Saturday 2 November 2013

Which Watercolour Paper?

Choosing the right paper for your work is so important, it can make a huge difference to the end result, and, to your painting experience. I have to apologise if you find this blog post boring - my daughter tells me it's worse than dull! but I'm sure I might have appreciated it at one time when I was confused about which paper to use. Paper varies so much in colour, texture, absorbency and weight and this makes the problem of  finding the right one for you very complicated!

I've tried so many papers over the years and have my favourites but please bear in mind that paper choice is a very personal thing and the best approach is to try as many as possible. Like most botanical painters I use Hot Press paper because of its smooth surface but papers also come in NOT or CP  ( meaning NOT Hot Pressed, also referred to as Cold Pressed, it has a slightly textured surface) some painters like this slightly textured surface but I don't care for it. Rough surfaced papers are also available but more suited to landscapes etc. 
Hot Pressed (HP) paper is the most suited to botanical work because its smooth surface enables the artist to achieve the good clean edges for precion work. HP paper is manufactured using a glazing or sizing process which is traditionally applied via pressure applied through heated steel surfaces.  Sizing is applied to the body of the paper and the surface as a gelatin. Therefore the level of sizing impacts on the papers level of absorbency.

The paper used should be of the best possible quality, 100% cotton rag papers are the best quality being made from the cotton linters ( rag was originally used in the process). Papers with wood pulp are more economically produced using chemically processed wood fibres. A mix is used in some papers. Any paper used for painting must be pH neutral ( acid free) for long term stability of colour and durability. 

I've settled on Fabriano Artistico HP 140lbs, which I've been using for a few years now. Occasionally I use the 300lb version for larger pieces but I don't use a great deal of water so have no need for the heavier weight paper. It's generally recommended to use a heavier paper if you use a lot of water or stretch the paper. A few years back I  used to use Schoellershammer 4G  which is more suited to line and wash - it's a super smooth lovely surface perfect for clean crisp illustrations but very unforgiving to errors.. These days I like something a bit softer in appearance.

My preferred paper, Fabriano Artistico 140 lb, gives a clean sharp edge but retains some softness. I always think you can tell a good paper when painting stems, not sure why but it needs a sharp edge and be able to handle good gradation in a small area.
 Now that I've relocated in a city with a real art shop, I've had the opportunity to have another look at papers rather than buying online, so a few weeks back I purchased a range of papers. In addition to the ones I've already tried, here are some of my findings along with a bit of technical info where I can find it.  Will add more as I work my way through them.

Fabriano 5 -  50% cotton rag and 50% wood pulp, acid free available in pads and sheets.  I first tried this paper when the Society of Botanical Aritsts recommended it for the Diploma students. I absolutely hate this paper, it's my least favourite. I don't care for the surface it spoils easily in my opinion but lots of people love it, perhaps this is something to do with the fact that it's only 50% cotton - I'm not sure because it's supposed to have a hard sized finish which implies that it has good durability but maybe that glaze is thin and the internal sizing is not so good ( I don't really know to be honest). Most of all though I dislike the unnatural white colour and find it has a slightly blue look to it! Costs around £2.15 per imperial sheet. 

Fabriano Artistico - 100% cotton, acid free. Available in imperial size sheets. This is pretty much still my favourite paper. Just the right amount of smoothness and absorbency for my style of working and a nice off white colour, tub sized which means it's fairly easy to lift paint. Available in the traditional white or extra white ( I've not tried extra white so can't comment but if you like that extra white look of the Fabriano 5 it's the way to go). Costs about £3.30 per sheet. 

