Monday, August 29, 2016

How I Choose My Multimedia Paper

Most  watercolor teacher-artists will recommend Arches paper, professional watercolor paint, and perhaps a mid level brush with the encouragement that you upgrade as soon as possible.  I understand their thinking:  they don't want students struggling with a Royal Langnickel Box from their local TJ Maxx.  Here's the real secret, though: Arches is consistent.   Any brand of professional watercolors perform well on Arches paper.  Any technique is possible --  and beautiful -- on Arches paper, too.  Most brushes -- and, let's be honest, even sticks --paint well on Arches paper.  It's not hard to see why that paper has become the international standard for watercolor fine art and the preferred supply for teaching watercolor.

But there's a little-talked-about phenomenon in the watercolor multi-media world.  Lots of different papers work really well.   Brilliant, translucent, and predictable, many student grade paints are actually easier to work with than their professional grade counterparts.  Whether a brush costs $2 or $32 they both have strengths and weaknesses.  The bevy of other supplies from watercolor pencils to technical pens often peform better on paper that isn't designed specifically for watercolor.  That said, watercolor is still the main -- and most demanding -- element in our work.
A 9x12 multimedia spread

The challenge in watercolor multi-media is not to find a perfect paper, but to learn the quirks of a paper that accepts all the media you normally use.

1.  Normally, I run a basic watercolor test first.  I don't want to commit any time to a paper that doesn't permit my go-to techniques.  I generally use only one pass of watercolor over the entire inked piece, and then possibly a second pass that hits shadow shapes if necessary.

Absolute essentials: I'm watching the paper for show through, pilling, rippling (some buckling is normal), and graying in addition to being able to use these watercolor techniques.

Dry brush? Tea and milk consistency paint, water in #2 or 3 round hair brush squeezed out before picking up paint, paint metered on sponge or paper towel before touching to paper.
Light wash? Tea and milk consistency paint, water in #2 or 3 round hair brush metered before picking up paint, and paint metered before touching to paper.  I specifically test for flat and graded washes at this point.
Aquabrush?  Tea and milk consistency paint lettering and light washes done with the large Pentel Aquash waterbrush.
Dropping in color? Touching a light wash of a different color into an area that's just painted.  If paper is too absorbent, it simply creates spots instead of blending seamlessly. If the paper is too smooth, the colors completely mix.   I use this technique extensively, so this is one of my main tests.
Softening off/pulling color?  Another go-to technique of mine that I won't live without.  Some multimedia papers don't allow the paint to budge once it's down.  It's like using a marker instead of paints.  
Can I glaze small areas without lifting or muddying the work underneath?  Not a deal breaker, but definitely need-to-know. 

Nice, but not a must if the paper is very good with pencil/pen & ink:

Juicy wash? Tea and milk consistency paint in a #8 round squirrel brush, washing large areas without metering paint.  Common for skies, meadows, bodies of water.  Other techniques can be used if the paper can't take a juicy wash.
Multiple layers:  Tea consistency paint in a juicy wash over large area with #8 round squirrel.  Drying time, and then light to juicy washes with #2/3 round hair.  I rarely use multiple layers because the work is rendered in ink first.
Wet in wet? Dampening a small area before dropping in a light wash.
Scrubbing? Removing a drip or wobble.  I don't scrub multimedia paper as a rule.  I either paint around the area I wish to leave, or mask it.
Lifting? Can a barely damp brush remove color once it's placed?  Will frisket come off easily?
Glazing? What happens when a light wash is gently brushed or dropped over an area that's already painted?  On very smooth multi-media paper, the color underneath sometimes lifts or reactivates and blends. 
Watercolor Pencils/watersoluble graphite?  Is any pencil work left, or does it completely dissolve?  How far can I pull the color?

2.  Next, I test a range of micron pens and my fountain pen for smooth flow in any direction.  Paper with too much tooth catches the tip of micron and rapidograph pens.  I also evaluate drying time for the ink as well as how well watersoluble ink "pulls" with a waterbrush.

3.  Lastly, I test normal graphite with both a #2 wood pencil and a mechanical pencil.  Does it smear? Make a permanent dent in the paper?  Run when touched with water?  Can it be fully erased?

My final consideration is price:  
Can I afford to work in this book every day?  

The only way to level up skills in multi-media is to work every single day. I love tutorials, and books, and classes, and facebook groups, and new art supplies as much as the next person, but only actual practice improves my skill set.  If a book is too precious, and I put off working in it, then it's not a good book for me!

My go-to multi media paper is the inexpensive Canson XL  Multimedia 9" x 12" spiral book which performs beautifully with the equally inexpensive Pentel Aquash waterbrush.  The pricier Strathmore Vellum finish Multi-media Visual Journal or 400 series comes in a close second.   What's your favorite multi-media paper?

 I am an Amazon Affiliate and will receive a small percentage of the purchases through these links.


  1. Hello! I am an infrequent follower of your other blog, and I've noticed that you've not posted here or there for over six months. I'm praying for you, and hoping all is well. Peace be with you,

    1. Thanks, Amanda! I'very been busy getting my 2 older sons through high school and off to college. Lissy is old enough now that I'm teaching her in person, but both blogs will be re-booting later this month. Thanks for your love!