Works on paper


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Marsha Chatman wrote, “I’d like to know what value or prestige is given to works done on paper compared to oil on canvas. Here in Italy, art on paper seems to be a second-class citizen and considered mainly preparatory. What about the accuracy, confidence, freshness and delicacy that paper requires? Do you think it’s because people are simply unable to do quality works on paper?”

Thanks, Marsha. Anyone who has accepted the challenge of watercolour knows how tough it is to get that fresh, unlaboured look that the medium asks. I’ve watched perfectly sane folks with high intentions become emotionally unhinged, throwing ripped Whatman into the dumpster.

While artistically sensitive folks may treasure paper art because of its difficulty and sensitivity, the general public often doesn’t. Fluctuating with the times, public devaluation has come about for several reasons. With all the technology around these days, paper art doesn’t always look handmade. Recently, the flooding of the market with inexpensive photo-lithos, photocopies and giclees has cast a negative light on all things paper. The downward pull has been felt by all. Even the repro-makers have fought the trend by printing on canvas. Then there’s the business of getting the artist or others to put a few juicy strokes here and there to make a print more like an “original.” When mild deceit enters, mild distrust arises.

The perceived prestige of oil on canvas is based on a rich tradition. It was good enough for Rubens, Rembrandt and Renoir. Funnily, acrylic, even though those guys never heard the word, currently gets away with similar glory. Probably a better binder, acrylic’s only problem is it’s not oil. Everyone knows oil is expensive. An oil well in the back yard is almost as good as a Rembrandt at auction.

We need no snobbery or pecking order by media. We of the brotherhood and sisterhood need to go out of our way to praise and feature all works done with joy, integrity and quality, no matter what the support or medium. We need to educate and inform by showing enthusiasm for all art that is simply better. The three artists mentioned above used paper for preparation, mastered paper techniques, and saw paper’s value and beauty. Their drawings and sketches hold thrills of their own. Let’s go for the democratization of quality.

Best regards,


PS: “Their houses are new, but their prejudices are old.” (Alexander Griboyedov, 1795-1829)

Esoterica: In our daily quest for joy, we ought not lose our respect for craft. When art comes too easily, it loses its art. “Watercolour painting is notoriously difficult,” said Walter J. Phillips, “so much depends on directness and speed, and certainty of intention. Tentative or fumbling touches are disastrous, for they cannot be obliterated easily.”


Canvas taken more seriously?
by Nicoll Heaslip, Melbourne, Australia

As a lettering artist almost all of my work is on paper. Just yesterday I decided to buy a canvas to have a go at lettering onto it, and found that the cost of a sheet of the quality paper I normally use is twice as expensive as the canvas I bought. Also, I won’t have such heavy framing expenses. Perhaps being on canvas my work will be taken more seriously — however I doubt very much that I will be able to obtain the crispness and detail that good paper affords.


Downgrading watercolour
by Adriana Buggino, Italy


watercolour painting on paper
by Adriana Buggino

Here in Italy, not only there is no prestige given to art on paper, but they hardly accept Watercolour paintings as art. Watercolour is only “Graphics.” That is only to colour a drawing, this is the common opinion. People are completely stupid about watercolour art. If there is an art contest, there are a lot (and high) prizes for oil paintings, for watercolour only a few and small prizes! So is watercolour painting considered ART?? Or what is it in our days? I think it is art, perhaps it is more art than acrylics or oil, because the opportunity to correct errors is very limited as the colours are transparent. It is art, because the water does its work (if you let it), the colour does its work being moved by the water, the PAPER does its work together with pigment and water. The sun, wind and temperature influences water-pigment-paper!! Everything flows, painting with watercolors!


Art behind glass
by Katherine Tyrrell, UK, UK


“A walk in the park”
coloured pencil, 16 x 12 inches
by Katherine Tyrrell, UK

Glass might be responsible for keeping the status of works on paper lower than that of unglazed work in oils or acrylic. Glazing seems to be seen by many galleries as ‘getting in the way’ of the artwork and its viewer. I know you can get glass which doesn’t reflect but this seems to be frowned on for a reason I don’t quite understand. A friend of mine, Nicole Caulfield, switched from using her chosen medium of coloured pencils on an abrasive paper to using it on Ampersand Pastelbord so she could varnish and frame without glazing. Her style is unchanged but her work became much more popular in galleries — and it seems to me that her decision to take glass out of the equation is at least partly responsible for her success with sales.


