Material Matters: Artist Steve Johnson on using Professional Watercolour Paper

Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson is a British sculptor and painter represented in public collections, including Arts Council England, the Henry Moore Foundation, Leeds, and the Berlinische Gallery Museum of Modern Art, Berlin.

Steve uses watercolour to prepare for his sculptures and recently tried out Winsor & Newton’s new Professional Watercolour Paper range with our Professional Watercolour. He talks us through his experience and experimentation when creating these works of art.

Close ups of rough, cold press, hot press (left to right) photo credit: Steve Johnson
Close ups of rough, cold press, hot press (left to right) photo credit: Steve Johnson

Like most sculptors, the majority of my ‘sculptures’ begin and end in two dimensions. In my case, watercolour on paper. I can visualise an idea in hours, whereas sculptures take months. Sculpting is a messy, noisy business, requiring a studio. Thankfully, watercolour reduces the potential for costly false starts in three dimensions.

One of Steve’s Johnson’s sculptures, photo credit: Steve Johnson
One of Steve Johnson’s sculptures, photo credit: Steve Johnson

But I don’t use watercolour simply as a rehearsal for sculpture. On the contrary, my sculptures would better be described as monuments to watercolour. Some ideas on paper are totally unfeasible and unrealistic as objects; levitation being an example. I like to think of my watercolours not ‘studies’ per se, they are works of art in their own right.

painting of a ship with WN watercolour
Photo credit: Steve Johnson

I use Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour Paper because it provides everything I want from a paper.

Being mould made, 100% cotton, acid free and internally and externally sized, it guarantees exceptional durability and archival quality. The paper doesn’t yellow or become brittle over time due to ultraviolet light. Collectors expect their purchases to last, and they don’t want to hang their watercolour in a dark corner away from natural light.

Being sized with non-animal gelatin, this paper has a near white surface and is brighter than most. This is very important to me because it gives enhanced luminous washes as the paper illuminates from below. The external sizing produces a surface resistant to water. Pigment adheres to the surface and isn’t absorbed by the paper. I find the resulting pigment saturation and colour vibrancy unparalleled.

non animal gelatin reaction
Photo credit: Steve Johnson

In addition, the extensive sizing in combination with the durability of cotton fibre, allows me to wash out unwanted colour. This is a great advantage over lesser papers, because it allows me to correct ‘mistakes’. I’m free to experiment without getting nervous. Sometimes I’ll want to remove pigment virtually back to the white sheet. It’s possible to do with this paper, and a major plus for a medium notoriously difficult to alter once dry. I can paint a light tone over what was a dark tone, something impossible normally.

Winsor & Newton’s Professional Watercolour Paper comes in three textures - cold press, hot press, and rough.

I find cold press suits my work perfectly. It’s a good all rounder with a medium texture. I can draw on it with pencil without the line becoming ragged and can create bright transparent washes. It allows me to apply clean water to painted surfaces to lighten tone by lifting the wet paint with a kitchen towel and also to paint heavy opaque layers and create texture on top by dabbing with a wet sponge, cotton bud or bristle brush.

I really like the tooth of Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolour cold press, because it provides just the right resistance to a brush stroke. This provides greater control on painting fine lines, overlaps and edges.

Very importantly as a sculptor, due to the 300gsm weight of the paper, I can leave areas blank in order to foreground the subject, without causing cockling where some areas are painted and others not. Glued blocks are perfect for this, and unlike some other papers, the four glued edges are transparent, which is aesthetically preferable for mount-floating in picture frames.

Hot press, being the smoothest, is best for even soft washes and very precise pencil and ink work.

hot press technique
Watercolour and pencil in combination – golden curtains and air vent. Photo credit: Steve Johnson

Rough, being the deepest texture is good for heavy washes and robust gestures. Its striated surface creates wonderfully unpredictable textures when dragging a loaded brush across its ridges without touching the hollows.