Basic Glossary of Watercolor Terms Used in this Series
As we come across terms and techniques not covered in this post, I not only hope to define them, but to add them to this post, so this post is a work in progress. If you can't find what you're looking for here, I have many outside resources linked at the bottom of the post, but I also highly recommend:
DickBlick's Watercolor Category (not just full of products, but full of definitions, and if you scroll to the bottom, they cover individual topics in detail)
Watercolor Painting.com's Glossary
This glossary is intended to help artists who are interested in making watercolor illustrations and watercolor comics, so it is by no means comprehensive for the fine art watercolorist. This is also not intended to be an illustrated glossary- I intend to provide photos and videos for demonstration in later posts, but I have used photos where necessary to illustrate the difference between specific things.
I highly recommend you bookmark this resource for later reference- I don't expect you to read everything in one sitting. Control F should help you locate terms quickly on a Windows machine.
If there are any terms you'd like to see defined in this post, please leave a comment below, and I'll work on amending this post as suggestions come in.
There are three surface finishes commonly used for watercolor art and illustration. These are:
Hot Press- Has a very smooth paper surface for watercolor paper, I find it's very similar to Smooth Bristol paper, and takes ink well. I find that brushstrokes are difficult to blend out, and stand out much more on hot press than on other types of watercolor papers. This paper is processed with high pressure as it dried. Hot press paper is made by pressing cold press paper between plates under pressure.
Cold Press- Amount of tooth varies by paper content and brand, some brands have a very moderate amount of texture some are very heavily textured.The most common type of paper used by watercolor artists. Quality cold press watercolor paper is double sided, with one side having a smoother finish.
Rough Press- Rough press watercolor paper has even more tooth than cold press, and you may also find it also works well for color pencil or pastel illustration.
Mixed Media Paper: Mixed media paper is designed to take both wet and dry media, and is a favorite amongst many marker artists, who want a paper that can take light washes of watercolor in addition to handle their alcohol ink without bleeding through. Quality often depends on the grade. Mixed media paper can take wet medias such as watercolors, gouache, and even acrylics. Mixed media also comes in a variety of weights, I recommend at least 140lb, to prevent buckling.
Illustration Board: Illustration board has only one finished side, unlike Bristol's two. Can take wet media, and should not bow. Does not need to be stretched as the board has sufficient internal structure. Tooth is similar to Smooth Bristol or Hot Press watercolor paper. Some illustration boards can be sanded down for a fresh surface.
Canson Art Board: Available in several paper types, including Arches Watercolor Paper, Bristol, Manga Art Board, Drawing Art Board, ect.
Watercolor Panels and Boards:
Fredrix Watercolor Canvas Boards
Arches Art Boards
Crescent Watercolor Boards
70- 90lb (student grade): Very light weight for watercolor paper, about the same thickness as cardstock. Will buckle when washes are added.
140lb: Most common weight available. Approximately the same thickness as Bristol board. Still requires stretching for heavier washes or repeated layers, but tends to hold up to the demands I place on my watercolor papers. The weight I use for 7" Kara pages- will go through my printer, affordable, fairly easy to find.
300lb (between Bristol Board and Illustration Board in thickness). Does not need to be stretched.
100% Cotton: Made entirely of cotton, no linen or woodpulp. Typically highest quality papers.
Woodpulp( (wood sulfite paper)/Cellulose based: Any rag content less than 100% include manilla, flax, or synthetic fibers, or may included wood pulp, and are typically marketed as student grade.
Rag: Generally used to refer to any natural fiber, but most commonly cotton fiber.
Hemp: An alternative to woodpulp.
Synthetic: Non-organic, plastic or stone based. Handles very differently.
Examples: Yupo, Terra Skin
Machine Made: Paper texture is embossed onto surface.
Mould made: Mould made paper offer consistent quality and texture. Paper texture is embossed onto surface.
Handmade: Paper texture is a natural result of shrinkage.
