8 Steps to Test Out Any Watercolor Paper

When creating a painting you might want to frame, the paper you choose becomes an important decision. While most student-grade watercolor papers and sketchbooks are just great for practice, they often do not not perform as well during our painting sessions, or hold up well enough over time.

With so many papers available, it’s difficult to know which one to choose! Here are some things to consider, and ways to test them out for yourself to find out which papers will work with you and your style.

Watercolor Papers to Test

In this post, I’ll walk you through how to choose papers to test, what to look for as you test, and the results of one of my recent tests, so that you can see the difference between different papers.

Choosing papers to test

Sampler packs

Many paper manufacturers or retailers have sample packs that you can purchase, or even request for free. I recently ordered the Watercolor Paper Sampler from Legion Paper so I could try all of their watercolor papers. You can also request samples from online retailers like Dick Blick.

Brands

For this particular testing, I chose the three of the most popular artist grade watercolor paper brands: Arches, Fabriano Artistico and Saunders Waterford — plus a newcomer to the market, Stonehenge Aqua.

Hot vs. cold press

Hot pressed papers are ideal when you want to capture more fine details, such as paintings in the botanical style. Cold pressed papers are the most popular choice, giving you more flexibility for larger washes and wet-on-wet techniques.

What to look for while testing watercolor paper

You can see each of the eight elements below in this photo. Read on for information about each test.

Eight Step Test for Watercolor Paper

1. Erasability

Can you easily remove graphite without damaging the surface of the paper? This is important for my style of work, as I do use graphite drawings to begin my paintings, and now and again need to make adjustments with an eraser. I do not like for my paper to show any signs of abrasion or markings from where I have used an eraser.

How to test it

With an HB or number 2 pencil, draw a thin rectangle and fill it in with graphite. Using a hard white eraser, remove a section of graphite and then feel the paper for any roughness. Noticed how well the graphite disappears and whether the paper holds on to the eraser debris.

2. Erasability, part two + the brilliance of pigment on paper.

I also want to be sure that if I use a pencil, even very lightly, that the paper will not be marked in any way so that the paint might settle where I’ve erased the lines. I also look at the brilliance of the pigment once it dries. Does it appear flat or dull because the paper is too absorbent? Or does it maintain its brilliance?

How to test it

Draw an X on the paper, then erase it. Then, paint a layer of watercolor pigment over the place where  you erased the X. If the paint settles in the grooves where the X was, you know the paper is too soft. If the paper looks abraded or rough in any way, you know the surface isn’t as strong to hold up to some painting techniques.

3. Clean Edges

I want my paper to have the ability to hold clean lines. I’ve used papers that, no matter how careful I am, tend to seep around the edges of my paint placement.

How to test it

For this test, draw a square shape with your paint and then fill it in with the same paint. When it dries, it should have maintained the edges and there should be no seepage.

4. Flow

If I am painting wet on wet or using water glazes, I want the paper to have good flow. What this means is that once I have a water glaze or wet pigment on the paper, if I add more pigment or drop color into the water glaze, it will flow well over the surface of the water glaze.

How to test it

For this test, paint a rectangle with clear water, then drop pigment in, off the tip of brush, to the upper right corner. If it starts to move across the water glaze, it has good flow. If it stays put and doesn’t move, it does not have good flow. Don’t forget to look at after it dries to see if it has migrated well across the rectangular water glaze.

5. Lifting when wet

I often use the lifting technique to pull highlights out of wet watercolor glazes. This is a really important factor, for me, when choosing a watercolor paper. The color should lift easily with a clean, damp brush, and the highlight should remain without too much of the paint seeping in to the area where it has been removed.

How to test it

To test, paint a rectangle, let it settle for a moment and them use the tip of a clean, damp (not wet!) brush to swipe across to lift the pigment. Personally, I did this three times in a row on each paper, each time cleaning and drying my brush so I didn’t redeposit the paint onto where I had just lifted it off.

6. Lifting when dry

I also want to be sure my paper will stand up to lifting techniques once the paint has dried. The paint should lift off where I have scrubbed it, and not leave the paper abraded.

