Monday, 4 April 2016

Paper Matters: St Cuthbert Mill vs Fabriano

There's been a lot of discussion recently about changes to Fabriano watercolour papers, which seem to be.... well not as good as they used to be. So I investigated the problems and tried out some the new alternatives on the market, i.e., the new improved Saunders Waterford HP and the Botanical Ultra Smooth both produced by St Cuthberts Mill. The best way to decide whether a paper is good is of course to paint on it yourself and see what happens!

Paper Trial using warious watercolour techniques with Indanthrene Blue

Fabriano Papers and the changes
Fabriano Artistico HP has been a leading paper with many botanical artists for some time. Its a 100% cotton archival paper, available in 140lb and 300lb, in natural or traditional white, it has no optical brighteners. It's been my own paper of choice for many years.
Fabriano 5  also sold in the Fat Pad or referred to as Classico, is a another popular paper, particularly with those artists using colour pencil. This paper is 50% cotton and 50% wood pulp, it contains optical brighteners... more about that later, it's very important!

Both Fabriano papers appear to have undergone changes.... without boring you with detail, basically changes in production have occurred and many artists have reported problems, such as 'a fuzzy raised surface and an inability to obtain sharp edges. With Fabriano 5 a slight texture change has apparently occurred, read Jacksons Art Blog for more.
But whatever the reason artists are reporting changes in both papers
Note: In this post I refer to loose sheets of paper.

St Cuthberts Mill:  The Two New Papers on the market
Coincidentally St Cuthberts Milll who produce Saunders Waterford Paper, were making changes to their paper manufacturing and have produced two new papers, which happen to be very similar to the Fabriano papers, these papers are:
New improved HP High white: A 100% cotton, archival paper in High White with no optical brighteners, available in 140lb, 200lb and 300lb. This new paper has a much smoother surface, very similar to Fabriano Artistico, previously the old Saunders Waterford HP was viewed as too 'soft' and more like a 'not' surface. For most botanical artists this paper was just not smooth enough.
Botanical Ultra Smooth: A 50% cotton 50% pulp paper, with optical brighteners, available in 140lb. This is a very similar paper to Fabriano 5

I tried out the new HP Saunders Waterford last year by comparing it to the old HP which had a more  textured and 'gritty' surface. Given the possible problem with Fabriano I wanted to try the new paper  again. Paper distibutor  R. K. Burt were very obliging in providing samples and took the time to call me to discuss the papers at length. 
 Sperkelia bulb, painted as a comparison of the old and new Saunders Waterford papers last year 
Factors to Consider when Choosing Watercolour Paper and the Question of Optical Brighteners

Personally I wouldn't use any paper that isn't 100% cotton, neither would I use any paper with optical brighteners. Longevity is a primary consideration if you are producing work for sale or for florilegiums etc. Without doubt a professional artist should always use archival paper, all of the papers reviewed here are archival, however there are some important points to consider regarding how 'archival' paper is measured. 
I prefer a more natural looking surface but some artists prefer the very white looking papers such as Fabriano 5 and no doubt the new Botanical Ultra Smooth Paper will be equally popular. The white paper can give more colour accuracy and brightness, but there's a down-side with such an un-natural white. Whilst both papers are technically archival, the standards for permanent and archival papers under ISO 9706 and 11108 don't actually measure optical brighteners, so this 'archival' status may be quite misleading (read more in a discussion on Wet Canvas here.)
In fact optical brighteners do decay in the daylight, therefore the paper will discolour over time with any UV and flourescent light and any advantage of 'whiteness' will most likely be lost - basically paper can't be that white without brighteners, it's the same as the biological whiteners in washing powder!
Papers that are only 50% cotton with the remaining 50% being wood pulp have less robust surfaces and will break down releasing fibres more readily, whereas 100% cotton papers will retain their smoother surface and can take considerable working. Some florilegium societies insist on cotton paper for archival purposes, so all-in-all these 50% cotton and brightened papers are inferior, they make painting more difficult and they will yellow when exposed to the light.
The only time I would use them is for commercial illustration work for reproduction and not for fine art paintings, in which case I usually use an illustration board. Of course you can argue that watercolour paintings should not be exposed to the light but I think the risk is too great and sticking something on the windowsill for 5 or even 10 years isn't really going to tell you very much about the life span of a paper at all.
Thereafter the next consideration is paper handling, for example; can you get clean edges and layer washes, how much can you work the paper without disturbing the surface and how easy is it to lift paint etc.
The thickness of the paper matters too, heavier weight papers are different to lighter weight ones, more robust, they don't need stretching, are easier repaired and less likely to dent or crease. I would always choose a heavier weight paper.
Having said all of this, these are my personal choices and paper choice really is personal, the only compromise that shouldn't be made is genuine archival quality.

