How To Choose The Right Watercolor Paper

If you’ve decided to give watercolor painting a try, one thing you need to experiment with is different types of paper. There are several basic types, and each manufacturer’s product has distinctive characteristics.

Trying out a lot of papers can be expensive, but finding a paper that suits your painting style will make painting a lot more enjoyable and productive.

Purchase a small quantity of any paper you’re interested in auditioning. You can buy a small-sized pad with a few sheets. The pads may be spiral bound, or it may be a block. There are many sizes from which to choose, and there’s a wide range of prices.

Another option is to buy a single, large sheet. You can then cut the sheet into smaller sizes. This is often the least costly way of testing a new paper.

Characteristics Of Watercolor Paper

These are the things you should look at:


The content of watercolor paper is different from typical household/business paper, which is cellulose (wood pulp) based. Watercolor paper is made of either 100 percent cotton or a combination of both cellulose and cotton.

The best watercolor paper is 100 percent cotton, and is sometimes called ‘rag paper.’ Rag paper is more durable than cellulose paper. Although more expensive, 100 percent cotton paper is well worth the additional cost.


Watercolor paper comes in several different weights or thicknesses. Most manufacturers produce their paper in different weights, so the thickness is not indicative of quality.

Thick paper, such as 300-pound, holds up very well to heavy water saturation and remains relatively flat. 140-pound paper tends to buckle when a lot of water is used and generally should be stretched before painting. 90-pound paper is the thinnest watercolor paper and should be stretched, as it easily buckles with wet washes.

Of course, the cost is reflected in the thickness or weight of the paper, so you’ll pay more for thicker paper.


And then there’s…

Hot Press

Hot Press Paper is smooth with little or no texture and also a hard surface. With no texture, it’s perfect for doing tight, detailed work and is preferred by artists who do botanical or highly realistic paintings. Since the smooth surface can be somewhat challenging, beginning artists may find it hard to control the paint.

Painting even washes is a great challenge with Hot Press paper, but the color vibrancy is superior. As it is the least absorbent of the three types of paper, it is not successful with thick, undiluted paint.

Lifting and scrubbing must be done with a light touch, as the smooth surface is easily marred and subsequent paint will not match the surrounding area in texture.

Cold Press

Cold Press Paper is the most commonly used and versatile watercolor paper. It has a slight tooth, or texture, and as such is suitable for beginning artists. It has enough texture to grab the paint, but it’s smooth enough to allow for a lot of detail work and smooth, fine washes.

Washes work quite well with this medium-textured, medium absorbency paper, and it can take any dilution of paint successfully.

Cold Press paper can take aggressive brushwork, as well as serious scrubbing and lifting.


Rough Watercolor Paper has a pronounced tooth and is the most absorbent of the three types of paper. The coarse texture is well suited for dry brush, as brushstrokes leave tiny white spots that give a painterly appearance. The texture doesn’t allow for tight detail work, nor does it work well for lifting color.

As the paper is quite absorbent, color vibrancy may be compromised, but it will work with all levels of paint dilution. You may find you need to increase the saturation of your paint to achieve the vibrancy you’re looking for.

It’s best suited for aggressive painting techniques and can handle forceful scrubbing and lifting.

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