Can You Paint on Both Sides of Watercolor Paper?

In Watercolor by Chris BreierLeave a Comment

There are a number of reasons why you may want to paint on the back of a sheet of watercolor paper. For example, it’s a good way to make use of failed paintings, or perhaps you just prefer the texture. Painting a double page spread with watercolor in a sketchbook is another instance where you have to to paint on the back of the paper. If you’re new to watercolor painting, you may be wondering if these techniques are okay.

Can you paint on both sides of watercolor paper? Yes, you can paint on both sides of watercolor paper. Usually the only difference is the texture is more subtle on the back. Most watercolor papers have sizing on both sides, and some even have sizing throughout the core of the paper. In both cases, the paint will behave relatively the same on both sides. If the back doesn’t have sizing, then it will absorb water faster and the colors will be more difficult to lift.

I contacted customer support at Arches and the representative told me that it’s acceptable to paint on both sides of watercolor paper. So, it’s safe to say that there’s no “wrong” side to paint on, it’s more of a personal preference.

In this post, I take the time to paint on both sides of 3 different kinds of watercolor papers.

In my studio, I have the following watercolor papers: Arches Rough, Fabriano Cold Press, and Fabriano Hot press. I took close-up photos of each paper to show the differences in the texture, then I painted 12 different colors on each side of all 3 papers.

At the end of the post, I explain some of the subtle differences between painting on the front and the back of the paper. I also cover the advantages of painting on the back of watercolor paper.

The Difference Between the Front and Back of Watercolor Paper

In the photo below, I set up the lighting so that it accentuates the texture of the paper.

When you paint on the back side of a sheet of watercolor paper, you’ll notice that the texture is often different than the front. The back side of watercolor paper usually has less texture than the front, the only exception is hot press. The reason why the texture is different on the back is because of the way that the paper is made.

Manufacturers create the texture on the front of watercolor paper by pressing the paper with felt. The different types of felts are what create the different types of textures in watercolor paper such as “rough” or “cold press.” Each paper company has their own felts which explains why each brand has a unique texture.

The back of the paper is also known as the “wire” side, and it usually has less texture than the front. In both the Arches Rough and the Fabriano Cold Press, the texture on the front is more “crisp.” This is a subtle difference and it’s something that’s more noticeable when you observe it in person.

Hot press watercolor paper is smooth on both sides. No felts are used and the paper is pressed through hot metal rollers to make it smooth.

These photos show the differences between the front and back of three different types of watercolor paper: Arches Rough, Fabriano Cold Press, and Fabriano Hot Press. The texture on the front is more pronounced than the back. Hot press watercolor paper is smooth on both sides.

Painting on Both Sides of Watercolor Paper

I cut each sheet of watercolor paper into 3 strips and painted 12 different colors on each sides. The colors are in the list below. They’re QoR watercolors from Golden.

  • Cerulean Blue
  • Phthalo Blue (Green Shade)
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Quinacridone Magenta
  • Pyrrole Red
  • Indian Yellow
  • Hansa Yellow Medium
  • Phthalo Green
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Burnt Umber
  • Transparent Red Oxide
  • Quinacridone Gold

I painted the colors in the approximate order they would appear in a spectrum, followed by the earth colors. The colors look the same on both sides as you can see from the photographs. As I said, most quality watercolor papers have sizing on both sides, so the paint behaves the same whether you’re painting on the front or the back.

If the back of your paper doesn’t contain sizing, the colors may look dull. This is because the sizing helps the paint to sit on the surface of the paper. Paper that doesn’t contain sizing allows the the paint to soak into the fibers.

For example, watercolor paintings look duller on drawing paper because most drawing paper doesn’t contain sizing. For an example of this, you can read my post about using drawing paper for watercolor painting.

Here is Arches Rough watercolor paper with 12 colors painted on the front and back.

Here are the same colors painted on the front and back of Fabriano cold pressed watercolor paper.

Fabriano hot pressed watercolor paper has a very similar texture on the front and the back. You can easily paint on either side without seeing much of a difference in the color and the texture.

What Are the Advantages of Painting on Both Sides of Watercolor Paper?

There are a number of circumstances where it can be to your advantage to paint on the back of a sheet of watercolor paper. Below are the situations where painting on the back of watercolor paper may be an advantage.

You Can Reuse the Paper From a Failed Painting

Watercolor painting is difficult because it’s a transparent medium. When you make a mistake, it’s difficult or nearly impossible to fix it without ruining it. I find that the success rate of my watercolor paintings is lower than when I work with an opaque medium such as acrylics, gouache, or oils.

