Monday, June 12, 2023

Palm Trees (and Thoughts on Wet Paper)

Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolors in Hahnemuhle Akademie sketchbook

Shortly before the 30x30 Direct Watercolor challenge began, Shiho Nakaza shared a demo of how she paints palm trees (which, as an urban sketcher in L.A., she sketches often) wet-in-wet. I love sketching palm trees, and I love how Shiho paints them, so I knew I wanted to give her technique a try. After “drawing” the tree on the paper with clean water, she then charges various colors into it, which mix deliciously.

I’ll show the whole sketch soon in another post about my 30x30 progress, but for now, I want to show some paper comparisons prompted by these sketches. The first example (at right) is a detail of a sketch I made in a Hahnemühle Akademie watercolor sketchbook. Although not 100 percent cotton, it’s excellent for student-grade watercolor paper. As I painted the palms with Shiho’s technique, I realized that its success depends heavily on high-quality paper with good sizing. I was happy with my results, but out of curiosity, I did another study in a Hahnemühle 100 percent cotton sketchbook (below). My result may not look dramatically different, but with the superior sizing on the 100 percent cotton paper, the water stayed on the surface longer, giving me more time to charge in the paint, which flowed more freely on the wet surface.

Same paints in Hahnemuhle 100% cotton sketchbook
(all tests were made at approximately the same size)

Geek that I am, I couldn’t resist going in the opposite direction, too – using decent but definitely lower-quality watercolor papers to make the same test. Below are tests on Stillman & Birn Beta paper and Canson XL 140-pound watercolor paper – both of which I used for years as my daily-carry sketchbooks. They are both good papers, especially with the typically light washes and spritzes I use with watercolor pencils. Painting the palms, however, I noticed that the initial clean water “drawing” started drying immediately because the sizing allowed the water to sink in more quickly. I had to charge in the color rapidly and even re-wet the paper in a couple spots that had already dried too much. In all of these cases, the palm was small, so working quickly wasn’t too stressful, but it’s not a technique you can ponder leisurely.

Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
Canson XL 140 lb. watercolor paper

No big drama here, as far as any of my results go. It’s also important to remember that painting wet-in-wet is all a crapshoot anyway, so differences in my results may be as much about serendipity as paper quality (though I do like the Hahnemühle 100 percent test best). Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that it’s easier and less stressful to work this method with high-quality paper that has good sizing. As I made those tests, I thought it was a good time to reiterate some beliefs about materials as related to learning.

Tinas Favorite Lecture Begins Here:

A couple of years ago I wrote some thoughts about paper as it relates to dry media. I think paper is more important than many dry media users realize. In the watercolor world, greater emphasis is placed on the importance of paper choice, but perhaps still not enough – especially where beginning painters are concerned. I’ve talked about this before many times on my blog – it’s a pet lecture of mine – and the longer I sketch, the more strongly I believe it: The less experience you have, the more important it is to use high-quality materials while learning to use a specific medium. The paradox is that many beginners are reluctant to “waste” expensive, high-quality materials until they get “better.”

(I’ll pause here for one exception: If one’s objective is to learn to draw and develop a regular sketching habit, that’s the one case in which I think it’s more important to have a lot of inexpensive sketchbooks that one is not afraid of “wasting” on lots and lots of practice. Burn through those cheap books quickly and voraciously: That’s the way to instill a regular sketching habit, which is essential for developing skills. But that’s different from learning to use a specific medium, whether it’s watercolors, graphite, colored pencils or anything else.)

When you have no experience with a medium, you have no way of knowing whether disappointing results came from your lack of skills or because the paper was inappropriate or inferior. If an artist doing a demo is using 100 percent cotton, 140-pound watercolor paper, and you are using student grade paper, your results will likely be different, even if you follow the directions closely.

I would go so far as to say that with watercolors, paper is more important than paints and even brushes. While you’re still learning, good paper is worth the investment because you’ll learn faster and more effectively. Later, with more experience, better skills, and the ability to know the difference between your technique and the materials, you can use any paper and maybe even have fun challenging yourself with figuring out how to get the best effects with those papers (Roz Stendahl is famous for using “inappropriate” papers to paint on).

The more experience one has, the more able one is to cope with bad or inappropriate materials. Several years ago, I challenged myself with using various watercolor pencils I had previously rejected. I wanted to see if those pencils were easier to use with more experience. Although I didn’t necessarily enjoy using them more, and I wasn’t surprised that I had been frustrated previously, I did find that I was able to eke out decent results from those pencils because I knew how to make up for their shortcomings (to some extent). I’m sure experienced painters know how to work around lower-quality papers in the same way.

Frayed, stained and cowlicky, this old Kuretake brush
has served me well.

Speaking of using inferior materials by choice, I’m still using my waterbrushes for direct watercolor paintings. I did replace one that was getting worn (after several years of use; they are more durable than they seem like they should be) and had grown some cowlicks. I tossed the brush, but I always keep the other parts. You never know when you might lose a cap or watch the little black plug go down the drain.

I tossed the brush but saved the rest for parts.


  1. Good paper is really important for watercolors. I even notice the difference when I work in my sketchbooks as opposed to sheets of Arches or other good quality papers. The colors are not as vibrant in most of the sketchbooks. I think that must be frustrating to artists that are just starting out. I would think that a lot of them give up when they can't get the results they wanted.

    1. When I first started sketching with watercolors 12 years ago, I had expressed frustration to an experienced sketcher friend. She took one look at my sketchbook and said, "What do you expect with that crappy paper you're using?" I immediately switched to something better, and I had no idea it would make such difference!


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