How to Choose a Watercolor Paper

Table of Contents:

Which Watercolor Paper Should I Use?

You have brushes and paint. You’re almost ready for painting. You just need paper. But, before buying watercolor paper, there are a couple of things to take into consideration. It’s hard to say if there is a worst or best choice. If you ask watercolorists for recommendations, you’ll get various answers. They’ll suggest a range of brands based upon your methods plus the type of work you create. But, where they all agree on deciding how to choose a watercolor paper, is that the top things to keep in mind are: density, texture, and construction.

To help you decide, we’ll go over each factor and try to give some insight into each one.

Making Paper: 3 Processes

Most paper is produced by adding either cotton cellulose or wood fibers to water to form a thick pulp. This is pressed either by hand, in a mold, or by a machine. Handmade paper is strongest; mold-made the next strongest. Machine-made is thought of as the lowest grade.

Hand-made papers are purchased a sheet at a time. They feature frayed or deckled ends and sometimes include bits of flowers, leaves, or other natural materials. They are very beautiful and will give a very organic look and feel.

Paper manufactured using a mold is strong and durable. It has clean edges and shouldn’t warp or buckle when it gets moist. It can be purchased by the sheet, as blocks, or in pads, such as Arteza’s Watercolor Pad 9x12" - 100% Cotton- 14 Sheets, which is mold-made, 140lb. (300 gsm), cold-pressed paper. If you tend to use very watery paint or techniques such as masking, this is a good choice.

Machine-made is weaker than the others. This makes it problematic for watercoloring. It’s considered student-grade paper and is good for practicing and color mixing exercises versus a completed work. Although it is less expensive than hand- or mold-made papers, it is inclined to deteriorate.

3 Textures

Texture is defined as a surface’s smoothness or roughness. Although you’ll find several textures to choose from, there are three processes universally adopted for creating course or even papers. “Hot press” means it is produced by being pressed on hot cylinders, which causes it to have a smoother finish. When you see “cold press” on the label, you can expect it to be slightly textural with tiny dips and crevices or irregularities from being pressed on unheated cylinders during production. While “rough” paper, which contains the most irregularities, is caused by going into cold metal rollers and between sheets of felt before it dries.

TIP: Remember which press and is which, by thinking of an iron that uses heat to remove wrinkles in fabric and you’ll remember that hot press is the smoothest one.

Hot/Cold/Rough: Which Is Best?

Now that we’ve clarified what texture is, how do you select the one to use? Let’s take a look at some benefits as well as drawbacks of each.

The even exterior of hot pressed paper lends itself well to realistic artwork, especially portraiture. It is possible to achieve the fine lines and subtle shading that adds realism. Another advantage to hot press is it dries pretty quickly. This allows you to build up darker areas by layering without having to wait too long in between layers. If your artistic style depends on clear, straight marks, hot press is a good choice. But, beware: it will warp if an abundance of water is used.

It is mostly used by professional watercolorists, as it takes some getting used to how it responds to water. It is also ideal for watercolor and traditional colored pencils.

Typical cold press watercolor paper comes with a semi-rough surface — it’s neither too rough nor too smooth, falling somewhere in between. Its miniscule bumps and crevices add a “painterly” effect while giving the work character. These little bumps also make it perfect for dry brushing, which has the effect of leaving static marks or “noise” on the surface. The fact that it can hold a lot of water with no buckling or rolling also makes it preferred for watercolorists.

Another benefit is its ability to retain a stable condition throughout multiple techniques. This makes cold press paper a favorite of universities and art schools. The Arteza Expert Watercolor Pads 9x12” 32 Sheets - Set of 2, are a good solution for those who wish to compare cold press to hot press. Manufactured with high-quality wood pulp it has an added bonus of being dual-sided. You get both a hot press side and a cold press side. The Arteza 9x12" Watercolor Pad, Double-Sided - 14 Sheets, made from 140lb. (300gsm) 100% cotton is cold pressed on both sides.

Cold press paper is also favored by mixed-media artists, who use multi-dimensional applications and glue. Its slight texture doesn’t interfere with these, while gripping the glue for a tighter bond.
The Arteza Watercolor Pads, 9x12” 32 Sheets - Pack of 2 also work well with all watercolor methods.

Rough papers absorb the most. For those who prefer to use a “wet-in-wet” (i.e., wet brush on wet paint) approach, this is the paper you want. Its deep irregularities also pull more paint making it good for “glazing,” a layering process that involves applying a base coat of paint and letting it dry before adding subsequent layers. Rough paper absorbs and sustains the first layer for a bold first layer.

Since rough papers maintain integrity under the pressure of a lot of water, they are also able to handle heavier paints, including gouache and acrylics.

 watercolor paper

Defining Density

Density describes how compact the paper is. If you’ve ever accidentally laid a piece of paper down in a puddle of water, then you’ve seen what happens — curling, buckling, or even tearing. To prevent this from happening and making it possible to use water soluble paints, manufacturers add more pulp during production. This bulks it, giving a higher degree of compactness and makes it less likely to react in a negative way when wet. For artists who use a lot of water, you’ll want to test papers with the highest density.

Choosing the Most Desirable Density

The more dense the paper, the heavier it is. If you visualize a stack of paper on a scale, then you can get a clearer picture of why its density is measured in pounds (lb.) in the US and in grams per square meter (gsm) in Europe. The more it weighs, the higher the number. To ensure you get the best results, the recommended density you want is 90 lb. (200gsm) and above. This is desirable for watercolor painting as well as fine art drawings since it can withstand the erasing and blending it takes to make this type of artwork. This weight and higher pound will be able to hold plenty of moisture as well as withstand the layering, gluing and abrasive methods used in multimedia projects.

TIP: Check to see if your paper will perform the way you want by making swatches on a scrap piece of paper you plan to use. Add varying amounts of water to the paint, brush on the paper and check the reaction.

Is There a “Best”?

After reading this blog, we think that you’ll come to the same decision we have. The best watercolor paper is the one that works for you. Whether it’s hot-pressed or cold-pressed, lightweight or heavy-duty, only you know what look, style, or feeling you’re going for and we guarantee there’s a paper out there that’s going to make that happen. So, have some fun trying out papers in lots of different textures and densities until you find your one!

Other Recommendations

If the paper you’re using tends to buckle after getting wet, try stretching it:

  1. Wet the paper on both sides.
  2. Wet strips of paper tape and tape the paper down firmly on all sides to a stable surface.
  3. Blot some of the water off with a cloth.
  4. After it has completely dried, remove the tape.
  5. Now, your work should stay nice and flat.

Always use the paper that has acid-free or archival written on the label. Acid causes yellowing, brittleness, or extreme fading over time. By always using acid-free, you ensure that your drawing or painting will last.

Watercolor paper can be purchased by the sheet or by the pad. Glue-bound watercolor pads have the advantage of offering easy access to several sheets at a time and keeps them protected and ready to use wherever you are.

Many watercolor pads come with convenient micro-perforated sheets. These sheets can be easily taken out of the pad in a standard size making your artwork ready for framing and displaying instantly.

Choosing the right watercolor paper can be a confusing experience. We hope we’ve given you enough useful information to make it easier for you.

1 comment

Your explanation of papers, texture, composition, weight and reasons for using them all is so clear and comprhensive. I use it when discussing paper and which paper to choose when working with my beginner,elderly students. My classes are small and I’m focusing on Arteza products because thet are less well known AND priced so well for the quality. It’s a pleasure to encourage my students to start out with your fine products.

Catherine High

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