The first watercolor painting I can remember making was in the third grade of a shell on sand by the edge of the water. I was having trouble making light reflect on the water and this was when I learned about contrast. It was also when I learned that watercolor paper buckles.
It’s been roughly 42 years since I made that painting and much has changed in the world of watercolor papers, lamentably, mostly for the worse. Once there was a grand selection of papers and now that number has dwindled and the quality of the existing papers has also diminished, I presume, for reasons of profitability. Yes, some of the great brands still exist but starting roughly 25 years ago changes were made at Arches and Fabriano that altered their classic cold press papers. It’s my understanding that the changes are principally in how the paper is sized. I still have some sheets of Arches cold press from my college days and it definitively takes the paint differently. All this said, with Arches having been founded in 1492 and Fabriano in the 1100’s, surely these recipes have changed over the years and will continue to. Arches is now owned by a Swedish conglomerate. And so it goes….
My desire to test a multitude of papers came about as I turn to new painting processes which call for optimization of my work surface, larger scale works, and moving away from glass framing.
Prior to this I had used Canson in my early days and Arches 140# became my mainstay. In 2010 when I returned to painting after working in design I moved up to 300# Arches and at times even 400# with brief forays into a smattering of other papers that included Winsor & Newton, Fabriano, and Lanaquarelle. About a year ago I started using Saunders Waterford for reasons that I will explain towards the end of this post.
Traditionally watercolor papers have been categorized in three groups:
HP= Hot Press: very smooth paper that is traditionally used for detailed work such as botanical illustration.
CP= Cold Press: a slightly dimpled paper with a little bit of texture that reflects light and that actually makes it the brightest of the papers.
R= Rough: as the name implies it has a rough texture which can bring out brush strokes even more. I have used very little rough paper so it will receive the least attention.
A unique offering from Fabriano is their Soft Press=SP paper. It falls between the smooth of an HP paper and the texture of CP paper with a very light texture and just a little bit of tooth. This might lend to a style of work that blends the wet and the detailed.
I should also mention that many papers come in a traditional or bright white option. I’m not going to get into this as it’s mostly personal preference but I generally go for the bright white as I can tint the sheet as need be. Natural or traditional tend to be slightly off white and I like starting with as bright a white as possible.
So-- the papers I’m going to share my experiences with, past and present, are:
Canson 140# CP
Arches 140# CP, HP
Arches 300# HP, CP, R
Arches 400# CP, R
Fabriano 140# HP, CP, SP
Fabriano 300# HP, CP, SP, R
Saunders Waterford 300# CP & HP
Kilimanjaro 300# CP
Winsor & Newton 300# CP
I should mention all of these come in 22x30 size sheets and some have options in the roughly 30x40 sizes and 40x60. Arches has all three. Fabriano has 22x30 and 29.5x41 and Saunders has 22x30 and 40x60. Kilimanjaro also has large sizes. I have a Fabriano 300# CP roll that I have yet to try to tackle and may make a separate post as to how I eventually unroll, flatten and cut it. I wouldn’t have gone for it but for the fact, to my knowledge, it’s the only 300# paper in a roll size that exists. Saunders make a 200# roll that I am also interested in.
Speaking to the weight of papers I tend to use 300# across the board. In my experience the 140# papers work for me up to about 11x15 inches then I need a heavier paper. Unlike many, I don’t stretch or tape down my paper unless it’s a small sheet and then I may tape a few corners to keep it from moving around. I have found stretching only keeps paper flat for so long as I tend to work very wet, and being able to wet the paper behind where it’s buckling helps level it. Paper buckles because of differences in humidity from one spot to the next. What comes up is drier than what stays down, hence adding moisture to the back of the sheet at the same spot corrects it. Also soaking a sheet of paper will cause it to lay flat until enough water leaves an area and then it’ll start to warp. All this said with my plans to go large scale I am now mounting paper to ACM (aluminum composition material) and birch plywood panels prior to beginning work.
I’ll begin by discussing each paper and then at the end I’ll make some general comparisons between the three main brands I’m focusing on the differences between them and also quality control issues I’ve encountered including how to go about getting a refund when there’s a problem. The more experienced I’ve become the more I notice these issues and have had to confront them as paper isn’t cheap! It’s also deeply frustrating.. I’ve read that when Andrew Wyeth found a paper he quite liked he would buy reams of it. This helps to confirm my thinking that these papers are always changing a bit even from Lot to Lot. I save Lot numbers especially when I have an issue with a paper to make sure I don’t restock from the same batch. Of course I try to buy from the lots that have shown positive results. Talas and Legion are two excellent options if you want to ask questions about these or any other papers. Many of the big online vendors don’t have the same depth of knowledge.
