Not all Watercolor Papers are Created Equal

May 30 / HAN.A
Paper choice and painting style are closely related. 

So let's start with a few questions ...

Do you like using a lot of water in your painting, for example creating landscapes or heavy backgrounds? 

Or do you use less water and focus more on details?
Do you enjoy painting on rough paper, smooth paper, or something in between?
Will you be selling your painting? 

Answering these questions will help you determine which type of paper you should be investing to create paintings that look bright, considered, and stunning.
There are many different types of watercolor paper and they vary in texture, weight and composition. 
Let's look at each of these.


Rough, Cold Press & Hot Press

Watercolor Paper HP CP Rough
As its name indicates Rough Watercolor Paper has a surface made by rolling the paper in between rollers lined with a textured felt. The tooth created on the surface of the paper through this process are very deep which makes this type of paper suitable for bold strokes, such as those seen in abstract work.  It is not recommended for fine detailed work.

Cold Press Paper is the most commonly used type of paper among watercolor artists. Although textured, the surface is not as dramatic as the rough paper. This makes it ideal for a variety of painting styles and subjects including both wide landscapes that require wide strokes to detailed flowers.

Hot Press Paper is so called because it is rolled between heavy hot rolls that create a smooth, silky finish on this paper. It is preferred by artists and illustrators who focus mainly on fine detailing. 


Ranging from 90 lb/185 gms to 300lb/640 gsm and thicker

Watercolor paper weight
Imagine taking a piece of ordinary paper and wetting it under a tap. This is what watercolor paper undergoes as we paint over it. They, therefore, require enough weight to sustain the amount of water applied through the painting process and are produced accordingly. The heavier the paper, the pricier.

Thin papers particularly those that weigh under 140lb/300gsm will buckle very easily when wet with paint. To keep them taut while painting, they need to undergo a process called stretching so that they do not warp and buckle.  When paper warps little pools are created where watery paint can accumulate creating denser patches of colors than an artist might want to. Thicker papers are more absorbent and therefore buckle and warp less easily. 

If using thin papers, it might be best to use painting techniques that do not require as much water, such as washes to create skies and landscapes. Instead it might be best to focus on smaller more detailed patterns.


Made from 100% Cotton, Wood Pulp or a combination of both

Watercolor Paper Composition
Cotton is well known to be one of the most absorbent materials when it comes to clothing. This unique property is what makes cotton an ideal material in the manufacture of watercolor paper.

Paper made from 100% cotton can however be out of reach to many and therefore many manufacturers create watercolor paper from wood pulp, the same material that makes up most other types of paper. For paper made from wood pulp to become absorbent, they are treated with additives and coatings to mimic paper made from cotton.

While price is a consideration when buying this type of paper, it is worth noting that paper made from wood pulp can be inconsistent across brands and sometimes even within the same pack. The coating can be uneven to the point that, just like a waxed surface, it creates resistance to the paint. Over time, the additives and coatings can disintegrate to the point that the paper that would once be great with watercolors end up turning into normal paper creating blotches and patches in the painting.

To counteract this, many manufacturers of watercolor paper have started creating "a happy medium" - paper made from a mix of wood pulp and cotton.


To decide which of the three types is best for you, let's look at the questions we started with:

Do you like using a lot of water in your painting, for example creating landscapes or heavy backgrounds? 
You can choose between a Cold Press Watercolor paper and Rough Watercolor Paper. Paper composed of 100% cotton and weighing a minimum of 140 lb / 300 gsm will be the best choice. However, with the rough paper, you may not be able to add details to your painting, if that's your style, whereas cold press will still allow for some details to be added. 

Do you use less water and focus more on details?

Hot Press Watercolor Paper in 90 lb / 180 gsm and thicker may be for you specially if your only focus is details that you want to scan to produce prints or generate on demand printing and products. While Cold Watercolor Press paper can be used for some amount detailing, the texture comes through with scanning and can be difficult to take out.
What is your personal preference?

When you start painting, you may find that you enjoy the grip of textured paper over smooth paper or vice versa. This alone will indicate your preference for the type of paper you prefer painting on.

Will you be selling your painting?

If you are asked to do a commission, or want to monetize your painting, then watercolor paper composed of 100% is what you will need to use.

The most important thing to remember, however, is that the better the quality of materials, the better the painting will look, and the more confident the painter will feel. There are many high quality materials and papers made specifically for students that are more accessible than artist quality materials. For example, student quality paper, usually made from wood pulp or a mix of wood pulp and cotton are perfectly acceptable when just starting out, before venturing out and getting pricier cotton paper.


The most important factor that beginners often neglect to understand is that the better the quality of materials, the better the painting will look, and the more confident the painter will feel. 

If your goal is develop skills that you can be proud of and confident to share, then always invest in the best quality you can afford.

Don't Get Overwhelmed

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