Students surprised at the revelation
by Cheryl Lobenberg, Sacramento, CA, USA


watercolour painting
by Cheryl Lobenberg

I have been a watercolor artist for over 35 years. Within the past six years, I have done almost all my gallery and commission work in acrylic. It simply commands more money. I greatly enjoy and am perpetually challenged by both mediums, but, sad to say, watercolor stays nearer the bottom of the prestige ladder. I have been an adjunct art professor for eight years and have the pleasure of teaching acrylic, oil, and water color classes. Students are challenged with all three mediums, but the higher frustration levels come in my watercolor classes. After getting well into a semester, I explain to my students that water color art does not get nearly the same respect as oil or acrylic, and most are surprised with this revelation! But such is life. I’m a full time working artist, so I follow the money. Water color is relegated to class room and workshop projects.


Alternate supports for pastels
by Nina Whidden, Victor, NY, USA


pastel painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Nina Whidden

There are some gorgeous papers out there; hand-made, archival, acid-free, and an amazing array of colors. However, that is generally devalued to a collector as you already stated. Even my pastels, which I love using a sanded paper like LaCarte or UArt for, I find when I am making something with the intent to sell it, I often use Pastelbord and even canvas! Believe it or not, canvas is a lovely surface for pastels. Sense clear-primed linen canvas has a gritty texture so nothing more needs to be done with it. You can just start painting/drawing with your pastels with no additional prep. Other canvases simply need to have a pastel primer like Colourfix pastel primer as a final priming layer. You can also mix some fine pumice into your gesso. If you decide to hand-mix in pumice, ensure that the pumice is evenly disbursed throughout the gesso. You don’t want any clumps or areas with no pumice at all. Some pastel artists don’t realize there are other options.


Oil on paper
by Cyril Satorsky


oil on paper
by Cyril Satorsky

I’ve done oil on paper for a number of years and find it highly satisfactory. I use Fabriano Artistico 400lb hot pressed, it’s already double sized and has a nice tooth and is deckle edged. At that weight the paper is nicely rigid and doesn’t need stretching. I give it a coating of acrylic gesso on both sides and it’s ready to paint on. Because the paper is so rigid and firm it doesn’t cockle when you apply the gesso which dries before it can soak the paper. I then tape or pin it to a board and am ready to work. One of its joys is you can put thirty 20×30 paintings in a portfolio enough for a show; a great space-saver in the studio. My canvases take up a lot of storage space.


Quality of work is the ultimate value
by Donald Cadoret, Tiverton, RI, USA


“Optical Museum”
original artwork
by Donald Cadoret

Although history does confirm that sometimes there is a pecking order among media and supports, the opposite is also true. Consider Romare Bearden’s amazing collages, Joseph Cornell’s incredible shadow boxes and the intricate watercolors and drawings of 19th century landscape artist William Trost Richards. In the supposed pecking order of values, I guess we should consider their works of lesser value, compared to oil paintings done at the same time. But, if you really look at fine examples from these artists, you will see that their “lesser works” are truly masterpieces and considered as such by collectors and experts in the field. As a result, their lesser works are extremely valuable. What does this teach us? It’s not the medium that makes it more valuable, it’s the quality or the work, ultimately its execution. Working to this end and exhibiting at this level will always pay off for living artists.


So what’s the problem?
by Suzanne Kelley Clark


“Last Light, November Afternoon”
oil on paper, 21 x 29.5 inches
by Suzanne Kelley Clark

I have been painting in oil on paper since 1984. I remember first thinking that it was a super alternative to making studies on expensive canvases. Later, after beginning to be completely won over by its beautiful surface, I used it exclusively. I used heavy weight watercolor papers with a deckled edge, gessoed and worked on the imperial size. They looked spontaneous and very handmade drop-hinged in a frame with spacers or a deep mat. Not many people have questioned what the image is painted on… I think a good rag paper well cared for is just as good as cotton canvas without the advantage of glazing material for protection. Anyway I agree that what we need to look for is quality. The works of Constable on paper are stunning as are Corot’s paper paintings from his trips to Italy. They still exist… so what is the problem?


