what is watercolor paper

Here’s Why Watercolor Paper Is Such An Important Supply

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Watercolor paper is commonly agreed to be one of the most important supplies when it comes to watercoloring.

A quality watercolor paper can really make your artwork shine.

However, opposite of that, a cheap or underperforming watercolor paper will buckle or crinkle and make your finished piece look less than desirable.

While we recently covered some the best watercolor papers, we thought it important to dedicate an entire post about watercolor paper and what you should be looking out for when selecting one for your own studio.

Hot Press, Cold Press, And Rough Production Methods

watercolor paper types

When browsing the aisles of your local art store or perhaps just taking a look at some great online art stores, you will find that watercolor papers are often categorized into one of the three varieties:

  • Hot press
  • Cold press (also known as NOT – as in NOT hot press)
  • Rough

Hot and cold press papers are relatively easy to understand:

Hot and cold press simply refer to the production process that they went through before they ended up in a book or block form.

Hot pressed papers are literally squeezed through hot metal plates when the sheet of paper is being formed.

The end result is a much smoother surface, akin to drawing or mixed media paper, and will give you a surface that is perfect for very light sketch work.

Cold press on the other hand is paper that was squeezed through cold plates of metal when the final sheet of paper was formed.

While this might not sound like a huge difference, in the world of watercolors, it means everything!

Paper that has been cold pressed will be much more rough to touch (especially when compared to hot pressed papers).

This not only gives you a different texture when painting on the surface, but will also have much higher absorbency rates.

A drawback to this paper will be those artists who like to sketch with their Micron pens or graphite and find that they might not get nearly as smooth of strokes they would otherwise normally achieve when drawing on a hot-pressed paper.

If you are a watercolorist that likes to apply a beautiful wash as their initial layer, a cold pressed paper will be able to not only withstand this initial coat, but will withstand several additional layers of paint and water as well.

Of all the production methods for watercolor paper, cold pressed paper will be among the most popular for watercolorists.

Finally, we want to touch on rough watercolor paper.

Rough is, well rough!

But alas, I am sure many of you got that much based on the name 🙂

The big difference when it comes to this watercolor paper type is that it didn’t go through a press.

Instead, when the paper was originally formed into a sheet, the manufacturer simply let it air dry.

This allows it to ‘bubble up’ so to speak and allow for a much thicker and absorbent surface.

While not as great as hot or cold pressed papers for drawing materials, rough paper really shines when it comes to just simply having watercolor paint applied.

With the high absorbency rate of rough paper, you can really layer up your paintings and make them look remarkable.

But here’s the catch:

Rough watercolor paper does tend to skew a bit more on the expensive side and is typically available from the larger or more established art supply companies (think Arches, Strathmore, etc.).

Another trademark aesthetic to rough watercolor paper is the deckle edge.

So, if you are striving to get that authentic or old-school look, most rough paper has this effect.


Watercolor Paper Weight – The 140lb Gorilla In The Room

Now look:

Watercolor paper types are great and all, but here’s the drop-dead most important aspect that you need to learn today:

Watercolor paper weight.

Now I know this probably sounds like a boring subject…

…and you would be right!

When was the last time you were ever truly excited about paper weight in your life?!

So, you might be scratching your head wondering why paper weight is just so darn important in the first place, here’s why:

Warping and absorbency.

While the production methods above are incredibly important, when selecting a watercolor paper whether it’s for your studio or a simple watercolor sketchbook (which you do have one right?!), you need to get to make sure you are painting on a weight at minimum of 300 gsm (140lb).

300 gsm (we go by the metric system as most watercolor paper is manufactured outside the states), will be sufficient enough for you to do wet-on-wet painting without having to worry about stretching your paper.

Now check this out:

A quick visit to the Arches website shows that watercolor paper does come in more than just 300 gsm:

watercolor paper weights

Source: Arches

Yes, from 185 to 850 gsm!

Therefore, wherever you are in your artistic journey you can basically find a watercolor paper weight to match your preference.

But still, the above holds true regarding 300 gsm.

If you are just starting out with watercoloring, go with 300 gsm, the results will simply be better and require less prep work of being stretched (as we will touch on in just a quick minute).

If Possible Go With The Watercolor Block Rather Than Sheets

Now depending on where you live and the art stores at your disposal can really determine the selection of watercolor papers at your fingertips.

As you may have guessed from this section’s title, when in doubt, go with watercolor blocks.

Watercolor blocks come in a variety of sizes which make them absolutely great surfaces for painting on.

But why?

As we touched on in the previous section, stretching watercolor paper can be a bit of a pain.

It involves the use of gummed paper tape that must be dampened along with submersion or ‘painting’ of water on the surface.

This not only becomes a chore for watercolorists who simply just want to paint, but requires much more space and additional supplies.

So, what’s the deal with a block?

Watercolor blocks are essentially a stack of watercolor paper that has been glued on all four sides.

They are effectively ‘pre-stretched’ and can be painted on directly without the need for any additional prep work.

The results are nearly always amazing and just simply perform well for most watercolorists.

Here’s a demonstration on how the watercolor block is glued:

watercolor block construction

Instead of a piece of watercolor paper that has been stretched manually, with the watercolor block you can simply place a palette knife (or even a butter knife) and go around the edges to pry the artwork free.

It’s a relatively clean way to separate your artwork without putting it at risk of tearing.

Now it’s important to know:

Watercolor sheets aren’t bad per se.

They definitely have their utility and will work well for watercolorists.

So, if you have a pad of paper in your studio right now, don’t worry!

Just be sure that the next time you get a refill on your supplies, you take a quick look at the watercolor blocks and try one of them out!

Watercolor Sketchbooks Should Always Be At The Ready

painting in a watercolor sketchbook

Now, even if you get the most expensive art supplies available, it won’t make a lick of difference if you aren’t a good artist.

We will be the first to say, nice art supplies don’t define the artist.

In fact, we feel like sometimes they get in the way of the artwork!

There have been so many instances where we have seen artists apprehensive to use a particular paper type or even brush for fear of damaging it or creating uninspired artwork.

This hesitation and lack of confidence will show in the artwork.

Therefore, to build your confidence and skill as an artist, it’s important to regularly practice.

Now you don’t have to go overboard with this, but you will want to make sure you have a watercolor sketchbook on hand.

Watercolor sketchbooks are great, not because they are small, but they are relatively cheap and get the job done when it comes to painting in the field.

Whether you are a person that loves to hike on the weekends, or simply loves going outdoors on your lunchbreak, watercolor sketchbooks are a great way to constantly practice your skill no matter the scenario.

We would recommend picking up either water brushes (also known as watercolor pens) or watercolor pencils as they can be terrific complimentary supplies.

Whatever you do, just know this:

Don’t go with a mixed media or simple sketchbook.

These paper types are typically hot pressed or fine-toothed and will have a terribly hard time absorbing the water and pigment properly.

Watercolor sketchbooks are often cold pressed and will have at least a 300 gsm weight to them like the ones we reviewed here.

Stretching Watercolor Paper The Right Way

Now we won’t dive too deep into detail on this, but we wanted to share this great video by Hilary of Blick Art Materials explaining the stretching process:

Where To Go From Here

As you can see from today’s article, there really is quite a bit going on when it comes to watercolor paper and selection.

The proper watercolor paper won’t only showcase your artwork in the best light possible, but it will also perform beautifully with your brushes and paints.

If you are looking for recommendations on a few watercolor papers, we would invite you to check out our roundup of the best watercolor papers.

There we took an in-depth look at all the big suppliers to give you the best possible recommendation.

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