Many artists are quite particular about the brushes they use, the brand of paints they prefer, and the mediums they work in.
But for watercolor artists, having the right paints and brushes isn’t enough. There’s another equally as important thing to consider:
The paper you choose to paint on.
Browse any art supply store, and you’ll find dozens of different types of watercolor papers. And if you don’t know what all the terms and distinctions mean, it can be challenging to know which paper to select for your next project.
Watercolor paper comes in different textures, weights, and sizes, all of which produce different results.
How to Decide What Kind of Watercolor Paper You Need
When it’s time to buy watercolor paper, there are three key things to look for: texture, weight, and size.
Watercolor papers vary greatly in texture with each different paper indicated by a type of "press". Depending on the press you choose, your paper can have a very smooth surface or a very rough one.
It’s just a matter of preference for most artists, but that preference depends on your needs and the techniques you want to achieve.
The paper's weight is also a factor, as the weight can have a significant impact on how much (or how little) buckling you can expect to see. It may also affect how fast the paint will dry.
Sizing refers to the type of binder used in the paper, not the actual sheet’s length-by-width dimensions. Sizing is also a factor in determining how paints react and how long they take to dry.
Deciding which type of paper to use depends on the results you want for your finished product. Certain paper textures can make your pigments look paler or more vivid. Some presses make it easier to control your brushstrokes. Some weights are better suited to mixed media and can even handle acrylic paints or oil paints.
The best way to understand how texture, weight, and size can affect your work is to test out all three and analyze the different types of results you get.
Ready to learn more?
Here’s all that you need to know about paper textures, weights, and sizing.
Watercolor Paper: Texture and Press
Some people use the word press; others use the word texture. In terms of watercolor paper, these are essentially the same thing. The three main types of watercolor art paper are hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough.
Hot Press Watercolor Paper
Hot press paper has the smoothest surface. It has almost no tooth, allowing you to achieve vivid, brighter colors and apply glazes with ease.
In hot pressed papers, the paper’s cellulose fibers are pressed together with rollers at high temperatures. This creates that smooth, clean surface that so many artists desire.
Unlike cold press, hot pressed paper shows a much higher brush detail level, making it ideal for paintings with intricate details. It’s also the best choice for paintings that you intend to reproduce in digital prints.
Generally, hot press papers are popular for painters who are interested in achieving very fine details such as botanical illustrations.
Cold Press Watercolor Paper
Unlike hot press paper, cold press paper has a slightly bumpy surface texture with a bit of tooth to better absorb the paint. It is the most popular type of watercolor paper on the market, and it allows for a variety of different watercolor techniques.
To make cold pressed paper, manufacturers press the paper’s fibers together with felt rollers at a cold temperature. Those felt rollers, which have a subtle texture of their own, create those slightly bumpy lines in the finished product.
Rough Texture Watercolor Paper
The third most common type of watercolor paper is not indicated by the press. It is simply called “rough.” And yes, you guessed it: this type of paper has a rough surface.
And when we say rough, we mean rough. Rough paper has a tremendous amount of texture, making it much harder to control brush strokes. It’s best for artists who prefer bold strokes rather than those looking to create subtle detailing.
When you use rough paper, the texture will be visibly noticeable after the paint dries.
Consider Shade and Quality
Regardless of the texture you choose, you can purchase watercolor papers in varying shades of natural white (or even black). These range from rich, creamy hues to the brightest whites, and you should choose the precise shade dependent on the results you want to achieve.
And while some are made from wood pulp, it’s always best to use acid-free cotton paper, like archival, if you want to achieve high-quality results.
Watercolor Paper: Weight
Press and texture are essential factors in determining the type of watercolor paper you need. But it’s just as important to select a high-grade paper with the right weight.
A watercolor paper's gsm is the best indicator of the paper’s weight. Gsm is grams per square meter and refers to the thickness of each individual sheet of paper. The lower the gsm, the more the paper will buckle as it dries.
The most common watercolor paper weights are 190 gsm, 300 gsm, 356 gsm, and 638 gsm. On paper packages, these weights are also in pounds, reflecting the weight of a ream of 500 individual papers. The reference of pounds is more commonly used in North America. So you will hear weights like 90lb, 140lb (most popular), and 300lb (most desirable). There is even 1114lb paper!
The thicker and more heavyweight papers are, the more expensive they tend to be. But the benefits to painters, such as the resistance to buckling, sometimes outweigh the higher costs.
So what paper weight do most artists use?
It’s common for art students to use lighter papers at 90 lbs (190 gsm). These lightweight, inexpensive papers are used mostly as practice.
But most fine artists prefer to use a minimum of 140 lb (300 gsm) paper. The lighter the paper, the more stretching it will require, and with paper less than 140 lbs, we recommend that you stretch it before use. To avoid having to stretch your paper, opt for a heavier weight.