Medium of the masters
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA


“Mayfield Park Autumn”
watercolour painting
by Theresa Bayer

My watercolor teacher from college, the late Michael Frary, called watercolor “the medium of the masters.” Yes, it is a very difficult medium. You have to paint backwards, i.e., leave out the whites (or mask them), paint a detail here while a generalized area of wash is drying over there. This requires very precise drawing skills. You must also be able to accurately judge the relative wetness/dryness of the paper in order to glaze over a wash in a precise manner, depending on whether you want softness or crispness of an edge. In addition, the relative translucency or opacity of the pigments comes into very prominent play. Frary taught us to work on more than one painting at a time. This allows the artist to keep working while a painting dries just the right amount, also helps prevent overpainting and losing the freshness.


Owner’s manual for art sold
by Colin Bell, Calgary, AB, Canada

As a dual-medium painter (oils and watercolours) I regret the present public disdain for watercolour. Consider the delightful work of John Singer Sargent and Winslow Homer. They have a character that cannot be matched in other media. Lately, some painters have resorted to painting watercolours on canvas, or to applying acrylic varnish to the work rather than placing the finished product under glass. Although both these derivations produce interesting work, to my mind they do not maintain the fresh spontaneity of watercolour on paper. Of course, painters in oils and acrylics can sell work more readily, and are unlikely to disabuse the public as to the fragility and drawbacks affecting the longevity of their products. I possess an old Dutch oil (circa 1910) that has extensive craquelure, and have seen many other oils of even newer provenance that have significantly deteriorated canvas, requiring very expensive restoration. I believe the longevity of a painting will depend not only on the medium and backing but on the care given it by its owners. Painters should sell each painting with a concise owner’s manual, as a guide to owners wanting to display their art in their indoor swimming pool, sun room or other similarly difficult environments.


Work in coloured pencils
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA


“Getting Ready”
coloured pencil on paper
43 x 23 inches
by Rose Moon

For years I had a love affair with paper, mainly Strathmore 500 series. Watercolor was not my media of choice. It was graphite and Prismacolor colored pencils. I became active in the local and national Colored Pencil Society, entered many shows and my paintings traveled across the country. But when I approached galleries they said, “We love this can you do it in Oils.” It was the first time I’d thought of the term “Works on Paper” since college days. I’d forgotten. I tried oils, but oils are oils, pencils are pencils. I love both, but I shine on paper. Things became more complicated when it became impossible to ship glass and plexi broke the bank. Funny all the silly labels we put on things. Fortunately there were people who wanted to learn how to draw, but the local community college and art center ran low on funds so that opportunity died. But you know what? I feel freed from it all. I’m just doing what I love everyday which is creating art and I don’t worry about it. Everything seems to just work out. Freedom is what it is all about and you don’t have freedom if you try to please those who make the rules.


Water-based media on other supports
by Rita Goldner, Scottsdale, AZ, USA

I’ve used watercolor (or gouache) for on-location painting outdoors. I do a lot of “tentative and fumbling touches” as described by your quote of Walter J Phillips, and sometimes get sand, dirt and bird droppings (everyone’s a critic) on my paintings. So I’m trying to avoid the “disasters that cannot be obliterated easily” by using textured Clay board, Pastel board, canvas board, stretched canvas or Luan (Mahogany) panels. The last three need a preparation coat or two of absorbent ground over the gesso. I think you can still get the fresh transparent look without the fragility of paper. When finished, I spray with Krylon to avoid having to frame with glass. The only problem is that purist watercolor associations won’t let you enter their contests or shows. The puzzling thing is that sometimes the watercolor associations will let you enter an acrylic or casein, as long as it’s on paper (not on one of the above-mentioned supports). Why is the support more important to them than the medium?


