I got caught up in an Instagram/YouTube rabbit hole the other day (YouTube rabbit holes: for more than just Nazi recruitment!) and ended up on this video about cheap vs. quality water color paper:

I’d been hearing forever that “Arches is the best! Just use Arches!” but a. that stuff is expensive, and b. they don’t really make sketchbooks, just loose sheets and block. And I had never really run across the explanation of what it is that makes a high quality watercolor paper, or why should care about that if you’re still in the “make a lot of crappy work” stage of making art. I knew about hot press (smooth) vs. cold press (rougher) paper, but beyond that, it was all kind of a mystery what makes one paper better than another.

TURNS OUT, the difference is wood pulp vs. cotton fiber. This video does a detailed comparison (seriously, it must have taken him most of a day to film) of different watercolor techniques across three wood pulp papers of varying quality vs. a 100% cotton sheet from Arches.

So I went back through my art supplies last night, and sure enough, the pads and books holding the pieces where I found the paint most frustrating to work with were the cheap wood pulp ones, and the pieces I liked best and found the paint easiest to work with on were on 100% cotton paper (not Arches, but still noticeably better than the others). So I guess that settles that. (The exception is my Stillman & Birn Beta series pocket-sized art journal in my portable kit- I can’t find anything about the paper composition in it, but I love it and will probably buy another one when this one runs out.)

The problem is, I’ve got this stack of cheap watercolor paper sitting here and it feels wasteful not to use it up. I’ll probably go way more experimental with those now.

Being still very much a beginner, I hate to sound like I’m blaming my tools, because if I were a more skilled artist, I could make crappy materials work better, if not ideally, but: There’s something validating about looking at the uneven color in some of my sketchbooks and comparing it with the much better color in the work on higher-quality paper and understanding which is a better reflection of my actual skill level.