Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Tips & Tricks #10: Rough vs. Smooth - Know Your Watercolor Papers!

For acrylic and oil painters, a canvas is basically a canvas. A high quality piece of canvas may be heavier and stiffer, or it may have a higher thread count that gives it a smoother surface, but the canvas itself doesn’t present wildly varying opportunities for different painting techniques. For watercolor painters however, the situation could not be more different! The surface texture and weight of a piece of watercolor paper will directly affect the outcome of the painting and each type of paper has it’s pros and cons for particular styles of art. Knowing the basics of paper selection can save you plenty of headaches down the road, so let’s dive right in!

Watercolor paper comes in three different surface textures: hot press, cold press and rough, which describe how smooth the surface of the paper will be.

Cold Press
About 90% of all watercolor papers will be cold press, which has a medium texture to it that is considered to be the standard for watercolor painting. Almost every pad of watercolor paper by companies such as Arches or Strathmore will have sheets of cold press paper in them, plus there is a wide variety of single sheets in 22x30 size or larger. Cold press paper is most suitable for all of the standard techniques in watercolor painting and it is the surface that you will want to use for any beginner workshops and introductory classes that you might be taking. The texture of cold press is a happy medium that allows for the random dry-brush marks that are so characteristic of landscape paintings, but the texture is still light enough to allow for precise lines and detailed brushwork. If you don’t know what kind of paper to get for your class, pick up some cold press!

Hot Press
Hot press watercolor paper has a smooth surface, similar to a heavy sheet of drawing paper. There is still some amount of texture, but not nearly as much as cold press. Dry brush techniques that use the surface texture to create random patterns will not work at all on hot press paper. On the other hand, the smooth surface is ideal for precise, detailed imagery which may be the choice for graphic design and/or illustration work. Just keep in mind that most of the basic watercolor techniques use the texture of the paper in some way, so if you are using hot press paper you will miss out on that.

Rough textured watercolor paper is exactly the opposite of hot press. The extra high texture of rough paper has even more of the random qualities that are so characteristic of the expressive, painterly styles of watercolor painting, so dry brushing on watercolor paper looks great! The texture also makes line and detail work extremely difficult, so it is only suitable for certain techniques and is not recommended for beginners.

Both hot press and rough papers are not so easy to find. Arches makes high quality lines of both surfaces in their watercolor blocks and there are also single sheets similar to the cold press types that are made by several different companies. Tape-bound and spiral-bound pads will not contain hot press or rough sheets.

Paper Weight
The other thing to consider when picking out your paper is the weight. Watercolor paper typically comes in three different weights: 90 pound, 140 pound and 300 pound. The type found in pads is almost always the lightest weight, but the Arches 140 pound paper is considered to be the standard for professional work. The heavier papers are available in 22x30 size or greater individual sheets or on Arches watercolor blocks.

Basically, the thicker the paper is, the more water it will absorb, so a lighter paper can only absorb so much at a time before it becomes saturated, while the heaviest can absorb three times as much. The difference that makes in terms of technique is that 90# paper requires less watercolor to create a solid, intense area of color, but because the paper becomes saturated so easily it makes it difficult to control the paint and continue re-working certain areas. 300# paper, on the other hand, soaks up a lot of water, but you get a lot more control over the paint and you can add more layers to a particular area while the paint is still wet. Since 300# paper is also stiffer, there will be less concern about the paper wrinkling too! If you’re not sure what to get, go for the lighter papers, because you’ll use up less paint while you experiment and they are easier to work with.

A final note about paper weight measurements: the pounds listed in the description of a piece of paper refers to the weight of one ream of that paper at 22x30 size, which is 500 sheets. So if 500 sheets of 22x30 paper weighs 90#, then we call that 90# paper. The sheets of paper may then be cut down into smaller sizes like 11x15, etc. This causes some confusion when larger sheets of paper are made, so if the factory produces paper that measures 40x60, and a ream of that paper weighs 1116 pounds, it will be listed as 1116# paper, but actually it is about the same thickness as 300# paper at 22x30 size. This antiquated measuring system is being phased out in Europe and replaced by the grams per square meter system, which says that one square meter of a particular type of paper will weigh a certain amount in grams. As with all metric systems, this will probably take some time to catch on in America, so until then we can all scratch our heads as we try to calculate the actual weight of a piece of paper in pounds!

Do you have any more tips, tricks or comments on watercolor paper? Please share!

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