Watermarks. Five Steps to Owning Your Paper and Art

handwriting on lined paper with nib pen

I love paper.

I love the smell of it.

The tangy scent wafting from a newly opened ream of paper. The smell of a used-bookstore crammed with musty old tomes.

photo of old library

I love the feel of it.

The variety of textures and colors.

And what eclipses an elegant watermark?  Not that I see them much these days.  Most paper used to have watermarks (like really long ago, in the previous century), but over time they have disappeared from everyday life.

I’ve been picking up different pieces of paper I have around here and holding them up to the light, and not a one has a watermark.  Now I’m curious.  What is the story about watermarks?


What is a Watermark?

First of all, if you’ve never seen a watermark on a piece of paper, it’s very important that you go to a stationer’s and check out a sample.  Run your fingers over the surface.  Do you feel something?  Hold it up to the light.  Do you see something like this?

Isn’t that an elegant feature on a piece of paper?  Now, imagine a paper with your logo, your company name, or your special identification symbol.

The pictured sample is an affordable watermarked paper I have used when I needed fine paper for a memorial folder, for example.  It’s also advertised as resume paper; it’s a paper dressed to impress.

Another special quality of this paper?  It comes packaged in a really satisfying way.  It’s not just slap-wrapped with some stenciled paper like a ream from a Big Box Store.  You get to break a seal, then lift the lid of the box to extract your paper.  A Real Box you can close and safely store the remaining papers you will use sparingly.  These beautiful papers won’t be anywhere near your grocery list.


Why Does Paper Need a Watermark?

Today, watermarks mostly signal prestige and the satisfaction of a quality paper that is exclusively one’s own.  Some professions, however, like lawyers and bankers and presidents, use watermarks for security.  A true watermark is proof of where and when the document was issued.  Watermarks are indelible, as they are impressed into the wet pulp when the paper is manufactured.

Neenahpaper.com  says this:

A Private Watermark provides both security and authenticity.

  • It cannot be removed, altered or duplicated.
  • It is a permanent part of the paper.
  • It is an extension of your corporate image.
  • It conveys confidence.


How Is a Watermark Made?

Ever heard of a dandy roll?  I know, I hadn’t either.  Sounds like a yummy dinner roll.

Way back in 1826 a man named John Marshall was the Henry Ford of watermark producers.  His dandy roll consisted of a light roller covered by a sort of window screening that was embossed with a pattern.  I won’t go into details about laid wires and chain wires (if you really need to know about that, Wikipedia explains it quite well).  Just know that chain wires made more of an impression on the wet paper pulp fibers as the paper was being made than the laid wires, causing thinner paper where the chain wire pattern squeezed down.  More light transmits through the thinner paper where the pattern is, giving this type of paper the term laid paper.  Pretty dandy, I think.

This is what the machine looks like, and its main idea hasn’t changed through the centuries.  The source for this diagram is Neenah Paper.com.


Where Should You Place a Watermark?

Apparently choosing the placement of a watermark is totally random.  It’s whatever you want.  NeenahPaper.com offers seven ways.

  1. The watermark, or just part of one, appears anywhere.
  2. You choose the spot and the mark will never vary more than .5″ from that spot.
  3. Localized Center. Exactly centered top to bottom, left to right.
  4. You choose the spot, anywhere vertically, but centered horizontally.
  5. Two or more watermarks parading down the paper, horizontally or vertically, localized or random.
  6. Produced like paraded watermarks, but usually diagonally, either localized or random.
  7. Get watermark happy and just fill the paper with your special design.


Now all I have to do is design a mark, and I can choose from this list of placements.  But to be really elite, is one or another of these placements better?  I’ll leave you to research that.


Where Else are Watermarks Used?

Artists and authors worry about the images they place online.  Anyone can copy and paste, and pass your hard work off as their own.  Even if you do add identity, there are many ways to remove it, unfortunately.

I’ve been taking a wonderful class on card making from Kate Harper Designs, and this is what she says about keeping your images safe:

I recommend that whenever imagery is going to be published on the internet (or elsewhere) that the artist take the time and trouble to register the Works being published.

This can now be done online for $35 at www.copyright.gov.  By releasing a bunch of works in a single publication process, the whole lot of them can be registered for the same $35.


1) Proof of the date of your creation of a given Work (as against someone else’s claim that you have infringed on a work of theirs that turns out to have been created after your registration).

2) The right to claim statutory damages instead of being limited to the infringer’s profits, with those damages ranging from $750 minimum to up to $150,000 per act of infringement for Willful Infringement.

3) The right to recover prevailing party attorney’s fees and costs, ONLY if you have registered before the infringement or within 3 months of publication.


Some authors of websites choose to mark the images they post.  PicMarkr.com will do this free.  This was my try at it, but technically, only the card image is mine.  The background I used (and changed to fit my needs) was downloaded from Unsplash.com, a wonderful source for free images.  How do you feel?  Is this sort of shady territory, putting my name on it if it’s not all mine?



There are varying views about  watermarking your images.  Pixlr.com makes a good argument against doing so, but if you really, really want to, this is their advice:

Make it as subtle as you can. And then a little more subtle.


Put a watermark in the bottom right-hand corner with a low opacity. If you consider your photos works of art, mark them in the way Picasso and other artists have always signed their work — somewhat unobtrusively.

Do you watermark your images?

Do you get copyrights for your work?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this topic.