Supremacy of watercolour
by Peter Marsh, Toronto, ON, Canada


waterolour painting, 15 x 11 inches
by Marianne Hunt, member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour

For any number of reasons, it is likely that the recent impatience with watercolor as a significant medium will die a thousand deaths that it has died in the past. With rising and falling interest, watercolour, and its close cousin tempera, has been used for thousands of years and certainly much longer than oil and acrylic. Although bas-relief carvings, mosaics, stained-glass work, metal enameling, egg tempera and casein, gouache, oil painting, acrylic painting, and any number of modern media, have made their honest attempts at rendering the story of existence, none have ever replaced the use of watercolor.

Although evidence is scarce from the 50,000 years or more of our native people’s existence, use of watercolour over the last 500 years of Canadian history is a matter of record. It is likely that the first European style paintings done here were rendered in watercolour, from the topographical paintings of early military exploration, to the dabblings of early pioneers.

Our more recent history introduces famous names of those who used this medium extensively. There is no reason to believe over the similar times of colonial expansion in the rest of the world that this story was not repeated.

In comparison it is easy to understand why patrons flock to the brilliance of oil and acrylic paintings. They provide an intense colour experience in otherwise subdued and naturally coloured surroundings. They are also often rendered large, a not so easy thing to do or frame in watercolour. They provide a concentration of pigment unavailable in watercolour, and by this alone make themselves less fragile than the mere milli-microns delivered in a watercolor wash.

But all of this is not to write off the supremacy of watercolour. All media have their standing, and watercolor cannot be diminished in this regard. It is true that it is a very difficult medium in terms of reaching a confident expression. It also has its own eloquence in its more subtle colours and often intimate brushstrokes. It is classic in its simplicity of water, pigment, and artist, being the only ingredients in the recipe.

In Canada, works on paper are championed by the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. Popular or not in contemporary circles, we continue to exhibit the most outstanding expressions of our artists in an annual exhibition that is second to none. Despite the fact that here, and perhaps elsewhere, the medium has been ignored by official circles, both in its promotion and exhibition, individual artists, following the stand of many movements that preceded them, continue to pursue their ideas and their painting expression against all odds. They will themselves, along with their medium, be vindicated in the end by those who look back and see what great work was accomplished.

(RG note) Thanks, Peter. Peter Marsh is the Vice President of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. The American Watercolour Society offers one of the most prestigious and highest consistent quality venues for the world’s top watercolorists.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Works on paper



From: JodyRay — Apr 04, 2008

Art is in the eye of the beholder, etc., etc.. I started with a pencil and crayons when three years old, moved on to pastels then oils. Loved all of them. Then I got serious and decided watercolors was the one. Why? Allergic to pastels and oils. But I love to be able to draw something and paint it without so much time on prep. As for less (a lot less) money for sales as compared to oils, I made my choice. And I love it! I also thank those before our time that used wc to sketch for that special nuance for the beautiful oils we so enjoy today. Makes me feel proud to be one of us from to 20th century to use my wc for the finished work of art.

By the by, I was three years old 62 years ago.

From: Dewain Boyce — Apr 04, 2008

To the above. First, you make one of the templates from the GRID page. Second, you apply it, as suggested, to the appropriate print in the appropriate book. Then you tell me what you think.

From: Vicki Carol — Apr 07, 2008

I was asked yesterday what is the difference between a real lithograph and a photo-litho, and I wasn’t sure I could give the correct answer. Would you please enlighten me?

From: Karen Jacobs — Apr 07, 2008

Technology may have ‘enhanced’ the notion but the prejudice was there well before giclees or the like. I was well on the way to a career as a watercolorist when I realized that the lack of respect for the medium (despite the myriad of ‘societies’ devoted to it) meant I needed to change mediums. After a full career on canvas, I look forward to winding down with watercolor again… but not just yet.

