Watercolor Glossary : Watercolor Paper for Beginners

watercolor, Watercolor Glossary

Welcome to the first topic of the Watercolor Glossary! This week we’re talking about watercolor paper and all of its many varieties! Knowing what kind of paper to use can be a little overwhelming if you’re just getting started, especially because watercolor paper varies in texture, weight, dimension, manufacturing process, and presentation.

NOT TO WORRY. I’m here for you.

If you’re at the very beginning of your watercolor journey, you might not even know that there IS a specific paper for watercolor paper, or that there are many, many options. If you’ve been painting for a while, you probably already have a favorite type of paper that you gravitate towards. Either way, you can learn something from this post as I share a quick overview of the different varieties of watercolor paper available and talk about their different characteristics and how they can effect your painting.

Ready?!

Texture:

Watercolor paper texture can be super smooth (hot pressed) or very bumpy and textural (rough) and everything in between. These textures react differently to brushstrokes and to your paint, so it’s important to know what you’re looking for. For example, if I was trying to paint an extremely detailed and realistic botanical piece on rough paper I’d quickly get frustrated as the bumpy paper texture would interfere with my tiny brushstrokes.

You’ll mostly come across hot-pressed or cold-pressed paper, especially if you’re just beginning. These words refer to the manufacturing techniques–hot-pressed paper is made by rolling the paper with heated cylinders, which results in a much smoother surface. Cold-pressed paper is pressed with un-heated rollers, which results in a much more textured and rough surface. Here’s a quick video by Italian paper manufacturers Fabriano that shows the paper manufacturing from cotton pulp all the way through to final product. It’s pretty neat!

Watch these artisans take cotton pulp and turn it into beautiful, handmade watercolor paper!

These surfaces react differently to paint and water. Cold-pressed paper holds a lot of water and doesn’t dry as quickly. If you’d like even more texture, opt for Rough watercolor paper, which has a lot of texture. It’s hard to paint details on this type of paper, and many artists will paint landscapes or seascapes using rough textured watercolor paper. If you opt for one of these, you’ll find that the paper fibers are visible and the paper itself is very rough to the touch.

Hot-pressed paper, due to it’s smooth surface, is much easier to use if you’re interested in painting detailed or realistic paintings. The paper texture is so smooth that the fibers don’t interfere with your brush strokes and your brushstrokes will dry quickly. Typically, if you’re using a LOT of water in your washes and painting, I’d recommend using cold or rough paper.

Cold-pressed paper is textured, and that can provide some great effects in finished paintings. The brush can catch along the ridges and edges of the paper fibers and leave beautiful textured effects. As I mentioned above, cold-pressed can handle heavier applications of water than hot-pressed.

This is a picture I took of some of the papers I have on hand. You can see the subtle differences in texture between various brands and types of watercolor paper.

Try a bunch of different papers and see what you like! I personally gravitate toward hot-pressed paper because I paint highly-detailed paintings with lots of layers. Many artists prefer the toothy-ness of cold-pressed paper, though, and I recommend trying both. Most student papers are cold-pressed, so keep that in mind as you begin to paint.

Weight:

Watercolor paper comes in a range of different weights, and you’ll see this number right on the front of a pad of watercolor paper. There are three common weights: 90lb, 140lb, and 300lb paper.

300lb paper is the gold standard of watercolor paper. It is expensive, thick, sturdy, rarely warps, and typically comes in huge sheets of paper. Don’t go for this until you’re ready for it, though, you won’t appreciate the specific qualities of 300lb paper until you have some experience painting, so it’s better to spend your art-supply budget on other things.

90lb paper warps very easily. Typically, this is a student-quality paper. It’s thin and best used for testing out colors or making practice sketches. As in all things, there are exceptions to the rule, and I know a few artists who paint on 90lb paper, BUT it’s always best to learn the “rules” and how they work before you break them 🙂

140lb paper is the most common. This could also need to be stretched (we’ll get to that later!), though I usually use it as-is because I my paintings tend to have many detailed layers of paint that dry quickly, so it doesn’t warp easily.

