Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Right Side Of A Watercolor Paper Roll

"Right Side" is probably the wrong term but that is what many of us use when we search online for instructions on which side of a watercolor paper roll is intended to be painted on.  There is actually no right or wrong side to paint on.  Today's watercolor paper is designed so that both the front and the back surfaces may be used for painting.  One side usually comes smoother or rougher than the other. There is only the matter of preference.  My paper of choice is Arches 140lb cold pressed and I usually pick the side that looks rougher (the side facing inwards) because it has mild properties of a rough paper but still maintains the subtlety of the cold pressed paper.  Never had a problem with it until I opened a new paper roll. 

I was painting plumerias when I noticed something was odd about how my paint applications were behaving.  When I do a more watery wash, the boundaries of it started running in a linear pattern.  I was having a bit of trouble keeping my edges defined and my background was also getting this linear pattern to it no matter how carefully I lay down my washes.  I thought I may have received a defective paper.  I continued the rest of the painting using dry brush just to see if that could be a possible solution for salvaging the rest of the new paper roll.  At the same time, I was searching online if others were having the same problem with new paper rolls.  If it proves to be a batch problem, then there might be hope for a product recall and replacement.  I learned a lot by just reading through the complaints and how the paper maker's company addressed them.  Turns out, sometimes when the felt for the roll presses for the machines are new, they may leave behind a more rougher surface.  This is the reason why some cold pressed watercolor paper may appear rougher than normal.  I wish I took note of all the sites I have been directed to.  But two sites stood out that I found most helpful in making me realize what the real problem was.  I will provide the links at the end of this article under recommended readings.

It was seeing the screen pictures at BruceMacEvoy's site that was my first Aha! moment.  The linear marks on my painting could be explained by it.  After I read the article, I felt very very enlightened.
Everything made sense after that.  Second Aha! moment came after reading through Char's article, a compilation about watercolor paper.  Every other article that came up on google would explain the wire and the felt side but never which side of the paper roll the wire or felt side is, only Char's did.

Now I get why the paint was behaving that way.  I have been painting on the wire side all along.  Not only am  I getting the impressions from the felt, but also the linear impressions from the wire.  I don't have a defective paper after all.  But I'm probably being incoherent jumping to the conclusion like that when I'm supposed to be making the explanation easier to follow.  Let me walk you through my epiphanies, thanks to all the online help:

Your basic ingredient when making watercolor paper is plant cellulose.  It undergoes mechanical and chemical treatment that results into it being made into pulp.  Paper pulp, which comes suspended in water, is shaped into sheets by the use of molds (whether the process is handmade or machine-made).  Paper molds are like flat rectangular strainers that drain the water that come with the pulp mixture.  The cellulose fibers left behind are allowed to settle and adhere to each other. That is how you get the shape of the sheet.  There is still water within this cellulose fibers and so either they are allowed to dry by themselves or rollers are used to squeeze the water out and hasten the drying process.  The surface that is facing the mold is called the wire side.  The surface settling against this side will acquire the texture of the wire.    Which is why if air-drying is used, the side facing the wire is still the rougher of the two surfaces.  The settling of the fibers into the mold impresses the texture of the wire or screen into that surface of the paper.  When the roller method is used, the mold with the pulp is sandwiched between two felt sheets before it gets pressed by the rollers.  The wire side now gets its texture not only from the wire but also from the felt sheet it comes in contact with.  The opposite surface, the side that gets in contact with only the felt acquires the descriptive name the felt side.  The newer the felt, the more pronounced the texture it impresses on contact.  Because the felt side receives texture only from the felt, it would appear textured but will appear to be much smoother compared to the wire side.  The side facing inwards of a watercolor paper roll is the wire side.  The side facing outward is the felt side.  If you've pre-cut the paper and are now confused as to which side is facing inwards or outwards, Char's advice would come in very handy.  To determine if the felt side is the side that is up, check the corners.  If they are angling down, you have the felt side up.

Instead of using "right" side as our search word, we should have been using the terms, felt side or wire side.  As both side is usable, you cannot go wrong.   As for me and the linear spread, after a little water loading adjustment, I got my control back.  I like how the finished painting turned out.

Pink Plumerias, Blue Background
10 x 13.5 inches
Collection of Maureen Pascual, U.S.A.