How to test it

Paint a rectangle and let it dry completely. Once dry, use a clean, damp brush and wiggle it back and forth in a small line across the center of the paint swatch, about eight times. Then dab it with a clean tissue and see how the pigment reacts.

7. Holding a mark

It is very important that paper holds our marks crisply. I have run into papers that do not, and it is frustrating, indeed.

How to test it

For this test, pick up paint with your brush and make swift X marks and random lines across and down the paper. When dry, the edges should be crisp and as you made them.

8. Smooth washes

The ability to hold a smooth wash is incredibly important. Student-grade papers often absorb the paint too quickly, leaving you with streaks in an uneven wash. Most artist-grade papers take washes very well, but I still test this, to see just how well it performs, especially when comparing papers.

How to test it

For this test, make a juicy wash, then use the pointed round to pull the wash down, in rows, from left to right, always picking up the bead that has formed from the row before.

My resent watercolor paper test

For each of the eight papers below, I applied the same eight tests as listed above. I used the same brush — a number 8 pointed round — and the same pigment, French ultramarine blue. I chose this pigment because it is not a staining pigment and normally lifts easily from the paper when I need to remove it.

Arches Watercolor Hot Press

Arches Hot Press Watercolor Paper
  1. Erasability was excellent. No signs of abrasion.
  2. Erased X was not evident under the wash. Color remained brilliant after drying.
  3. Edges remained very crisp.
  4. Really great flow on this paper. It almost covered the entire water glaze surface by the time it dried.
  5. Great lifting ability when wet, with a small bit of seepage back to where the paint was was lifted.
  6.  Not so great on the lifting once dried. It barely moved the paint.
  7. Wonderful line retention.
  8.  The wash effect was not so great, although for a hot press paper, it did fairly well.

Arches Watercolor Cold Press

Arches Watercolor Cold Press Paper Test
  1. Erasability was fair, but the eraser debris was difficult to remove from the paper without leaving a mark. 
  2. Slight signs of abrasion when the paint dried over the erased X. This paper is quite absorbent and I found the brilliance of the pigment was diminished.
  3. There was a bit of seepage outside the original lines, once dry.
  4. The flow was average, not great. Again, this paper has a very absorbent quality, which may be preferable in some circumstances, such as a very large painting using loads of water and pigment. This is not a quality I look for in my own paper. I like my paper to have a harder surface that allows the paint to flow and remain wet and on the surface longer.
  5. Average lifting ability and also some seepage.
  6. Lifted fairly well on dry paint.
  7. Maintained the lines well, even though the texture of the paper allows for some texture to the line. This is a fairly heavy texture for a cold press paper.
  8. The wash was mostly even. but absorbed the paint so quickly I had to rewet my brush…and hence a bit of backrun that you can see, where the paint is lighter.

Fabriano Artistico Hot Press

Fabrian Artistico Hot Press
  1. Excellent erasability.
  2. No visible or tactile change where I used the eraser after paint had dried. The pigment remained brilliant due to the surface sizing of this paper.
  3. Not too much seepage. Not as crisp as the Arches Hot Press, though.
  4. Decent flow, but did stop at some point and began to feather a bit. 
  5. Nice lifting ability when wet. Not too much seepage into the area that was lifted.
  6. Fair lifting ability when paint was dry. The paper felt a bit fuzzy where I lifted the pigment, meaning it might not take further layers of paint well.
  7. Wonderful crispness of lines.
  8. Really excellent here. Took the wash very well.

Fabriano Artistico Cold Press

Artistico Cold Press Watercolor Paper Test
  1. Fair erasability. The eraser left a smudge, and a bit of abrasion.
  2. I can see the X, where the eraser abraded the paper. This paper feels quite soft compared to other cold-pressed artist grade papers I’ve used. Very absorbent. Pigment lost some brilliance, for sure.
  3. Edges did remain crisp.
  4. Terrible flow. The paint just stopped… the glaze was absorbed almost immediately. This would not be a good paper for wet-in-wet techniques.
  5. Not good in the lifting department all around. This paper is much too absorbent for good lifting ability. The paper was also left abraded from even the first swipe of lifting.
  6. It barely allowed to me lift any paint, when dry. Really disappointing.
  7. Nice ability to hold the lines, but the pigment is really dull-looking, like the paper soaked it all up.
  8. The wash was not a good experience. The paint dried almost on contact, not even allowing for a bead to pick up. Quite streaky and dull, even after going over it twice just to see what would happen.

