian ink No. 5 flat nib
r. Winsor & Newton black Indian ink No. 5 flat nib
s. Winsor & Newton Ultramarine ink No. 1 flat nib
t. Winsor & Newton Ultramarine ink No. 1 flat nib
u. Winsor & Newton Ultramarine ink No. 5 flat nib
v. Winsor & Newton Ultramarine ink No. 5 flat nib
Graphite and Eraser
Similar to the pen and ink test, only with various graphite pencils from mechanical to H and B pencils, I drew several lines onto the paper with the same pressure I normally use when drawing and then erased the top half with a white rubber eraser and the lower half with a kneading or rubber putty eraser. This test will show how well the graphite marks would be lifted off the paper and if indentation marks would be left onto the surface as well as smudging. Finally, using a Prussian Blue/PB 27 wash I painted over the erased areas to see if any damage from the erasure would be revealed. Handmade and heavily textured papers are prone to indentations and are much more difficult to erase than smooth or less textured ones.
a. Mechanical pencil HB 0.5
b. Faber Castell graphite pencil 2H
c. Faber Castell Pitt oil base extra hard
d. Faber Castell graphite pencil 2B
e. Faber Castell Graphite Pure 9B
f. Faber Castell Pitt pastel
g. Faber Castell Pitt pastel (smudged)
h. Schmincke 492 Prussian Blue (PB27) wash without pencil and erasure
On the 3rd box, I brushed over one layer of masking fluid and stuck two types of adhesive tapes, wash and masking tape. Once the masking fluid has naturally dried, I painted over a wash of Ultramarine/PV 23 and let it dry once more. I then carefully peeled off the dried out masking fluid and tapes and observed any problems upon removal. I painted another layer of Opera Pink/PR 122 onto the areas where the masks were removed to reveal the damaged surface or lifted pulp or fibers. Again, handmade papers showed the worst damage with one cotton paper being less resistant from the peeled off masking fluid.
Wet on Wet
Using a round brush, I wet the paper with clean water before every paint application and then (a) dabbed a small amount of paint Prussian Blue/PB 27 into the wet area, (b) is a wash of the same pigment PB 27, (c) is Ultramarine/PV 23, (d) is a gradating wash of PV 23 and (e) is a blending of two pigments, PV 23 and Opera Pink/PR 122.
This test shows water and pigment flow and absorption as well as the tendency of the paper to cockle or warp and how fast it dries. The bamboo papers noticeably warped when applying heavy washes, though were both resilient and returned to a flatter state once dried. The warping was however annoying during painting.
Wet on Dry
In here I used the same technique and order of paint application as in the wet on wet technique previously but this time on dry paper with the addition of glazing of two colors. I have observed that the same pigment behaves differently on each paper and becomes more apparent when scanned (magnified).
The beauty of watercolor is its flexibility as a medium that can easily be lifted off the paper when happy mistakes happen. When still wet, one only needs to dab a kitchen towel or any absorbent material to lift off the paint allowing the bare white paper to reveal and thus allowing you to paint over it again. Some papers are quite absorbent but most watercolor papers have surface sizing that adds a protective layer on the paper but also lets the pigments sit on it.
Using two kinds of pigments, I painted a flat color of the (a) non-staining pigment (Opera pink/PR 122) on the left and (b) the staining pigment (Ultramrine/PV 23) on the right. I let it dry overnight and then (a1) wet the upper portion with clean brush until the paint lifts, and then (a1) wet middle section with a clean brush and wiped with a clean kitchen paper towel until the paint is removed. (a3) With a clean wet cotton swab, I dabbed a section until the white of the paper is revealed and lastly, (a4) used an X-acto knife to scrape off the paint from the paper. Same technique is done onto PV 23 swatch.
With a clean brush, (a) the paper is wetted with clean water and then wiped off with a clean kitchen paper towel until the first sign of pilling appears. Next was to wet the paper with a pigmented (Prussian Blue/PB 27) wash and then wiped off again making the pilling more obvious.
