Is there a right side to watercolour paper?

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer… But you know what? They don’t! And they really wish they did too…

Our first question- thank you Beth- is about watercolour paper:

Is there a right side and wrong side to paint on?

The answer is… not as such. I like “Not as such” because it means “no” but kind of “yes” but not quite. The reason I am not-as-such-ing you is that both sides are paintable but they are different and the extent of the difference varies between brands.


saunders spray

Two main criteria will determine the difference between the two sides of a watercolour paper sheet: texture and sizing.

  • Sizing: the size is the glue that is added to the paper to make it stronger and also less absorbent, so that you don’t feel like you are painting on blotting paper. Most papers are sized INTERNALLY, while the pulp is being made, and EXTERNALLY, after the paper roll is made and pressed.
  • Texture: the topside of the paper is called the felt side and the underside the mould side. The mould is made of wire, so its texture is more regular than the felt side. On some papers you can see the wire mesh pattern imprinted into the texture, on the underside.

If we consider the three main manufacturers of watercolour paper – St Cuthberts (Saunders Waterford) for the UK, Arches for France and Fabriano in Italy- their papers are sized internally and then they go through a bath to be sized externally, so both sides are coated equally. This means that as far as sizing is concerned, there is no difference between the two sides.

For the texture, the situation is not quite as straightforward…

Both sides are paintable but they look slightly different: because of the wire, the mould side has a regular mesh texture while the felt side has a random texture. Some artists prefer to paint on the topside and others prefer the underside. As for what the manufacturer intended, it depends on the brand. Saunders Waterford expects the painter to use the felt side but Arches and Fabriano favour the mould side.

cuthmill1To summarise, papers do have a topside and an underside but not really a right side or wrong side to paint on. The best way is the way you like best!

To finish with, this is where I am asking for your help: this series is interactive so please ask away! You can ask questions in the comments section of my YouTube Channel Flora’s Patch, or send me an email, or leave a comment on my blog or a message on my website by going to the contact page. Thank you and happy painting!

My thanks to Catherine Frood from St Cuthberts Mill and Clifford Burt from RK Burt for their help in my research.The photos are from St Cuthberts Mill.

There will be a follow up to this post, with two rather exciting events: in July, I am going to a meeting at RK Burt with the Fabriano envoy, to discuss how their new machines have affected their papers and to do a blind test of different papers. This should be very interesting. Then later this summer, I have been invited to visit St Cuthberts Mill, having a tour of the paper making factory, which I am also very much looking forward to.