How is watercolor paper made?In the past all watercolor paper was made from linen (flax) waste or rags. After being pulverized and cleaned the resulting pulp is transferred to large vats. A mould consisting of a wire mesh stretched on a wooden frame is dipped in the water and shaken to align the fibers as the water drains through the mesh. When the strained pulp reaches the proper thickness the mould is inverted on to a felt ‘blanket’ to which the new sheet of paper clings. A new felt is layered on top of the paper and the hand moulding process is repeated, creating a layered stack of paper and felts. The stack is then put in a press to release the excess water. Hand made paper is distinctive in its randomly irregular surface and frayed deckled edges on all four sides.
Handmade papers are available today, but are generally more expensive than the machine made varieties. The machine made papers do offer consistent quality and texture and do to the manufacturing process they usually have a two sided deckle with the other two sides cut or torn to resemble a deckle edge.
The majority of modern papers use the term ‘rag’ to indicate any natural fiber, but primarily cotton fiber is used. Rag contents of less than 100% add manilla, flax, synthetic fibers or wood pulp to the blend. These are marketed as student grades.
Natural White- Does not contain chemicals to bleach the paper. Tends to be a warmer, more natural white. Acid free and pH neutral.
Bright White- Has been chemically bleached to achieve a cool white hue. Still acid free and pH neutral.
Sizing: Sizing is used to give watercolor papers internal and external structure. A common sizing agent is gelatin. Sizing determines the amount of color the paper will absorb- more sizing allows for more color to remain on the surface, and allows for easier reworking.
Stretching removes excess sizing, but does not remove all. When stretching paper, always work with cold water, as warm water may remove all sizing. Papers that have too much sizing may resist accepting paint. Internally sized paper has the sizing added during the manufacturing process, whereas tub sized papers are soaked in a bath after the paper has been made.
Purchasing Options for Paper:
Roll: This is how you buy watercolor paper by yard. This is great if you work really large, or if you really want to save money and cut your own paper. Storage may become an issue, given the size.
Sheet: An individual sheet of watercolor paper, usually large (24"x30"). Many artists will then use a straight edge to tear these sheets down to more manageable sizes. Many watercolor papers only come in sheets or on a roll.
Tape Bound: Individual sheets are bound together at the top of the pad. Sheets are removed from the pad for painting, usually need to be stretched first. I use Canson's Montval for my 7" Kara pages, as I can run them through my printer for bluelines.
Gum Bound: Bound on at least two sides, often on all four sides. Gum bound pads hold the paper tight while you paint, a palette knife is used to remove the paper from the pad once the painting is finished, no need to stretch the paper beforehand. Really handy for field painters. I use Fluid's Fluid 100 and regular gum bound pads for many of my watercolor commissions.
Student Grade: Student grade papers usually include a woodpulp base. These can be useful for practicing techniques, but you may find that they're difficult and temperamental to use.
Artist Grade: Artists grade papers are usually 100% Cotton Rag, hand or mould made, acid free and Ph neutral. Artist grade papers are more expensive than student grade, but are capable of more- less prone to buckling, absorbs paper better, pigments settle better on the surface.
Winsor and Newton
Mop: Used to apply water for stretching watercolor paper, large washes of color
Round: Used for everything from filling in large areas of color (size 10) to teeny tiny details like eyelashes (size 00)
Flat: Very similar to what people normally think of when they think of a paintbrush. This can be used to apply washes (especially graduated washes)
Filbert: Like a flat brush, but with a rounded top. Can cover a larger area, but still capable of fine details.
Rigger/Liner: Originally designed as a lettering brush, a rigger can carry a lot of color, and is great for drawing long lines cleanly in one go.
Hake: Also used to apply initial washes to a piece. A flat, rakelike brush that usually uses stiffer animal hairs, like goat. This brush can also be used to pick up excess water from the page.
Sumi: Originally used for Japanese sumi painting, sumi brushes have become a popular economical option for many watercolor artists. Hair can be goat or pony. Nicer quality sumi brushes have a bamboo handle, inexpenive brushes use plastic. Does not have a metal ferrule.
Scrubber Brush: A (usually synthetic) brush with short, stiff bristles, used for removing pigment from the paper.
Waterbrush: A fairly new innovation in brushes, a waterbrush carries the water you'll use within the body of the brush.
For more brush types and information, please check out this overview produced by DickBlick.
