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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Not All Papers Are Created Equal

Pasadena City Hall. Handmade paper
I like to shake things up when it comes to paper. I use non-traditional papers a lot: slick to rough surfaces, white to toned. I sometimes tone paper with tea, ink or gesso. It creates an old world look. And I often use papers NOT intended for watercolor. Why? It stimulates creativity and develops problem solving skills.

One of my favorite toned papers is Canson, Mi-Teintes. Even though it’s normally used for pastel and charcoal, it handles watercolor beautifully. The paper has a 65% rag content, 98 lb. weight and is gelatin sized making it sturdy enough for watercolor. The paper has two surfaces: smooth or lightly toothed. I like the toothed side.  

My editors cat,"Stripes". Toned paper
A few things to keep in mind when working on a toned surface.
1. Use less water to avoid excessive warping.
2. Your colors will look different. Why? Transparent watercolors allow the tone of the paper to show through. I like how it creates color harmony.
3. Select papers that relate to the subject. Example: Warm tan for cat’s fur or cool gray for stormy scene.
4. Add white. White isn’t necessary but when I want to add a lighter value or highlight I have many options: White Gouache / White Pen or Marker / White Ink.

I imagine a few people have raised there brow when they read, WHITE PAINT. When it comes to my work I am always pushing the boundaries of what I know and the limits of watercolor. If white was good enough for Sargent, Homer, Turner…it’s good enough for me. I’ve heard people say “white is cheating”.  If you are entering a transparent watercolor show any opaques (colors or white) isn’t allowed. With that being said, only two transparent societies are in America today, Watercolor West and Transparent Watercolor Society of America. All other watercolor societies allow white (along with pastel, acrylic, collage, ink…). Purely transparent paintings are unique and deserve a show of their own.

I’ve included a video for you. I think it will answer a lot of questions about papers, supplies, techniques... If the video doesn't upload please use this link to view on my YouTube Channel.


If you don’t see a link you’ll need to do the research on your own.
Canson Mi-Teintes Pad with assorted colors.
White Pitt by Faber-Castell

White Gouache

Sharpie Marker: Water Based, Extra Fine

Please let me know your thoughts and experiences with different kinds of toned paper and white pens or paint. Have fun trying something new. 
Please stay safe healthy and creative, 

© Copyright 2020 Brenda Swenson retains copyrights to all images (artwork and reference photographs). All images on this site are property of Brenda Swenson and may not be used in


  1. Thanks so much Brenda. This was indeed inspiring! Thanks for your generous sharing of lots of good tips. One question--how do you get those beautiful edges on your papers? Do you simply tear them, or do you wet the paper first--or?? Thanks so much Brenda. So sorry we won't be in SW France in September! Take care. Arlene

    1. Arlene,
      I use a special ruler for deckled edges. The edge is sharp and irregular. I can easily tear the paper against it. I miss France, too😕

  2. Thanks so much Brenda! Stay well.

  3. Thank you Brenda. I love working on the Canson papers. Is there a difference between working on paper treated with Matt medium and paper treated with Daniel Smith watercolor ground? Do you use the ground? I haven’t seen that brush pen. Do you know who makes it?

    1. Jill, Big difference: Matt medium is clear. Daniel Smith Watercolor Ground is white and opaque. The ground can be used to cover a area and have a white surface again. You can also add watercolor to it to create a toned surface to start with.
      I don't know where to find the brush pen, it was a gift.

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  5. Thanks for the ideas. Printmaking papers are also interesting.