What Tests did I Carry out?
For reasons already outlined above, I wouldn't normally use Fabriano 5 or the New Botanical Ultra Smooth, for anything other than illustration work. Therefore, I've focused mostly on  F. Artistico and Saunders Waterford HP. I haven't done anything terribly technical or sophisticated but simply painted some simple exercises using the various watercolour techniques and did a bit of overworking in the same way on each paper. These techniques include: dark to light grading, Flat washes, graded and blended washes, lifting paint from wet and dry paint. Some dry brush and a simple sphere. I've also painted some small studies on the new papers and tried removing marks with a magic eraser.

I worked with Indanthrene Blue, Winsor Yellow and also carried out some tests with Permanent Alizarin Crimson for the paint removal test.
The same examples of fairly standard watercolour techniques were used on all papers.
 Papers Tested ( all loose sheets): 
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb /300g/m2 high white ( the new batch)
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb /300gs/m2 high white ( the old batch) 

Fabriano Artistico HP 300lb / 640 g/m2 natural ( old batch)
Saunders Waterford HP 140 lb/300 g/m2 New improved smooth surface
Saunders Waterford HP 140lb/ g/m2 Old surface

St Cuthberts Mill New Botanical Ultra smooth 140lb
Note:Fabriano 5 - not tested for comparison but used previously

Comparisons: The Verdict
Fabriano Artistico HP 140lb high white: The new batch vs old batch.
This newer (allegedly poorer quality paper) seems to be more absorbent than the old paper, it's definitely more difficult to get clean sharp edges on washes and the surface raises more than I would expect when water is applied becoming a little 'woolly' with a softer appearance, making it hard to get the desired level of detail, particularly on small studies.

Old Fabriano Artistco on the left has a sharper edge in this graded wash, compared to the new Fabriano Artistico on the right, which bleeds into the paper slightly

I'm almost certain that this problem is to do with sizing rather than any change in the machinery used in production. The only time I've experienced this before is when a paper has been kept for some time in a damp environment. Could it perhaps be a bad batch rather than a production problem or a storage issue?

The colours appear identical on both papers and the washes are similar. Paint lifts in the same way using the flat brush to remove from wet and dry  Removing paint with the magic eraser was reasonable successful and the surface held up well but slightly better on the old paper. I was able to burnish the surface smooth using a piece of agate.

Although the papers handled differently and the new batch wasn't nearly so easy to work on as the old paper, the final visual appearance was much the same on both apart from the fuzzy edge which I found could be resolved. 
I think Fabriano Artistico is still a good paper and the difference is relatively minor, it's just different and not so nice but perhaps other users have a different experience. Paper differs over time, so I certainly wouldn't give up on Fabriano Artistico just yet.

Fabriano Artistico 300lb old batch
I also carried out the sme tests on my old favourite, the old batch of 300lb paper, which handles slightly differently than 140lb paper, particularly when lifting paint and correcting mistakes with the magic eraser, there was virtually no sign that the mark had ever been there on the heavyweight paper!  
Old Fabriano Artistico 300lb
I've yet to test the new batch of 300lb paper and will add information later. However I think that I used it before on an illustration a couple of months ago and experienced the same problems as noted above but that they were more pronounced on the heavier weight paper, with a much more fuzzy surface and raising on the surface.

