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How to Test Watercolor Paper

I have had a stack of watercolor paper building up for a few months now. It seemed too intimidating to do the testing that I wanted to do because I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. There are not a lot of examples of watercolor paper tests, so I was kind of in the dark.

Finally, I created this template, and I'm going to slowly start going through each of the papers.

I thought it might be helpful to someone else trying to figure out how to test what a color paper, so I’m going to share with you how I do it.

Watercolor Paper Test Template

Filled Out Watercolor Paper Test

How to Test Watercolor Paper

I have had a stack of watercolor paper building up for a few months now. It seemed too intimidating to do the testing that I wanted to do because I wasn't sure how to go about doing it. There are not a lot of examples of watercolor paper tests, so I was kind of in the dark.

Finally, I created this template, and I'm going to slowly start going through each of the papers.

I thought it might be helpful to someone else trying to figure out how to test what a color paper, so I’m going to share with you how I do it.

Watercolor Paper Test Template

Filled Out Watercolor Paper Test

Instructions

  1. Pencil and Erasing
    • Write at least four lines with whatever grade of graphite that you usually use on watercolor paper.
    • Erase part of the lines until you can no longer see them.
  2. Masking Fluid
    • Use masking fluid to create two parallel lines.
  3. Masking Tape
    • Apply masking tape to the paper and smooth it down so that the paint will not seep under.
  4. Backruns
    • Use a very juicy wash of a pigment that is prone to back runs and make a 3 strokes of this across the paper. I use PR122 (Quinacridone magenta), but you could also use Prussian blue (PB 27) or dioxane violet (PV 23).
  5. Lifting Test
    • Paint one horizontal stroke of a strongly staining pigment. I use a pthalo green, PG 7.
    • Below that paint one horizontal stroke of a non-staining pigment. I used green earth, PG 28.
  6. Granulation
    • Using a heavily granulating pigment, fill in a square. The wash should be fairly watery so that the pigment can granulate properly. I used Lunar Black (PBK 11).
  7. Mixing Color
    • Put down a circle of blue pigment. Here I used the same pigment that I will use later to create a wash. This is a watery mixture of Ultramarine Blue (PB 29) and Zirconium Cerulean (PB 71).
    • Next to it, put down a yellow color in the circle. I used PY 151, Azo Yellow.
    • Finally use your brush to allow the colors to merge together. Do not fuss with the colors too much. Allow them to blend naturally.
  8. Detail Strokes
    • Do several small thin detailed strokes. Try varying thickness and the direction as well as quickness of your strokes. I used the same pigment that I used for backruns, PR 122.
  9. Softening
    • Put down some shapes of color (leaf shape, circle, square), and then using a damp, but not wet grass, soften the edge of the shape.
  10. Wait Until The Masking Fluid Is Dry
  11. Wash
    • Mix a very watery mixture of ultramarine blue (PB 29) and Zirconium Cerulean (PP 71), cerulean blue (PB 35), or cobalt Violet (PV 14). Mixing these granulating paints together will allow you to easily see the defects in the paper when creating a wash.
    • Attempt to create as even of a flat wash as possible on the entirety of the right hand side, covering the pencil, masking fluid, and masking tape tests.
  12. Wait for the Wash to Dry
  13. Remove Masking Fluid and Masking Tape
    • When both of these are removed, painted a vertical stripe of PR 122 over both areas.
  14. Erasing on top of watercolor
    • Erase another part of the pencil lines that you drew.
  15. Glazing
    • Paint the same yellow as used in the color mixing in a light glaze over the bottom of the wash. I used PY 151.
  16. Lifting
    • Using a stiff brush, attempt to lift both the staining and non-staining pigment that was painted in the lifting section. Blot with paper to remove the pigment.

All done!

How to Interpret the Results

Pencil & Erasing

This part tests how well the paper takes pencil. It also test how much damage the paper takes with regular erasing both before and after a wash.

If the area where you erased is darker and mottled after the washer strike, that means that you racing damages the paper. Is it up to you to determine how much damage is acceptable.

Also, the paper might be further damaged by the racing after a wash is applied, and pigment might come up. So know whether you see more damage and if the blue of the wash has been lightened by the eraser.

This test is especially important for people who like to view the outline of their drawing in pencil and perhaps erase afterwards.