Brush Fiber Types:
Synthetic- Manmade fibers of either nylon or polyester. Can be formed into a variety of shapes, and are often altered to mimic the color carrying capacity of natural fibers. A common name for synthetic fibers is Taklon (Golden Taklon, white Taklon- Princeton makes a lot of these). Synthetics are cheaper and less prone to damage, but even excellent synthetics don't have all the positive qualities of a good kolinsky sable brush. I recommend synthetics as an affordable way to acquire larger brush sizes- mops, flats, and rounds.
Squirrel- Two types
Gray-Gray squirrel is native to Russia and usually in short supply. The most highly sought for lettering brushes and quills.
Brown-Brown is more readily available, and is used for student quality and medium quality watercolor brushes. It points quite well, but has little of the snap Kolinsky is prized for.
Camel: Not from camels, but a lend of squirrel, ox, goat, pony, or a blend of severalhairs. Student grade.
Kolinsky/Sable: Not sable, but mink from northernmost China and Siberia. Considered the best material for watercolor due to its snap, spring, and strength. Can hold a very fine point, and is considered professional grade. Irresistible to marauding housecats and moths, so keep out of reach of pests.
Sabline- Ox hair dyed and treated to mimic sable. Often used in sable mix blend brushes to lower costs.
Pony- Used in scholastic grade brushes.
For more information on the types of fibers used in watercolor brushes, check out this handy chart from DickBlick.
Toe/Point: Very tip of the bristles
Belly: Middle of brush. A good round has a large belly when wet, capable of holding a lot of water/paint
Heel: The crimped part of the ferrule which holds the bristles in place
Ferrule: The metal crimp that attaches the bristles to the brush handle
Handle: Can be made of wood, acrylic, or plastic. Some travel brushes have a metal handle.
Although it's not really recommended by fine artists, I often refill my watercolor pans with color from tubes. A tube of quality watercolor usually costs as much as a pan, and I can refill the pan several times from the tube. Refilling pans this way has a few issues- colors straight from the tube are going to be more vibrant than reactivated tube colors, pan watercolors are designed to be reactivated with water, whereas tube colors are not, tube watercolors are designed to excell at covering large washes, and may not be suited for detailed work. I recommend you practice discretion when handling tube watercolors in the manner described- YOUR MILEAGE MAY VARY.
Pan: Pan watercolors are semi moist- designed to quickly activate and quickly clean up with little paint waste. Many artists may find pans an easier way to start watercoloring- I started with pans. To activate pans, I recommend spritzing with water about five minutes before painting, otherwise it may take awhile for the pigments to loosen up. Pans can be hard on your brushes, so make sure you condition your brushes occasionally.
There are professional grade pan paints and professional grade tube paints, which you paint with are not indicative of your skill or professionalism as an artist, so use what you are comfortable with.
Comes in a few sizes, most commonly-
Giant or Extra Large Pan- usually for large pieces and large washes
Cakes: Usually reserved for cheaper watercolors, watercolor cakes may utilize chalk to increase opacity, and may rely on dyes. Artist Loft's watercolor set, the Angora watercolors, and most brightly colored, inexpensive watercolors are in cake form. These cannot really be refilled the way pans can.
Liquid watercolors: Pigment (or dye) in distilled water. Liquid watercolors come with a variety of issues including limited lightfastnes and cracking, so experiment widely before using these on a longform project. Not all liquid watercolor are dye based. Robert Doak and Associates released a line with pigment as a colorant, as well as Schmincke. Usually concentrated, often dye based. Capable of brilliant colors, but generally not lightfast.
Liquid Watercolors contain dyes as well as pigments, suspended in an aqueous medium. They are especially brilliant and transparent. Because they are moist and fluid, they are suited to thin washes and airbrush application as well as conventional brushwork. Many of the more brilliant colors are fugitive, so liquid watercolors are used most often for illustrations that will be scanned for reproduction.
