Keep in mind, there is no perfect tool. There are no right answers. What works for you may not necessarily work for me. And vice versa.
I personally prefer hot press paper. Why? Because the beef of my art isn’t the colors. It’s the drawing under the colors. Hot press paper is the most smooth, and the easiest to draw on.
If you’re wondering the difference between the two papers, cold press paper has a bumpier texture. It’s slightly better for multiple washes. However, I paint my skin tones seven times wet on wet on hot press paper and don’t have any complaints.
Hot press paper rules for drawings
For practice sketching, I just used plain, cheap copy paper. Since I’m not going to do anything with those sketches anyways, I don’t care. They’re for practice, and if they turn out really good, I’ll give them to a friend. But when it’s time to actually paint, I’m using either Arches or Blick Premier hot press paper.
Note the most important thing here – it comes down to style. If you’re a pure painter, you’ll more than likely prefer cold press paper. Cold press paper is more popular. You’ll notice this when you go into any art store and actually count how much cold press is available vs how much hot press is available.
I’m not a pure painter. I do fantasy pinups. Stylistically, hot press paper serves me better than cold press paper.
Not that that’s all I’ll ever use. Sometimes, I’ll paint on wood or clay. But when it comes to paper, I’m using hot press.
For my style, the drawing is my bread and butter. I’ll still need to do seven layers of wet on wet to make her skin smooth and lovely. But both Blick Premier and Arches hot press paper can take that much water, no problem.
Negatives of hot press paper
It takes longer to dry
Hot press paper takes longer to dry than cold press paper. I’m not a blow dryer guy. I go and do something else in between layers.
For cold press, I can usually start painting again in a half an hour. For hot press, I’ll wait at least 45-60 minutes between layers.
Washes are different
This isn’t necessarily a negative. Although since most watercolor artists start off with cold press paper, they’re thrown off by how hot press paper acts differently.
The colors on hot press wash off faster after multiple washes. Cold press papers tend to “keep” the colors more than hot press. This is neither here nor there. It’s just something to be aware of.
That’s one reason why some folks with start off with cold press, try hot press, then move immediately back to cold press. They don’t like how hot press doesn’t keep the colors as well.
As with anything, you get used to how things work with the method you use the most. That includes the tools. You get comfortable with the tools you use the most.
I’m now more comfortable with hot press paper. I’ve adjusted accordingly, despite actually starting with cheap cold press paper (which I will strongly not recommend – another story for another day).
Try them both
I strongly suggest that you try them both and see which one you like better. You may completely disagree with me. Which is fine. You be you. You and I may have completely different styles, or may need different aspects from the paper. That’s part of art.
Try having a conversation with ten different people about what is the best car and you may get eight, nine, or ten different responses. Same thing.
Watercolor on wood. It just sounds cool. However, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it will end up a disaster.
I’m assuming you’ve already painted watercolor on watercolor paper (which is made from acid-free cotton, not regular paper). If you haven’t, watercolor paper is what most watercolor artists paint on most of the time.
Some of us love to experiment on different mediums for whatever reason. I’m one of those people.
I’ve now painted on watercolor paper, clay (a product called Aquabord), and wood. I won’t go into clay in this article. But I will give you some differences between watercolor on wood and watercolor on watercolor paper.
Watercolor on paper
This is your generic watercolor painting. I don’t want to spend too much time on this because I assume you’ve done this many, many times. This article is written for people who have already painted on paper and want to experiment on wood. But if you’re wondering what to start out on, I’ll give you a few paragraphs.
Watercolor on paper is as generic as it gets. Good paper absorbs washes beautifully. It also takes in your colors as you expect them to.
I always paint with a blank piece of copy paper on my right side and when I mix colors, I try them out first on the copy paper. Those colors will be very close to what you’ll see on the watercolor paper. Not exact, but close enough.
You’ll also get used to drying times. You have to wait until one layer is dry before moving onto the next layer. You’ll need to know terms like “wet on wet” and “wet on dry” at the very least to be a decent watercolor artist. You’ll be using both.
Watercolor on wood
Now, this is where it gets tricky. Assuming you’re used to painting on watercolor paper, wood is, well, weird.
Wood bleeds a lot. Not every watercolor artist inks. However, I always ink. If you use ink, keep in mind that wood really bleeds a lot. You’ll want to use a thinner ink pen/brush. Here, I’m using a Pigma Micron 005, which is very thin.
You can’t ink too slowly or else it will bleed all over the place. You’ll need to get confident with your lines.
