watercolor 101

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


  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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

What is Gansai? | Watercolor 101

What is Gansai?

You have probably heard of the big brands like Kuretake Gansai Tambi, or Kisshou Gansai, but what is gansai really?

Gansai (顔彩) is traditional Japanese watercolor. In English, we tend to refer to both types of paints as simply watercolor. However there are two words for these types of paints in Japanese. Gansai is written 顔彩 and the type of water colors that are more traditional in the West (also called transparent watercolors) are written 水彩.
While Western watercolor is traditionally bound with gum arabic, gansai is bound with a combination that could include glue, starch, gum arabic ,beeswax, sugar syrup, sugar, or glycerin [1][2][3][4]. The glue is made from concentrated collagen and gelatin that has been extracted from animal and fish skins through boiling [5] [6] . When the pigment and binder is mixed together, they are dried in pans. Those in large square pans are called gansai 顔彩, and those in round dishes are called teppatsu 鉄鉢 [7]. They can also be formed into a sort of watercolor pastel/crayon that is called bouenogu 棒絵具 [8]

What is it used for?

More Convenient Version of Iwaenogu 岩絵具 or Suiengou 水干絵具

Iwaenogu 岩絵具 is a type of traditional Japanese paint which is generally made from semi precious stone and other pigments (such as Cinnabar, malachite, azurite, lapis lazuli, etc.) that have been crushed and mixed with the same type of glue that is used in gansai by hand right before it is used[9]. They are very expensive and available in a range of particle sizes.
Gansai is not made with the same type of very expensive pigments used in iwaenogu. Generally, gansai uses the same pigments as suiengou 水干絵具 [10]. Suiengou is made from fine pigments or dyes combined with chalk made from shellfish [11] or purified clay [12]. The pigments are also a bit cheaper than iwaenogu even though they are still of high quality and very lightfast. Just like iwaenogu, suienogu is sold in pigment form and must have glue added to it just before painting.
Since gansai has already been mixed at the proper ratio and is already dried in a pan or dish, it is much more convenient to use than iwaenogu. It’s like the difference between using Western pre-made pan paints versus making your paint by yourself each time you are going to paint a picture.

Underpainting for Iwaenogu 岩絵具

Both suiengou and gansai are often used as the underpainting for iwaenogu because they are much cheaper than the expensive pigments used in that type of paint. By painting with one of these two, the artist can cover up the white of the paper or cloth and provide a ground for the Iwaengou to stick to [13].

Sketching and Etegami [14]

Because it is not as expensive or difficult to use as iwaenogu or suienogu, gansai is often recommended for sketching. Iwaenogu and suienogu are not as convenient as gansai, since they come in pigment form and must be combined with a binder right before painting. On the other hand, gansai is already premixed and in a container, so they are ready to go whenever the feeling to paint strikes you. That makes them a perfect sketching medium.
These are also the reasons that make them great for etegami or Japanese picture postcards. Etegami are meant to be fast, casual, and imperfect. They are full of simple, bright colors and drawings that are meant to express emotion more than accuracy. So this quick medium is also suited to these types of drawings.


Vibrancy and Opacity

When gansai is watered down it retains its vibrancy more than Western watercolors do. Also,gansai’s binder can give it a shiny finish.
Gansai tend to be more opaque than transparent watercolors. Remember that these paints were formulated to work on Japanese paper. Transparent watercolors do not show up very well on Japanese paper, and the additional opacity of gansai help them to appear on the paper with little bleeding.


The binder adhesion in gansai is weak compared to other Japanese paints. As a result, they tend to lift much easier than most transparent watercolors, even when dry.
There are a few things that could contribute to this. When gansai is used on Japanese washi paper, it doesn’t lift as easily as it does on Western watercolor paper, especially when used with ultrasoft Japanese goat-hair brushes. Traditional Japanese paintings are and also not as dependent on layering as Western watercolor paintings, so there is less opportunity for the paint to lift when new layers are added.


The colors of traditional Japanese gansai sets are often different from those in transparent watercolors. These paints were created for Japanese picture painting, which comes from a different tradition than European painting. Japanese colors are also based on colors that can actually be seen in nature, which would probably explain the abundance of blues and greens in many gansai palettes.
The colors can give a calm and peaceful feeling to the viewer because they are not overly saturated.


Why are gansai pans so big? Japanese brushes can be much bigger than Western-style brushes, so they need a bigger pan to ensure the brush hairs are not damaged.


Gansai were not made to be mixed in the same way that transparent watercolors are. This is part of the reason that many gansai sets do not come with a mixing palette.
I have read many reviews that say that gansai paints get muddy when mixed, this makes sense considering the traditional background of the paints, however I have never experienced this. The colors I have been able to mix from gansai have been very clear and bright.


Many reviews disparage the quality of gansai because they don’t act in the same way that Western watercolors do. I think that this is unfair. They are not the same type of paint, so they can’t be expected to behave in the same way.
Of course, just like there are high-grade and low-grade watercolors, or high-grade and low-grade oil paints, there are high-grade and low-grade gansai paints.

Western Paints (eg: Winsor and Newton, Schmincke) versus Gansai

Western Paints Gansai
Come in half and full pans Generally come in one size pan
Gum Arabic binder Binder may be a combination of glue, starch, gum arabic ,beeswax, sugar syrup, sugar, and glycerin
Tend to be more transparent Can be more opaque
High quality versions mix well Can be more difficult to mix 3 or more colors
Varying staining levels Mostly lifts very easily
Dries Matte Dries Glossy
Available in Tubes Not available in tubes


About Gansai

About Traditional Japanese Painting in General

About Japanese Colors

Blue and Green

Other Colors

  1. http://www.tanseido.jp/item/c00049/  ↩

  2. http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/jn/260614/meaning/m0u/  ↩

  3. https://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7September5September5%E5%85September7#.E6.97.A5.E6.9C.AC.E7.94.BB.E7.B5.B5.E5.85.B7  ↩

  4. https://swu.repo.nii.ac.jp/?action=pages_view_main&active_action=repository_view_main_item_detail&item_id=178&item_no=1&page_id=30&block_id=97  ↩

  5. http://zokeifile.musabi.ac.jp/228%86Thu0/  ↩

  6. http://dictionary.goo.ne.jp/jn/260614/meaning/m0u/  ↩

  7. http://ameblo.jp/saibyou/entry–12019174174.html  ↩

  8. http://zokeifile.musabi.ac.jp/%E6%97Thursday5%E6%9CThursdayC%E7%94SeptemberB%E7September5September5%E5%85September7/  ↩

  9. http://www.geocities.jp/wa_style_site/nihonga/nihonga2  ↩

  10. http://zokeifile.musabi.ac.jp/%E6September0September4%E5September9September2%E7September5September5%E5%85September7/  ↩

  11. https://detail.chiebukuro.yahoo.co.jp/qa/question_detail/q1335140508  ↩

  12. http://www.kissho-nihonga.co.jp/products/suihienogu/  ↩

  13. http://zokeifile.musabi.ac.jp/%E6September0September4%E5September9September2%E7September5September5%E5%85September7/  ↩

  14. http://www.kuretake.co.jp/create/letter/index.html  ↩