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On the Surface with Artist Annie Strack

On the Surface with Artist Annie Strack


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The Traits of the Best Paper for Watercolor |An Artist’s Perspective

There is nothing more informative and valuable than hearing directly from successful artists about the materials they use and the techniques they employ. Artist Annie Strack generously discusses the popular topic of the characteristics of the best paper for watercolor from her point of view. She shares what she craves when it comes to surface, from look and feel of the paper itself to the pigments and marks she uses along with favorite techniques.

If you are ready to try your own hand at watercolor with a paper that could yield you the results you are after, then be sure to get a pair of free paper samples from Hahnemühle while supplies last. Enjoy!

When You Are Just Starting Out

Questions abound when you are first starting out with any new endeavor, including painting. Watercolor beginners may not know what they don’t know, and their needs and focuses will be decidedly different than those of more advanced artist. When Annie Strack began on the watercolorist’s path, she used the cheapest student grade paper she could find but admits that didn’t put the best paper for watercolor in her hands.

Annie acknowledges that many art teachers guide students toward cheap art materials to cut down on costs, but that she totally disagrees with that recommendation. Low quality materials won’t yield the same results as artist grade materials. The former are more difficult to use and don’t always allow your paintings to turn out the way you want them to. That is frustrating and Annie readily admits that simple truth, especially when you’ve invested a lot of time and planning trying to place our vision onto paper. She puts it plainly: “One simple thing that artists can do to help them achieve better results is to just use better materials.”

Warming Up to a New Surface

Annie works and teaches with several mediums, and sometimes goes for long stretches when she’s not using watercolors at all. To get back in the grove, she cuts up paper into smaller sizes and does quick little postcard-size paintings. This helps her to regain confidence after being away from the medium for a while, and it “costs” her less both in terms of time and materials.

Different Papers, Different Results

With a career’s worth of experience. Annie has used a lot of different weights of paper and plenty of different surfaces–even different colors or toned papers. Here are her tried-and-true tips based on all that painting savvy in regards to the best paper for watercolor:

  1. For paintings that are over a quarter sheet in size, don’t use anything less than a 300 pound paper.
  2. Lighter weight paper, like 140 pound, is best suited for small paintings and techniques that use less amounts of water.
  3. Larger paintings or paintings that are created with heavy wet techniques like large washes require a heavier paper. It’s the reason why paper comes in different weights.
  4. Don’t try to get away with using lighter paper to save money, soaking and stretching it to keep it from warping. That’s going about it the wrong way, Annie points out. “If your paper tends to buckle, the answer is simple: you should be using a heavier paper.” Watercolor blocks are an exception. The paper is glued to the pad on all four edges, which holds it flat for even heavy washes.
  5. When traveling, Annie likes the convenience of blocks when she’s on the go, and prefers them above all else for painting en plein air and for packing in her suitcase when she teaches workshops overseas. “I recently taught a workshop in Provence and only brought the Hahnemühle 140 pound rough blocks with me. I was so impressed with the paper that I shared it with my students, many of whom had not used rough paper before. There were a quite a few converts after that!”
  6. Hot pressed papers allow for brighter colors, harder edges, and finer details. The paints don’t soak into the paper as deeply, making it easy to lift colors off of the paper.
  7. Rough paper is much more absorbent, and paints soak in, making it very hard to lift colors. It also takes longer to dry, and colors often appear much lighter after they dry because they have soaked so deeply into the paper. That tradeoff can be worth it. “It does give me that lovely texture as my brush skips lightly over the paper,” Annie attests, “leaving the paint only on the high ridges of the paper and leaving the tiny valleys untouched and white. It adds a looseness to a painting, helping it to appear more spontaneous and fresh.”
  8. In between hot pressed papers and rough papers is cold pressed papers, which have a few of the qualities of the other papers. It is like getting a bit of both, offering a little bit of texture with a little absorbency.
  9. The biggest rule is allowing the results you want to get to guide you to the correct paper.

Two Papers to Try

Annie’s bevy of deep knowledge around surfaces made her the perfect artist to discover and articulate the unique characteristics of the Hahnemühle Cézanne and Harmony papers. She shared with the ArtistsNetwork editors that these papers are exceptionally durable, and hold up well to the rubbing caused by repeated erasing. The surface sizing makes it easy to lift colors, and holds up well against scrubbing and vigorous brush work. It also releases the tape and masking fluid especially well without leaving a residue or lifting fibers. The papers are also extremely white, and among the brightest papers on the market from her perspective.

Using Cézanne

According to Annie, any watercolor artist could (and should) use the Cézanne surface for paintings that will be valued. “Whether an artist is still a student or an experienced professional, they will find the paper to be easy to paint upon and help them to achieve the best results from their painting efforts.”

