The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.
Traditionally, paper is the surface used when painting with watercolor. There are a lot of paper choices out there and it can be a bit overwhelming, but read this lesson before you go out and buy anything to help you feel more confident about your paper options. If you haven’t done so already, check out our Watercolor Supplies And What Do I Need? lesson for our Recommendation List. We suggest starting off with 140lb cold press in blocks, sketchbook and loose sheets. This lesson will give you some more in-depth information about surfaces and give you some alternatives to get your creative juices flowing.
We’ll also discuss some options besides traditional watercolor paper that you can use in your painting.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Watercolor papers come in different textures—rough, cold press, and hot press. Each has a different quality that you can utilize to realize your vision.
Rough: Rough watercolor paper has a lot of tooth (texture) to it and paint tends to pool in some of the deeper areas of the paper.
Cold Press: Cold press paper has a medium amount of texture. The paper is made then rolled through a cold press to flatten out some of the rougher areas.
The thickness of watercolor paper is measured in weight. Standard weights are 90lb, 140lb, 260lb, and 300lb. Loose papers less than 260lb should be stretched before painting to reduce wrinkling. 140lb is most common as 90lb buckles very easily and can be frustrating for a beginner. We recommend 140lb paper.
Watercolor sketchbooks are essential for working plein air and keeping a watercolor journal, like these super fun and inspiring journals!. Be sure to get one with a spiral binding so it lays flat. 140lb paper is ideal, but if you get a very small watercolor sketchbook, you’ll be okay with a lighter weight paper (<6” x 6” 90lb is okay).
Paper that is sold in blocks is pre-stretched, so you don’t have to worry about stretching it before you start painting. You’ll paint on the paper while it’s still attached to the block and only when you’ve completed your painting, remove it from the block of paper. Find the small slit at the middle top where the layers of paper are not fused together. Insert a letter opener or butter knife and carefully slide it all the way around to release your finished painting from the rest of the block.
If you are just practicing watercolor strokes or are doing a series of small practice watercolors, just taping your paper to a board using painter’s tape will work fine. However, if your goal is a finished painting on anything much larger than 8”x10”, we recommend students purchase blocks to avoid the frustration of wrinkled paper. It’s really disappointing to work hard on a watercolor only to have the paper buckle!
Watercolor paper generally comes in white, but is available in other colors as well. Since the white that occurs in watercolor paper is from the paper itself, not the paint, you’ll want to consider this when purchasing your paper. If you want your whites to be really white, you can purchase a bright white paper. If you want something a little softer, go for an off-white or soft white paper.
What is “sizing”?
Nope, this is not the physical size of the piece of paper. Sizing refers to an additive that’s in or on the paper to control absorbency. Sizing keeps the pigment on the surface of the paper, allowing it to be controlled and retain brilliance. If there were no sizing on the paper, the watercolors would soak right in like they do on a paper towel.
In addition to the blocks and books of watercolor paper you can buy, there are also loose sheets you can purchase that are generally higher quality. The standard sizes for loose watercolor paper are:
Full Sheet (most common): 22” x 30”
Half Sheet: 15” x 22”
Quarter Sheet: 15” x 11”
Double Elephant: 30” x 40” or thereabouts
Emperor: 40” x 60”
The last two are less common than the others. If you want to buy your paper in bulk or if you think you’ll be doing a lot of oversized works on paper, you can also buy your paper in rolls that are usually 44” – 60” wide and most often come in 10 yard lengths.
You may notice when you purchase paper that it has a watermark in one corner. This gives you information on the manufacturer and the type of paper. For instance, the paper pictured below is made by Arches and the specific paper is Aquarelle. Watermarks or seals are put into the paper by the screen used to make the paper (in which case it can be seen by holding the paper up to the light) or embossed on to the paper when it’s still wet (in which case you can feel it raised, like Braille). It’s okay to leave these on your painting. Don’t feel like you have to cut them off. Leaving the watermark intact is a perfectly acceptable practice.
