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Understanding Watercolor Paper: A Beginner's Buying Guide

Updated: Sep 4, 2023



As a self-taught watercolor artist, I know what it's like to be overwhelmed with the many, many options presented to you when you walk into your local craft or art store. If you're anything like me you could spend all day there and buy ALL the things! So where to begin?


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Part of my frustration in starting out was trying to sort out all the different types of paper that are available. Which ones suited me best? Which ones helped me achieve a final result I was satisfied with? So today I thought I would share with you the different types of paper for you to try for yourself, and which ones I recommend.


My favorite watercolor papers

These are the 3 most common types of watercolor paper you'll find:

1. Hot Press Watercolor Paper: This type of paper has a smooth surface, making it ideal for detailed work, pen and ink sketches, and illustrations. It doesn't absorb water as quickly as other types, allowing for more control over brushstrokes. However, it can be less forgiving when it comes to corrections and lifting paint.

2. Cold Press Watercolor Paper: Cold press paper has a textured surface with a slight tooth, which helps hold the paint and water better. It's a versatile choice that's suitable for a wide range of techniques, from smooth washes to textured effects. Cold press paper is a popular choice among watercolor artists due to its balanced texture and ease of use.

3. Rough Watercolor Paper: Just as the name implies, this paper has the most pronounced texture of the three. It provides a textured and grainy surface that can create interesting effects when painting. It's well suited for a loose, expressive style; giving you some unique textures. I've personally used this type of paper before and found it well suited for landscapes, or something that doesn't require a high level of detail work.


Watercolor paper also comes in a variety of weights, which refers to the thickness and sturdiness of the paper. It is typically measured in pounds (lb) or grams per square meter (gsm).

1. 90 lb Paper (190 gsm) This paper is light in weight, and often used for practice, quick sketches, and experimentation. It easily buckles and warps. If using this weight of paper you definitely want to tape and/or staple it down to a board to help it stay as smooth as possible as it dries.

Tip:

I personally do not use this paper. I tried it, but found that it's not very durable. It feels thin to the touch and buckles if not taped down or stapled to a board. Starting out, my thinking was that I could practice on the less expensive paper before starting on my "real" paper. However, I found it so completely different from the heavier paper I use for my finished paintings that it didn't make sense for me to use it even for practice. I'm glad I went through the exercise, but I just didn't find that it helped me make any progress towards what I was trying to achieve with the watercolor.


2. 140 lb Paper (300 gsm) This is my go to paper for most of my paintings. It is heavier, thicker, and more durable than 90 lb. I've found that it handles washes, glazing, and lifting techniques very well, without destroying the tooth of the paper.


what I use:

Arches brand 140 lb Cold Press Paper is one of my favorite papers to use. You can buy it here . It comes in a variety of sizes and in a block. The advantage to using a block is that the papers are glued all around the edges, and you just take off the top sheet when you're done with your painting. It's a great time saver!


Another brand I like is Fabriano 140 lb Cold Press Paper. You can find it here Again, it comes in a block form for ease of use.


alternative paper:

A less expensive alternative for paper for new artists just starting out is Canson Watercolor Paper. You can find it here.


3. 300 lb Paper (638 gsm) This paper is a heavyweight paper than can handle LOTS of water and extremely wet techniques. I have used it but I was so familiar with working on the 140 lb. paper that there was definitely a learning curve with it. It REALLY absorbs a lot of water.

However, it does have a longer drying time, which is great if you're working on a larger area. My "Cactus Wren" painting shown here was done on 300 lb. paper. It's a gorgeous thick paper, but if you're not used to working with it you will definitely feel the difference!





I highly suggest trying out a variety of papers to satisfy your own curiosity, but these are the papers I've found that works best for me.

I hope this helps you next time you're strolling the aisles of your local art supply store, or online. If you have any questions feel free to leave a comment. Until next time........happy painting!


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