Fabriano Artistico ( new batch) vs New Saunders Waterford (140lb)
The colour of the paper is virtually identical as is the general appearance of the surface.
With the flat washes, I managed to get a slightly sharper edge on the Saunders Waterford with less effort than on the Fabriano. The graded and blended washes were more successful on the Fabriano and they look cleaner in colour. Once the wash was down, the dry brush on top was much the same on both papers. I do feel that the colours look that bit brighter on the Fabriano than on the Saunders Waterford.
Lifting paint from wet or dry with a flat brush was much the same.
Trying to remove watercolour marks with a a magic eraser was more successful on the Fabriano, however wouldn't really recommend this on a 140lb paper anyway unless absolutely essential.

Fabriano Artistico on the left and Saunders Waterford on the right ( you can also see Saunders Waterford old HP behind). I still feel that Fabriano as the edge when it comes to colour clarity but the sharp edges were easier to achieve on Saunders Waterford. I tried The old Ruskin exercise from full saturation as dark as the pan of paint into the lightest wash, it was easier to control on Fabriano,  over-laying 4 flat washes, graded wash, which was much the same, blended wash slightly better transition on Fabriano but much the same, dry brush grading on top of wash seemed slightly smoother on Saunders Waterford , dry brush straight onto paper ( same), lifting paint from wet and dry. The colour of the two papers is identical, although it looks more grey on the left this is purely down to lighting.

Painting on the new Saunders Waterford HP
As well as the tests exercises I did a quick study of a Grape Hyacinth. I had previously painted the Sprekelia bulb on it last year (above).

Small study of a Grape Hyacinth on the new Saunders Waterford HP. I was fairly happy with the paper and would have liked to do more but can't paint much at the moment due to repetitive strain injury, so this will have to do!

I have been happy with the results on the new Saunders Waterford paper on both occassions with only minor reservations,  perhaps it could do with a little more sizing was my main observation. I would prefer to paint on a heavier weight paper anyway so look forward to trying the 200lb and 300lb versions. I would definitely use this paper as an alternative or in addition to Fabriano Artistico but stress that the Fabriano changes are not all that bad. 

St Cuthberts Mill New Botanical Ultra Smooth
As already stated already I wouldn't use this paper, it's more like a student quality paper in my opinion, but I always wonder why you would give a student inferior paper because it just makes the job harder! Having said that for watercolour sketches it's really not at all a bad paper, very smooth and takes washes reasonable well, from memory I'd say that it's better than Fabriano 5 because it's that bit smoother. The graded and blended washes turned out fairly well and dry brush worked OK up to a point, but it did start to break down, revealing fibres on the surface when I deepened the dry brush work on the sphere.
Botanical Ultra Smooth and it does lives up to that name,but its too white for me and the surface breaks down from overworking more easily than a cotton paper. Lifting paint withthe magic eraser didn't go well at all.
 Lifting paint with a flat brush was difficult from both wet and dry paint, I think because of the pulp content the paper sucks in the paint more. The magic eraser yielded a pretty poor outcome and the fibres became very apparent and raised, but the mark was completely gone. It didn't burnish very well leaving an unsightly fluffy and 'buckled' patch. I didn't attempt to paint anything else on it. I'm sure somebody else will though.

Final Thoughts
All paper manufacture varies over time, in the past I have found similar problems, which seem to have been resolved, I hope that Fabriano will resolve the issues, whatwever the ccause. Also other factors such as storage conditions will affect paper, particularly moisture, so these need to be considered too. This isn't a clear cut case of which paper is better because each paper has slightly different qualities.

Most of all though it's great to have more choice, and to have a British paper mill producing such high quality papers which provide a great alternative. This whole business has made me think about paper choice again, so that can't be a bad fact I've even decided to give Arches another try, even though I'd completely written it off a couple of years ago....and await a delivery

Coming soon: My experience of selling art online over the last year compared to selling through galleries.