handprint : watercolor papers
Papermaking was established at Arches et Archettes around 1620. Located on the Moselle River in the Vosges region of France (northeast of Dijon), the Arches paper manufactory grew rapidly during the 18th century to provide most of the paper used in France (including the document paper and currency for the French Revolution). In the early 1950s, the Arches factories were consolidated with papermakers in Grenoble and Paris to become Arjomari Prioux. This company was in turn recently acquired by the manufacturing conglomerate Arjo Wiggins. (Arches is usually pronounced "ARSH" in the USA and always in France.)
ARCHES Aquarelle papers are among the most popular watercolor supports in the world. Papers are mouldmade, 100% cotton, acid free, surface sized with gelatin (the HP sheets are also internally sized) and air dried (the largest sheets show dime sized crush marks in the corners, created by the wooden clips used to hang the sheets for loft drying). There are two natural deckles, and sheets are marked both with the "Arches France" (with infinity symbol) watermark and a curved "Arches Aquarelle" embossed chop; the watermark and chop read from the wire side. The rattle is loud and bright (almost metallic) indicating excellent pulp maceration; the paper burns to a fibrous, silvery gray ash. — Available in white sheets, in five weights from 185 to 850 GSM, and in rolls or the popular watercolor blocks in weights of 185 and 300 GSM. Price of a single 300 GSM full sheet is about US$3.20.

The Rough finish (grain torchon in French) is a relatively mild texture for a rough sheet (and is slightly rougher on the wire side). Color is ivory, one of the warmest sheets tested, which made the ultramarine wash appear slightly dull. The sizing is relatively light, causing some blossoming in the magenta strokes; washes went on smoothly with no banding in the cobalt pigment, but the brush was exhausted fairly quickly and pigment texture was suppressed. Scrubbing left noticeable streaking; resists came off cleanly, but color lifted only with difficulty by scrubbing, and seriously damaged the paper surface (causing extensive wicking at the edge of repainted areas). — The Cold Pressed finish (grain fin) has a very subdued texture excellent for detailed work, though there are somewhat deeper depressions streaked throughout the sheet, parallel to the grain (again, the tooth is noticeably rougher on the wire side). Color is warm, a pale ivory, as dark as the R sheet. The sizing is relatively light; the sheet takes washes very evenly but exhausts the brush slightly more than usual. Gently displays pigment textures (although the cobalt violet caused some banding), and there was slight blossoming in the magenta stripes. Scrubbing left very noticeable streak marks; the green lifted completely with no damage to the paper surface or visible in the repainted area. Resists lifted cleanly and left a crisp edge. — The Hot Pressed finish (grain satiné) is extremely smooth, with no perceptible texture on the felt side (the wire has a slight eggshell texture), although the finish in the heavier weight (640 GSM) is coarser. Miniscule tufts of fiber jut out across the surface, giving the paper a slightly gritty roughness to touch; these fibers trap grainy pigments such as ultramarine blue or the cobalt blues, creating a speckled effect in washes. Color is a dull ivory white, slightly warmer than other HP sheets. The sizing is moderately heavy so a charge of paint covered a large area; washes showed noticeable banding and blossoming of color edges, but only moderate blossoming in the magenta; the fiber tufts caught pigment to create a slight stippling effect. Resists lifted cleanly; scrubbing left slight streaks that enhanced pigment texture; the green lifted completely but with a roughening of the surface that caused a slight wicking in repainted edges.

The surface sizing is relatively hard in the Arches sheets, making the surface somewhat abrasive to graphite or charcoal pencils, which can also be difficult to erase. To minimize these problems, I use a kneadable eraser and a relatively soft lead pencil with light pressure. Pencil marks largely dissolve under painting, and charcoal will smear under water unless sprayed with a workable fixative before painting. The paper surface is sensitive to scraping or embossing, which seem to fracture the internal sizing and cause a bruiselike discoloration under wash coats. Large sheets are slightly scarred at the corners by the clips used to hang them during loft drying, but these marks are not ususally intrusive; however the chop is obvious under a finished painting. The sheets emit a subtle yeasty, slightly bitter smell when thoroughly wet, and this is especially noticeable in the larger sheets. I've found the sheets tend to cockle excessively after repeated wash applications, and will curl widthwide (with the cylinder mould) to the point where I've had to clip the margins of 640 GSM full sheets to a painting board in order to keep them workably flat.

The Arches papers are also available in the USA as six sizes of watercolor blocks, ranging from 7" x 10" to 18" x 24", in all three finishes in the 300 GSM weight. (Arches also makes blocks in a 185 GSM weight but these are hard to find in the USA, although they are usually available in Europe.) The blocks now have an excellent contrast across the three surface finishes; the CP sheets have been softened to an almost linen texture, and both the finish and the surface sizing seems less heavy than the R sheets. The surfaces are highly reliable and I have never encountered the wash blotching that can happen with uneven sizing applications in other brands. One drawback: the Arches blocks are bound with a black, tarry adhesive around all four sides, and this adhesive tends to crack if exposed to large or repeated changes in humidity or temperature, especially at the bond between the papers and the backing board or between two groups of papers. In extreme cases the papers separate completely from the backing board. Despite this, Arches is my preferred surface for plein air painting, moreso as they are available almost everywhere.

Arches watercolor papers are one of the most durable and reliable supports, especially for large painting projects. In my tests they did not tolerate extensive reworking, though they produced beautiful textured effects when several layers of paint are modified by gentle rubbing and lifting. I have also received comments from longtime Arches users, who write that the quality of the sheets has declined over the past 10 to 20 years, in particular as regards the durability of the sheets and the assertiveness of the R finish. For all that, these are beautiful supports, physically strong with a beautiful texture in all finishes. They are also one of the few commercial papers (along with Saunders Waterford) available in the spectacular emperor format (40" x 60").

(300gsm R, CP, HP)


ARCHES Bright White is a recent addition to the line, following a growing industry trend toward whiter supports. (Sheets marketed as "bright white" should only be used after you consider Sylvie Turner's warning that they usually contain more chemical additives, and are more likely to change color or deteriorate over time.) Papers are mouldmade, 100% cotton, acid free, surface sized with gelatin (the HP sheets are also internally sized), air dried, with two natural deckles, carrying both the "Arches France" with infinity symbol watermark and a curved "Arches Aquarelle" embossed chop. — Now available from many direct order retailers (including Daniel Smith, New York Central Art Supply, and Cheap Joe's) as single sheets or packs in 300 or 640 GSM weights. Price of a single 300 GSM full sheet is about US$3.20.

The Cold Pressed finish is slightly less textured than the CP finish in the regular color, with a subtle wove texture (and more pronounced tooth on the wire side). The photo shows the difference in surface texture between the 300 and 640 GSM weights — characteristically, a heavier sheet by the same manufacturer will have a deeper, more pronounced texture. The sheets are not at all "bright" white in comparison to Kilimanjaro, Winsor & Newton or Larroque: they are approximately the same tone as Lanaquarelle. The sizing is moderately heavy; both sheets take very even washes and display pigment texture well, but exhasted the brush more quickly than usual; there was no blossoming in the magenta. Resists lifted cleanly; scrubbing left sluffing and visible streaks in the 640 sheet but not the 300; color lifted completely in both weights, but left visible damage (wicking at the edge of repainted areas) in the 640 GSM weight.

Please see the page how to test watercolor papers for an explanation of paper evaluation methods.


Last revised 11.12.2007 • © 2007 Bruce MacEvoy

640gsm CP
(top), 300gsm CP (bottom)
note the rougher finish in the heavier
paper weight