Monday, August 1, 2016

Testing and comparing watercolor papers

Over the past few months, I have tested and compared different watercolor papers and mixed media papers.

My goal was to find out what papers work best with my painting style. When I paint, I like to use juicy strokes with plenty of water, granulating pigments, and sometimes also pen, pencil, or brush and ink. I usually paint quickly and directly and prefer not having to stretch the paper.

Thus, I was looking for a paper that does not cockle and does not need to be stretched, that shows off granulation nicely but does not have too prominent of a texture, that is white, preferably archival, and that takes pen, pencil, and brush and ink well.

Since there are few watercolor paper comparisons available with this focus, I thought I would share my findings here! For my conclusions, see this post.

Papers tested


Watercolor papers 


Watercolor paper samples
© 2016 Anna C./See. Be. Draw.


Mixed media papers   


  • Mixed media sketchbooks: Strathmore 400 Series Mixed Media paper, vellum finish, 140 lb (300 gsm) | Strathmore 500 Series Mixed Media Art Journal, vellum finish, 90 lb (190 gsm) | Canson All Media Art Book, cold press, 90 lb Montval paper (185 gsm) | Moleskine Watercolour, cold press, 135 lb (200 gsm) | Stillman & Birn Sketchbook, Alpha series, medium grain surface, 100 lb (150 gsm)
  • Illustration boards: Strathmore 500 Series Illustration Board, lightweight vellum, 42 pt | Strathmore 500 Series Illustration Board for Wet Media, heavyweight vellum, 78 pt
  • Strathmore 400 Series Acrylic paper, linen finish, 246 lb (400 gsm)
Mixed media paper samples
© 2016 Anna C./See. Be. Draw.


Qualities tested


Paper color

Most watercolor papers come in a white and/or cream color, sometimes also called traditional or natural. A darker paper does not reflect as much light as a lighter paper and there is also less contrast between paper and watercolors, which can contribute to colors looking less bright or vibrant. I tested mainly white papers.

Watercolor brightness

On a darker paper or a very absorbent paper, colors often appear subdued, darker or paler. In this case, I wanted the watercolors to remain bright also after drying. The amount of water used when painting is also important as diluted colors may look less bright whereas paint that is too concentrated tends to look pasty. Watercolor brightness can also vary with the watercolor brand used. In addition, student grade watercolors generally look less vibrant or chalky due to less pigment and more fillers. I used Winsor & Newton Professional (former Artists’) watercolors.

Paper texture (gräng/ytstruktur)

Watercolor paper comes in different textures, ranging from very smooth to rough:
  • Hot press (grain satiné/varmpressad/slät gräng) is smooth and hard.
  • Cold press (grain fin/kallpressad/fin gräng) has more texture and is the most versatile surface. It is sometimes called NOT for “not hot pressed”.
  • Rough (grain torchon/grov gräng) has the most and roughest texture.
  • Soft press (grana dolce/mjukpressad/mjuk gräng) by Fabriano Artistico has a texture somewhere between cold press and hot press.
I was mostly interested in cold press papers since I like to paint with textured pigments (granulating, flocculating, and pigments with high specific gravity) and a cold press texture usually shows granulation just right whereas a rough texture may be too prominent and a smooth texture too flat.

Paper sizing and absorbency (limning och absorptionsförmåga)

Sizing is a substance that is used to reduce the absorbency and increase the strength of the paper surface. It can be applied as both internal and surface sizing. The sizing may contain brightening agents and may affect the archival qualities of the paper.

A hard sized (hårt limmat) paper is less absorbent, allows for more reworking of the paint, and may have a tendency for backruns to form, whereas less sizing (lösare limmat) makes for a more absorbent paper. I prefer papers to be sized enough to allow for some adjustments while the paint is still wet, but not so hard that the color pools instead of drying, causing backruns.

Paper cockling

Cockling, buckling, or curl is a distortion of the paper (such as wrinkles, ripples, waves, ridges) in areas with a lot of water or paint. This can be avoided by pre-wetting and stretching the paper prior to use. In this test, I was curious to find out if there are any papers that do not cockle and do not need any preparation. Thus I did not stretch any of the papers for this test.

Pencil/pen/brush and ink

I sometimes use pencil, pen, or brush and ink with my watercolors. The appearance of the strokes is related to both the texture and sizing of the paper. A hard sized paper may yield pencil and pen lines that are less dark as the sizing repels the ink or lead. It may also feel less responsive to pressure, as if the line has less personality. A less sized paper or porous paper on the other hand may cause pen lines to feather as it soaks up ink excessively.

“Joy factor”

Some papers are just fun to paint on! For me, this has to do with a combination of smoothness and texture - and an undefinable personal je ne sais quoi! Note that the joy factor is unrelated to result, and that a paper that is fun to draw or paint on does not have to produce stellar artwork. Instead, the process or journey is the goal as opposed to the result.

Cost and availability

In my opinion, my most regularly used paper should not be too costly as I tend to use quite a bit of paper and would feel inhibited if it were too expensive. It should ideally be available in several stores and not be too hard to find. However, a paper that I use less often may cost more.

History and continuity

When I find a paper or other art material that I like, it is important to me that the product will not change or (horror!) be discontinued! Therefore, I, when possible, select supplies that have been around for a while and are not novelties, have not been recently reengineered or had their production moved, and are readily available – all of which I hope are signs of a successful product that still has many years to go.

1. These tests were not sponsored by any company.
2. Since I do not do much, if any, lifting or scrubbing, underpainting or glazing, or detailed pencil work, these techniques were not part of my test.

Översättning. I den här serien har jag testat och jämfört olika akvarellpapper samt ett par mixed media-papper och skissböcker för att se vilka som bäst passar till min stil att måla. Jag målar med mycket vatten, granulerande pigment, och använder dessutom ibland blyerts, tuschpenna eller flytande tusch och pensel. Jag målar ofta snabbt och direkt utan förarbete och föredrar att inte först behöva fukta eller spänna upp papperet. 

De papper jag testat kommer från Strathmore, Arches, Fabriano och Canson, samt även Winsor & Newton, Moleskine och Stillman & Birn. Jag jämförde bland annat papperens färg, akvarellfärgens lyskraft, papperens ytstruktur, limning och absorptionsförmåga, buckling samt hur de hanterade blyerts, tuschpenna och flytande tusch.

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