From: Moncy Barbour — Apr 07, 2008

I use high quality watercolor paper but I paint with acrylics on this support. I use to be a bit prejudice against paper in comparison to canvas but not any longer. I also was the same way with acrylics years ago but I learned better. The only sort of paper that I do not recommend to do your best work on is newsprint. it is not very durable and can not stand the test of time, so if one uses it just do so for practice.

From: Orythia Johnston — Apr 07, 2008

Watercolour is actually very challenging and when executed at a level of personal experience and inspiration (not copied) can be quite amazingly beautiful and meaningful. And as you said, as artists we are something like a brotherhood who must learn together and stick together.

From: Jacobina Trump — Apr 07, 2008

In this society of throw-away objects I find it suitable to make art on paper. Just because it is not expensive it adds a purity to the art. It is not about the monetary value but for the pure expression of the craft. I work with oil on Belgium linen but also on paper prepared with gesso. The quality of the latter sometimes exceeds the first just because it is more spontaneous. I also teach my students to work with oil on paper in a model drawing class. The 2-minute poses I use as a warm up are wiped away with a cloth until we get to the longer poses. When there are very good results we keep the fast sketches. It’s almost like etch-and-sketch and we are not wasting any paper. Is the value always and only monetary?

From: Denise Bezanson — Apr 07, 2008

The one thing about watercolours is that when they are framed, they are separated from the viewer by glass, with a canvas painting the viewer can look and see the brush strokes, texture and even touch one’s painting if so inclined. The glass separates the viewer from the material. It’s a barrier. I think it is less satisfying visually to look at watercolours through glass, and yet they have to be protected.

From: Laura Orchard — Apr 07, 2008

The statement that works on paper are worth less than paintings stems from a serious level of artistic ignorance (meaning it didn’t originate from an artist). This notion feeds the same demeaning perception society has about artists in general (just look at the tax laws to see how highly valued fine artists are in the US). These perceptions will never disappear into mythology as long artists keep believing them, repeating them and letting them sway their authentic approach. Just as you wouldn’t expect a dealer of African masks to properly assess and promote hyper realism, if your dealer doesn’t value works on paper, find a dealer who does.

From: John Ferrie — Apr 07, 2008

As a painter I have learned a great deal about the quality of work. I have never painted with water colour and I am not about to start. Works on paper are fine, to a point. But if you are showing them,they have to be framed. When paper starts to curl up or gets the slightest fold or crease it is almost un-sellable. Nothing sells like canvas.

From: Doug Mays — Apr 08, 2008

It is interesting to note that in his day John Singer Sargent was known for his portraits in oil and now a century later he is remembered and revered for his watercolours. I think that says a lot about watercolour.

From: Gaye Adams — Apr 08, 2008

Judging from the responses, there are far more watercolorists out there than pastellists. A gallery I was involved with (they had sought me out) had all the artists in their gallery who did works under glass leave the gallery, just because of the market trend; they could more easily sell works on canvas. Such a shame. This was about five years ago, and they said goodbye to some really good painters. Pretty frustrating for those of us that love our watercolors and pastels. People working in pencil who do exquisite stuff have also suffered the same “devaluation” by the general public. It would be great if the commercial galleries could help educate the public rather than just going where the money is. I understand their concerns, but I think it is a pity.

From: Susan G. Holtzman — Apr 08, 2008

There is an immediacy to watercolor that fulfills my “in the moment” creative spirit. One may only look at the works of Lawrence C. Goldsmith to see what the medium can do – and do it quickly. Amount of time to paint has little or nothing to do with value.

From: Ron — Apr 08, 2008

A few weeks ago,while reading comments here, Someone mentioned they were reading “Free Play”. I just finished it, great read..Thanks to whomever it was..

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Apr 09, 2008

I am not sure that glass over works on paper is the primary problem. Art museums display works on paper alongside works on canvas, and many offer entire exhibitions around them, demonstating that art on paper is valued. I think that the tendency in galleries to include framed reproductions, including giglees has blurred the line between original art and reproduction. Galleries could promote and celebrate original works on paper, increasing the value in the eyes of their customers/clients, but they rarely do. I enjoy oil paintings, and recently began using them again myself. But I am passionate about paper, and the amazing range available to the artist. I have even found, as some of your other correspondents have, that I prefer to paint oils on paper, more sensual than canvas. Now I am looking forward to seeing your next letter– on painting on wood panels!