Arches Aquarelle HP - 100% cotton imperial size sheets and blocks. A very absorbent paper which makes lifting and shifting paint difficult.  I don't mind this because I seldom lift paint but I many artists like to move their paint around a  bit so it's worth a mention  The surface is pretty robust though and doesn't spoil easily from overworking.  One of the things that I have noticed is a variation in what are supposed to be the same paper in sheet and blocks form. I have used Arches HP blocks and found them to be too thirsty, acting more like blotting paper by sucking in the water and paint immediately. This put me off Arches but in the back of  my mind I was sure I'd used it before in sheet form. So having recently purchased it again in sheet form it is indeed very different. I can only assume that there is a difference in the external sizing? or perhaps I had a bad batch from the block?  Arches can vary slightly in colour too because the water used  to wash the paper comes from the river and is muddy at certain times of year! I found the one I used most recently to be more of a bright off -white, more so than Fabriano Artistico but not so white as Fabriano 5 whereas in the past it's been nearer to a cream colour.I prefer this paper for drawing. I always draw on HP watercolour paper.
On Arches, (loose sheet) bit of a dark photo, very clean edge but absorbs too much. I prefer it for drawing on because you can get great detail   
Drawing on Arches, block

 The Langton Daler Rowney Extra Smooth HP pad, 100% cotton, acid free. Available in Pads and blocks.  A lower cost paper I discovered this one last year and as far as pads go I like it!  Lovely smooth surface, not too absorbent off white colour. 12 sheets rrp £14.50 for the pad. I use this for practise work rather than finished paintings. You can get a good clean finish on it.

Preparatory work on Langton Extra smooth HP, apologies slightly dark photo but hopefully you can see it gives a sharp edge

Schoellershammer 4G. 100% cotton. A very smooth surfaced paper available in sheets 51 x 71 cm. Suitable for line and wash and dry brush illustration work that requires a slightly different approach. Only available in 115lbs weight is £2.82 per sheet (min order 5 sheets). Pretty nice white colour.  They also manufacture exceptionally smooth board at £7.99 per sheet for line and wash illustration work.
On Schoellershammer 4G, Good for illustration work. This is an old one! 

Sennelier HP  Imperial sheets 56 x76cm (21 x 29ins), 300gsm/140lb, Hot Pressed (NOT or Rough also available)  100% cotton, mould-made, acid-free and chlorine-free. 
I used this paper during the SBA Diploma course and quite like it, could be a little smoother for me though but all in all a good paper easy to lift paint from. There were some supply issues with this paper and I've not been able to source the sheets very easily but have just found it at Heaton Cooper Studio for £3.95 per sheet. The pads only go up to 12 x16 inches which is a bit limiting but I would use it again if it was easier to find.

Sennelier paper used in the old days of the SBA Diploma course, nice paper but hard to get, still not as good as Fabriano Artistico though.

Saunders Waterford HP 100% cotton, acid free. I used the 300lb imperial sheet and found it rather difficult to work on because it absorbs water very quickly and has a pretty rough almost sandpaper like surface which makes it difficult to get clean crisp edges. It also seems to dull the colour slightly. Having said all of that it give a softer finish, which having finished my painting I really like. It contains no optical brighteners which adds to it's stability. Quite cream in colour around £ 6.50 a sheet but also available in 200lb in high white.  It's the only paper to carry the Royal Watercolour Society seal of approval. It's tub sized and is very robust and pretty easy to lift paint from. My initial reaction was that I'm not using this paper again! but now it's framed and on the wall I think I'll give it another go and maybe try the 200lb version. Again available from Heaton Cooper.

Saunders Waterford 300lb HP. My goodness it was hard going and sucked up the paint like crazy. The edges are a bit soft for botanical work but I quite liked the softer finished look for this floral piece. Also it's a large painting ( A1 ) and can handle soft edges better, wouldnt work so well on smaller precision work. 
 Hahnemuhle  140 lb  (300 gsm) HP sheets. I bought these cheap off the Art Discount website. Admittedly not the highest quality paper they produce but it's dreadful! Talk about making hard work of a painting. The surface is very easily disturbed and the absorption of colour is excessive. It's ok for drawing on as long as you don't want to erase anything. I''ve not tried their better quality papers. I wont post a photo of a painting because I gave up! Will post a graphite at a later date. 

NOTE: I put some rough guides to prices, only really useful at this point in time but gives you an idea. 

More to follow....when and if I get around to it!


  1. Thanks so much for all the info. Fantastic!!!!

    1. Love the site it's a wonderful fund of helpful information tips!

  2. No it's not boring at all. I have been trying as many papers as I can find and agree with you on those that I have used. Thank goodness for your comments on the Hahnemuhle offer from Art Discount. I thought I had lost the ability to paint when I tried it, but after lots of practice I did get a good end result - hard work though. Thanks for your information!

