Choosing the Right Watercolor Paper (Quality, Content, Weight, Textures, Color, Forms)

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Watercolor papers come in different qualities, weights, textures, colors and forms, all of which respond differently to the various mediums and painting techniques used. But what’s the best watercolor paper option to make your artistic dreams come true?

There are many excellent watercolor papers on the market, and finding the paper that suits you best is as important as finding the paint that you like the best.

In this article, we go over some useful pieces of information to help you when it comes to selecting the perfect watercolor paper. Read on to discover how to choose the right watercolor paper for your watercolor work.

Firstly, it is helpful to understand the characteristics of watercolor paper and what makes papers different from each other. Just like watercolor brushes, watercolor paper is specially made for watercolors.

There are many types of watercolor paper available to artists, and even after you've narrowed down the selection to the best ones, it often comes down to personal preference. Here are some of the most important factors you should consider when making a selection: quality, content, weight, texture, color and form.

If you need help in choosing specific sketchbooks for your work, read our best watercolor sketchbooks review.

1. Watercolor Paper Quality

When you buy watercolor paper, the first thing you should consider is its quality.

The two main grades of watercolor paper are artists' quality and students' quality. Artists or professional grade papers will nearly always respond better than student or studio grade papers. Artists' quality, sometimes known as archival paper, is acid-free and designed to endure indefinitely. Papers that aren't acid-free will become yellow and deteriorate over time.

Low-quality paper may cost less, but you'll find that watercolor pigments do not perform as well on cheap surfaces, making some techniques difficult to carry out. You also don't want paper that will start disintegrating when you use rough techniques such as scrubbing.

If you're a beginner or just practicing, you can get by with student quality paper but the paper won't perform as well and don't expect your painting to be as long-lasting.

As an artist, good paper is one of the most important tools you can have. Why learn on low-quality paper and have to adjust your technique when you upgrade to a better quality paper? While every artist has a preference, we recommend to look for quality materials even if you’re just starting out.

That said, it is not necessary to get the most expensive papers available. You won’t need the strongest working surface for your everyday painting. There is a different spectrum of quality papers and each artists must find the one that suits them best.

To sum up, when it comes to painting with watercolors, paper matters. So, don’t scrimp when you’re buying it. Your finished artwork and watercolor experience will be so much better for it!

2. Watercolor Paper Content

Paper is made using a mixture of water and cellulose fibers. Originally, all watercolor paper was made from flax linen waste or rags. In modern papermaking, the term ‘rag’ is used to indicate any natural fiber, but primarily cotton fiber is used which makes it strong but pliable.

100% cotton paper is generally considered the best quality watercolor paper. The length of cotton fibers is much longer than wood fiber which makes cotton paper a lot harder wearing and long lasting. It is naturally acid-free meaning that it will not disintegrate over time.

Rag contents of less than 100% cotton have manilla, flax, synthetic fibers or wood pulp added to the blend. These are supplied as student grade quality. If permanence matters to you or you plan on using lots of rough techniques such scrubbing, scraping, taping, and masking then you should use 100% cotton paper which can handle a beating.

Bamboo paper has been used in Chinese arts for hundreds of years and is a less expensive alternative to 100% cotton papers. A highly sustainable material, the use of bamboo in paper making is considered very environmentally friendly. Like cotton, bamboo fibers are relatively long which adds to the resilience and longevity of the paper.

Did you know that ‘woodfree’ papers actually contain wood? Woodfree is short for ‘groundwood-free’ which means that the wood pulp used in the manufacturing has been broken down chemically rather than mechanically. This process removes the lignin substance that holds wood fibers together. This makes the paper stronger, whiter, and purer. A word of warning, you should avoid using any papers that contain wood that has been mechanically ground as they will be unstable and not as durable.

What about high acid papers?

Papers with a wood or manilla content have a higher acid (PH) content causing them to eventually deteriorate and become yellowed and brittle. High-quality archival watercolor papers have a neutral PH value.

What is the story with synthetics?

Synthetic watercolor papers made with fibers like TYVEC are highly durable, but your technical approach needs to be altered due to their unique handling properties and absorption rates.

3. Watercolor Paper Weight

The thickness of watercolor paper is measured by how much it weighs per 500 sheets, measured either in grams per square meter (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb).

The thicker the paper, the more it weighs and the more water it will take without warping.

The four standard watercolor paper weights are:

  • 190 gsm (90 lb)
  •  300 gsm (140 lb)
  •  356 gsm (260 lb)
  • 638 gsm (300 lb)

We recommend stretching paper that is lighter than 356 gsm (260 lb), otherwise, it is likely to buckle when watercolor is applied to its surface if not stretched. The heaviest weights are generally handmade papers that have texture.

The weight of watercolor paper is not an indication of quality as the best paper comes in both heavy and light types. Nevertheless, weight is important because lighter papers need to be stretched before use and may warp when wet.

Paper with a heavier weight can hold more water and does not usually need to be stretched. It can be costly but artists often prefer it because it doesn't need to be stretched unless you are applying very heavy washes.

190 gsm watercolor paper will absorb a reasonable amount of water but is best used with less water than the average watercolor technique uses and cannot withstand much scrubbing or abrasion of the paper. It also costs the least.

300 gsm watercolor paper is the most widely used paper by watercolorists. It is thicker and can cope with quite a lot of water and rough use. 

