Thursday, March 17, 2016

Fabriano, R K Burt and St Cuthberts Mill - and fine art watercolour paper for precision painting

The HP surfaces of Fabriano Artistico and Fabriano 5 have changed. (The latter being the paper which is used in the RKB FatPad) .

A number of botanical watercolour artists have recently reported that they have noticed changes to the robustness and performance of the surface of their Hot Press paper from Fabriano. This was also reported by Jacksons in its recent blog post Fabriano 5 Paper Texture Change.

The explanation seems to be mechanical. Fabriano Paper Mills have won a contract to produce a new paper. This means they've changed the settings on the machine which produces the new paper AND the fine art watercolour papers

While such a change in machine settings is very unlikely to be noticed by those using Rough or Not surfaces - this is not the case for those using Hot Press paper. When you are an artist who's looking for the smoothest watercolour paper known to Botanical Artists, there's more than a few who can easily detect any difference in quality very quickly!

However I am beginning to wonder if it is solely the change in the machine setting that is behind the problems being experienced....

About Fabriano Watercolour Paper 

Below are some examples of comments that botanical artists have been making. I'm not going to identify the artists other than to say these are people:
  • who care hugely about the HP surfaces they use as it makes a massive difference to the very precise paintings they produce
  • who are very experienced watercolour painters, who have been painting in the exact same way for some time. When using their own particular techniques they spot very quickly when a paper has changed.
  • who do not make things up!  
  • who return paper or stop buying it when it does not perform as per usual!

About the Artistico

The paper is mould made with 100% cotton, chlorine and acid free and archival. It is sized both internally and externally. It comes in two colours Traditional White (an ivory shade) and Extra White (white with a very pale cream tint) which are both made without any optical bleaching. It has two deckle edges and is watermarked “FABRIANO+ARTISTICO” on the short side.

It's available as both sheets (56 x 76cm and 75 x 105cm)  and and as glued blocks.

My pad of Fabriano Artistico HP Extra White 140lb
Recent comments from artists have included:
I always use both the light (140lb) and heavy (300lb) and have had the same problem, in fact I have returned some of the heavy to the importer. I found an old batch and it was beautifully smooth but the latest purchase is fluffy and although I can work it ok it is not as nice and damages easily. I think they have made a huge dodgy batch and sent it out so I will be checking it thoroughly from now on. (December 2015 - user of both weights of Artistico)
I'm having terrible trouble with the 'new' Fabriano paper and looking for an alternative heavy weight paper that's as smooth as the old stuff. (March 2016 - user of 300lb / 640gsm2 paper)

About the Fabiano 5 (also used in the RKB FatPad)

RKB FatPad - Fabriano Classico 5
The paper is mould made, acid free and comprises 50% cotton and 50% other raw material.
I have always used Fabriano fat pad 140 lb and recently I have found that if I have to wash anything out I have to be so careful as the surface of the paper just breaks up .... I actually had to abandon 1 painting when just taking highlights out of leaves. It looked as though I'd been scrubbing at it for hours. It never used to be like that. (December 2015)
I've found" BITS "coming off the surface &! Only using the first layer of paint & not very wet either (February 2016)

About the complaints

Adverse comments and complaints are tending to come from those who have bought in new stock in the last few months. Obviously those artists who are still working off 'old stock' or buying from suppliers still holding 'old stock' will not yet have noticed a difference.

What the artists appear to be consistently complaining about is the surface breaking up and becoming fluffy - which is inimical with the carefully judged lifting out and sharp edges used by expert watercolour painters. Others have commented on a strange texture which they can feel with their fingers

When they say the surface is not smooth, their comments suggest that it does not remain consistently smooth or stable when WET and used for watercolour painting.

In other words in any quality assessment of the smoothness and stability of a surface for watercolour painters this MUST be tested when wet as well as when dry - and with paint being used on the surface.

