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Monday, January 13, 2014

Burnishing Watercolour Paper

                                         Paeonia lactiflora 'Adolphe Rousseau'
                                         Coral Guest 2013
                                         private collection

The use of paper and its historic development is a subject that has always been of great interest to me. Large sheets of watercolour paper made by Fabriano and T H Saunders have allowed me to paint tall herbaceous perennials life size. I sometimes wonder how Albrecht Dűrer would have reacted to these large sheets of paper had they been available to him in the 16th century. This paper would have enabled him to paint his Irises without having to glue two pieces of paper together to obtain a large enough surface area. I have been asked to reveal how I used some Not surface paper for the often seen Iris 'Superstition' and Lilium regale. So here is the official explanation:

The paper used is:
T H Saunders Watercolour Paper
Not Surface
640gms weight
Paper Dimensions: 101.6 x 152.4cm / 40 x 60ins

I chose this paper because of its size and its very heavy weight, which creates an extremely stable artwork. The size of the paper allows the depiction of a life size image of the whole of a tall flowering plant, including the inflorescence, stem, foliage, and root storage - on the one single sheet of paper.

However, this paper is not available in a Hot Pressed surface. The surface of Watercolour Paper can be either Rough, Not, or Hot Pressed. Hot Pressed paper is the smoothest surface of paper and the type required for detailed work in watercolour. I chose the large sheets of T H Saunders paper because it is the only one currently available in this size and weight. However, the lack of a smooth surface posed a problem, and there is no paper available that possesses all three qualities of size, weight, and smoothness. 

I initially experimented with this paper without success. I was not able to paint fine details because the surface was not smooth enough. After several months of trial and error, I went into my studio one morning and the months of failure dissolved into inspiration - I picked up an etching burnishing tool and burnished a piece of the paper. As a result the paper was rendered smooth enough to allow detail to be painted onto it. 

The above image is a much enlarged detail of a watercolour of a peony, painted on burnished paper. The unpainted area to the right is not burnished. I simply burnish the area to be painted after it is drawn out in pencil.

Lighter weights of 300gms paper with a Hot Pressed surface have long been available on rolls. I have found them to be occasionally inclined to buckle when used with watercolour on a very large piece that is too large to be stretched. 

Set-up costs for paper production are an expensive investment, but it is my hope that T H Saunders will one day produce this large size and weight of paper in a Hot Pressed surface, and in the mean time I shall continue with the burnishing.


  1. They say that necessity is the mother of invention and it has been fascinating to hear about your idea of burnishing watercolour paper.

    1. Thank you Jarnie - we are living in a golden age of materials, and solving this problem made me realise just how fortunate we are these days to have so much available.

  2. Wow--how I would love to see your paintings on burnished NOT paper! During my career as a garden designer, often the daunting limitations of a site caused me to make creative leaps that wouldn't have occurred to me on a more accommodating property. It's interesting how useful limits can be, in an odd way. Congratulations on this break through idea!

  3. Hi Janene - thanks so much. I understand what you and Jarnie are saying. I had purchased a pack of 5 sheets of this lovely large paper before I began working with it - so I had to develop a way of using it! I hope this method can be of use to anyone who needs it.

  4. Lovely post Coral - so informative as always. I haven't had a go at burnishing the not paper yet as I am trying to get through my 420gsm pieces. Only 3 more to go! I have already worked out what I'd like to paint on the big 640gms though which is encouraging.

    Your paintings look stunning in the gallery. How did you paint them? Did you have an easel? Hope you don't mind me asking.

    Thank you for the lovely post about the show.

    1. Hi there Jess

      Thanks so much for the message. With these works I initially tried attaching the paper to the studio wall, which proved ok, but it became a bit time consuming to re-place the paper when I needed to move it up and down to access different heights.

      In the end, having tried with a too heavy and very large drawing board, I used a stretched canvas (that was just a little larger than the paper) as a drawing board.

      I clipped the paper to the canvas and put the canvas on the easle, and was able to move it up and down. I used the canvas as a board because it is light in weight. It supported the paper really welI, even if I leant on it.

      I usually stand upright at my easle, rather than sitting at a table, so it was not too problematic. For anyone who likes to sit down at their easle, a tall stool or bar chair would work well.

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