Thank you Char for the big help and also for the tip about terra skin.  I'm looking forward to getting my hands on this new material.  forum thread featuring Charlene McGill's compilation.

Thank you also to Mr. Bruce MacEvoy for creating and for sharing what he knows.  Very nice fellow and he does answer his own emails as said in the main page of  Thank you, sir.  Highly recommended readings for those who wish to understand watercolor and the other materials you will be handling when you work with the medium.
Bruce MacEvoy's site

Also got a tip from one of the coolest artists that I am following, Mr. Nicholas Simmons:  "I've been buying rolls for years, no problem with either side.  Work larger and small defects won't matter." *  
A very wise observation.  Probably, the clue to very passionate paintings.  You can concentrate more on expression if you do not get too caught up with particulars.  Thank you, sir.
The links to his latest art and book projects can be found in his blog.
* Reposted from his comment to me on facebook.
Also, don't miss out on his video,  Innovative Watermedia.  Out now.

Related articles
How to transfer your drawings to watercolor paper


  1. Karen,
    First off thanks for networking my blog. I have now networked yours as well. I am also posting your blog under my list of favorites. Thanks so much for passing on all of this information. I have painted with watercolor for 17 years now and never knew this. I will definitely check out the links you supplied.

  2. Hi Lorraine,
    Welcome. Thank you also for following.
    I've been painting for almost two decades now but still the curiosity is strong. Now that I'm helping friends who wish to work with watercolor, that curiosity is paying off.

  3. Nice article. I have prefered the smooth side myself.

    As for transfer I use tracing paper. I trace on one side and then redraw over the pattern on the back side. I then use an old bald point pen to transfer the patter onto the paper. I know it is a lot of drawing but the lines put onto the paper are faint and easy to erase. And I can save the pattern for another project later.

    Some transfer papers use an oil to bind the graphite onto the paper.

  4. Yes the right/wrong side of the paper can be deceptive and unnerving.
    You might enjoy The Watercolourist's Guide to Art Papers by Ian Sidaway (Paperback - 23 Feb 2000) and experimenting with different surfaces IF you can still find it.

  5. Hi Stan! Thank you. That is an easier way to do it. Back in college, I used to do a shortcut for transferring furniture drawings for our ID plates by doing that same thing, except that I would do it directly on the paper pattern we are given. Because the paper was opaque, either I put the pencil on by backlighting the paper against the window and tracing the outlines or I flip it over and over, to constantly check, which was time consuming. Using tracing paper would have made that easier. Oh and this reminds me. I should have put a shortcut on a previous related article. How to transfer your drawing. Thank you Stan. Your input is always appreciated.

    Hi Carol! Thank you for reading and for taking time out to comment. I appreciate the book tip. I shall try to find a copy. Always good to try out new surfaces for painting.

  6. Dear Karen,
    Thank you for visiting my blog. Your blog has beautiful paintings and the wonderful information based on "references," which impresses me so much. Please keep up and share them!!
    Best wishes, Sadami

  7. Hi Sadami,
    It was a pleasure discovering your blog. I am enjoying the art as well as the musings. Love your outlook and your humour is infectious. Looking forward to your future articles.

    And thank you for the compliment. I'm teaching some friends how to paint in watercolor and the blog seems to be a good vehicle for it. Always a good practice to give credit where due and to gain permission where needed. Thank you for noticing.


  8. I like the colors in those flowers, there beautiful! I like to look at watercolor paintings from time to time, it's such an interesting medium to use.

  9. Hi Eddie,
    Thank you very much both for the compliment and taking time out to comment. Watercolor truly is a beautiful medium. When I was living in the city, I used to go to all the watercolor exhibits and shows I get to hear of. Now, blogs and facebook allow me to appreciate the works of other artists in the convenience of my home. One of the rewards I look forward to at the end of the day. It makes me happy to hear when people enjoy my work too.

  10. Your blog is interesting, has left a great impression.
    Best wishes

  11. Hi Jonas,
    Much appreciated. Working hard to improve it some more. Thank you very much for the support.
    All the best,

  12. Hi Karen, I love your amazing watercolors and interesting articles, so I've added this blog to my list of watercolor blogs on my Watercolor Resources page. Thanks for sharing your work and ideas!

  13. Hi Megan,
    Thank you very much. It is an honor to be mentioned on your blog. Will also bookmark your watercolor resources page for me and my friends who I am teaching.