After you’ve inked, keep in mind that watercolor bleeds with paint as well. Whereas with paper, you can make mistakes, you can’t make mistakes with wood. Good luck trying to get your mistake out. The paint will bleed into where you don’t want it to bleed, then stain. You’re more than likely not going to be able to cover up that stain.
To anticipate the bleeding, you’ll need to know which way the wood flows. Look closely at the lines in the wood. Know them well.
Also, know exactly how wet your brush is. The more wet, the more bleed. For fine details and edges, you almost want to dry brush.
Is the price of paint an issue for you? I’m not saying this to be an asshole. I’m saying this to be a realist. If you’re broke, keep in mind that you’re going to go through a lot of paint. You simply need more paint than you will with paper.
You see that blue for the water? That was a shitload of paint. That’s enough paint for at least three or four watercolor paper paintings. No, I’m not exaggerating.
Light colors don’t show
You’ve more than likely learned the rule to never, ever go dark to light. You always want to paint light to dark. Right?
Well, that is correct for paper. However for watercolor on wood, it’s different.
Allie has light skin. When I first painted her skin color, it didn’t show up at all. This was exactly the same paint I just mixed for my previous painting on paper.
So, I did a cardinal sin. I mixed a darker paint, then went dark to light.
It worked perfectly. Whereas you never, ever want to do this on paper, you may have to do this on wood for the lighter colors.
Yes, the darker colors will show through as watercolor paint is very transparent. However, do you want the darker colors to show through versus having nothing show up at all? I’ll take the former.
Wet on wet
Here’s where it gets weird. You’re used to painting wet on wet and everything working well on paper. Well guess what? On wood, your water just got sucked into the wood. You’re going to need more water.
But then, if you use too much water, your paint will bleed all over the place and ruin your painting. But if you don’t use enough water, your wet on wet won’t be a wet on wet.
Heh. Catch 22. Good luck with this.
OK, I won’t be an asshole about it.
You need to do this carefully. Wet on wet still works with wood. You just need to figure you’ll need more water, but you have to be very careful about bleed.
Waiting for the paint to dry to paint the next layer
This is one thing I absolutely love about wood. Whereas it doesn’t per se dry faster. In reality, it sucks the paint so you can paint the next layer sooner. You save time painting on wood.
Also, layering looks really cool when you do this. The wood isn’t necessarily dry, but the previous paint layer has been sucked in enough that you can put the next paint layer over it.
I can’t speak for you, but I’m a classic Type A person. I’m extremely impatient. I have to be doing something at all times.
This is one of the reason I love painting on wood. Some folks use hair dryers to speed things up. I don’t own a hair dryer, so in between layers on watercolor paper, I go play my guitar.
For wood though, the wait is very short. For paper, I wait an hour between layers. Watercolor on wood though, I wait about ten minutes. Yes, it’s that fast between layers.
Do not make mistakes
I said this before but it needs repeating. Do not make mistakes when painting on wood.
You can pretty much fix most mistakes when painting on paper. On wood though, good luck. Bleed is harder to cover up and wood is unforgiving for mistakes. They’ll be noticeable.
I’d only recommend wood for someone who’s confident in their ink and their brush strokes.
A few more notes
I love drawing on wood. It looks really cool. I need to say this again because it’s really, really important. Watercolor on wood looks really cool! (Isn’t that why artists do anything anyways?)
I pencil before I ink. The pencil erases similarly to paper. Actually, it erases better than a lot of watercolor papers.
Wood being not white though, you’ll have to look more closely at the pencil. It hides more with the coloring of the wood. That often means either penciling with more force or penciling more than once.
Once I got the ink down though, the ink busts through. It looks great.
The other thing is some wood requires sanding. All wood requires cleaning. Before painting, clean your surface with a moist cloth before you even start drawing on it.
And lastly, I mentioned that for watercolor on paper, I test the colors with a piece of copy paper first. You’re simply not going to get the same colors on wood that you will get on paper. Colors look different on wood. If you’re a color purist, you might want to stick to paper.
Conceptually, it feels more like you’re staining the wood than painting. You’ll know what I mean when you start painting on wood.
Preserving your piece
When you’re finished, it’s going to look different than watercolor paper. You can still see the wood. Which I absolutely love about it.
I use a real thick coat of varnish spray. I let it dry overnight, then I put two generous layers of wax finish over it. Between the varnish spray and the wash, your watercolor on wood painting should last hundreds of years if taken care of.
But that’s the thing. If you’re going to be a great chef, you’re gonna burn some cakes. The same goes for any art form.
Heck, Robert Rodriguez said that everyone’s got six bad movies in them. It’s just best to get them out.
