Can you economize on paper?

The paper I’ve mostly been buying has been Arches.    This is extremely nice to use but it doesn’t come cheap even if you do what I do and paint on both sides (my art teachers have thrown up their hands in horror when I’ve done this).  I’ve been wanting to find some cheaper paper that is usable so I can do more throwaway sketches and practice exercises.   However a lot of cheap paper is just nasty (I’m looking at you Fabriano Studio!).  The surface is too shiny,  it buckles (even if it says it’s 140lb) and the paint has a tendency to dry on impact. This severely limits your ability to work wet in wet and to soften hard edges.

So I was wandering around

 in Central Square this lunchtime and saw these cheap Strathmore pads.  The cheapest was $4.40 for 12 sheets of 9″x12″ which is less than half the price of the equivalent Arches pad.    I grabbed 3 different ones and brought them home to see how they stood up.

The Test:

Each paper was tested by painting a sphere with cobalt and burnt sienna.   The sphere was painted to see how different pigments mixed on the paper, how well the edges could be softened and how easy it was to drop in pigment into wet paint.

First up Strathmore 300 series (which says it’s ‘better’) $4.40 :


This is tape bound rather than spiral bound and annoyingly has a toothed side and a smooth side.   
This one was actually pretty good.   The paint didn’t dry immediately when it touched the paper and it granulated nicely.  The edges could be softened reasonably well and I was pleased with the final effect. 3 out of 5

Next up was Strathmore 400 series (which is labelled ‘best’) at $5.75


I hated this – the paper had no tooth to speak of and was smooth both sides.  Smoothing out edges was almost impossible (see the water blooms) and there was no granulation.  Hated it almost as much as the Fabriano Studio.  1 out of 5

My last cheapy was this Strathmore Windpower (15 11″x15″ sheets for $8.00 which would be  $4.18 for 12 9×12 sheets) :


No indication of quality on this but it’s made with 100% renewable energy so you get free warm fuzzies.

Not too shabby this one.  The tooth fell in between the 300 and 400 series and it still had that nasty smooth surface on one side but this would definitely do in a pinch.  3 out of 5

Finally the gold standard – Arches (For 12 sheets a 9×12 pad is ~$10.50, block is ~$13.50)

Yes well there’s no comparison really.   This is the real McCoy.  The paint stays wet on the paper and smoothing edges is a breeze (no nasty blossoms here).   The tooth gives a nice texture (see the rough edges on the shadow) and dropping in paint wet in wet doesn’t leave hard edges.  It’s a real pleasure to use and the packaging is pretty too.
And you get pretty much the same surface on both sides (it’s not quite the same but good enough).

4 out of 5 (marked down for price)

So what’s the verdict?

  Surprisingly the worst of the cheapies was the most expensive (the 400 series) and I wouldn’t even feed this to my dog.   Of the other two it was close but the 300 series won out by a nose as the paint really did granulate well.    
  The real choice is whether it’s advantageous to skimp on quality to save money.     When you paint on a certain paper for a length of time you get used to its idiosyncrasies.   You get a feel for how much the pigment sinks into the paper,  how long it stays wet when it’s on there and how much pigments bleed into each other.    Painting on the cheapies is a very different experience.  You have to move fast and use more water.  You can’t rely on colors blending into each other by themselves on the paper and getting texture by using the paper tooth is almost impossible.    
  But going from cheap to expensive also has its challenges.  When I first graduated onto Arches from the Fabriano Studio it was like working with blotting paper – I couldn’t believe how long the paper stayed wet and all my edges went fuzzy.  It felt like a flaw at the time and it took a while to make the best use of it.

  So the question I think I should be asking is whether the different techniques needed for different paper qualities make you into a better painter.   Does the experience of cheap paper round out your skills and enhance your abilities when you sit down in front of the proper stuff?

  I have a nasty feeling the answer is no.  

  I mean yes you do get more sensitive to changing your technique to handle different papers.  But this is time that could have been spent enhancing your skill with a single paper type.   Lets be frank – nobody who isn’t a painter cares whether you can handle different paper types if the end result is substandard.  No one comes along and says ‘That’s fantastic how you can paint skies/boats/flowers/whatever on such cheap paper that almost look ok!’ Nobody cares.

  And the price differential is what – just over 10 bucks vs just under 5 – a factor of 2.    If we were talking 100s of dollars per painting here it would be worth it but we’re talking 83 cents per sheet for the good stuff.  In fact just 42 cents if we use both sides.    I spend more than that on lunch.

  But in my heart I really want to be able to say the cheap stuff works.   There’s something about watercolor painting that appeals to the minimalist inside us.   It’s portable,  you don’t need fancy, smelly solvents.  You don’t need to lug easels around and special boxes to transport wet canvases.  You don’t need canvases for God’s sake!  Just a pad,  a brush and a small tin with paint in that can be slipped in a pocket.   Look around the web – people take this to an
art form


Well I’ve written all these words and still haven’t come to a good conclusion.   What to do, what to do.  Of course buying paper in pads is not the most economical way.   Buying it in rolls or packs of large sheets is cheaper but I like the convenience/portability of pads and blocks.

Hmm – making your own pads!!  I feel a followup post will be coming along shortly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *