Watercolor Paper 101

A big pile of watercolor blocks, sketchbooks, and paper packs.

Good paper can make a huge difference in your quality of life as watercolorist. Paper designed for other media just can’t take the amount of water that watercolor requires. Think about it: water is terrible for paper! Water makes most paper melt, tear, and break down, so you get little fuzzy bits of paper mixed in with your paint. Getting high quality paper can be the simplest path to getting great results from the paints you picked out so carefully.

When I first started shopping for watercolor paper, I was bewildered by all the specs. I’ll break it down so you can figure out what you’re buying and how it will work with your watercolor style.

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Schmincke Horadam Dot Cards!

I just can’t get enough dot cards! Last time, I explored Daniel Smith’s, and now I’m onto the German company Schmincke, named for its 1881 founder Hermann Schmincke. Horadam is the name of their artist grade watercolor line, named for another of their founders, the chemist Josef Horadam.

The Dot Card in question, complete. They got it all done in 2 pages!

General Brand Impressions: Schmincke has a smaller catalogue than Daniel Smith (140 colors vs 238), but still quite extensive, and nothing feels like it’s missing. (I think DS just has 100 useless colors, tbh.) All of the hits are here, as well as some interesting mixes. I found the line overall quite internally consistent, with most colors being highly pigmented and non-granulating. There were very few duds. On the other hand, as a beginner, I found them comparatively difficult to swatch out because they are easily to over-dilute, creating harsh paint lines. Basically they’re huge drama queens about too much water. I think if I were better at water control, this might be my favorite line, but Daniel Smith is friendlier for a person of, ah, inconsistent quality.

Allergy note: All Schmincke’s paints contain isothiazolinones (presumably in the binder), which some people are allergic to.

Pull up a chair while I swatch out every color!

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Dosage (Water Control) 101

The most important key to getting the results you want in watercolor is understanding how water interacts with your paint. More or less water can completely transform your results. So it’s important to understand how much water you’re adding, and where you’re adding it. In this post, I’ll tell you as much as I’ve learned so far about this skill – although ultimately it’s one of those things where you just have to get your brush wet and get a feel for it!

A note on terminology: Most people call this skill “water control.” Personally, I’ve been trying to get away from the language of power and control when I talk about watercolor. I don’t like to feel adversarial with the materials, as if I’m struggling with them or subduing them. I prefer to think of water as my collaborator. After all, I am asking it to do some of the work and add its own creativity! So I’ve decided that when I refer to the amount of water you add to your painting, I will use the word I heard used for it in French language Youtube videos, dosage. (French accent optional.)

There are three places you can put more or less water to change your results: in the paint, on the paper, or on the brush.

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Are watercolor paints toxic?

After seeing some information about nontoxic alternatives to the common color Cadmium Red, I began to wonder: are watercolors toxic? Should I be concerned?

tl;dr not really.

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Color Spotlight: Phthalo Green Blue Shade (PG7)

Daniel Smith – Phthalo Green (Blue Shade)

Phthalo Green (PG7) is a super vivid, deep, cool (blue-toned) green. To me, it feels like a glowing, hidden pond deep in the rainforest. It is incredibly bright; some folks find it “unnatural” so it may be most useful as a mixer than a natural landscape color.

(There’s another Phthalo Green – PG36 – which is more yellow-toned, that I’ll discuss in a future post.)

Like all the Phthalos, this green is extremely strong and staining. Some people don’t like that about it, and it does have a tendency to overwhelm mixes with weaker colors… but I love it! I’m lazy and I love a color that doesn’t make me work. I just have to make sure my palette is full of similarly vivid colors that can hold their own.

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Watercolor Brushes 101

A selection of brushes: Da Vinci Casaneo Quill #4, Princeton Velvetouch Flat Wash 3/4″, Etchr Round #10, Princeton Heritage Round #10, Princeton Velvetouch Round #8, Etchr Round #6, Princeton Heritage Round #3, Princeton Velvetouch Round #2, Princeton Velvetouch Script Liner #2

Of the major categories of watercolor supplies (paint, paper, brushes), brushes were the last ones that I got into. Actually, I put it off, improving my paints and papers while continuing to use cheapo brushes from the discount bin (which I chose based on the color of their handle.) It just seemed complicated! There are so many brushes with various attributes, and I had no way of telling what’s good and bad about them.

Well, I’ve now done my research, so if you’re still stuck where I was six months ago, let me break it down for you! 

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What’s the best masking tape for watercolor?

A pile of tapes I’ve tried.

Lists of watercolor supplies usually including “masking tape,” but what’s it for? Why do you need it? What do you do with it once you’ve got it? And what’s the best kind to get? When I was first gathering watercolor supplies, I often found myself frustrated with the vagueness on supply lists. I wanted more detail so that I could get it right the first time. Since I did not get it right the first time, let me pass my hard-won wisdom onto you!

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Color Spotlight: Transparent Pyrrol Orange (PO71)

Daniel Smith – Transparent Pyrrol Orange

PO71 oranges are highly transparent and very vibrant oranges! The Daniel Smith version pictured here is more reddish than some of the others. That said, it should be noted that I bought the DS TPO in 2022, so it’s one of the newer iterations. I am told that the older version was even more red and a bit more muted and earthy.

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How to Build a Watercolor Palette from the Ground Up

I spend a lot of time researching paints before I buy one, planning how it will fit into one of my existing palettes: what niche it will fill; how it will play with my other paints; what I’ll be able to paint and mix with it that I can’t do now, or can’t do as easily. I’ve had some triumphs (THIS COLOR IS AMAZING) as well as some missteps (Huh, I just… never use this one.) So I have A Lot Of Thoughts on how to build a palette from the ground up that works for you, full of lovely paints you’ll enjoy and that will be versatile enough for everything you want to do! 

tl;dr All this is subjective. There are no rules. Get the colors you want.

Six well-loved tubes of paint from the Daniel Smith Essentials collection.

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