Watercolor Paper – Which Type Is Right?

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When you’re a beginning artist, there’s so much to learn and remember that it’s a bit overwhelming.

One common problem for a beginning watercolor student is deciding on which type of paper to use.

With watercolor, the support you choose can make a big difference in the success of your first encounters with this tricky and sometimes unpredictable medium.

Choose right and you’ll be an instant convert. Choose wrong, and you may never pick up a tube of watercolor again.

Three Finishes, Unlimited Choices

There are three major types of watercolor paper. Although artists use all kinds of supports for their work, the bulk of watercolor paintings are produced on Rough, Cold-Pressed or Hard-Pressed Paper.

However, to add to the mix, there are many different weights of paper available in all three finishes, so you have a seemingly unlimited number of choices for your painting support.

Adding yet another layer of complexity, manufacturers use different materials and production processes, so Brand A’s Cold-Press paper may behave quite differently than Brand B’s Cold-Press paper. Some companies use cotton rag while others use linen rag. Hemp is also an option and may be combined with either of the other two.

With all of these possible combinations, many artists have walked away from an art store without making a paper purchase due to frustration. How can you choose with so many alternatives?

To keep it simple, today we’re going to focus mainly on the three finishes that are most commonly available. We’ll get to weights, materials and manufacturing processes in a future article.

Rough Paper

Rough paper is just what it says – the surface is very uneven and has a great deal of texture. The tooth of this paper makes a definite impact on the way the paint looks and behaves. The textural nature of the paper becomes part and parcel of the composition, and this should be considered when using rough paper as one’s support.

Rough Paper makes it hard to do fine detail work – the hills and valleys of the surface just don’t allow for intricate line work or painstaking detail. However, it’s perfect for abstract, impressionist or nonrepresentational work. Any time you’re more concerned with developing texture over rendering detail, you may want to consider using Rough Paper.

Rough Paper seems to absorb more paint than other types of paper, so you may tend to have light colored paintings. If you find this to be true, use a higher concentration of pigment to give your painting the rich brilliance you’re looking for.

Cold-Pressed Paper

Cold-Pressed Paper is the go-to support for many artists. Its surface has some tooth that adds texture to a painting, but it’s not so rough as to make it impossible to add fine details and highlights.

This paper is not as absorbent as Rough Paper, so your paints will appear bright and vivid. It’s also a very forgiving paper. You can scrub the surface with water to remove an unwanted swath of color. In its heavier incarnations, Cold-Pressed Paper takes repeated wetting and scrubbing with little degradation.

Hot-Pressed Paper

If you’re a realist and are most content working over detailed segments of your composition for accurate, lifelike results, you may find yourself a fan of Hot-Pressed Paper.

Another facet of Hot-Pressed Paper’s personality is the tendency for paint to sit on the surface and create interesting puddles as it dries. It’s the least absorbent of the three papers, and it has no tooth to add texture to your composition.

Since the paper isn’t very absorbent, drybrush is a perfect technique to create your paintings. You can use drybrush for adding detail to washes, or use the technique to add texture to an otherwise flat plane.

If you’re into abstract art, you can use the propensity for the paint to remain on the surface. After applying paint, tip and angle your paper to encourage running, spreading and surface mingling of colors.

Using Hot-Pressed Paper is not for the faint of heart. It requires dedication to master the persnickety paper and to conquer its stubborn nature. A beginning watercolorist may enjoy playing with different types and textures of paper, but be aware that using Hot-Pressed Paper can initially cause raised blood pressure and frustration.

Starting out in watercolor is a fun way to begin your artistic sojourn. However, using the most user-friendly materials makes a big difference in your experience.

Choose Cold-Pressed Paper as your support until you’ve had some experience and developed some painting skills. Then, make sure to try out all the other types of paper. You’ll have fun integrating their personalities into your painting style and they can add to your versatility as a painter.

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