Watercolor Paper: Sizing
Let’s be clear: when we talk about sizing we’re not referring to the page’s actual size. What we’re talking about is the bonding agent applied to the paper in production.
Without the proper sizing technique applied, watercolor paper isn’t watercolor paper at all. Your paint would soak through the paper and disintegrate. Imagine trying to paint a watercolor on copier paper which has almost no sizing — nightmare! It would just tear and rip apart with each brush stroke.
Sizing is how manufacturers make watercolor paper suitable for painting with watercolor paints.
Sizing is a binder that works just like glue. Some manufacturers use an external binder only, while others use both internal and external sizing. With internal and external sizing, the sizing formula is added directly to the paper pulp on the inside. The paper is then immersed in an external sizing solution for even greater durability.
Sizing is crucial when working with wet media such as watercolors, as it helps the paper absorb moisture at an even pace. Without sizing in your paper, your colors will simply soak in and look dull. Sizing dramatically increases the stability of the paper. It helps keep the fibers together so the paper remains stable when water (color) is applied.
Most art supplies and paper makers use a form of gelatin or a plant-sourced starch as their sizing formula. They apply it in different ways, so it’s always best to test different types of paper from other manufacturers to find the one that works best for you.
Watercolor Paper Also Comes in Different Forms
When it comes to watercolor paper, individual sheets aren’t your only option.
Artists can also choose from:
- Watercolor paper pads
- Watercolor journals
- Spiral-bound watercolor books
- Watercolor paper blocks
- Watercolor postcards
- Loose paper sheets
- Paper packs
- Bound pads
Maybe you’ve perfected your skills using Canson XL watercolor paper pads. Perhaps you’re accustomed to buying hardcover watercolor journals from Strathmore. Maybe you have an affinity for Fluid 100 or Arches watercolor paper. All are excellent options made by reliable manufacturers who know how to make watercolor paper.
It’s common for artists to have their favorites, but many find inspiration by merely using a different type of paper from another brand.
Other Mediums You Can Use on Watercolor Paper
Watercolor paper can create a variety of art types. You must use watercolor paper if you’re painting with watercolor paint, but that paper is also useful in a range of other mediums and techniques.
As the opaque version of watercolor paints, watercolor paper is ideal for gouache. You can also use gouache in combination with watercolors in order to achieve different effects.
To create voids and lines in your painting, apply masking fluid to your watercolor paper before you start to paint. When the paint dries, simply peel it off to expose sections of white paper underneath.
Graphite pencils and colored pencils are also safe for use on watercolor paper. You can combine these with watercolor paints to add more detail to a painting or give an existing painting a brand new look.
Pens and Markers
Like with colored pencils, you can also use pens and markers to create line work. Pens and markers can create sharper lines and add depth and dimension. They’re also an easy way to add calligraphy or script your name at the bottom of the page.
You can use pens and markers on watercolor paper before you apply your paint, after you apply your paint, or at the same time. If you use them at the same time, be sure to use waterproof ink. The Sakura Micron pen is a popular choice with artists who combine ink with watercolor.
If you use pen and marker, try hot press paper. It’s the choice of many artists working in inks.
Watercolor paper can also serve as a surface for acrylic paints. Some artists prefer to thin their acrylics out to make them more fluid and transparent. Others use them right from the tube.
Either way, there is no need to prime your paper. You apply acrylic paints straight to watercolor paper with no additional steps involved.
Watercolor paper can also be a surface for oil paints. But, unlike acrylics, you will need to prime the paper first, just as you would with printmaking paper.
Before applying oil paints, cover your watercolor paper with acrylic primer or gesso. It’s best to use a heavyweight piece of paper and a rougher surface texture with oil paints.
Do you love making collages? Watercolor paper can hold up to that challenge, too. Just paint your pages however you like, cut out the shapes you desire, and use them to add different layers of depth and dimension to your collage.
Heavyweight watercolor paper is also excellent for encaustic painting. Apply your watercolor paints first and apply encaustic over the top. This works best if you apply your watercolor paints in thin layers or as washes as opposed to thicker layers.
Artists always have their preferred art supplies that they turn to over and over again. And while we all have our favorites for a reason, it’s best to step outside your comfort zone and try papers with different textures, weights, and sizing.
Something as simple as changing the paper texture or using a heavier weight surface can drastically alter your work’s look. You may feel inspired to try new techniques and new brushstrokes. The next time you’re shopping for watercolor paper, pay special attention to the press, the texture, and the weight.
All watercolor papers react differently to paint. The best way to know if you’re using the best product for your work is to sample different papers. Even if you’re satisfied with the paper that you currently use, you just may find that there are better options out there.
Ready to try new types of watercolor paper?
View our selection of watercolor paper pads and blocks to put your artistic skills to the test.