From a non-expert perspective, to me the comments suggests that, rather than a machine setting change, it may be an issue related to

I'm unclear whether any of these have also changed. I'm making this suggestion because it's always seemed to me that the differences between watercolour papers in terms of absorbency and how the surface breaks up are almost always down to the size and the materials used to make the paper. The smoothness is a mechanical process which is down to a combination of the machine used and any coating.

I've had a long email conversation with a representative of Fabriano in which I asked them for an official comment on the changes which artists are noticing but the company have declined to provide one. I recognise however that they have a commitment to quality and to understanding better why artists are noticing performance issues not detected in the factory.

Wholesale paper supply - and the role of R K Burt

Many of you will not be aware of R K Burt. That's because they don't sell paper direct to you.

R K Burt are the wholesale distributors of very many quality art papers to the retail suppliers of fine art paper in the UK. These are the people who negotiate with the paper manufacturers and then supply the retailers that you buy from. They don't have a shopfront and they also work on the basis of minimum order requirements.

Interestingly R K Burt were the people who persuaded Fabriano to reintroduce the Fabriano Classico 5 paper after it was discontinued some years back. This is a paper much loved in the UK - maybe because of its use in the RKB FatPad.

R K Burt also acts as a spokesman for quality control! Their representative has recently been doing a stirling job highlighting the issues raised by artists about the quality of surface of Fabriano paper direct with the manufacturers - with a view to getting them resolved.

After discussions with Fabriano and no resolution of the issue to date, R K Burt was keen to keep artists supplied with the paper they want, which is one of the reasons why we have....

Two new papers from St. Cuthberts Mill

St. Cuthberts Mill (who produce Saunders Waterford and Bockingford) have also recently changed their machine technology

They've also come up with two new papers.

Subject to testing of sample sheets by the exacting standards of botanical artists - and any subsequent refinement required - it may well be that these are the papers that can meet the requirements for a paper which will deliver what is required in terms of surface performance.

So the new two new papers are:
  • Saunders Waterford NEW Improved Hot Press - 
    • This is HP | "High White" | 300 gsm2 / 140 lbs. It's 100% cotton, mould made, gelatine surface sized, acid free and archival. (I assume a 300lb / 640 gsm2 paper will also be available in due course). The "High White" sample I have is also the exact same colour as Fabriano Artistico Extra White. 
    • They are also producing a version called "White"
    • My understanding is that the revised paper involves a change of size such that the paint does not sink into the paper as happened with the previous soft sized paper. (Soft size is great if you need to merge and blur and useless if you need a very sharp edge!)
  • Botanical Ultra Smooth is 50% cotton and is (I think) a smoother version of Fabriano 5. 
Interestingly although it doesn't show it in this scan, the Botanical Ultra Smooth is actually whiter and smoother than the new SW HP paper.

If you want to try the new papers you just need to contact R K Burt.
  • Phone: +44 (0)20 7407 6474
  • Email:
I understand RK Burt is also making samples available at the Annual Exhibition of the Society of Botanical Artists in April - so if you want to wait until then...

Feedback is essential

It's absolutely ESSENTIAL for those producing fine art paper that they understand the artists' experience - and factors in use (i.e. when wet - and when paint is being pushed around) that can't always be measured by a machine in a factory on dry paper.  

The important thing now is for all artists using EITHER Fabriano OR the new two new papers from St Cuthberts Mill to feed back about their experience of using the paper to R K Burt and/or either of the two manufacturers.

A number of artists have already been provided with samples of the new papers and are already feeding back on what the paper is like to use to the suppliers.  (I've already given feedback about the use of the SW HP paper with pen and ink and coloured pencils)

Comments are best supplied stating:
  • paper used - and weight
  • a description of the type of use eg wet on wet; dry brush etc.
  • copy of the resulting image describing/demonstrating good and bad aspects e.g. any problem experienced
Do you have any comments?

I'm convinced that any problems faced at present will be resolved in due course. Hopefully sooner rather than later!
Which manufacturer stands to benefit will, of course, depend on who produces the quality of paper that the majority of botanical artists - and others doing fine detailed work - demand.