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A first fling with Strathmore’s Aquarius 2

June 8, 2013

A while back my friend Ray Murphy showed us his custom sketchpads made from Strathmore Aquarius 2. He had the fervor of the converted – extolling the magical convenience of this synthetic material. It’s main claim to fame – it always stays flat. I was intrigued at the idea of a watercolor paper that doesn’t require preparation. So – I’ve ordered up 10 sheets, and this is my first test flight.

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Strathmore says:

500 Series Aquarius II® Watercolor Weight: 80 lb. (22″ x 30″ x 500 sheets) 170 g/m2 Surface: Cold Press

This unique light weight sheet is made with a blend of cotton and synthetic fibers. This fiber combination allows this sheet to resist buckling and the need for stretching when applying light to medium wash. The lightly textured cold press surface is excellent when combining drawing media with watercolor and for fine detail work.

I say:

Paper Texture: Alien Skin

Most of my work is on cold press (textured) paper. You get used to the knobbly surface giving you a texture when you dry-bush or feather. But I’ve done my share on smooooooth hot press – and that can be very nice too – particularly how the water puddles around and makes lots of wrinkly back-wash.

Aquarius 2 is neither.

The Aquarius sheet (I will drop the 2 henceforward) is like the skin of an alien. It’s very very very slightly textured – gives the impression of having thousands of tiny pores. There is even an odd matte look to the dried painting – where these pores present as an even dusting of speckles.

This is a classic case of ‘different’ not ‘better’. It’s something out of left field that will either bother you (because it’s not like what you know), or present a new opportunity, if you’re open to it.

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Paper Weight: Tissue of Titanium

80lb paper in a big sheet feels awfully thin. It’s like a large sheet of trace. It feels delicate, but with the magic of science, it’s actually quite tough. You can scrub considerably harder than should be possible, without fear of shredding the paper. (Though, oddly masking tape does lift small ‘fuzzy’ tears in the surface).

I can’t help but think that a collector would feel ‘cheapened’ to hold the painting – as compared to the medieval parchment feeling of traditional 140lb, or the sexy sexy heft of 300lb~! (If only I dared to paint on precious 300). So if you’re presenting the work, might want to have it framed in advance.

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Washes: Where does it put the stuff?

I’m having a hard time articulating. The feel of pigment going down on Aquarius will throw you off at first. Somehow it can take massive amounts of water, without feeling like anything is happening. It doesn’t get glossy, it doesn’t get rippled (much). It’s like the worlds thinnest sponge.

Water just keeps going in.

The paint won’t bloom out of the stroke unless the levies break. You need a total flood to make a wet-in-wet effect. You can do it – but it takes quite an effort. You’ll need a very large brush that holds a lot of water. Probably even pouring water might help.

But at the same time, somehow most marks on the paper are quite crisp. Touches of pigment don’t travel very far. They don’t float on the surface and bloom, and they certainly don’t ‘creep’. Paint basically stays where you put it. Aquarius acts very prim and proper. It’s calm, it’s predictable. I think if you have a tight, illustrative style – you might fall in love with Aquarius.

I’ve decided, me, I don’t like that aspect. You might not mind, if you want your paintings to be respectful of you. I like an unruly painting that does what it wants. Floating around, blooming like kudzu. Doing all kinds of stuff when I’m not watching.

It is however, 100% true that this paper does not wrinkle. You could absolutely paint on it without stretching. That part is super attractive.  In that way, it’s perfect for plein air. I could bring one slim panel, and use binder clips to mount sheets on the fly. Probably I’d carry the paper in a tube – I doubt it would keep the curl. I get the feeling there is a huge amount of potential for doing large work in a place I’d normally decline to drag heavy pre-stretched boards.

But I can’t say it’s convinced me to switch from Arches or Canson for day-to-day use.

Now – if they came out with a rough surface – that, I would really love to try.

But – I’m going to keep working with it, and give you something more than first impressions. I honestly think once I get the intuition for the water/pigment balance – things will improve. And that no-stretching aspect will always be tempting me.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. June 9, 2013 7:13 AM

    Very helpful review Marc. I’ll have to chase some of this down and try it.
    I presume the painting is from from your Newfoundland trip – are you doing some large paintings from your trip sketches?

    • June 9, 2013 10:09 AM

      Hey John – yes, that’s a place I sketched on the trip, assisted by Laurel’s photos :) I’m doin a fe studio pieces to compliment the sketchbook. This one is my entry to the CSPWC this year.

  2. June 10, 2013 8:11 AM

    Thank you for the informative review. I usually use 170gsm paper for sketching. It buckles but it is a sketch after all. Do you usually stretch your paper?

    • June 10, 2013 8:23 AM

      If I’m doing a piece in the studio I’ll stretch it (wet and stapled) – but that requires a sheet of plywood – so if I’m out in the field, I just tape it down and live with the ripples. Sometimes I’ll wet the back of the paper and flatten it under glass when I get home – (if it turned out good enough to frame:)

  3. June 19, 2013 10:54 AM

    òtimas suas considerações, muito esclarecedoras. Parece muito diferente do Strathmore que conheci. Que era muito leve, enrugava tremendamente mas produzia efeitos magnificos de fusões de manchas. Em tempo: jamais trabalhei com papel previamente esticado nem grampeado. Sempre ficam enrugados e quase nunca os estiquei com água e vidros prensados. Emolduro-os enrugados mesmo. É bem verdade que muitos não gostam; e sobretudo a folha precisa ficar praticamente solta dentro da moldura.

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