Canson 140# CP: is a great paper for light watercolor sketches. It doesn’t take layers particularly well and subsequent layers may lift what was already painted. Easy to find the world over and inexpensive comparably, a great place for novices to start or more experienced individuals to work on ideas or small pieces.
Arches 140# HP: I have very little experience with this paper and have been using it primarily for my newest work to compare its surface to other hot pressed papers and for very small pieces. The surface is smooth but not as smooth as a plate/Bristol paper with just a slight softness to it. I have a friend who is an accomplished botanical painter and this is her paper of choice.
Arches 140# CP: is probably the paper I and many others have used the most. It takes layers very well and color dries in a clear and true manner to what was put down. I find Arches to bleed, wash and blend beautifully. The texture has an organic randomness to it.
Arches 300# CP: This is the paper I have used the most in the past decade. Very similar to the 140# CP with the exception that it is thicker. A common error when moving from the 140# to 300# is to not use enough water which leads to a dry-looking result. If using synthetic brushes, a shift to natural hair will generally help as natural hair brushes hold considerably more water. Being able to take more water also means the paper will hold more pigment. Arches can be the best option out there when shooting for large passages of dark color, wet bleeds, and large clean washes. The paint moves beautifully across the surface and hence bleeds and blends very well-- when you have a good Lot.
Arches 400# CP: Extremely thick and rigid, and to my knowledge, this is the heaviest watercolor paper available and only exists in the 22x30 imperial size. The main reason I began using this paper was to overcome any warping at all when working very wet without letting layers dry as often as I normally would. At the now shuttered NY Art Supply, which claimed to have the world’s largest selection of papers, I once asked what the main function of this paper is. I was told it’s to be able to beat up on it, scrape and scratch it, and such. In the end, if it serves your purpose, that’s all that matters.
Arches 140#, 300# & 400# R: I’m going to group these three papers together as I have less experience with the rough class of papers. The differences that apply to the different weights in CP also apply here. These papers differ from CP in having a rough texture and they seem to contain a lot more sizing. The extra sizing means that moisture will tend to sit on top rather than being readily absorbed as with the CP. I believe that as weight goes up so does the amount of sizing. I have had water drops bead up and sit on top of 400# Arches R. A professional painter who uses the Arches R once told me he soaks it for 15 minutes before stretching. This is much, much longer than the CP needs to be soaked for stretching, so I have always assumed it was to remove some of the sizing.
(Side note: Andrew Wyeth used different papers some of which were not intended for watercolor like Reynolds Bristol. He was said to favor Fabriano because of its brightest of whites. I’m not sure if that’s still true today because one of the Fabriano papers he used is now rated a student grade paper with only 50% cotton.)
Fabriano 140# HP Of the three brands of HP papers reviewed here Fabriano definitively has the hardest finish. It has an almost Bristol like finish. I have been using this paper for very small pieces. This paper is excellent for detail.
Fabriano 140# SP I gave this paper a go as I’ve had some excellent results with its 300# version. Wet into wet I found it too weak for my purposes but for someone looking to combine the wet of watercolor with detail this may be a good option. The weave of the paper becomes apparent when washing with a heavy pigment that is tipped side to side so the pigment/water goes back and forth numerous times. This is something I’ve only seen with hot press papers. It literally looks like a basket weave.
Fabriano 300# HP My use of HP paper is for handling very fine lines. At the same time, I’m working in an untraditional manner which is very wet and I’ve found this paper the best of the HP papers in its ability to hold without buckling. Beyond this use of the paper I have little experience with it.
Fabriano 300# SP Only available in 22x30 and this may be a consideration for some. All characteristics are similar to the 140# with the exception that it can handle more water/pigment. This also shows the weave when washed with heavy pigment but less than the 140#
Fabriano 300# CP I’ve read that this is the best paper to use in humid environments- Not sure if that’s true. What I have noticed is that this paper seems to set faster than the other CP papers and not in as gradual a manner. I’m not referring to fully dry but rather the time it takes for the pigment to bite or take hold. This paper uses a synthetic sizing.
Fabriano 300# R I have very little experience with this paper. While it is rough, I don’t find that it will produce textures like the other brands. I also don’t think the surface is as durable as I would expect users of R papers to want.
Saunders Waterford 300# CP I find this to be a wonderful paper. It takes paint beautifully wet or dry and seems to be very consistent with regard to quality control. One thing I really like is that they only have one very small embossment on the bottom of one corner of the sheet. Compared to the other brands that can have something in all four corners (Arches) or along the entire length of the sheet (Fabriano). This can be a huge distraction from the artwork and many artists trim the paper for this reason.