So, what should you do with those failed watercolor paintings?

One option is to paint on the back of a failed painting to make use of the paper. For every sheet of paper, you’ll have two chances to pull off a decent painting. It’s also a way to save money on art supplies.

There’s really no harm in painting on both sides of watercolor paper. Of course, if you frame the painting, you’ll only be able to display one side of the paper at a time. For this reason, I don’t paint on the back side of a good painting.

Another option is to cut up the failed painting into strips and use the back of the paper to test colors on. The test swatches should look the same as they would on the front because it’s the same paper.

Testing your colors before you use them is important in watercolor painting. You don’t want to put down the wrong color because some you may not be able to correct it. Painting these test samples on the back side of your failures will allow you to put the paper to good use.

You Can Paint on Both Sides of Each Page in a Watercolor Sketchbook

Sketchbooks are different in that you can paint on both sides of each page without having to frame the painting. That way, each painting is still viewable.

However, painting in a sketchbook with watercolors is only a good idea if the sketchbook contains watercolor paper.

If the paper that you’re using is so thin that the color bleeds through to the back, then you probably won’t want to paint on the front of each page in the sketchbook. There’s a good chance that the thinner papers will buckle too.

Look for a sketchbook that contains thicker watercolor paper. I recommend the sketchbooks from Stillman and Birn. Here’s a sketchbook for watercolor painting (link to Amazon). It contains heavyweight paper and you can paint on both sides of each page.

You May Prefer the Texture on the Back of the Paper

Sometimes you may find the texture on the back side of certain types of watercolor paper are more appealing than the front. If that’s the case, then go ahead and paint on the back of the paper.

For example, perhaps you like Arches cold pressed watercolor paper, but want something with a little less texture but not as smooth as hot pressed paper. Painting on the back of the cold pressed paper may give you the amount of texture that you’re looking for.

It may help to test out the back of paper by painting a few color swatches to it. This will give you the feel for how the paint will behave before committing to completing an entire painting on it.

Does the Back of Watercolor Paper Contain Sizing?

Manufacturers apply a coat of sizing, which is usually gelatin, to the surface of the paper. This is an example of external sizing because it’s only on the outside of the paper. Keep in mind that the back of the painting may not contain sizing. Some manufacturers list this information on their websites or marketing materials.

Internal sizing is when the manufacturer adds the sizing to the pulp before they make the paper. The sizing is found throughout the entire piece of paper. Some papers have both internal and external sizing.

The sizing prevents the water from soaking into the paper too quickly. This will allow you to manipulate the paint before it has a chance to dry. The paint sits more on the surface of the paper which will make the colors appear brighter than if they were to absorb into the paper.

Another benefit of sizing that it will allow you to “lift” a color. You can lighten or even remove a color by scrubbing it with a wet brush. The sizing creates a coating that makes it easier to remove the pigment.

Papers that have internal sizing will probably behave the same on both sides.

Does the Watermark Determine Which Side Is the Front?

There’s a belief that you can tell the front side of the paper by looking at the watermark. The idea is that if the words in the watermark are “right reading,” then that’s the front of the paper.

There aren’t any standards regarding the placement of watermarks so you can’t use them to determine which side is the front. Some watermarks appear backwards even when you’re looking at the front of the paper.

Another problem is that when you paint on the back of watercolor paper, you may encounter people who will claim that you’re painting is on the “wrong” side because the watermark appears backwards in the painting.

I suppose this may cause some people to assume that you don’t know what you’re doing. If this is a concern, then one option is to paint smaller than a full sheet so you can trim off the watermark.

I often take this approach because I often find the watermark distracting in a finished painting.

All of the watercolor blocks that I own don’t contain watermarks. So, if you don’t like painting over the watermarks then you may want to try the same paper in a watercolor block instead of using loose sheets. You may want to read my post about watercolor blocks for more tips about using them.

Do you need special paper for watercolor? While you can use different types of paper for watercolor painting, you will get the best results if you use high quality watercolor paper. Some drawing paper will accept light washes of watercolor, but it will probably buckle.

Which paper is best for watercolor? Personal preferences aside, the paper that will give you the best results are usually the ones made from 100% cotton, and that are made specifically for watercolor painting. Choosing a quality paper will have more impact upon your results than any other variables. Some of the more popular brands are Arches, Saunders, and Fabriano. There are many others that will produce good results.

Consider buying a few single sheets of a variety of papers and try them out before you commit to purchasing a larger quantity of it. It can be disappointing to have an entire watercolor block of paper that you don’t enjoy painting on.

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