Recently, I decided to experiment with an alternative painting surface. I love watercolor paper and I'm pretty loyal to Arches cold press paper (300 - 356 gsm) which I use for 90% of my work - but every now and then I like to play with what's on the market and see how it might inform my work further down the road.
I'd seen a few artists online touting Ampersand's Aquabord as a stand in for traditional papers so I thought I'd give it a try. On their website, Ampersand claims that Aquabord is an acid-free, archival panel that "simulates the absorbency and texture of cold pressed but allows color to be lifted back to white easily." On first inspection, I found Aquabord to be very similar to Ampersand's flagship product, Claybord, but with slightly less texture. Directions online instruct you to lightly wash the surface with a thin coat of water before you begin painting - to prime it much like you would traditional watercolor papers. What it doesn't tell you is that pencil lines will score the surface easily so a light hand is recommended if you don't want to see your drawing through the paint.
Once I started painting I immediately felt the difference in give. Traditional watercolor papers have a tensility that comes from the expansion and contraction of the soft cotton fibers that make it up. It breaths and moves with the application of pressure and moisture. By comparison, Aquabord feels hard, resistant to touch. It doesn't feel organic like paper (with obvious good reason). Another noticeable difference is how the bristles of the brush slide on top of the board rather than grabbing onto the surface like they do with paper.
But I knew working on the Aquabord wasn't going to be exactly like working on paper so I adapted.
As promised, the Aquabord surface does absorb moisture and color well - sometimes a little too well. And yes, you can lift color back to white, especially if you lay your washes down thickly rather than thinly. This is great if you want to clean up edges but can get you into trouble if you aren't aware of how much water is on your brush when you work into darker areas.
In real life, the painting above is 4 x 4 inches but I've blown it up here to give you an impression of the texture. Even though that surface is slightly pebbled (and became more so the more I worked on it) the sensation of working on it is more akin to hot press paper than cold press. Once you're done working on it, Ampersand recommends sealing it with Krylon Archival UV Varnishes to protect against "fading, dirt, moisture and discoloration." I found that doing this in several thin layers did not change the contrast or color of the painting at all.
I have to admit that my opinion is still undecided on Aquabord. I see the benefits to using a surface that doesn't require framing (huge cost saver!), doesn't warp with changes in humidity and is ready to hang in minutes... but with limited sizes and a surface that acts more like... well, you're painting a fresco rather than a watercolor, I can see where the medium has it's limitations. Depending on what type of watercolorist you are, the Aquabord surface can be a heaven send or frustrating as all hell. For my personal use I need a surface that can be a bit more malleable but I do plan on working with Aquabord more in the coming months, testing it out and seeing how far I can push it.
If all else fails, I've always got Arches.