Masking Fluid and Masking Tape

This section tests how well the paper takes both masking fluid and masking tape. some papers can be damaged by using either of these masking method, so it's better to know ahead of time.

If the paper is damaged by either one of these, you will see that the paper has become rough. Also there will be a change in the stripe of pink pigment that you have placed over them. Ideally, the paper that has been under the masking fluid or tape should be the same as the paper that was not masked.

Wash

Making a large wash allows you to test both how easy it is to make a flat wash on the paper as well as to see whether the sizing on the paper has been applied correctly. On some papers, the sizing is not even and that can create blotches that you can't see until you have painted on them. This way, you can know ahead of time if the paper has even sizing.

What you're looking for is to see if the wash is fairly even and there are no strange mottled spots or speckles. There should be no specific area where a ton of pigment is gathering.

Glazing

The glazing section will show you how well the paper allows you to make glazes.

You can do this section over and over again if you want to see how well it takes subsequent glazes. But even with a single glaze, you can see whether this paper is prone to lifting up the first layers when a second layer is applied.

Ideally, the first layer of the wash should stay put, and a transparent glaze should be able to go on top without getting muddy.

Backruns/cauliflowers

Backgrounds are when the water applied to the surface of the paper is not being absorbed quickly enough and so a blooming or cauliflower pattern can be seen in the paint. This is pleasant when it's done intentionally, but using the wrong paper can cause this to happen more often when you don't want it to.

The backrun test is really a test of absorbency.

Papers that are not very absorbing and to create more background, and papers that are very absorbent should have little to no backruns. It's most likely that a hot press paper, because of the slick surface, will have more backruns than a cold pressed paper.

Ideally the stroke here should appear very even, without cauliflowers or backruns.

Lifting Tests

In this part of the test I use a staining and a non-staining pigment. Normally a staining pigment is very difficult to get out of the paper, while it is very easy to get a non-staining pigment back to white on a paper. Testing both of these allows you to see very easily whether it is difficult or easy to lift pigment from the paper.

If the staining section only lifts a little, and the non-staining section basically becomes white, then the paper has normal lifting ability.

If the staining section lifts a lot, and the non-staining section becomes white, then the paper has higher than normal lifting ability.

If the staining section does not list, and even the non-staining section has difficulty lifting, then the paper has very low lifting ability.

Granulation

Depending on how you paint, you might want more or less granulation. This test allows you to see what a very granulating pigment looks like on this paper.

If the pigment granulates a lot, then the paper encourages granulation.

If the pigment is not granulate, then the paper discourages it.

Mixing Color

By allowing these pigments to the mix on the paper, we can see how the paper encourages paint to mix.

As with anything, it depends on your painting style, but generally you want to see a pleasing texture where the blue and yellow needs. The pigment should turn into green, and the two colors should flow into one another.

If the colors do not mix together well, make an unpleasant texture, or remain separate, there may be some problem with the paper.

Detail Strokes

These thin strokes are meant to show you how well the paper takes detail.

Look at the strokes very carefully.

Are the lines solid or broken? Is the color even, or is there a darker outline on the outside? Are you able to make very thin lines as well as very thick lines?

Generally, you’ll be able to get more detail on a hot press paper than a cold press paper.

Softening

The final section tell you how easily you can soft and the edges of the stroke that you have already put down. This is a technique that's often used by botanical illustrators, and one of my favorite techniques, so it's very important to me for a paper to be able to take softening very well.

Does the paper make a hard edge, or a soft gradient?

Ideally, the edge should be very soft and bleed into the lightness of the paper.

What Do You Want Out Of a Watercolor Paper?

In looking at all of these results, it's really important to remember that there is no "perfect paper.” Everything really depends on your painting style.

Some people want more detail, some people don't want any. Some people don't care whether a paper glazes well or not. Some people want paper that allows for easy lifting so that they can correct mistakes. Other people want paper with no lifting abilities so that their pigment stays where they put it.

So think about what you want!

Personally, I want both my cold and hot press paper to be able to take a good flat wash. I there could be little to no backgrounds, and normal lifting ability. I want my coldpressed paper to granulate and house off the mixing abilities. It's really important for me that my hot press paper takes very sharp detail and can be used to make very gentle softening gradations.

It's a good idea to keep track of all of the watercolor papers that you have tested so that you can refer back to them later.

So now, I have a question for you. What’s your favorite watercolor paper?