How to Choose a Watercolor Paper

Arches cold press watercolor paper with deckled edges
Arches Cold Press Watercolor Paper, 100% Rag, Acid Free, 140 lb. Courtesy of Amazon.com

Watercolor papers come in different forms, qualities, surfaces, and weights, all of which respond differently to the paint and to various painting techniques. How do you determine which paper is best for you and which paper is best suited to which painting techniques? Firstly, it is useful to understand the characteristics of paper and what makes papers different from each other. Then, it is helpful to experiment with different watercolor papers to see what works best for your own painting style and subject matter.

There are many excellent watercolor papers on the market, and finding the paper that you like best is as important as finding the paint that you like best. 

Quality

Like many art supplies, paper comes in a variety of qualities, from student-grade to artist-grade, and the choice of paper for a watercolorist will greatly influence how the paint handles and what kinds of brush marks can be made. 

Watercolor paper can be made by hand, by cylinder-mold machines (referred to simply as mold-made to differentiate from machine-made), or by machine. Papers made by hand have four deckle edges and the fibers are randomly distributed making the paper quite strong. Papers made by mold have two deckle edges and the fibers are also more randomly distributed, which makes it strong, but not quite as strong as hand-made. Machine-made paper is made on a machine in one continuous process, with the fibers all oriented in the same direction.

All the edges are cut, although some have artificial deckle edges for a more authentic appearance.

Machine-made paper is less expensive to manufacture and purchase. Most artist-quality watercolor papers on the market are mold-made rather than machine-made.

You always want to use the highest quality paper you can afford, which is artist quality paper.

All artist quality paper is acid-free, pH neutral, 100 percent cotton. That means that the paper will not turn yellow or deteriorate over time, unlike lower quality paper made of wood pulp, such as newsprint or brown kraft paper. 

Form

Handmade papers are usually sold in single sheets. Mold-made and machine-made papers can be purchased in single sheets, packs, rolls, pads, or blocks. The blocks are pre-stretched watercolor paper that are bound on all four sides. When you have finished a painting, you use a palette knife to remove the top sheet from the block.

Surface 

Mold-made and machine-made watercolor papers come in three surfaces: rough, hot-pressed (HP), and cold-pressed (CP or NOT, as in "not hot-pressed"). 

Rough watercolor paper has a prominent tooth or textured surface. This creates a grainy, speckled effect as pools of water collect in the indentations in the paper. It can be hard to control the brush mark on this paper.

Hot-pressed watercolor paper has a fine-grained, smooth surface, with almost no tooth. Paint dries very quickly on it. This makes it ideal for large, even washes of one or two colors. It is not as good for multiple layers of washes since there is more paint on the surface and it can get overloaded quickly.

It is good for drawing and for pen and ink wash.

Cold-pressed watercolor paper has a slightly textured surface, somewhere in between rough and hot-pressed paper. It is the paper used most often by watercolor artists because it is good for both large areas of wash, as well as fine detail. 

Weight

The thickness of watercolor paper is indicated by its weight, measured either in grams per square meter (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb).

The standard machine weights are 190 gsm (90 lb), 300 gsm (140 lb), 356 gsm (260 lb), and 638 gsm (300 lb). Paper less than 356 gsm (260 lb) should be stretched before use, otherwise, it is likely to warp.

Tips

  • Watercolor paper differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, so experiment not only with the different kinds of paper but also with various brands of paper.
  • Watercolor paper is usually white, but it need not be. A variety of cool and warm tints is available.
  • Use acid-free paper for paintings you wish to keep as this will yellow less with age.

Further Reading

All About Paper, DickBlick

Updated by Lisa Marder