Naturally made from stones, insects, flowers, ect
Often less brilliant, intense than dyes
Often tend towards earth colors (there are exceptions, of course)
Synthetically (chemically) made, sometimes from petroleum products
Bright, intense colors- neons, hot reds, ect
Often used in 'watercolor markers'
Often light fugitive, often not entirely water proof
Often used in non toxic, childrens, or student grade materials
Other types of watercolor:
Ink Pencil (Derwent Inktense)
The lightfastness of a paint color or pigment is how permanent it is, or how unaffected by light it is.
In the United States the permanence of a color is measured by the American Standard Test Measure (ASTM), with colors rated from one to five, with I or II being the most permanent. In the United Kingdom the Blue Wool Scale is used, with colors rated from one to eight, with 7 or 8 being the most permanent. (For more detail on this, see Lightfastness Information on a Paint Tube Label.)
Watercolors, pastels, inks, and colored pencil are particularly susceptible to damage by overexposure to strong light (for instance, direct sunlight). In some museums works in these mediums are displayed under dimmed light.
Fugitive- Not lightfast, will fade over time. You can expect a fugitive color to shift within 20 years. Many synthetics, while brilliant, are fugitive.
Fair Lightfastness- Color should not change for at least 20 years, upwards to 100.
For more information on finding the lightfast rating on a tube of paint, please read this excellent post on About.com. To test your paints for lightfastness at home, read this post.
Transparent- Colors allow light to shine through the paint, allowing the paper to reflect light back. Colors appear to glow. You can easily see the paper, linework, or other colors through the applied color.
Semi Transparent- Somewhere between the two
Opaque- Blocks light from hitting the paper beneath. Colors may seem less vibrant. Obscures paper, linework, or previous colors. Glazing with opaque colors often results in MUD.
To test your own paints for opacity, please check out this PDF.
Staining Colors: Absorb quickly into the first few layers of the paper, and are difficult to lift back to the paper's original color. Mix well with other staining colors, but tend to dominate non staining colors.
Non Staining Colors: These color settle on the surface, rather than soaking in, and can be lifted once dried. These colors mix well with other non staining colors.
Granulating (also known as Sedimentary)- Can be transparent, semi-transparent, or opaque. Have larger pieces of pigment that fall out of solution early and settle into the crevices of the paper.
How Tube Watercolors are Made:
Popular Brands (Popular does not indicate quality, just common brands):
Winsor and Newton
Kuretake Gansai Tambi
Grades of Art Supplies
Children's Grade (also sometimes referred to as Scholastic): For young children. Non-toxicity and wash ability are paramount
Examples: Crayola, CraZArt, Alex
Scholastic Watercolor Pans contain inexpensive pigments and dyes suspended in a synthetic binder. Washable formulations feature colors that are chosen to be non-staining, easily washable, suitable for use even by young children with proper supervision. They are an excellent choice for teaching beginning artists the properties of color and the techniques of painting.
Hobbyist: For people interested in art supplies, but do not wish to make an investment, and do not have stringent requirements. Many craft brands fall into this category
Exampls: Artist's Loft
Student Grade: For people interested in art supplies and techniques, but do not yet have a lot of money to spend on supplies, and may not have the skills necessary to merit the expense.
Examples: Sakura Cras Pas, Cotman, Crayola Portfolio
Student Watercolors have working characteristics similar to professional watercolors, but with lower concentrations of pigment, less expensive formulas, and a smaller range of colors. More expensive pigments are generally replicated by hues. Colors are designed to be mixed, although color strength is lower. Hues may not have the same mixing characteristics as regular full-strength colors.
Student grade paints offer a smaller selection of colors, and substitute synthetic hues for the more expensive traditional colors. Colors contain a higher proportion of filler. They are less expensive because they do not have the same level of purity or permanence as professional grade watercolors.\
Professional Grade: For artists who are interested in lightfastnes, permanence, and high pigmentation. Can justify making the investment, either through professional or personal benefit.
Examples: Daniel Smith, Arches, Winsor and Newton
Professional or Artist Watercolors contain a full pigment load, suspended in a binder, generally natural gum arabic. Conventional watercolors are sold in moist form, in a tube, and are thinned and mixed on a dish or palette. Use them on paper and other absorbent surfaces that have been primed to accept water-based paint. Clean up with soap and water.
