Thursday, December 8th, 2022

What is Watercolor Paper & How is Different From Other Papers

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The most common mistakes most artists make when choosing a type of paper is that they think all paper are equal and one works just as good as the other. However, the fact is that certain types of paper are far better for watercoloring as compared to other types.

Choosing the right paper can do wonders for your art. A thin, low-quality paper is going to give you problems applying the paint in the first place. What’s more, it is also liable to tear up once you start applying multiple coats of paint or try out advanced techniques like scrubbing.

In this article, we’ll give you a detailed guide on the factors to look for in a watercolor paper, the different types of watercolor paper available out there and their individual advantages and disadvantages. This will make your job of selecting a watercolor paper a lot easier.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at all the features that make a watercolor paper great. Even though there are a few factors which make one type of paper superior to another, at the end of the day, sometimes it just boils down to personal choice.

Features Of Watercolor Paper & How is Different From Other Papers

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  1. Thickness And Weight

If you’ve ever felt a drawing book or a painting sheet, you’ll know that it is a lot thicker than usual paper. Regardless of the quality of the paper, be it student grade or artist grade, it’s bound to be a lot thicker than traditional paper.

The standard figures are 140lb or 300gsm. What this means is that a full stack, i.e., 500 full sheets weigh 300gsm or. The weight can go up to 600 or 800 gsm.

The higher the thickness of the paper, the better the quality of it and the cost goes up proportionally as well. It is reasonable to assume, that the higher the thickness of the paper, the more paint, and water you can throw at it without the paper getting destroyed.

If you’re a beginner and you plan on drawing simple pictures, 300 gsm papers should be fine. However, it is recommended that you stretch these papers before you start painting on them so that it doesn’t form wrinkles or ridges. Heavier papers don’t need to be stretched as the risk of ridges forming is pretty low.

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  1. The Material Of The Paper

The next most crucial consideration os the material makeup of the paper. Most papers are made out of recycled wood, with some amount of cotton mixed in it to create a super fine and thin appearance.

Watercolor papers, on the other hand, tend to include a lot more cotton in between its fibers. Whereas traditional papers wilt or break apart when they come into prolonged contact with water, watercolor papers can absorb the water because of its cotton makeup. Thus the more cotton is present in the paper, the better it can absorb water.

100% cotton papers, with gelatin or some other adhesive in between the fibers, is the best option available in the market today for water-coloring.  They are strong and pliable and are sometimes referred to as rag paper. Most mid-grade papers are made out of a combination of wood pulp, cotton, and other cellulose fibers.

The Texture Of The Watercolor Paper Differences

  1. The Texture Of The Paper

Different textures of paper are suited for different types of paintings. This is a purely personal choice, and you should choose according to the kind of picture you have in mind or the kind of artist you are.

There are two types of machine-made papers which are created by squeezing through metal plates. There’s a third type which is hand-made as well.

If the metal plates used for the process were hot, these sheets are called “hot press,” and if they were cold, the sheets are called “cold press” or “not.” (as in not-hot).

Let’s take a more detailed look at these three types of papers:

– Hot Press [Machine Made]

Hot press papers are smooth and have no rough teeth on the surface. If you are the kind who likes using pens or graphite to make sketches, these papers are perfect. The smooth texture really helps the ink stand out.

However, if you want to put in watercolors, they won’t stick to the paper and will sort of float on top of it and might spread about uncontrollably. It will also take far longer to dry. So if you want to do mostly sketches and then put on a final layer of watercolor, these sheets are ideal for that purpose.

– Cold Press [Machine Made]

Cold press is the most popular form of watercolor paper. It has several teeth (bumps) on the surface of the paper. If the paper is rough or grainy, it does a great job of absorbing paint, and you can make precise strokes without ever worrying about color bleeding into or flowing into adjacent shapes and objects.

However, cold press sheets are much less rough than the type of paper we’re going to discuss next. Cold press sheets hit the perfect balance between rough and smooth, making for a very versatile and convenient form of coloring paper.

– Rough Paper [Hand-made]

There’s a third type of paper that isn’t made through a press. The manufacturer merely let the paper air dry. This method of drying leads to the formation of a huge number of small bubbles on the surface giving it a very thick, rough and bumpy structure.

This type of paper is aptly termed ‘rough’ paper. It’s the best paper for water coloring, and it’s the professionals choice. No paper does a better job of holding watercolors in place and getting the paint to dry out fast. This also means you can easily layer up your paintings and create an amazing painting.

Buy Acid Free Quality Paper

  1. Buy Acid Free Quality Paper

Poor quality watercolor paper can be quite a problem. It’s hard to judge the quality of the paper simply by looking at it. You can get a decent idea by touching and feeling the paper. If it feels thick and rough to the touch, it’s probably okay. But even thick and coarse paper can be of poor quality if they are made out of more wood than cotton.

