Art Questions, News, News 2016, Painting

What DID happen to the Fabriano Artistico paper?

On the 12th of July there was an intriguing meeting at the top of a spiral staircase, at the R.K. Burt (paper suppliers) warehouse in London: a handful of botanical artists, the boss Mr Burt himself, as well as Giuseppe and Chiara, marketing directors from the Fabriano mill.

The aim of the meeting was for the artists to voice their concerns about the latest batches of Fabriano Artistico: it seemed that our beloved paper had changed, getting more unpredictable, rendering duller colours and generally messing up our washes. Botanical artists are a notoriously picky bunch, but when so many agreed that something was wrong with the paper, the Fabriano managers decided to act, with the help of Mr Burt and art blogger Katherine Tyrrell. I must say that I hadn’t been affected by this plight as much as some others, because Fabriano is not the only paper I use, so I am still working on old, trouble-free stocks.

The meeting

The morning was dedicated to an exposé on paper making by Clifford Burt. It was fascinating – that is a Mr Spock level of fascinating. My inner geek was in seventh heaven as we were shown slides of 19th century machines Brunel would have been proud of and the whole process was explained to us in detail. Extremely large cylinders, cast iron wheels, massive levers and gears, steam and dials, it was all there.

fabrianopapermaking

The 1850’s machines that are used to make the mould-made paper are also used to make bank note paper. As this is done on tender and renewed on a regular basis, the process has to be extremely efficient in order to stay competitive. Giuseppe finished the morning meeting by explaining the changes that were made to the machines recently: in order to facilitate the insertion of plastic strips in the security papers, a device was added to the machines at the beginning of the paper making process. It seems that this has upset the fragile balance of the robust yet delicate machine’s internal workings and they are now regurgitating an altered paper, deemed inferior by the old Fabriano Artistico fans.

Blind test

After a light lunch, we proceeded to a blind test of anonymous papers, coded for identification by the organisers. When Mr Flora’s Patch saw the photos, he laughed at me, saying I looked “dangerously excited”. This is pretty much exactly what I was. The blind test was tremendous fun and as it turns out was also worthwhile and productive. Chiara and Giuseppe were worried that we would all find different results, especially as we were working in different media. Going around the table, Ann Swan, Morryce Maddams and Katherine Tyrrell were working in coloured pencil; Polly O’Leary, Elaine Searle, Dianne Sutherland, Gael Sellwood, Sandra Armitage and Billy Showell and I were painting in watercolour.

We tested the papers from different brands and different batches for resilience, ease of lifting, colour saturation, behaviour of washes and glazes as well as reaction to different techniques.

fabrianomeetingtest

The results

I was actually surprised at how consistent the results were: we all identified our favourite as the old Fabriano Artistico Hot Pressed. We also all had problems with the more recent batches. This was exactly what Chiara and Giuseppe wanted: a clear description, illustrated with our painted swatches and notes – which they took away back to the factory- giving them a much better idea of what has changed and what they are aiming for with their modifications. As they described it, their job is now to reverse engineer a paper that will be back to the pre-2014 standards. They gave me the impression that they truly cared about this and that they would work on it until they can give us our old favourite paper back, which I trust they will. A quick tip on the 2016 batch: I tried painting on the back and it gave me much better results than painting on the top. So while we wait for the 2017 batch, this might be a way to alleviate our predicament.

My thanks again to the organisers of this enlightening day, to Clifford for hosting the event, to Chiara and Giuseppe for listening to us and to the other guests for the good company.

Happy painting!

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Art Questions, Drawing, Painting

Which is the best eraser?

I often get questions that start with “This is a stupid question but…” or “This may sound stupid…”

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer. But they don’t! And they really wish they did, so don’t be afraid to ask…

Our second question – asked by Bing Aling on my YouTube channel- is about erasing, an all important part of drawing:

Which is the best rubber to use?

eraser pile
A collective pile of erasers from my holidays in Ardèche

I have several rubbers for different purposes, but the one thing they have in common is that none of them are made of rubber. A rubber rubber can smudge a lot and make the paper irretrievably dirty. A plastic rubber on the other hand, erases smudges well and leaves the paper clean. However, if used too much or too hard, it can damage the paper. This is where the putty comes in. A putty rubber is much softer than a normal one, but doesn’t erase strong marks.

Here is my platoon of erasers:

erasertypes

  • Plastic rubber (PVC and phthalates free): for larger areas and stronger marks. Be gentle with it to avoid damaging the paper
  • Tombow Mono Zero: still a plastic rubber, and still PVC free, this allows for tiny marks, such as lifting highlights or even some veins
  • Putty rubber: a lot softer than the others, this is good for large areas of soft marks, including brushing lightly on top of a painting to erase pencil lines, as demonstrated at the beginning of this video on my Flora’s Patch YouTube channel:

There are several types of putty rubbers, with different degrees of softness. I like the Maped grey, very soft and gentle. It does get messy on a hot summer day so keep the plastic wrapper to avoid melting squidgy mess under the fingernails.

Keep the questions coming; I will answer them, whether directly or with a blog post or video.

Happy painting!

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Art Questions, Painting

Is there a right side to watercolour paper?

Stupid questions are the essential ones; the questions people are worried about asking because they think everyone else knows the answer… But you know what? They don’t! And they really wish they did too…

Our first question- thank you Beth- is about watercolour paper:

Is there a right side and wrong side to paint on?

The answer is… not as such. I like “Not as such” because it means “no” but kind of “yes” but not quite. The reason I am not-as-such-ing you is that both sides are paintable but they are different and the extent of the difference varies between brands.

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saunders spray

Two main criteria will determine the difference between the two sides of a watercolour paper sheet: texture and sizing.

  • Sizing: the size is the glue that is added to the paper to make it stronger and also less absorbent, so that you don’t feel like you are painting on blotting paper. Most papers are sized INTERNALLY, while the pulp is being made, and EXTERNALLY, after the paper roll is made and pressed.
  • Texture: the topside of the paper is called the felt side and the underside the mould side. The mould is made of wire, so its texture is more regular than the felt side. On some papers you can see the wire mesh pattern imprinted into the texture, on the underside.

If we consider the three main manufacturers of watercolour paper – St Cuthberts (Saunders Waterford) for the UK, Arches for France and Fabriano in Italy- their papers are sized internally and then they go through a bath to be sized externally, so both sides are coated equally. This means that as far as sizing is concerned, there is no difference between the two sides.

For the texture, the situation is not quite as straightforward…

Both sides are paintable but they look slightly different: because of the wire, the mould side has a regular mesh texture while the felt side has a random texture. Some artists prefer to paint on the topside and others prefer the underside. As for what the manufacturer intended, it depends on the brand. Saunders Waterford expects the painter to use the felt side but Arches and Fabriano favour the mould side.

cuthmill1To summarise, papers do have a topside and an underside but not really a right side or wrong side to paint on. The best way is the way you like best!

To finish with, this is where I am asking for your help: this series is interactive so please ask away! You can ask questions in the comments section of my YouTube Channel Flora’s Patch, or send me an email, or leave a comment on my blog or a message on my website by going to the contact page. Thank you and happy painting!

My thanks to Catherine Frood from St Cuthberts Mill and Clifford Burt from RK Burt for their help in my research.The photos are from St Cuthberts Mill.

There will be a follow up to this post, with two rather exciting events: in July, I am going to a meeting at RK Burt with the Fabriano envoy, to discuss how their new machines have affected their papers and to do a blind test of different papers. This should be very interesting. Then later this summer, I have been invited to visit St Cuthberts Mill, having a tour of the paper making factory, which I am also very much looking forward to.

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