You can save money beginning out by using 300 gsm watercolor paper that is still great to work on but may require stretching before use. Alternatively, you can avoid the need to stretch by simply taping the paper to a board during painting.

638 gsm is the strongest and heaviest watercolor paper you will ever require. Thick like card stock it won't need stretching. It will dry flat without warping and can endure quite a bit of scrubbing. Understandably, it is also the most expensive.

4. Watercolor Paper Textures

After weight, you will want to think about the texture of the paper that you’re selecting. Watercolor papers come in 3 different surfaces or textures: hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough surface.

So far we have considered the objective features relating to the paper such as quality, content and weight. Texture, on the other hand, is purely a subjective decision based on the artist’s preference and watercolor painting style.

Most manufacturers offer all 3 surface textures, so select the brand and quality of watercolor paper you prefer. You can also mix and match to find the exact type of paper that suits you best.

Hot-Pressed

Hot-pressed watercolor paper features a fine-grained, smooth surface, with virtually no ‘tooth’. Great for drawing and for pen and ink wash, it is not as ideal for numerous layers of washes since paint tends to sit more on the surface and can build up quickly.

It is popular for detailed work and is liked by artists who do intricate work with a lot of delicate and subtle detail. The least textured surface, hot-pressed paper is preferred by watercolorists who favor a smooth surface.

Cold-Pressed

Cold-pressed watercolor paper is the name given to paper that has a slight ‘tooth’ to it, with a slightly textured surface placing it somewhere in between rough and hot-pressed paper.

It is thought to be the easiest watercolor paper surface to work on and it is the paper used most often by watercolor artists because it's semi-rough surface is suitable for both detailed work and smooth washes. Suitable for beginners and experienced painters alike, the paint will sink a little into the dimples on the surface of the paper, but it will also be sympathetic to some detailed work.

Rough Surface

As one might expect, rough surface watercolor paper is the roughest texture paper available. It has a pronounced ‘tooth’ that is good for washes because it gives them a kind of luminosity. During manufacture, it is pressed between sheets of textured felt giving it a felt-like texture. The heavier, grainy texture means that granulating effects are enhanced as pools of water collect in the indentations in the paper.

Rough surface paper is not recommended for watercolorists interested in highly detailed work and is more suited to expressive painting techniques and adding visual interest to your painting.

5. Watercolor Paper Color

When you’re choosing watercolor paper, take note of its color, just as you would its texture and weight. Watercolor paper color varies between manufacturers and even between different types of paper made by the same company. Colors range from warm creams to cold, bluish whites. Names for these watercolor paper colors include natural white, extra white, bright white, and absolute white.

The reason most watercolor papers are light colors such as white or cream is because they allow light to reflect off their surface which gives translucent watercolor paint a luminescent look. Many artists will leave certain parts of the paper to show through as a substitute for white paint.

However, you can also buy watercolor paper in different colors or tints to create different moods and effects. You can also tint white watercolor paper you already have with whatever color you like by applying a thin wash.

The important thing to keep in mind is that different colors of watercolor paper will have an impact on your painting. Which color you choose is both personal preference and dependent on the specific situation.

6. Watercolor Paper Forms

The last thing on our list to consider is how to buy your watercolor paper. Watercolor paper can be purchased in individual sheets but you can also available in blocks, boards, pads and sketchbooks.

Scroll down for details about the various forms, but if you are starting out and looking for a place to begin, you can practice on pads or blocks before moving to high-quality boards when you find yourself creating artwork you feel is worthy of preservation in the long term.

Other than choosing the highest-quality paper quality your budget will allow for, it once again largely comes down to personal preference.

Let's look more closely at Sheets, Blocks, Boards, and Pads & Sketchbooks.

Sheets

Generally, individual watercolor paper sheets are large and measure 30” x 22” in the imperial size. The larger your sheet of paper the more prone it will be to buckling and wrinkling, so if a large amount of fluid watercolor paint is applied to a full imperial sheet it will need stretching. While not a complicated process, it is nevertheless inconvenient.

Sheets are also more difficult to store as they a large place to lay flat is needed to ensure the surface is kept smooth, clean and undamaged.

Blocks

A watercolor block is a pile of watercolor sheets bound together on all 4 sides by glue so there is no need to stretch the paper before using. You paint on the top sheet and while the paper may buckle as you work on it, when the water evaporates, the sheet will dry flat and resume its original position free from warping.

When you have finished a painting, you then slice it off the pile with a palette knife just under the edge of the top sheet and the next sheet is ready to be used.

Boards

Watercolor boards, like blocks, are a convenient option as they do not need stretching. They can also be cut down to a size that suits your watercolor idea.

Consisting of watercolor paper that has been glued onto a rigid, acid-free archival quality board, as with other watercolor products, you need to consider of the type of paper that has been used to make sure the product is resilient and long lasting.

Pads/Sketchbooks

Watercolor pads and sketchbooks are easy to transport and are ideal for practicing and for painting outdoors. You can buy pads and sketchbooks containing artists' quality archival paper that are 100% cotton which means they are the watercolor paper least likely to yellow, and the most durable as well.

Pads are tape-bound or glued on one side only which allows you to easily peel off each piece of paper. Wire-bound watercolor sketchbooks are great for travelling as you can just turn over a finished work and start work on a fresh piece of paper.

Summary

We hope this little guide has been useful in guiding you picking the right watercolor paper for your art work. In case you need help in choosing specific watercolor sketchbooks, have a look our round up of best watercolor sketchbooks

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