How Cotton Percentage Affects Paper Performance

How Cotton Percentage Affects Paper Performance

When shopping for watercolour paper, you might have come across labels that say “25% cotton”, “100% cotton”, or maybe it doesn’t mention cotton at all. But what does the cotton percentage mean anyway, and how does it affect a painting? We’ll be exploring that in this blog, and doing some experimentation along the way. 

Why Cotton?

When a paper has “cotton” on its label, it means that it uses a certain amount of cotton fibre. Cotton fibres are stripped from cotton seeds before the seeds are made into cottonseed oil, which is used as a type of cooking oil.

Cheaper watercolour papers are made of cellulose (a.k.a. wood pulp), which is a fibre extracted from wood pulp. It’s cheaper because it’s more readily available, and easier to make.

So when a paper says it’s “25% cotton”, it means that it has about 25% cotton fibres mixed in with 75% cellulose. But the main reason why cotton fibres are valued higher than cellulose paper is that they’re more durable and less likely to yellow with age. That’s why many important documents are printed on cotton paper!

From an artistic standpoint, we’ll take a closer look at the visual differences found in cotton percentages, with a little extra input from me in terms of the user experience for each one.

0% Cotton (Cellulose Paper)

The first test, of course, has to be the non-cotton watercolour paper. It looks and feels similar to 100% cotton paper (because it’s still paper!), with a few key differences.

Firstly, it’s not as bright as 100% cotton paper. Secondly, it feels a little softer to touch, in an almost “spongey” way. I will say though that the surface texture looks relatively similar, likely because I’m comparing papers that are both from Etchr Lab.

The painting part is probably where it differs the most. The paper dries faster, so it’s more difficult to get good wet-in-wet washes in the painting. The paints also don’t turn out as vibrant as they should be, even when they’re less diluted.

Regardless, it’s still okay to use. It works as watercolour paper, plus it is good value for money! Perfect for those quick practice paintings where you can just relax and have fun.

50% Cotton

Upping the cotton percentage to 50% makes it ever-so-slightly brighter than the 0% cotton paper, though still not as bright as the 100% one. It also feels much less “spongey”, and the texture looks closer to 100% than 0%.

Painting-wise, it feels good – not as good as 100% cotton paper, but much better than 0% cotton. Paint flows smoothly, and you can get some great blends with this paper. And while it’s a bit more expensive than 0% cotton paper, the extra quality it offers is definitely worth the extra cost.

100% Cotton

Saving the best for last, we have 100% cotton watercolour paper. It’s bright and crisp, and there’s none of that sponginess when I touch it. And while it’s cold press watercolour paper like the other papers, it feels a little smoother, though this will depend on the brand you’re using.

Painting on it is also quite enjoyable! The paint flows well into one another when using the wet-on-wet technique, plus the paint feels easier to control, even when the paper is still damp.

The paper also takes longer to dry, so you may need a little more patience if you’re planning to add more layers. Otherwise, this paper takes water and paint very well.

I also love how vibrant the paints turn out on this paper, as it feels like even a tiny bit of paint goes a long way. It brings out the best in whatever paints you use as well, so even low-quality paints look relatively vibrant, especially when compared to the 0% cotton paper.

Final Thoughts

I’ve included a side-by-side comparison of these papers in the image above. Can you tell the difference?

I’d say that each has its unique qualities and uses to them. While the 0% cotton paper isn’t amazing to work with, I think you can still find some decent-quality ones like the Etchr Lab Wood Pulp Paper Blocks, where the painting looks fine to an untrained eye. It’s also a lot cheaper, so that’s a big plus if you just need something to practice your painting skills on!

50% cotton I’d say leans more towards being like 100% cotton than 0% cotton, which is amazing! You get a similar paint vibrancy, and it also feels good to work with. It’s also a bit cheaper than 100% cotton paper, so it’s a viable option if you’re looking to save some money without sacrificing too much in terms of quality.

And finally, for professional use, you’ll have to go for the 100% cotton watercolour paper. Not only is it a joy to work with, but it also lasts longer, and brings out the best in your paints! For all these benefits, it’s worth it to splurge a little, especially if it’s a commissioned painting.

Of course, it’s always best to find out for yourself which cotton percentage you prefer. Many paper manufacturing companies (including Etchr Lab) offer paper swatches for you to try before you fully commit. You’ll also get a better understanding of watercolour papers in general, and practice a bit of water control on the side!

Regardless, I hope you found this blog post useful. And whichever paper you end up choosing, the important thing is to keep on painting!

Have you tried cotton watercolour paper before? How do you think cotton percentage affects your painting experience? Let us know in the comments below!

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Nicola Tsoi is a practising graphic designer and illustrator based in Hong Kong. During her downtime, she likes to watch birds do funny things, search for stories, and bake up a storm. She keeps a pet sourdough starter named Doughy. 
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Tanks to Steve mitchell I have a few of products.


Nicola, thank you for an excellent tutorial on cotton in paper and how it responds to paint.
Etchr Lab replied:
Thanks for reading Kathy!

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