Saunders Waterford 300# HP has a surface that falls between the soft cotton finish of the Arches 300# HP and the harder finish of the Fabriano 300# HP. It has slightly more texture than the Arches but not as much as the Fabriano SP.
Winsor & Newton 300# CP I’ve painted just one sheet of this paper. It is definitely the hardest finish of any CP paper I’ve encountered and it maintained its flat position very well. I believe it is only available in 22x30 and it has a mechanical feel to it.
Kilimanjaro 300# CP this is artisanal paper with a very random surface texture and overall warble to the sheet. If one needs a paper to create a treasure map, this is it. I can’t imagine getting clean washes across the sheet with all the variation and inconsistency on the surface.
Twin Rocker also makes a somewhat similar but more refined artesanal paper.
So, let’s get into it a little. I’ve always loved Arches when it’s on but the quality control issues are the reason why I migrated to Saunders Waterford for much of my wettest work on 300# CP. Saunders bleeds and washes the closest to Arches but doesn’t exhibit all the issues with sizing that Arches does. If I wet a sheet of Arches by brush there’s a good chance I’ll see those strokes in the wash that I lay in after. The sizing seems to move around the surface and I’ve seen this when submerging a sheet into a tub of water. As the paper is entering the tub a brown line will appear in the water right where the paper is first entering. If one stops while plunging the paper into the tub, even for a split second, a line may later appear where the pause happened. I’ve also done tests using pure black with all three CP 300# papers and Arches is sometimes tinted slightly brown/yellow almost like natural finish paper vs the bright white I was using. The only two possibilities are the sizing or my binder separating from the paint I made and causing a bit of yellowing. This can’t be the case as it doesn’t happen with the other brands. I’ve only noticed it wet into wet. Other quality control issues they’ve admitted to but not this one.
Another issue I had with a batch of Arches took a little pondering to solve. I’d lay in a wash and as it was drying a rectangle with sharp edges and corners appeared slightly lighter than my wash. So I grabbed another sheet and sure enough the same result. It finally dawned on me that the rectangle was exactly the same as the sticker on the OUTSIDE of the plastic sleeve the paper comes in. I realized that someone must have put these stickers on all the sheets then removed them. I wrote to the mill in France and they confirmed the error. What they didn’t mention is that whoever had the where with all to know that they had to be removed would also have known this adhesive on the paper would make it defective. Grrrrrr.
Saunders Waterford I had a line that kept repeating lengthwise along the long edge of the paper. A slight undulation to it. So I painted another sheet and the same thing…. One more just cause and the same result. This one was tougher to solve but there seemed to be something oddly similar about the wave forms. I took the sheets and lined them up to find the line met perfectly and continued from sheet to sheet. A 22x30 sheet of paper starts as one long strip that is 22 inches wide and it gets chopped every 30 inches. Something was dragging on the paper causing the wavy line. I wrote to St Cuthbert’s Mill the maker of Saunders Waterford and they had me send the examples. Several weeks later they confirmed my findings and asked that I advise them of any other issues I encounter. This has been the only issue I’ve had with this paper and I never have issues with the sizing.
Fabriano- I’ve never had any major quality control issues. I do sometimes find a random bump on a sheet of paper that if located in the wrong part of the composition could cause issues. Generally, I find the color to dry the most dull of the three main papers and the surface to take the least reworking. The texture also feels more mechanical than the other brands which have a more organic rhythm to them. Bleeds also feel less organic but I think this is more a function of the sizing than the texture. Washes must be done in a very wet state or banding is more likely to occur than the other two brands. I’ve read that this a good choice in places with very high humidity and perhaps the faster setting nature of the paper speaks to that
For me, when Arches is on, I love it the most for the way it receives watercolor paint. But, the quality control issues have caused me to shift my allegiance towards Saunders for my 300 CP needs. It’s a beautiful, consistent paper without an embossment in each of its four corners (come on Arches). The surface of Saunders Waterford has a softer surface than Arches so it will take less reworking.
For the HP papers all three serve me for slightly different needs but I prefer the Fabriano for its ability to draw the sharpest lines.
If you think you’ve gotten some bad paper, it’s best to speak with the manufacturer. They may send you new paper directly or clarify to your retailer that there is an issue and your vendor should replace the problematic sheets.
In the end, to each their own. A slight difference in approach can make an astronomical difference in results. What doesn’t work for one person may be the key to the universe for another and while materials matter it’s the fire inside that matters most.