This is pretty much a given with all watercolor papers now, but check the packaging to make sure it’s acid free paper. Paper that is made from wood-based pulp that has not had its lignin removed turns yellow, becomes brittle, and deteriorates over time. When exposed to light and/or heat, the molecules in the acidic paper will break down even faster. During production, acid-free paper may be treated with a mild base to neutralize the natural acids occurring in wood pulp, and it may also be buffered to prevent the formation of additional acids (as may develop from the application of sizing).
When you purchase watercolor paper, you can get two types of edges. A deckle edge looks like it’s handmade (sometimes it is—most of the time it’s machine manufactured to look homemade) and torn. Cut paper has a clean, crisp edge. The type of edge you want will be determined by personal preference and how you intend to display the work. If it’s going to be matted and framed, a clean edge will work well. If you want it to “float” in a frame, a deckle edge looks quite nice.
If you have a larger piece of watercolor that you want to cut to a smaller size but still want a deckled edge, you can actually tear it instead of cutting with scissors or X-acto blade. You won’t get quite as beautiful a deckled edge as the purchased version, but it will still give that more natural homemade look. To make a full sheet watercolor into a half sheet, simply fold in half matching the sides as close as possible. Make sure you are working on a clean flat surface with clean, oil-free hands. Crease the paper along the fold by pushing down first with your hand and then with the back of a spoon. Refold the paper the opposite direction and crease it again. Do this a couple of times until the paper is very hinged along the fold. Start a small tear along the seam, then stand the paper like a tent and with one hand on the seam push down towards the tear. The paper will naturally continue the tear along the rest of the seam.
Here is an example of what a float mounting looks like:
Exercise One: Buy Your Paper
Go to your local art store and purchase one sheet of each 140 lb rough, cold press, and hot press paper. When you get home, cut them into smaller sheets of paper and experiment with your watercolors on each type of paper. How does the paint react differently with each surface texture?
Besides watercolor paper, watercolor paints can be used on a variety of absorbent surfaces.
Aquabord is a clay coated hardboard panel that gives watercolorists freedom and control by simulating the absorbency and texture of cold pressed paper but allows color to be lifted off back to white (the original surface of the Aquaboard) easily.
Parchment has a warm, rich tone to it that will affect your painting. You won’t be able to get very bright whites unless you use another type of paint (like gouache, which is essentially watercolor with chalk added to it to make it opaque).
*Note: the parchment used in the above painting is made from animal hide. Although it is still made that way, alternative plant-based parchments are also available.
Rice Paper is used a lot in Sumi-e painting styles, as you might recognize from the artwork below. Although Sumi-e is typically painted with ink washes, you can get similar effects with watercolor.
Silk or other thin fabrics can also be used for watercolor, but be prepared for the pigment to bleed. This can be a really beautiful effect, as in Eric Blum’s paintings:
Yupo is a tree-free, recyclable, synthetic paper that is waterproof and resistant to tearing and buckling, so there’s no need to stretch it.
Because it is waterproof, it will not absorb the watercolor paints. Instead, as the paint dries via evaporation, a lot of interesting textures are made. A lot of the design is actually created by lifting the paint off the paper after it is dry. Yupo paper can be very tricky and is not recommended for beginners, but it has become very popular and there are a lot of exciting techniques you can use with it.
Watercolor canvas is a cotton canvas with a special ground for watercolor paints. It performs similar to cold pressed or rough watercolor paper but provides that distinct canvas look.
Color lifts off easily and the canvas can be treated much more harshly than paper can. Because it is a canvas, the finished painting can be hung without a glass frame.
Watercolor ground is like an acrylic gesso used for preparing a canvas for paint, but it’s specially formulated for watercolor paints. It can be applied to any surface you want to paint—wood, paper, metal, etc. Here’s a video from Daniel Smith about their watercolor ground:
Exercise Two: Experiment
Try experimenting with other surfaces. Try using something you already have lying around the house. How do your watercolors look on cardboard? The pages of a book that’s fallen apart? A piece of silk? Use the colors and brushes you’ve purchased from our Recommendation List. When you’ve finished, show us what alternative surface you used by sending us a photo using our submission form.