This box was used to try out other media that I am using such as (a-b) gouache paints, (c) acrylic gouache, (d) gold watercolor, (e) gold ink and (f) gold leaf. I want to see how the media would apply and appear onto the different papers.
For this last part of the experiment, I scanned with my flatbed HP DeskJet 3630 at 600 dpi RGB JPEG format and then adjusted the colors in Adobe Lightroom to match the colors to the original as close as possible (as a colorist, I was trained to do color matching by eye).
Some pigments change colors when digitally converted by scanning due to the limitations of the digital color space or gamut. Opera pink (a fluorescent pigment PR 122) will appear duller and bluer and Ultramarine (PV 23) will look greenish and duller as well, which will have to be tweaked digitally to match the original. The normal (trichromat) human eyes have a wider gamut than the digital realm. The colors that we can distinguish are about 10 million colors. Photoshop uses different color spaces such as the default working color space, Adobe RGB, slightly more than 50% of all visible colors or sRGB, 35% of the visible colors specified by CIE, which is a standard to most digital display devices including the web—a minuscule attempt to match the human eyes. This is the reason why some pigments do not translate 1:1 when scanned in addition to the technical limitations of the scanner. I may need to discuss paints versus digital colors in a later article.
Scanning high res reveals the texture of the paper including the damages from scraping, masking and rubbing. Gold paint and ink does not translate well when digitized and even more so with gold leaf. The characteristic sheen are lost in the digital realm and only appear like grainy textures on paper. Though I am already quite aware of this, I still wanted to see the different effects it creates with the varying textures of the papers. Sometimes this gold texture can be used to one’s advantage.
So what’s my weapon of choice? Hands down, Hahnemühle Leonardo 600 gsm cold pressed cotton rag watercolor paper. I just love the flow of the colors on it and because it’s thick, I could layer with washes. So far Hahnemühle’s Leonardo is the only block in 600 gsm that I have seen out there and it doesn't disappoint.
The downside however is that the Hahnemühle papers (24x32 cm) always have to be cut it into half or A4 to fit into my A4 flatbed scanner. Large format scanning services, though easily available, are indeed pricey and so impractical, especially when you have to travel extra to have the picture scanned, wait for at least 24 hours only for the image to be reduced to web quality in the end, unless of course you wanted a gicleé print reproduction of the original painting. In some instances I photograph the painting in sections and then stitch in Photoshop. Also since the papers are not available in South Africa, I always need to get it in Germany. So I have to be very frugal with my limited stock. It’s usually reserved for special projects.
Generally, cotton paper is much preferred due to the ease of flow of the paints. A safe alternative in my present geographical location would be the Mont Marte cotton paper though I find the rough texture too coarse at times. Using masking fluid is also not ideal for this paper.
My other watercolor paper for everyday use (meaning for normal use) is the Hahnemühle Bamboo paper. Though it’s only 265 gsm, the paper is resilient just like bamboos! Absorption is wonderful and the pigments lift nicely but a bit sensitive with rubber erasures. I have found a good alternative here in South Africa, the Prime Art Bamboo.
Hot pressed or satin grain sheet papers are perfect for my gold leaf applications and for large pieces. For this I use 300-600 gsm sheets. I also like the A4 Harmony satin paper from Hahnemühle but I only got the one block from the Philippines and finished it all. Since the sheet paper is huge, I couldn’t easily bring the Hahnemühle brand with me, though I did hand carry a couple of them with me back to Joburg. I usually just purchase either Archers or Fabriano hot pressed 300-600 gsm from the local art shop especially when they are on sale because frankly prices here are four times more expensive than when buying in Europe.
Now, I have been using these papers since I went back to making art 4 years ago, hence I have gotten to know them already through regular use. By conducting this test I have learned even more about the papers as well as the media I am regularly using. In fact, I would know exactly which paper to use for a particular project and which tools to avoid when using a certain paper. I also know now which paper to stock up and which ones not to bother investing in anymore. Such is the preoccupation of a geeky artist and I hope this gave you an insight about the characteristics of watercolor papers.