Sunday, July 3, 2011


I thought today I'd write about a rather complex subject - Watercolour Paper. It's taken me years to sort out what I know, and I know there's still a lot for me to learn on the subject. I won't get into the various ways Watercolour Paper is made, or the various things it is made of. Instead, I will stick with the surface and weight, and the with the brand of paper I use . . . Arches.

As you know, Watercolour Paper comes in a variety of weights, and that is based on how much a set number of sheets of paper (a ream) weigh. The paper is numbered according to how much that lot of paper weighs. The very light paper will weigh 90lb or less, while the heavy paper will be 300lb or more. That said, the usual range we see is 90lb, 140lb, and 300lb.

Someone told me recently that he had read that the 140 paper is for beginners, so why was I, an established, award winning artist who has countless shows under my belt and various gallery representation over the years, still using it? * * * * Well, there are shades to that statement.

It's true that the art school or watercolour teacher you go to will probably suggest that you get a 10 x 14 or 12 x 16 BLOCK of 140 watercolour paper. A BLOCK is a collection of 20 sheets of cold pressed paper that are lightly gummed together at the edges, attached to a hard board, and have a coloured paper cover distinctive to the brand. There is a tiny slit in the gummed edge, and the nervous art student is supposed to wield an X-acto knife with a sure hand and slice off one sheet of paper at a time. (STRESS!! ) The paper is quite thin and crisp, and needs to be taped down on a board, as it buckles like a star bucking horse the moment you put water on it.

The SHEETS of watercolour paper are, however, very different. Each sheet is 22 x 30 inches, and they come in 90lb*, 140lb, 300lb, and heavier. I've never used anything heavier than 300 as I don't have a need for anything heavier.
The 140 is a heavier and more pliable paper than that in the BLOCK , even though they wear the same number. (At a guess, I would wonder if the blocks are weighed while attached to the cardboard backing?) The 140lb Sheets of Arches watercolour paper are happily and successfully used by many professional artists, including myself. I like the way the brush feels on the paper and the way the paint goes on. The difference between the 140 and the 300 (aside from the obvious thickness) is that of how much water the paper can hold, not a difference in quality. If you are using relatively light washes and lots of dry brush, the 140 does not need to be taped, but it you want to use a generous hand with the water, you must tape it down, as it will buckle to some degree. The 300lb can take much more water. I never stretch or tape any more because I've found that the way I paint does not call for it, but this is a personal choice. I use layers of washes, but not soakers, and I don't mind a little bit of buckle. It's easy to flatten again. When I'm doing a smaller painting, I use 140, but when I do something larger than 11 x 14, I use the 300.

* The 90lb has it uses in sketches and such, but not for a full painting using lots of washes. It's just too light. I use it mostly for prints.

The other thing I've been asked about is my delight in Hot Press paper, when it seems to get "bad press" from time to time. Arches Watercolor paper comes in three finishes - Hot Press, Cold Press, and Rough. The ROUGH is very textured, and not something that is suitable to my style of painting.
The COLD PRESS is the most popular by far. It is relatively easy for an experienced artist to get interesting water colour results on this paper. It's a nice, polite paper that wants to produce a lovely painting, whether you are using 140 or 300lb. I used to use it until I discovered the Hot Press, which is more suited to my detailed style.

I've heard HOT PRESS described as slippery and slick. Not so! While some makes of paper do make a harder, "shinier" Hot Press, which I have tried and rejected, the Arches is smooth and velvety. The surface is hard enough to take a masquing fluid, and that can prevent tears when it's time to remove the masque. That's tears in both ways of pronouncing it! I've used masque with a softer paper. The results when it was removed weren't pretty! The Arches HOT PRESS takes a little more practice and some skill to use this paper to its best advantage, and I've been using it long enough to feel completely at home with it, either as a 140lb or a 300lb. It's a great paper for those who enjoy its challenges.

The painting at the top is DAWN RUNNERS, and it is an 11x14 watercolour on Arches 140 Hot Press.


Marty Klar said...

Thanks, this is helpful to beginners like myself. Based on what I've read HOT PRESS might be better suited to my use of watercolor pencils. Having just purchased a 22 x 30 140 lb sheet of ARCHES, I'm about to find out.

Deborah Klose said...

This was extremely helpful! Thank you.