Stretching Watercolor Paper
For small watercolors or when you are just practicing watercolor techniques, it is easiest to just tape your watercolor paper to a board using painter’s masking tape. A Masonite board or a thick (¼”) piece of plexiglass will work fine. Try to find the beige colored masking tape that is designed for painters’ easy removal in less than 3 days. The blue tape will work fine, but the color can be distracting. Be sure to press the tape down completely smooth so that paint doesn’t get underneath and then cause a funny backwash pattern when it comes out again. Do your painting exercises and when they are dry, carefully peel off the masking tape. Do not use regular masking tape or you may have trouble removing it without tearing the paper or paint.
If you’re painting primarily using dry brush techniques or are using 300 lb paper (which is very thick), you will not need to stretch your paper, but it’s a good practice to get into anyway. That way you can use as much water as you need and not worry about the piece wrinkling up. Remember also if you’re using paper that comes in a block, you don’t need to stretch it—that’s already been done for you. The exercises at the end of this course use a good amount of water, so you will need to work on stretched paper.
The reason buckling watercolor paper is so frustrating is that the paint cannot dry evenly. The depressed areas get little puddles that collect the paint and take longer to dry. It is also very difficult to make an even pass with your brush if some areas are little hills that create more pressure on the brush. So before you start painting on watercolor paper you will need to stretch it. To start, you will need some Gator foamboard or a good quality wood board about ½” thick. If the board is too thin, the pressure created by the paper shrinking will actually warp the board. When using Gatorboard, you can actually stretch paper on both sides of the board to keep the board from warping. If you want to stretch more or multiple pieces of paper at a time, make sure you have enough boards. It’s smart to prepare several pieces of paper at the same time so that you have a stash of papers that are ready to go whenever you feel the urge to paint!
Gator board. Just like foam core, but more durable and waterproof.
There are several methods for stretching your watercolor paper: stapling and taping. For both methods, you need to soak your paper first.
First, identify which side of the paper you will be painting on and mark it with a small X in pencil in one corner. Note: You can paint on either side of the paper. Manufacturers put a watermark on what is considered the front, but you’ll notice that as with Arches Watercolor paper, for example, there is a watermark on both sides. Less expensive papers may have a different texture on the front vs. the back—especially those that come on a pad, but it is just personal preference in terms of the amount of texture and absorbency you want.
Fill up your bathtub, clean kitchen sink (make sure there’s no grease anywhere that will ruin your paper), or tray, with cold water. Do not use warm water or it will dissolve too much of the sizing and make it very difficult to paint a hard edge. Gently submerge your paper in the water and let it soak. Depending on the weight of the paper, you will need to let it soak for different periods of time. Soak 90 lb paper for about 5 minutes and 140 lb paper for 10-15 minutes. While the paper is soaking, the fibers will expand and some of the sizing will dissolve. If your paper doesn’t soak long enough, it won’t stretch properly, but if it soaks too long, it will absorb too much water and the fibers will expand so much that when it dries, it will create such great tension that it can rip out your staples, tear itself in half, or break your stretching board! On top of all that, it will become too absorbent for your paint and will soak it up like a sponge.
Unfortunately, there’s no handbook on specific soaking times. You’ll have to experiment with the paper you have. You can test the paper while it’s soaking to see if it’s ready to come out of the bath by holding the paper upright and bending one of the corners towards you. If the corner springs back to the upright position, it’s not wet enough. If it’s soggy enough to flop over under its own weight, then it’s too wet. If the corner remains where you bent it to or very slowly returns to the upright positions, then it’s just right.
When your paper is just the right amount of soaked, lift it gently out of the water by the two top corners and let the excess water drip off. If you are doing this in the bathroom, you can put it on the wall and wipe off the excess water with a sponge, turn over and do the same on the other side. Then place the paper right side up on your board. Use a clean, damp sponge or a large wash brush dipped in water to brush the bubbles out, moving from the center of the paper outwards in all directions.
Now you’re ready to stretch your paper!