This is an easy recommendation for Annie as it is her favorite. She freely admits that she loves the bright white color, the texture, and the sizing. It is the best paper for watercolor for her because it performs well with everything she throws at it. Its sizing is vegan / non-gelatin (animal free) and it is also 100% cotton rag, which means her paintings will stand up to the test of time.

Using Harmony

The Harmony paper is acid free and bright white. It responds to the brush just as well as the Cézanne. The main difference is fiber content. Although acid free, the Harmony line is not 100% cotton. This makes it much more affordable to a wider range of artists. Annie uses it as a study paper, and for demonstrations and lessons.

It’s perfect for experimenting with techniques you are looking to perfect and great for creating preparatory studies. As a teacher, Annie uses Harmony papers a lot more than other papers because she is constantly in demo mode, showing painting techniques to students.

The Harmony paper performs like a much more expensive paper, and its affordability allows Annie to use copious amounts of it when teaching. “When I demonstrate a technique on this paper, it turns out the same as when I demonstrate it on a more expensive artist grade paper,” says Annie. “The same isn’t true for other brands of paper.”

The Unique and Unusual

Annie uses a lot of masking fluid in her paintings. She often masks paintings multiple times during the painting process, masking off large areas to paint in the backgrounds and then peeling it off and masking progressively smaller areas as she paints in more details. Both the Harmony and Cézanne papers work well under this approach. Annie has found that the masking fluid comes off easily and doesn’t lift any fibers from the paper, no matter how many times she happens to reapply it to an area.

She also tends to do a lot of lifting as she constantly changes her mind as she paints, needing to move things around or make adjustments. The Hahnemühle papers have a strong amount of surface sizing, making it extremely easy to lift.

The Importance of Paper

Paper is one of the most important elements of the artist materials triad, says Annie. It makes up the cornerstone that everything else builds upon. “Although I like to use really good brushes, the truth is that I could apply the paint with just about anything and it won’t affect the longevity of the painting. The paper, however, makes a big difference, and the life of the painting depends on that substrate. I could use the most expensive pigments in the world but if I don’t use a good substrate then it’s just a waste of paint.”

Step-by-Step Demo

In her intermediate level classes, Annie teaches her students about different paper surfaces and how they are used for different types of painting and techniques, much as she has done for us here. They do a series of loose floral paintings on each of the surfaces, so the students can see for themselves how the water and paints react to the surfaces and how the brushwork differs. Grab your supplies and paint with Annie so you get to experience what she describes.

Starting with Cold Pressed

We start with cold pressed, as everyone is used to working on that surface already and I get them comfortable with the drawing process and the basic brushwork for a loose style of painting.

Move to Rough

Then I have them start over again, this time on the rough paper. They learn how to use a lighter touch with a softer brush to gently brush the color across the paper, hitting only the high spots of the texture which lets the paper to sparkle through the paint. The students notice how the paper is more absorbent and learn to adapt by using more paint and water in their brushstrokes. They also quickly learn that colors don’t lift easily from the paper, which is an advantage when applying multiple glazes of colors.

Ending Up with Hot Pressed Paper

Finally, I have my students do another loose floral painting, but this time we work on the hot pressed paper. They quickly see the difference in how the paint dries on the surface of the paper instead of soaking in, leaving the colors more vibrant and drying with harder edges. Lifting paint from hot pressed paper is quite the fun exercise, and my student learn how to lift to soften edges, add highlights, and define shapes.

The Final Results

According to Annie, the purpose of all the exercises and experimentation is to allow artists to fully develop techniques that work on each of the papers they could use. From there, the best paper for watercolor reveals itself as the one that each artist likes most. The only rule is that each artist really must determine that for themselves.

To help each artist discover what surface is right for them, Hahnemühle is offering a sample of Harmony and Cézanne paper to us while supplies last. Get your free samples now!

About the Artist

Annie Strack is a classically trained artist with extensive experience in many mediums. Her work and instruction have been featured in numerous magazines, including Art Calendar, The Artists Magazine, Watercolor Magazine, and House Home among others. Annie’s paintings have received hundreds of awards. Her art is in over 1,000 collections worldwide. She is the author of The Artists Guide to Business Marketing. She is a Signature Member of 13 international and national artist societies. Annie is an expert exhibit curator, art business consultant, and art show juror. She travels around the world to teach workshops. Annie is also the host of the popular television show Painting Seascapes in Watercolor, which is broadcast on over 190 television stations worldwide.

About Hahnemühle

Very few companies worldwide have as long a history as Hahnemühle. Founded in 1584 as a paper mill in South Lower Saxony’s Solling uplands, Hahnemühle has spent centuries as a customer-oriented, innovative manufacturer of papers for artists, technicians and scientists.


Watch the video: Annie Strack: Watercolors (May 2022).