When you start painting on a sub-standard sheet,  you will notice some slight distortion and deterioration of paper quality while it is wet. You’ll have to be very careful with the application of paint and water to ensure the colors don’t bleed into each other and the paper doesn’t get worn out.

Low-grade paper also usually has some amount of acid in it. The problem with acid only becomes obvious over time. As the years go by, the paper will become more and more yellow, and all the colors will lose their shine slowly. Sub-standard paper does a terrible job of preserving quality over time.


So now you know what to look for in a watercolor paper.

Just to recap:

  1. Buy a paper which is thick and heavy so that the colors don’t pierce through the paper and go out the other side.
  2. Buy a paper which has a lot of cotton on it, so that the watercolor gets absorbed in it better, without wilting the paper. A lot of infused cotton also helps in drying out the paint faster.
  3. Buy a paper which has a lot of grain on its surface. The rougher the surface, the better the paint is going to stay in place and not slide all over the surface.
  4. Buy a high-quality paper so that your paintings are durable and the picture quality does not deteriorate over time.

A Few More Suggestions

  1. Buy watercolor blocks instead of watercolor sheets

You can buy watercolor pads, individual sheets or blocks.

A block is essentially a small stack of paper that has been glued on all four sides.

A watercolor block lets you paint on it without stretching it beforehand. Stretching can be a cumbersome process, and it takes time and effort. If you have a great idea and want to get it down on paper as soon as possible, you wouldn’t want to get stuck with stretching the paper before you can start drawing on it.

You can paint on a watercolor block without any stretching whatsoever. Once the painting is done, you can leave it be, or you can cut it out of the block by using a butter knife. Simply insert the butter knife into the unglued portion of the block and then cut out the top surface by dragging the blade along the edges.

  1. Consider a watercolor paper pad

If you’re the kind that likes to paint outdoors, consider getting yourself a good watercolor paper pad. Since the pages are affixed to the pad, you won’t be able to take them out separately to stretch them. So, ensure that the papers are thick enough that ridges or crease don’t form upon the application of paint.

Selecting The Right Type of Paper For the Kind Of Painting You Want To Make

Selecting The Right Type of Paper For the Kind Of Painting You Want To Make

The reason there are so many different types of papers is to accommodate all types of paintings and of course, also to accommodate all budget sizes.

This next section should give you an idea of what kind of paper is suitable for what type of painting.

What Rough Paper Is Good For

For example, if you are painting landscapes, you would need to paint close-ups of foliage. This would require a fair amount of edge diffusing. For a painting of this sort, you need precise control, the very opposite of fluidity.

If you want to create an illusion of foliage, you would most likely do a considerable amount of dry brushing. Whenever there are instances of dry brushing, we would suggest you use rough paper.

It’s also great for glazing (adding new layers on top of old layers) as the rough paper grips the first layer exceptionally well. New layers don’t disturb the base layer.

What Cold Press Paper Is Good For

If you want to make soft edges, cold pressed is the best choice for you. However, if you’re going to do a wet-on-wet application, that is put layers of watercolor on top of another layer which isn’t already dried, you might face some problems with color diffusion. A skilled artist can handle and contain the paint though. Cold press isn’t exactly ideal for glazing though as the new layers tend to distort the base layer.

Cold press paintings often have a very nice velvety look, which highlights the center subject and makes for high contrast. Thus cold press is more suited for portraits which need to put the subject on the center-stage.

Cold press papers also let you combine watercolors with pastel colors. Thus you can bring in an added dimension to your paintings if you want to.

If you’re a beginner, then we would suggest you use cold press papers, because cold press papers give you the liberty to spray off certain areas of the painting if you’ve made a mistake and need to correct them.

What Hot Press Is Good For

Hot press is good for fine details which you can make with pen and ink. It’s also very suitable for gouache. For most purposes though, it’s unsuitable for watercolor painting. Paint has a hard time penetrating into the inner layers, and it tends to stay on top of the sheet.

There are a lot of brands out there which combine properties of both cold press and rough paper – as in you would get the velvety feel of a crisp press paper, but it has the absorbing capabilities of a rough paper. So you get to work on layers as well.

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Final Words

Watercolor paper is very different from your usual paper, and it has to hold up the paint and water on it, without tearing up the paper. Good watercolor paper provides traction, and it lets you put draw layer on top of layer and ensures that your paintings stay crisp and bright for a long, long time.

We hope this guide has taught you about the types of watercolor paper available and will help you make an informed choice on what to buy for your next magnificent work of art.

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Sudarshan Kar

Sudarshan Kar

As Lead Editor of Homesthetics for almost a decade now, Sudarshan knows the website inside-out. His journalistic experience shaped the editorial and integrity guidelines that define the platform today.

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