Well, I screwed around with some other methods of painting skin tones. I tried using more cool colors for shadowing and ended up with a disaster. My girl took two extra layers of paint to not look like a zombie.
You see, we all do things differently. If you take someone else’s method and try to apply it to your own, it may work. Or it may turn out to be complete shit. That’s even if their method works for them. Your techniques and their techniques may simply be incompatible. And there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s just how it is.
My new vs old way of painting skin tones
OK, I explained this earlier but wanted to give yesterday’s example. Here’s the full piece.
I primarily take two colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. I mix them until I get a nice light orange, matching Allie’s skin. Now if you look closely at someone, you’ll notice that nobody has just one color. You’ll see lots of colors.
The color you want to create is your model’s “average skin tone.” What the hell does that mean? Somewhere in the middle.
You’ll have to both darken and lighten it, depending on the lighting and shadows.
Now the method that I tried doing from someone else involved adding either a blue or a gray for shadowing. Using someone else’s watercolor technique, I’m sure that would work great.
However, I do layer after layer of wet on wet. That means you’ll get a lot of blues (or grays) over the rest of her body where it doesn’t belong. That’s what created the zombie effect.
So it’s back to my original method with only four colors and no cooling effect for shadowing.
The four colors
We have two primary colors for her main colors – titanium white and burnt sienna. What are the other two colors? A red and a yellow.
I use the yellow to mark what will later become highlights. I love the yellow effect. It shows through without showing through. You have to look closely for it to see it.
For the final color, I add a little watered down red to her cheeks. I use the same red for her lips to her cheeks. Except for her lips, it’s straight up red (not watered down). I love red lipstick on a beautiful woman. It pops out and really makes her smile/lips stand out. I love that.
For this particular piece, I used watered down red for her right nipple (you mostly don’t see her right nipple due Allie having really long hair) and also her fingernails. Allie has long, feminine fingernails. I love those. Now my wife does too after seeing Allie’s nails.
Anyways, so the first layer of highlights is yellow and I paint the main skin tone everywhere else. Then the second layer, the third layer, and the fourth layer, I paint the main skin tone everywhere.
For the fifth layer, I paint my skin tone mixed colors for the non-shadowed areas while painting watered down burnt sienna on the shadowed areas. For the sixth layer, I smear the regular color all over her and drop a little watered down red for her cheeks. For the seventh layer, I paint straight up titanium white all over her to even out everything and smooth out both the lightened areas and the shadowed areas.
This may sound weird. I use gold watercolor ground for the gold. Why? Because it gives it a 3D effect. Just in case you don’t know what watercolor ground is, let me explain. Watercolor ground is not exactly paint. It’s material you put over something like glass, metal, or plastic, then you let it dry. Then you can paint over it, so you can literally watercolor over glass, metal, or plastic.
The thing is, when you use the ground for paint, it gives it a little bit of a 3D effect because it sticks out a little bit. I love that!
There’s more than one way to do anything
You may try my techniques and hate them. That’s perfectly fine. Like I said before, sometimes different people’s techniques clash and don’t play well together at all. That’s part of being human. If my stuff doesn’t work for you, I’m not at all going to take it personal.
I’ve also heard some watercolor purists poo poo on the idea of using white watercolor for anything. Whatever. I don’t like rules.
I actually love mixing with titanium white. You get really weird mixes with it.
I initially tried getting skin tones with red and yellow. However, that combo caused me to throw out a lot of paint before getting the right formula.
With titanium white and burnt sienna, it’s very simple. Take the white, add some water, and add a little bit of burnt sienna until you get the right mix, depending on how light or dark your model is.
I like simple. Simple is good. Even better than simple? Easy to replicate.
When I run out of the mix, I don’t have any problem replicating the same colors, despite mixing colors being one of the hardest things to master in watercolor.
On the other hand, gouache is opaque. What does that mean? It means it covers up whatever you painted on. It does a terrible job of layering.
Which is better?
It totally depends on the application. Most of my paintings are 99% watercolor with 1% gouache. This painting however has more gouache than I generally use.
The fish, the white sparkles in Allie’s eyes, and the bubbles are gouache. Everything else is watercolor.
You see how I get them to play nicely together? The gouache also looks like it’s on top of the watercolor.
Whereas I use Daniel Smith and Windsor and Newton watercolors, I use the cheap ass gouache. That’s because I don’t use gouache enough to notice the difference between brands. The cheap ass stuff works fine for what I do.
If somewhere down the road I’ll start using more gouache, I’ll more than likely start buying the more highly recommended brands.
If you’re going to layer a lot, use more watercolor. For an application where you want to just paint it once and you want the color to behave exactly as you painted the first time, use more gouache.