Whether watercolor papers or those appropriate for other mediums – what should you do with “terrible” ones designated as “practice-only”?

We all make mistakes when buying art supplies. I do that all the time, since I’m always curious if there’s something better out there, same quality but cheaper, or just something that’ll shake things up in the studio. That means I have a lot of stuff around here that doesn’t see the light of day much. What do you do with all that stuff?

Tutorial: What should you use practice papers for?

A few ideas in the video, with more detail written out below!

Watch the video below and scroll to the end to leave comments or questions — or click HERE to watch it on YouTube and leave comments over there. I read both dutifully!

Those awful papers

No paper in and of itself is necessarily awful. No art supply, for that matter. I’ve seen artists make amazing things with crayons and sharpies and cardboard! But lots of art supplies are not quite what we hoped when buying them. There’s a sweet spot for someone somewhere for that item, but maybe not us. So we call it “practice paper.”

But when using papers we don’t like, there’s a few risks:

The paper stays on the shelf or in the drawer. Because who wants to actively go grab a known-to-be-terrible paper when you’ve got limited studio time? That makes zero use of the money spent on the art supplies.

The paper is given to kiddos. While it encourages them in their art (and I do give lots of things to kids!) it doesn’t make use of your investment in the supplies. But if it’s a choice between sitting unused or getting used by a child – give it away!

The paper teaches you bad habits. That’s the biggest risk of all. Better not to use it than learn bad things! Let’s unpack that a bit.


Bad habits you learn 

Depending on how much of the paper you have, you may learn tricks to adapt to it: to change brushstrokes, alter the amount of pigment, the style of drawing or painting. Even when “just” practicing, we want to make something that looks good, and it’ll often take extra steps to get that to work.

But when you shift how you create, you’re embedding those habits in your brain and in your hand. After all, we practice SO that we can train our brain and hand, right? If we spend time practicing alternative techniques, we’re planting those in our subconscious. When we get back to “good” paper again, we’ll need to potentially unlearn those things with the new materials.

So what SHOULD we practice on these papers, or would it be better to give them away?

Practice these on awful papers

Focus on things that aren’t dependent on paper quality.

Color ideas. Juxtapose two or three colors you’ve never used before and see what they look like together. Ignore any “technique” things that might come up (ie if the way they blend is crucial, set that aside in your assessment.)

Pigment. Practice how much pigment to water is in a water media ratio – especially if you struggle with making paint thick enough or thin enough. Getting the “feel” for how loaded your brush should be to get strong color is very valuable even with bad papers. Or practice applying whatever pigments you’re using in whatever medium – with varying quantities of each color. 

Foundations. Use bad papers to work out the basics of shading for an upcoming project, or sketch out ideas for alternate layouts. Try creating your subject in a quick sketch mode in various perspectives. 

Line. Making marks is never a bad thing to practice. Use your brushes, markers, pencils, and pens to practice making thin lines, thick lines, varying lines. Practice creating strokes with a brush pen or marker that trail off to a point rather than end up chunky. Get your hand used to making motions that it needs to learn.   If you’re drawing on a terrible paper, there’s even less pressure to do “well”.  

Design. While doing any of the above, turn it into a “pattern” — then if your practice paper looks decent you can always chop it up to make bookmarks, cards, or gift wrap!


Selling a few sketches

I had 2 requests messaged to me for the paintings to be made available for purchase, so they’re over on my fine art website now – inexpensive, too! Tap on a photo to enlarge or text links below each to shop.


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    I love doing exactly that variety of art…intuitive?? and mostly use mixed media paper for it. very relaxing…and there’s no right nor wromg!!

  2. Pat Vilbaum

    I really hadn’t thought about teaching myself bad habits. I just use the paper I have because I have it. I do have some Canson paper but would like to buy some Arches. I guess it’s time to do that before those bad habits take longer to unlearn.

  3. Karen Zemko

    Great ideas and info on using “bad” papers. Since I don’t do much watercolor, and I have the Canson XL (which I use for “craft” projects) and some Arches, I don’t go looking for more options.

  4. Kathy Andrews

    I agree 100% with what you said about using something you don’t like, especially paper, to ‘practice’ on, because YES, EXACTLY… you’re training yourself to use & work on something you don’t like. When I come across paper I don’t (or won’t) use in my crafting, I typically use it just as you did… scratch or doodling. Thank you so much for your video ‘lesson’.


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