Which paper is best for watercolor? Well, the answer to this is both easy (watercolor painting paper) and a bit complex (there are different types, so it depends on what your preferences and purpose are).
If you’re feeling a bit confused, don’t worry. We’ve put together this quick guide to the varieties out there so that you can choose the right paper for your project.
What is the Difference Between Watercolor Paper and Paper?
There are good reasons why you can’t just use any old type of paper for watercolor painting.
Watercolor paper is made of higher-quality, more absorbent materials than regular varieties so that when you apply moisture to its surface, it doesn’t buckle and tear. If you tried watercolor painting on traditional paper, such as the paper you use in your printer, you’d find that it very quickly breaks apart when exposed to water and that it seizes up and loses shape as it dries—neither of which are ideal for practicing your watercolor techniques.
Types of Paper for Watercolor Art
Of all of the various watercolor supplies you need—including brushes, paint palettes, and watercolor pens and pencils—the type of watercolor paper you use is one of your most important decisions. Pick the wrong watercolor painting paper, and you could end up with damaged artwork down the line. You could also make your work more difficult by choosing the wrong type for the painting that you’re doing.
There are four things to consider when choosing the right paper for watercolor painting: quality, pressure, and weight. Not all types of watercolor paper work well for all techniques, so be sure to take your time in making a selection so that you don’t end up with paper that isn’t suitable for the job.
The quality, or grade, of your watercolor paper speaks to what the paper is made of and the process used for making it. Higher grade watercolor paper is made with better materials and production processes and is a better choice for most watercolor paintings beyond sketches and practice work.
You’ll find watercolor paper divided into two grades: professional and student.
- Professional grade is usually 100% cotton paper, and that’s important since cotton watercolor paper is much less likely to degrade on contact with moisture than watercolor paper made from other materials. Professional cotton paper, also known as “cotton rag” or “rag paper,” is usually handmade in a mold instead of made by machine. It has a rough texture that’s great for absorbency and is pH neutral and acid-free, so that you don’t have to worry about it yellowing over time.
- Student grade is made from a combination of wood pulp fibers and cellulose. It’s machine-made and has less texture and absorbency than professional cotton watercolor paper, and it’s also not pH neutral, so eventual yellowing is an issue. In general, student grade is fine for practicing watercolor basics, but it shouldn’t be used for creating work you want to keep.
Pressure is what determines the texture or surface of the paper. Watercolor paints adhere differently to different textures, so you’ll want to choose a pressure that matches the techniques and type of watercolor pigment you intend to use.
There are three pressure varieties, each of which results in a unique texture:
- Hot pressed: Produces the smoothest texture. It’s useful for fine detailing work with watercolor pens and ink, but typically not for general brush painting.
- Cold pressed: Good for mixed medium work and wet-on-wet applications. It has a medium-rough texture that makes fine detailing a bit difficult but gives it excellent absorbency. It’s also great for beginners.
- Rough: This is the most textured type of watercolor paper, which allows for pigments to sink deepest into the fibers. It’s even better for wet-on-wet than cold pressed and is the most absorbent of all watercolor paper varieties.
The last consideration to take into account when choosing watercolor paper is weight. This refers to the thickness of the paper, which directly correlates to its absorbency and ease of use.
Watercolor paper comes in three weight stocks. (For reference, printer paper only weighs about 24 pounds per block.)
- Light: 90 pound blocks that aren’t often used for general watercolor painting but can be used for making prints.
- Medium: 140 pound blocks and the most common weight to use. Must be stretched prior to use to prevent it from buckling while you paint.
- Heavy: 300 pound blocks and the thickest of the bunch. Some painters simply prefer to use heavy weight, especially those who work in very wet techniques.
If you opt for medium weight paper, wet it down and allow it to dry before applying paint. This stretching technique leads to less expansion upon a second application of moisture and a smoother overall surface.
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Choosing the Best Watercolor Paper
Now you know all of the factors that go into paper, but how do you choose which is the best type for you? If you want to take the guesswork out of the process and just go with the most commonly used variety, pick up some professional grade, cold pressed, medium weight paper, which you can find in any art supply store.
Then, as you get more experienced and start to learn new techniques, try out different types of paper and see what you prefer working with.
What Can I Use if I Don’t Have Watercolor Paper?
You already know that printer paper won’t work for watercolors, though you do have some other options available to you. Obviously, watercolor paper is optimal, but in a bind you can try painting on standard A4 sketchbook or mixed media. You could also paint on Bristol board paper, which is made by layering pieces of art paper to create a thick and stable surface, or a canvas (more on that here).
Of course, if you are painting art with watercolors that you intend to keep or display, then you’ll always want to stick with actual watercolor paper. Alternatives may work out just fine for practicing, however, and can save you money if you want to invest in the best watercolor paper but don’t want to use it every time you paint.
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