How to Choose the Right Watercolour Paper for You


Being new to watercolour means learning many new things and making many choices. Today we'll discuss watercolour paper and how to select the right paper for you. 

Some Like it Hot... or Cold

The two primary papers made for watercolour painting are hot press and cold press paper, named for the manufacturing process of each.

The cold press process uses cold rollers that press the fibres of the paper down.

Hot press paper uses hot rollers, which press the paper fibres down completely.

As a result, the most obvious difference between cold press and hot press paper is the surface texture (or "tooth"). Cold press paper has a slightly bumpy tooth and is more absorbent, whereas hot press paper has a smooth surface and is less absorbent. 

Cold press paper is ideal for painting with many layers or using the wet-on-wet technique because it is more absorbent, meaning the paper will soak up the paint rather than let it sit on the surface.

Because of this, you are less likely to disturb an existing layer of paint when adding more paint on cold press paper.


It is easier to work in layers with cold press paper. See how the edges of the red and blue blobs are still sharp even after the artist added yellow paint on top?
 
Hot press paper is the way to go if you paint with many details. You do not have to fight against the bumps and dimples of cold press texture when adding lines and delicate details because of the smooth hot press surface.

However, hot press paper is less absorbent, meaning the paint mostly sits on the paper's surface, so it may not be a good option for lots of layers.

Though it is possible to get some interesting effects and textures with hot press, experiment with both, then choose the one based on the type of art you make. 


 
In the above example with hot press paper, the edges of the red and blue blobs have blended into the yellow more than in the cold press example. 
 
There is another type of watercolour paper called rough paper. As the name suggests, rough paper is the most textured of the three watercolour papers.

Its tooth is similar to cold press but much more exaggerated, with deeper dimples where the paint can pool, creating a more speckled appearance. Rough press will make your loose brush strokes shine.

Sizing

Watercolour paper is treated with sizing (not the measurements!) It is a treatment that helps the paper absorb water evenly so that it can handle all of the layers of paint without soaking through the back. 

Sizing deteriorates over time, so if you find that your paint is bleeding through the back, that might be a sign to restore it. Luckily, you can easily do that with a sizing liquid. 

Something to note is that not all watercolour papers are vegan friendly as sizing is animal sourced. If you are vegan, make sure to keep an eye out for vegan friendly paper! 

Paper Thickness

Watercolour paper comes in various thicknesses, described as lbs or "gsm" (grams per square meter).

Both terms describe the weight of the paper.

The thicker the paper, the higher the weight. If you like to work on a large scale or often use lots of wet paint, you should use thicker paper. (300GSM and above) If you are working on a loose sheet of watercolour paper, remember to tape your paper down to your work surface to minimize paper buckling.

Paper Material

When you first think of paper, you think that it comes from wood. Generally speaking, there are 2 types of watercolour paper out there. Wood Pulp and Cotton. 

Wood Pulp Watercolour paper is typically the less expensive option. There are some wonderful wood pulp options out in the market right now, but you just have to take note that it will behave a little differently than cotton. 

Cotton Watercolour paper is pricier, but well worth it because it can handle a lot! The cotton fibers make it very strong yet pliable. If you plan on using a lot of water and using a lot of techniques, 100% cotton is definitely the way to go. 

What is Mixed Media Paper?

Although there are a variety of mixed media papers available on the market, the primary purpose of mixed media paper is to handle both dry and wet mediums.

This paper is excellent for detailed work done with pen or pencil. It also has a medium surface texture making it compatible with watercolours and other wet mediums.

Although you can use mixed media techniques on hot or cold press, mixed media paper is another option for experimenting.

What is Acid-Free Paper?

When shopping for watercolour papers, you may see terms like "acid-free", "archival", or "museum-grade". These terms differ only slightly in meaning, and they all ultimately mean that the pulp used to make the paper has a neutral pH level.

This prevents the paper from yellowing or degrading as quickly as cheaper paper alternatives that are not pH neutral. 
 
For watercolour artwork that stands the test of time, use acid-free paper.

Watercolour Paper Forms

Watercolour paper comes as single sheets, paper blocks, or sketchbooks. Individual sheets vary in size, from giant posters to small postcards.

A paper block means the paper is sealed together on some or all sides. Using a paper block usually means you don't need to tape the edges to prevent buckling.

Sketchbooks come in all shapes, sizes, and bindings. 
 
Now you should have more confidence to choose paper for your next project! If you're new to watercolour painting, I highly recommend that you check out our Starter Kit! It includes everything a beginner watercolour artist needs, including access to one 90-minute art class from our Introduction to Watercolour series.

Learn more about the creative process, plus get more tips by subscribing to our email newsletter. We’ll tell you about all the wonderful things happening with Etchr.

Vena Carr is a Canadian watercolour artist specializing in illustration and character design. When Vena isn't painting, she enjoys thrifting, watching cartoons, and exploring new places.
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