Watercolour Tip #2

August 16, 2017 by Diane Marcotte

Last week my tip was for those already painting in watercolours so I thought I’d take a step back and start at the beginning.  This tip is about the quality of your substrate as it is important to use the best product you can afford.


The paper needs to be absorbent and able to accept multiple washes of colour.  Typically this means heavier paper.  The minimum I recommend is 140 lb (300 gms) weight.  Do not use the 90 lb (190 gms) weight that comes in sheets and  pads – not even for practicing!  You will become frustrated with the buckling of the paper and lack of ability to do multiple washes. You don’t want to give up on painting in watercolour before you even start!

Watercolour paper comes in three finishes:

Hot Press: It is quite smooth with no discernible texture. Water sits on the surface longer allowing you more time to play around with paint. This paper is great for detail work and inking.

Cold Press or NOT (meaning not hot pressed): It has a well-defined tooth. The little hills and valleys suck up the water and paint making it a great choice when you want some texture to show.  It can handle scrubbing out techniques.

Rough:  It has the most tooth and texture of the three.  It is great for landscapes and seascapes or for when you want to maximize the texture of old buildings, rocks, etc. A technique called Dry Brushing works well with this paper as the paint is transferred from the brush to just the elevated tooth of the paper.

The most common weights are:

90 lb (190 gsm): It buckles easily and cannot be scrubbed without damaging the paper.  The least expensive and not recommended even for practicing.

140 lb (300gsm): The most favoured weight although it does require stretching.

300 lb (638 gsm): Stretching not required.  Quite expensive compared to the 140 lb weight.

The paper is available in:

Pads: Usually consist of the cold press 90 lb weight although you can find 140 lb pads.  They are really student grade.

Blocks: The sheets are glued on all sides thus no stretching is required.  They come in all sizes, finishes and weights and are very handy for painting outside.  Unfortunately they are quite expensive.

Sheets:  The most economical way to buy watercolour paper.  They can easily be cut into smaller sizes.  One drawback is that they often have a watermark which can be noticeable on a finished painting unless hidden by a mat.  There really is no right and wrong side to the sheets and thus one can paint on either side.

When beginning painting in watercolour I recommend buying one sheet of Fabriano brand 140 lb Cold Press paper as it has a well-defined tooth.  To avoid the necessity of stretching the paper (a future post) you can cut the sheet in half lengthwise and then cut one of these pieces into four to eight smaller pieces for practicing.  Tape one of the smaller pieces to an inexpensive smooth piece of pressed wooden panel or Masonite board.  The paper will buckle a bit if you are using very wet washes but will dry flat again.  Paintings done on 15″ x 22″ pieces (one-half of a sheet) must be stretched first.

Watercolour Canvases & boards

Watercolor canvases & boards: Watercolourists who want to varnish their paintings instead of framing them under glass with a mat can opt for canvases & boards that are specially made for this medium. They have a special coating that performs similarly to a cold press or rough paper. This video explains how to use them – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npGvQbCIfPY.

Ampersand Aquabord: They have a clay surface that is archival quality and designed for use with watercolors and gouache. The surface absorbs the paint like watercolour paper. Apply many glazes and lift to underlying layers of color — or completely lift back to white without damaging the surface.  It too can be sealed and displayed without glass. Watch this video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Emt8rfs76TE – for more information.

Please sign-up for my newsletters (see top right-hand corner) if you haven’t already done so.  Tip # 3 will be about watercolour paints…  juicy, vibrant paints!




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