Most people I know use the stapling method over the taping method. After you have laid your paper down on your board and smoothed, using a small stapler and ¼” staples, staple about ½” from the edge of your paper halfway between two corners (the center of the paper). Place the second staple directly across from it again ½” from the edge of the paper. Do this on all four sides, then staple every 1-2 inches all the way around.
Let the paper dry flat. Don’t try to rush the process with a hair dryer! It will dry thoroughly in a few hours.
Once the paper is dry, apply masking tape on the edges of your paper over the staples. This will create a dam, keeping your paints on the paper and preventing the paints from going over the edge and seeping underneath.
When the painting is finished and dry, remove the staples using a flat screwdriver under the paper (not on top). When framing your work, you can either cover the holes with a mat or use a ruler or t-square to tear the edges of the paper just inside the staple holes making a deckled edge.
Here’s a quick video demonstrating the stapling method:
(There’s no sound except for some funky music. Feel free to mute if you’re not into having a dance party while you learn!)
Here is an excellent trick: buy cardboard upholstery tape at a fabric store (it is basically a 3/4″ strip of cardboard) and place it down on the edge of the paper when it is wet. You staple through the upholstery tape and the paper at the same time. When you are done painting and it is time to remove the staples, you just pull up the tape, and voila!—all the staples come out. This is much easier than plucking the staples out one by one with a staple remover.
The other way to stretch watercolor paper is with tape alone. You won’t need a stapler for this method.
In addition to your board, you will also need some brown paper gumstrip. This looks like tape, but isn’t sticky until you wet it.
Start the same way you would with the stapling method. Mark the front side of your paper will a small x in one corner with a pencil, then soak your paper in a clean water bath for 10-15 minutes. When the paper is fully saturated, pull it out and let excess water drip off, then lay it face up on your board. Using a clean sponge, wipe water away and smooth out air bubbles trapped under the paper by moving the sponge from the center out.
Allow about 1” all the way around your paper for the gumstrip. Cut the gumstrip into pieces about 2” longer than the paper itself (for example, if your paper is 11” x 14”, you’ll want two pieces of tape at 13” and two pieces of tape at 16”). Using a damp sponge, wet the shiny side of your gumstrip. You don’t need a lot of water—just a bit. It’s like licking an envelope. Once your gumstrip is dampened, lay it down on the edge of your paper so that it is 1/2”-3/4” from the edge and the rest of the gumstrip falls onto your board. Smooth it with your hands moving from the center of the tape outwards. Repeat this process on all sides of your paper. Once all your gumstrip tape is in place, leave the paper flat to dry for several hours or overnight. Once it’s fully dry, you’re ready to start painting.
This is a great video on stretching watercolor paper using the taping method:
When your painting is complete, you can either use a straight edge and a sharp Exacto knife to cut inside the edge of the gumstrip to remove the painting or moisten the tape with a clean, damp sponge to remove the gumstrip. Do this carefully so you don’t rip your paper!
Some artists will also use large bulldog clips to simply clip their paper to a board. For this method, it works well to wet the back of the paper completely and then place it on the board. Use your biggest brush to wet the front of the paper, smoothing out any air bubbles as you go. Attach the bulldog clips and then start painting immediately on the wet surface. This method works best for people who are going to complete their painting in one go and not let it dry and come back to it.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to staple or tape your paper, you can glue your watercolor paper onto a piece of foam core board. Cut the board to fit your watercolor paper then apply an acid-free, archival glue like Daige Rollataq to the board.
Place your watercolor paper face down on a clean, dry surface and place the foam core, glue side down, on top of it. Put some heavy books on it and let it set up for about an hour. When it’s dry, your paper will be flat and ready for paint.
This is what a stretched piece of watercolor paper looks like:
Exercise Three: Stretch Your Watercolor Paper
Using a piece of your loose watercolor paper, follow the instructions in the lesson to stretch a piece that’s at least 12” x 16”.
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the many different surfaces one can use watercolor paint on—particularly different types of paper and the pros and cons of each.
Next lesson: Watercolor Brushes