From: Sue Ellen — Apr 09, 2008

My experience with galleries is that hard working dealers dedicated to promoting value art have no issues with selling works on paper and under glass. Lazy or “quick buck” dealers spread the story about those being not saleable, lower in value, similar to reproductions, and thus hurt the works on paper market.

From: Robert Whistler — Apr 09, 2008

I also paint on wood panels. One coat of amber shellac on both sides and edges and you’re ready to go. Let dry for 24 hours.

From: Chris Hoskin — May 06, 2008

As someone who is only really involved with amateur art circles, I find it rather (politely) amusing that watercolour is considered to be the underdog. In all the local shows I go to, watercolour is about the only thing you actually see hanging on the walls! Oils are very scarce, although acrylics on canvas are more in evidence. Pastels are equally under-represented. Usually only watercolours sell in these shows, nothing else really gets a look-in (mainly because there isn’t anything else!). I don’t do watercolour, so it doesn’t particularly bother me what all the experts think, but the notion of glass “separating” the viewer from the picture like a barrier is something I have never heard of or considered.

Cheap canvas paintings are also produced and exported/imported by the bucket-load all round the world, so I don’t see how canvas works fare any better in the current climate.

I wonder though, how people get these pre-conceived ideas about art? That it’s “insignificant” if on paper and only “valuable” if it’s on canvas? I guess it’s all been ingrained into the psyche over many, many years….and if so, it’ll be a devil of a job to change it.

From: Rick Rotante — Dec 15, 2008

This is a problem partly of our own making. Galleries will hedge their bets and only handle what will sell with the least amount of fuss or muss. Works under glass are troublesome, the operative word here being “glass”. We as artist contributed to this by offering prints giclees’ and other “cheap” knockoffs of our work for the sake of sales. This has given the impression that any work on paper is cheaper when in fact…it is. These copies ARE cheaper than an original work either on paper or canvas. When we accomplish the same thing with technology on canvas we will in effect cause the demise and cheapening of oil paintings also. The public at large is not well versed on the qualities of pastel paper or watercolor papers or the fact that they can last forever. They only see the word paper and who wants to pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars for paper. I understand the need to make money by making copies but we also have to take responsibility for the end results.

From: Gail Eads — Aug 12, 2009

I enjoyed this site very much, thank you.






Venice Morning

oil painting on canvas, 30 x 36 inches
by Valeriy Shmatko, Kharikiv, Ukraine


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Emily Painton of Austin, TX, USA who wrote, “One of my favorite artists is Toulouse-Lautrec. I wrote my thesis over his images of prostitutes, and many of those images are quick oil paint or pastel on cardboard.”

And also Dorothy Barta of Dallas, TX, USA who wrote, “I work in watercolor, oil and pastel, mostly portraits. When I work in watercolor I may do three or four studies before I get a final painting. With oil and pastel I finish only one. My price is the same for all media.”

And also Kerim Kahyagil of Istanbul, Turkey who wrote, “I think this has something to do with the way watercolor is presented. That piece of glass (normal or reflecting) between the brush strokes and viewer gives the impression of a reproduction. I wish we could get rid of it.”

And also Cristina Monier of Buenos Aires, Argentina who wrote, “A serious collector knows that the life of art on paper is limited and restoring a torn paper is difficult and expensive, sometimes impossible, whereas a painting on canvas can be restored once and once again and, if it is well cared for, will last for centuries.”

And also Carol Morrison of Halifax, NS, Canada who wrote, “In Nova Scotia the printmakers association has made up a list of different types of prints for gallery owners, ranking them from photocopies at the bottom to original hand-pulled prints at the top. The thinking is that the buyer should be educated, so they clearly understand what they’re buying.”

And also Kelli Maier of Westerville, OH, USA who wrote, “Maybe I am naive but I don’t bother with concerns like these. I create to create and if someone doesn’t want to buy it… someone else will.”




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