Each weight is available in hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough-textured paper. So, for example, I prefer 300lb hot-pressed paper, though I use 140lb hot-pressed paper for almost all of my paintings, and I rarely make use of 90lb paper.

In addition to seeing the pounds, you’ll probably also see the grams measurement. Here’s the conversion in case you need it: 190 gsm = 90lb, 300 gsm = 140 lb, and 638 gsm = 300 lb

Materials:

Watercolor paper can be made out of cellulose, wood pulp, cotton fibers, or a mixture of them all.The very best watercolor paper is made of 100% cotton, but it’s totally fine to use something with a mixture of fibers when you’re practicing or creating studies/sketches. That way, you can save the good stuff (which is also the more expensive stuff) for your final paintings. 

Student papers are usually about 25% cotton, and are often not archival or acid-free, which are properties you’ll want as you continue to paint and create final paintings, so it’s something to keep in mind as you buy paper.

Presentation and Form:

You can buy watercolor sheets in a simple pad of paper, but they are also available in blocks, journals, sketchpads, separate sheets, and myriad other forms!

A block of watercolor paper is glued with light adhesive on all sides with a small section left un-glued. You can insert a palette knife or other sharp edge into that small section to remove the top sheet. The adhesive keeps the paper from warping, which is a great feature. The only con is that you can only work on one painting in your block at a time.

Large sheets of paper can be more cost-effective, but typically students and beginners will use smaller sheets of paper, so I recommend starting with a pad.

These are a few of the paper options in my studio. On top is a pad of student-quality paper that I use for testing colors and ideas. Next is my watercolor journal that I use for preserving notes and color swatches for future reference. On the bottom is a block of 140-lb, hot-pressed, 100% cotton watercolor paper that I use for my final paintings.

Other things to consider:

Watercolor paper is also available in a range of whites from bright-white to natural-white. This isn’t very important when you’re starting out, but it’s something to be aware of. 

If you’re painting motifs with the intent of scanning them and using them for surface pattern design or to create digital artwork, use bright-white, hot-pressed paper so that the scanner doesn’t pick up unwanted texture/shadows. 

For final paintings, use acid-free, 100% cotton paper where possible. It’ll make a difference in the longevity of your piece.

The takeaway for beginners:

Opt for a mid-range pad of 140lb cold-pressed paper for your final paintings. Here is a good option! Don’t automatically go for the cheapest as it won’t perform properly and it’s easy to get discouraged when you don’t get good results, but you’re also not ready for the expensive types of paper yet. As you progress, try hot-pressed paper, if you have a problem with warping, try a block of paper. If you have a good paper cutter, buy larger sheets and cut them down to size. Remember, you have the rest of your life to learn all there is about watercolor, so just jump right in and go from there and don’t let yourself get overwhelmed.

WHAT I USE:

I’ve found that, while Arches is the industry-standard as far as high-quality watercolor paper goes, Blick has a fantastic range of watercolor paper. My go-to is a block of Blick Premier 140lb hot-pressed paper, and for larger paintings I’ll splurge and use Arches 300lb hot-pressed sheets. I also love my Strathmore watercolor paper journal as a place to keep color swatches and notes about paints for my own reference. 

OTHER RESOURCES:

If you enjoy reading about art supplies and are interested in a more in-depth look at how paper is created and the different properties of watercolor paper, Handprint is basically the most exhaustive, comprehensive blog about watercolors and art supplies out there. Here’s his extensive series on watercolor paper.

Here is a video from Arches that features some beautiful footage of the paper-making process. There are some unusual creative choices in this video, but the footage of the process makes it worth it to watch!

Let me know if you have any questions in the comments or if something was particularly helpful! And, if you have requests for further articles in the Watercolor Glossary, I’d love to hear about them. 

Happy painting!  

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