Cold Press & Hot Press Watercolour Paper: What's the Difference?

Cold Press & Hot Press Watercolour Paper: What's the Difference?

Texture and surface properties are important choices artists make about the paper they use. Something as simple as texture can alter the outcome of an artist’s work, especially for watercolour artists.

There are many choices, brands, and levels of quality that artists evaluate when picking out paper to work with. And for watercolour artists, there are texture options for them to evaluate.

Watercolour paper companies make the choices a little easier by labelling watercolour textures either “cold press” or “hot press.” 

For a beginner watercolour artist, these unfamiliar terms might feel overwhelming, but they don’t have to be.

A little bit of research can help an artist understand the difference between the two papers, and how they enhance the artwork.

What’s the Difference?

What is the difference between cold press and hot press watercolour paper?

Cold press is the classic, textured watercolour paper that we commonly associate with watercolour pieces. It is the classic, go-to paper that most artists will probably use for their watercolour projects.

Hot press is a non-textured watercolour paper. The surface is incredibly smooth.

But why not choose illustration or bristol board instead of pricey “hot press” watercolour paper, especially if the surface texture is so similar?

Hot press watercolour paper is designed to handle multiple, heavy washes of water.

Bristol board isn’t made to handle water in the same way. If a creative wants to use a smooth texture for their watercolour work, it’s better not to sacrifice quality to save a few extra dollars. 

Which Texture is Right for You?

There is no right or wrong when it comes to cold or hot press paper. It is up to you to decide which works best for you.

If you’re undecided which one is better for your work, you can purchase a sheet of both. Experiment and decide which is more suitable for your work.

Study the work of other watercolour artists and the press they use for their work–there might be a particular style, using one of the two presses, that appeals to you more.

The easiest way to see how watercolour paint and pigment react to the paper is to work with it yourself. We've got a post all about pigments, too!

The Pros and Cons of Cold and Hot Press 

Cold press tends to absorb the water more readily than hot press. The texture adds instant character to the illustration.

The pigments in the watercolour paint granulate and flow in the dips, grooves, and irregularities of cold press paper.

This is the signature characteristic of the cold press that everyone associates with watercolour artwork.

Hot press is more suited to fine detail. It handles ink, pens, and penciled details better than cold press. The smooth surface lends itself to precision.

Since the surface is smooth, once the washes, glazes, and layers have dried, the irregularities in the water have an exceptional outcome.

Layering your watercolour washes are different for each paper. On a cold press sheet, the washes and layers are a little less distinct.

The colours blend a little easier. But on a hot press sheet, the layers build up individually. This property can add a lot to your style. 

Cold press allows for some lifting of the paint once it has dried; hot press allows for more lifting and alteration.

Because of the way that light refracts on the two textures, cold press paintings aren’t as vivid as hot press paintings.

Cold press is absorbent and dries quickly. Hot press is less absorbent and allows for more time to adjust the paint while drying.

Neither choice is wrong. What matters is the artist’s need. 

Hot press paper can be a little trickier to get a hold of at art stores, especially since most watercolour artists gravitate to cold press.

But if you know the right brands to look for, you shouldn’t have a problem getting a hold of this press.

Whether using cold or hot press it’s always best to use 100% cotton watercolour paper for your finished pieces.

Never sacrificing paper quality is a good rule of thumb no matter which watercolour paper you decide to use for your work.  

Not All Cold Press Textures are Created the Same

Hot press watercolour paper is quite straight forward: a smooth surface is a smooth surface. Cold press is a different story altogether. The textures of cold press paper actually differ from brand to brand.

It might be a subtle difference, but the texture variations can be significant enough to affect your work, especially if you use pencils or pens for your style.

If you are interested in cold press paper for your work, study the various textures that each artist grade brand offers. To test the different textures for yourself, take a few sheets from different brands to see which of them you like the best.

For example, some would say Arches’ cold press is a little rougher than Sennelier and Etchr's cold press paper. This is neither good nor bad, it simply depends on what you want for your work.

The slightly rougher texture of the Arches’ paper makes it a little trickier to do fine pencil or pen work. A pencil’s fine point wears down to a blunt point rather quickly.

In contrast, the slightly smoother cold press makes it a little easier to add embellishments with pencils. It isn’t impossible to add fine details to a rougher texture, but it does take a little more effort.

This is just one aspect of many when it comes to determining which cold press texture compliments your work the best. There are many other ways texture can influence your work.

Watercolour paper is its own, wonderful world. The unique properties of cold and hot press have a great deal to offer creatives.

If you'd like some more insight, check out our post on how to choose the right watercolour paper for you. 

You get to decide which works for you, your projects, and your artistic vision.

While there is no right or wrong answer, you will discover whether cold or hot press works better for you. You might even find you have use for both of the watercolour presses!

Ellie Tran is a freelance illustrator and writer soon to be based in Anchorage, Alaska. She uses watercolours to illustrate her own stories; and when not illustrating or writing, she enjoys being out in nature.
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Hey thanks for this helpful article. I recently bought a pad of cold press watercolor paper in order to get into watercolors. I started painting with the first pages and it went smooth but on the third page, I noticed that the paint would not be absorbed evenly and rather pooled into these tiny dimples and dried as saturated dots. This didn’t happen with the previous pages. So I was wondering if the issue was that the papers were of cheap quality or that the paper was overworked (I did erase a lot while sketching). Also can they be overworked, like are they super fragile and that I have to take special care with it or something ?

Sakthivel Annaamalai

Excellent article – thank you. I went to the art store yesterday and, as you said, I could not find any hot press paper; however, the cold pressed paper varied immensely from very course (which I have now) to almost smooth with minute dimples. I am very new at water color and I found that when using color pencils with the paper I have, I get irritating horizontal lines that I can somewhat smooth with a lot of pressure with the white pencil. Is hot press always labeled as such or even as water color paper or could there be another designation that’s acceptable for water colors?

Darren Gregory

This is a great article, learned a lot. But several of the paper producers differentiate between rough, cold and hot pressed as three basic categories. I understand that these have even more texture than cold pressed – but where do they fit in with the usage you describe above.

Also, the differences between the different manufacturers surfaces is mostly a result of the different felts and screens that the wet paper is formed on – that is the equipment on their paper machines.
Etchr Lab replied:
Hi, Trevor! Rough paper does have more tooth/texture to it. 😊


Thank you! For the beginner, which I am, this was very helpful! Again thank you!
Etchr Lab replied:
We’re so happy you found this helpful, Eric! Can’t wait to see what you create! 🧡

Eric Marville

Thank you! For the beginner, which I am, this was very helpful! Again thank you!
Etchr Lab replied:
It’s our pleasure, Eric! 🧡 We’re here to help everyone make more art! 🖌️

Eric Marville

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