I had a discussion with a friend who use do a lot of watercolor painting but has made the move to Acrylics and Oils and some of his friends who work in a variety of mediums. He attended art school and has a BA in Art History and Conservation.
Remember what paper is and how it is made- that is one of the keys.
Paper is pulp fiber with fillers and sizers and water. All that is different between them chemicals and sizers use and the type of pulp used. They are all different depending on who is producing it.
Paper can be rolled or made in a mold and pressed (think of hand made paper).
When it comes down to it all though it is a PULP fiber, which means when the paper pills, while painting you are pulling up itty biddy pieces of the pulp. How much water the paper can withstand before this happens depends on the make up of the paper, brushes used and the force we use while painting.
The heavier the paper the more abuse it can usually withstand but the more expensive it becomes.
300lb does not have to be stretched and can take quite a bit of water but if overly abused it will pill like cheaper papers.
140 lb is the usual standard for watercolor and the easiest to find.
There are lower grades but usually these are best for practice and for figuring out problems.
They recommend stretching the paper so it does not buckle.
Basically you get the paper really wet (soak it in the tub for about 5 minutes wet). Lay it on a surface and affix it to the surface (mason, gator, or wooden boards) what you affix it to and with what depends on size. Be prepared for interesting results after it dries- they have seen paper bow a wooden board because it was that tight. And like everything in life, nothing behaves quite like you expect even though nothing seems to have changed. Some paper stretches only in one direction others in the other direction.
What stretching does is gets out all the wrinkles, gullies and bumps you would have if you didn’t stretch it. You leave it stretched, while painting and the paper does not re wrinkle, gully or bump if it has been properly stretched. Or go to a heavier weight of paper to avoid stretching. Once you get used to it though it is not too bad and relatively easy. Also if you are working with smaller pieces it provides a sturdy support and can be done with inexpensive mason board and watercolor tape though everyone said the prefer the gummed because it is affordable. Whatever tape you use it has to be able to withstand getting wet and still stick.
Who has the best paper?
Everyone said no one. The best paper is the paper that does what you want it to and that you work well with. It can be expensive it can be inexpensive. If it does what you want for that piece it is the best paper. They recommend artist grade paper in the craft type stores (Joanns, Michael’s, Hobby Lobby) at min would be the Strathmore 400 series which is considered professional grade but if another paper works well for you then use it. Every paper has its own unique little quirks but if it works then it works. What works well for someone might not work well for another.
What they did to find out what works best for them:
They are all friends who went to college together so this worked for them:
They would go out and buy sheets of paper and cut it down into paper size sheets and split the costs between all of them each would get at least 1 sheet of each of the papers they bought. They would play around with them testing them. Later they discovered 3 sheets each was about what they needed to do a thorough test to see if they liked it. By doing this they did not have a pad of paper they could not use like they thought and they were able to create a sample book of how their techniques worked with that paper. They did not make any important pieces this was experimentation and testing. Like a sketch book is reference so was the paper.
They also did this with new products and different brands of paint. The person who liked it the best would pay a % back to the others and get the product. What they didn’t like they either donated to children’s programs or they used school projects as a group sort of the group supply closet.
Once you find a paper that you think you can work with. Buy a sheet. Cut it up into manageable sheet sizes and abuse the heck out of them. See how far they can go before you start seeing damage. How much water can you dump on it. What happens if you don’t stretch it…how it reacts to products and techniques. Better to find out now before you put that treasured piece on it and something happens that you didn’t expect. Use a piece the way you normally paint get use to the surface and the surprises that can sometimes happen.
Things they have seen and heard that they think are important:
Flooding the paper with water-Flooding means different things to different people and experience plays a lot into what is really going on. A watercolorist with years of experience vs a person just starting out will see flooding as different things. If they are doing an example watch and see what they think is flooding. Also this is where knowing your materials and your abilities play a big factor. Watch what they are doing and the results, then try to achieve the results with your equipment. You can always add more water but it is hard to take it away.
If you are in face to face workshop, go around on breaks and see what others are doing and what they are using. Try to make new friends. Also if someone is using a product you are interested in and they seem friendly ask if you can try a small amount of a color. It is a good way to see if you really like it and if someone asks to do the same allow them to do so. When asked your opinion on a product be honest about the good the bad and the sometimes ugly. One of them said they loved the color this one company made but it was a stinky.
Buy an inexpensive journal that can handle a min amount of wet media. (I use Mead Academie Sketch Diary) . When you buy a new media do swatches on a page. Label them with any information you have. Only put swatches and color wheels in journal. This way you know what you have and if you want a certain look or color, you can easily flip through it and see what you have and what effects the media has. It is also good to see if how the product settles after a while-some colors no matter the grade leave a residue that is because of what is used to make the color.
Speaking of color
Artist grade of anything has more pigments in it rather than fillers hence the higher cost. That is not to say one is better than the other everything depends on what you are looking for. But artist grade may have richer colors and not so chalky. Non artist grade has more fillers in the product to stretch the more expensive cost of the pigment. If cost is a factor, invest in a good color theory book or take a color theory class, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green is one title. They will show you how to mix colors from a limited palette to get most colors available. But this takes practice and good note taking (another reason for the swatch journal- write down what you did to get that color and slap some of the colors on the page as a reference).
Practice – there is nothing wrong with taking scrap paper and trying different mixes. (We have seen K here paint on paper with Kool Aid to see what color affect it would have on yarn-side note how scary is that Kool Aid to dye yarn permanently).