Watercolor painting is a unique art form that requires specially formulated paper to achieve the best results. The paper’s texture and sizing are key factors that enable vibrant, flowy washes of color. In this article, we’ll explore what makes watercolor paper different and why it’s essential for watercolorists.
The Importance of Paper Texture
Texture is critical for watercolor painting. The paper needs to have enough tooth (fine bumps on the surface) to grab and hold the pigment. Yet the tooth can’t be too pronounced, or it will disrupt the luminous washes of color.
Watercolor paper is designed to have the perfect amount of sizing and texture for watercolor techniques. The paper is formulated to be soft enough to absorb the water and pigments but textured enough to capture the colors. Hot pressed watercolor paper has a smoother surface, while cold pressed has more texture.
|Has a harder, smoother surface with minimal tooth. Allows for fine detail.
|Has a medium amount of tooth. Versatile for a variety of techniques.
|Has a very textured surface that grabs pigment. Creates broken color effects.
As you can see, the surface of watercolor paper varies to support different watercolor techniques and visual effects. Using a properly textured paper helps the colors bloom and prevents uneven washes or puddling of pigment.
Sizing Creates a Colorfast Surface
Sizing is a substance applied to the paper surface during manufacturing. For watercolor paper, sizing controls how much moisture the paper absorbs.
Without sizing, the paper would act like a sponge and over-absorb the water. Too much sizing makes the colors pool up rather than soak into the paper. Quality watercolor paper has internal and surface sizing designed to give just the right absorbency.
Internal sizing is added during the paper making process. This gelatinous material coats the paper fibers and enables the right amount of moisture absorption. Surface sizing is a starch or gelatin layer applied after the paper is formed.
Together, these sizings make the paper semi-absorbent. The surface stays wet long enough to allow painting, but absorbs the moisture at the right pace. This keeps the colors vibrant on the page.
Paper Weight Matters
Watercolor paper comes in a range of weights from 90 lb. up to 300 lb. or more. In general, heavier weight paper is better for watercolor.
Thinner paper can buckle or warp when wet. Heavier paper stays rigid when soaked with moisture, allowing for wet-on-wet techniques. The extra weight also gives a substantive surface for layering rich colors.
|Lightweight student grade paper. May buckle when very wet.
|Medium weight paper holds up to water better.
|Heavyweight paper stays flat when soaked. Allows lifting and scraping.
For professional work, paper of at least 140 lb. is best. That provides enough stability and endurance for selling or exhibiting watercolors. Student grade papers around 90 lb. are fine for practice and experimentation.
Common Watercolor Paper Types
With an understanding of texture, sizing, and weight, let’s look at the main categories of watercolor paper.
Cellulose fiber paper is made from plant materials like cotton or wood pulp. It’s an excellent choice for watercolor thanks to its absorbency and strength when wet.
Many artist grade watercolor papers are fine cellulose papers. Known brands like Arches, Fabriano, and Saunders Waterford use high quality cellulose pulp.
Rag papers are made from cotton fiber. Traditionally this meant literal rags or cotton scraps, but modern rag papers use 100% cotton linters.
Rag watercolor papers have a beautiful texture and luminosity. With cotton’s long fibers, the paper is quite durable. Rag papers are popular with professional watercolorists.
Some student grade and sketching papers contain wood pulp. This makes them more affordable and disposable for practice.
Wood pulp papers are fine for studies and rough work. But for finished paintings, rag or cellulose offer better strength, absorption, and longevity.
How Watercolor Paper is Made
Now that we’ve looked at different fiber types, how is watercolor paper actually produced? Here’s an overview of the papermaking process.
The basis of paper is the pulp. For rag papers, the pulp comes from cotton rags or linters. For cellulose, the raw material is wood chips or other plant fibers.
The raw material goes through preparation processes to break it down. Then the fibers get suspended in water to form a thin pulp.
The pulp gets drained through a mesh screen to form a sheet of criss-crossing fibers. The pulp is shaken to interlock the fibers and strengthen the sheet.
Thinner screens make lighter weight papers, while thicker screens produce heavier papers. Additional pulp layers can be added to increase the paper’s weight as well.
Pressing and Drying
Excess water gets pressed out of the newly formed sheets of paper pulp. The sheets then go through heated metal rollers to dry them out.
Drying under tension ensures the paper dries smoothly and evenly. Too much or too little tension would make the paper buckle or shrink.
After drying, watercolor papers undergo a sizing process. Internal sizing mixtures are added to the pulp before screening. Surface sizing solutions get applied after the paper is formed.
As discussed earlier, these gelatinous sizing agents control the paper’s absorbency. The paper needs to be semi-absorbent to work for wet watercolor techniques.
For cold press and rough watercolor papers, the paper surface gets textured. The sheets pass through metal rollers with a wire screen pattern to impart the characteristic tooth.
Hot press papers skip this texturing step to retain an ultra-smooth finish.
At professional paper mills, the finished sheets get carefully inspected. Optical sensors and expert technicians check for flaws, thickness variations, and other defects.
Only sheets that meet the quality criteria get sold as fine art papers. Lower grade sheets may be sold as student grade.
Key Attributes of Quality Papers
Now that we know how it’s made, what makes for excellent watercolor paper? Here are the key attributes to look for:
- Strength – Can withstand vigorous brushing and repeated washes without damage
- Sizing – Has balanced absorbency that allows for wet techniques
- Texture – The right amount of tooth to hold color while allowing brush movement
- Weight – Heavier weight for durability; at least 140 lb. recommended
- Acid-free – Archival papers ensure longevity of the art
- High cotton or cellulose content – Gives strength, absorbency, and luminosity
Handmade papers from reputable brands like Arches and Fabriano are known for these qualities. Their tradition of papermaking and specialization in watercolor paper results in superior products.
How to Choose the Right Paper
With all these factors to balance, choosing the ideal watercolor paper can seem tricky. Follow these tips as you shop for paper:
- Consider your skill level – Student grades work well for beginners
- Think about the finished piece – Pick heavy weight paper for important works
- Test different textures – Try smooth, medium, and rough to find your preference
- Read paper descriptions – Details like weight, content, and acid-free matter
- Buy single sheets or sample packs – Test papers before purchasing large quantities
With practice, you’ll learn which papers suit your style best. A range of textures gives the most flexibility for various techniques.
Caring for Watercolor Paper
Quality watercolor paper deserves proper storage and handling. Here are some tips for caring for your paper:
- Store in a cool, dry place away from direct sun, moisture, and humidity
- Handle gently by the edges to avoid damaging the surface
- Allow fresh paintings to fully dry in a flat position before framing or stacking
- Avoid touching or handling watercolor surfaces when damp
- Use acid-free backing boards and matting when framing
With proper care, your watercolor paper and paintings will stay vibrant and undamaged for many years to come.
Watercolor paper may seem like a simple material, but it requires careful engineering and manufacturing. The texture, sizing, weight, and fiber composition enable the flowing pigments and luminous washes unique to watercolor painting.
Understanding what makes watercolor paper special gives you the knowledge to pick the right sheet for your style and level. With quality paper and care, your artwork can become treasured creations to enjoy for a lifetime.
Next time you paint, take a moment to appreciate the craft behind the paper. The specially designed surface allows you to release the full radiance and beauty of watercolor.