Store Brand: Brands of supplies manufactured for a particular chain, and only sold through that chain. Some products are comparable to nationwide brands, and there are often partnerships (Winsor and Newton with Blick for example). These supplies to tend to cost less, and are often very good, but testing is required before investment, as not all store brands are equal.
Examples: Blick Studio, SoHo, Cheap Joe's Kilimanjaro
National Brand: Large brands that focus on making art supplies, either for particularly mediums or a handful of media. Often recognized by people outside the art community, easy to find reviews for these products.
Examples: Winsor and Newton, Caran d'Ache
Palettes to Hold Paint for Longterm
Metal Watercolor Box- Holds half pans or pans, includes mixing wells, refillable
Airtight Mijello Palette- Useful for holding dried tube watercolors
Palettes to Hold Paint while Painting
Enamel Coated Metal
Butcher's Tray: Great for mixing up lots of color, especially if you don't mind your colors mixing together a bit. Good for landscape and floral painting
There are many different types of welled palettes available at a variety of prices. You don't need to spend a lot of money to purchase palettes- you can often recycle household plastic goods into something that serves the purpose.
Traditional, fine art watercolorists often turn their noses up at individual palettes, but illustrators (and comic artists!) find them quite useful for painting pages in batches. These wells help insure color consistency throughout pages.
Swatching- Important when you've assembled or purchased a new palette of colors or paints. Swatching means activating a little bit of the color and applying it to the paper, to see how the color looks both wet and dry.
Stretching- Many watercolor papers (140lb and lower) require stretching to prevent the paper from buckling. Stretching involves attaching the watercolor to a support, to provide external stability while the internal structure of the paper is compromised. Stretching isn't intended to be permanent, once the page is finished, it's removed from the board.
Buckling: If your paper isn't a sufficient weight, or you didn't stretch it, buckling can occur. Buckling refers to the paper absorbing water inconsistently, which results in some parts buckling up. Buckling isn't the end of the world, but it's definitely something you want to control.
Wash: Wet, large scale application of color to paper.
Glaze: Wet application of fairly diluted paint onto paper, to tone the previous colors
Scrub: Removing layers of watercolor from the paper using a stiff bristled brush and water.
Drybrush: Application of paint with a fairly dry brush onto dry paper with the intention of leaving a speckled effect. Works best on Rough press, as it has enough texture.
Wet into Wet- Application of wet paint onto wet paper/already applied paint
Dry into Wet- Application of fairly dry paint onto wet paper/already applied paint
Wet into Dry- Application of wet paint onto dry paper/previously applied dried paint
Dry into Dry- Application of fairly dry paint onto dry paper/previously applied dried paint
Wax Resist- Application of wax to dry watercolor paper. The water can't permeate beneath the wax or wax crayon, as the wax repels (or resists) the water.
Masking: Masking reserves an area of the paper from future layers of paint. Masking can be done before any paint is applied to the page, or to save certain colors from darker future layers- for pops of color. Can be achieved in a number of ways:
Frisket Film: Typically used for stencils for airbrushing, grafitti. A plastic film with light adhesive on one side.
Masking Fluid: A liquid form of latex rubber. Applied when paper is dry, removed when painting is finished and paper is dry. Many artists have difficulty using this (myself included).
Masking tape: White, crepe paper tape with low tack.
Places to Buy
Paper and Ink Arts
References Used for this Post:
Watercolor Paper: Surfaces
ASW: Watercolor Paper
Dick Blick Strathmore 500 Series Illustration Board Reviews
Green Field Paper: Hemp Heritage Watercolor Paper
Twinrocker Watercolor Paper
Cheap Joe's Glossary of Terms
Watercolor Painting Tips- Brush Types
DickBlick' Guide to Brush Shapes
DickBlick's Guide to Brush Materials
Parts of a Brush
Pan Vs Tube Watercolors- Janene Walkky
Handprint- Tube, Pan, and Liquid Watercolors
Definition of Lightfastness- About.com
Art Glossary: Fugitive Color
How to Read the Label on a Tube of Paint- About.com
Watercolor Painting and Projects.com- Properties of Watercolor Painting
Learning Watercolor with Susie Short
Watercolor Palette Building
DickBlick: Categories: Watercolor