  3. Good and useful article. Agree with comments on Fabriano Classico 5. I do mostly pencil and coloured pencil work and often see this paper recommended. I really dislike the surface - nothing like smooth enough for my kind of detailed work.

  4. I'll have to disagree with your daughter--I thought it was a very interesting post. I always like to learn more about materials. Thanks for researching the various papers and for sharing what you've learned.

  5. Fantastic post here Dianne - very informative as always. I haven't tried many of these papers, so it's interesting to read. As you know I go for the Saunders Waterford just so I can go BIG, but I also dislike how fine I can go with it. It does take a battering well, and sucks up paint like it's going out of fashion, but the fine lines are hard to achieve as you say. I often use a burnisher after adding the basal layers to make it easier to get fine lines. Also a tip I heard from Coral Guest is to burnish some of the more textured papers first. I haven't tried this yet as I only just got the tip, but will try to do this for the next piece.

  6. Not a boring post at all Diane!
    I was hoping that you'd found that Holy Grail perfect paper which maybe I hadn't yet tried. Seems we have the same likes and dislikes - I've found the Daler Rowney Langton lovely to work on. Shame it doesn't come in full size sheets. And yes, the Fabriano Artistico is lovely to work on, but I used the wrong side and had awful problems - silly me! Wish I could get my paper as cheaply as you, in my local Art shop, Fabriano Artistico is £6+ per sheet!

  7. Hi Dianne I have recently bought Fabriano Artistico Watercolor Paper 300 lb. Hot Press 10-Pack from the Jerrysartarama's online store with great discount price. I tried the paper with the 10 for the price of 8 deal. Previously I was using 90 lb and arches. This Water color paper is perfect for all water media. I have never used 300lb so looking for review.

  8. Beautifull post again, full of information. Thank you , Diane!

  9. Thankyou for this very useful info Dianne backed with the lovely illustrations.

  10. Great info, thanks and not boring

  11. Very informative Diane. Enjoyed reading your post very much. Learned lots from you. Absolutely stunning drawings. Am hard of hearing and finally found useful information from you. Hope to get more info.

  12. There definitely is a difference between the Arches cold pressed pads and their sheets (140lb). The pads have little or no sizing. *sigh* Live & Learn...

  13. Excellent and very informative, just what Ineeded to read

  14. Can you tell me a sure way to distinguish the front and back of different papers? I tend to buy big sheets, and I find myself with often with "leftover" pieces where I have problems distinguishing the front . Thank you for the greta article !

  15. HI Dianne, I am a professional watercolor artist who has used Fabriano Artistico Extra White 300# for over 15 years. Recently I have noticed a change to the paper. Now it seems to soak in the paint and it's almost impossible to get the paint to move any more. I have to apply 10 coats of color to get even the medium shades to show.. Have you heard anything about how Fabriano has modified the papers? Any tips on who might have a sheet that has a very smooth surface, bright white color and more sizing?? Thanks so much!

  16. Hi Lisa: I love Fabriano Artistico 300# and have tried them all. Have you tried the soft press Fabriano? I love it. I still work on the cold press, which is my favorite....I use a lot of water and love to layer!

  17. Thanks so much for this post, actually is super handy and will be saving this for good reference. I just wanted to ask if youd bare with me, which paper or poundage would you recommend for someone like me who likes to use a lot of water. Maybe not so much but like where the colour nor the water absorb too quickly as i find the most fun to be being able to push the colours around.
    Thanks and hope i was easy to understand :p thanks for your help!

  18. NOT in the least boring. I posed a question, found your 'page' and you answered my question. Thank you.

  19. Love this article!! Thank you for hating this great information!! Love love your work!

  20. Thank you for sharing all your experience and knowledge, i recently came across your work and became a fan immediately. I loved both the writings on watercolor paint & paper, have been using fabriano hp now and i totally agree the right paper makes a lot of difference in work. hope with all other tips i will improve in my botanical illustrations:)