Saunders Waterford Hot Press

Saunders Waterford Hot Press Watercolor Paper Test
  1. Erasability is fair. It left a bit of a mark as the graphite did not completely lift.
  2. I can see the X that I had erased, but the paper did not seem to change texture. The brilliancy was good, but did soak in to the paper more than the other hot press papers.
  3. Very little seepage outside the edges, but a little brilliancy was lost because the paper is not as hard surfaced as the other hot press papers.
  4. The flow was average. It moved as well as I would like it to.
  5. Lifting ability when wet was good. Only a small amount of seepage into the area where the paint was removed.
  6. Fair lifting ability when paint was dry. Not enough for my liking.
  7. Excellent line retention.
  8. The wash went down smoothly with no apparent streaking, but the paper did absorb the paint fairly quickly so I need to add a bit of water to my brush.

Saunders Waterford Cold Press

Saunders Waterford Cold Press Paper Test
  1. Good erasability.
  2. The surface of this paper is quite soft, and the pencil left a groove on the paper. The texture did not seem very disturbed, however. The brilliancy is good.
  3. There was some seepage to the edges of the square.
  4. Average flow. The paint did move, but did not flow as easily as I would like.
  5. Average lifting ability. Not very clean, with some seepage.
  6. Average lifting ability when dry. 
  7. Average line retention. Not as crisp as I like, but not bad for a cold pressed paper.
  8. The wash went down fairly well, smooth, with no streaking.

Stonehenge Aqua Hot Press

Stonehenge Aqua Hot Press Paper Test
  1. Excellent erasability!
  2. Also excellent here. No sign of where I used the eraser, or drew the X. Brilliancy is also excellent.
  3. The edges remained fairly crisp. My brushwork was not ideal here, but I made note of that, and the end result after drying was as I painted it.
  4. Good flow for a hot pressed paper. The paint moved well at first, but did not cover the entire rectangle.
  5. The best lifting ability for a hot press paper, however there was a bit of seepage where I removed the paint.
  6. Good lifting ability when dry.
  7. Excellent line retention.
  8. The wash was average, but not bad for a hot pressed paper. The paper is hard enough to not absorb too much paint, allowing me to finish the wash with one brush full of paint.

Stonehenge Aqua Cold Press

Stonehenge Aqua Cold Press Paper Test
  1. Excellent erasability. 
  2. No sign of where I drew the X and the surface of the paper stayed intact with no sign of abrasion or settling into the pencil line. The brilliancy of the paint remained excellent in all tests here.
  3. Edges remained very crisp.
  4. Excellent flow. The paint moved well across the water glaze and remained wet for a while.
  5. Very good lifting ability when wet. Didn’t remove all the pigment, but fairly white and very little seepage.
  6. Good lifting ability when dry.
  7. Excellent line retention and brilliance of pigment once dry.
  8. The best of the washes. Smooth and even with one brush full of paint.

So what’s the verdict?

Of all the papers only one stood out as something I would never choose: the Fabriano Artistico Cold Press. The paper is much too soft and absorbent for my style of painting and the pigment appeared very dull and lifeless once dry. Its lifting ability failed my tests.

The overall winner for me in a hot pressed paper is a three-way tie between Arches, Fabriano and Stonehenge Aqua. All three showed excellent liftability and brilliance and flow for a hot press paper, and were hard enough to hold very crisp lines and edges. This is really important for fine detail work, which is why I would choose a hot pressed paper.

For a cold pressed paper, I was most impressed with the Stonehenge. It has the right amount of hardness, texture and flow to suit any watercolorist’s needs, and also had a good ability to maintain clean edges and lines, which isn’t always the case with more textured or softer cold pressed papers.

I hope you’ll put your own watercolor papers through these experiments to see how they might perform for you and your style of work. Of course, the ultimate test is how they perform in a real painting, but taking the time to give these simple tests a try can save you some trouble in the long run. 

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