No matter what kind of painting suits your fancy the most, painting with watercolors is an enriching and fun experience. With this medium, you never really know what the outcome will be, and it allows mistakes to become “happy accidents.” You can achieve very unexpected paintings by letting the water and colors speak to you and guide you through the painting. But, in the case of watercolors, using the right (or wrong) type of watercolor paper can truly make or break a painting.
Because watercolors are so easily affected by the canvas they are painted on, it is useful to know the types of paper available and which one will best fit your needs. The type of watercolor paper you use will influence the final style of the painting, and it can also determine its longevity.
Here’s a quick rundown of the main types of watercolor paper, based on texture and weight, plus some extra tips!
Watercolor paper: texture
The three main types of paper vary depending on the roller used to press it during production. Let's take a look at what determines the texture.
This type of paper is pressed using metal rollers, which create a smooth surface and an even texture. Hot-pressed paper is great for mixed media work. When combining watercolor with other media, even ink and graphite will glide smoothly over its surface.
Hot-pressed paper will also allow you to create a lot of detail. It offers a sleek finish. Plus, the smoothness of the paper is great for creating subtle color gradients, which is very useful when painting things like flowers, skies, skin and clothes.
This type of paper presents a rougher texture than the hot-pressed paper. When you glide your brush over it, some of the paint settles on it while skipping the indentations of the grainy texture, leaving them blank. This creates a beautifully textured brushstroke, perfect for representing all kinds of sparkling bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans, among many other subjects. Cold-pressed paper is great for beginners and is also a favorite among many artists.
As the name indicates, this is a paper with a very textured surface, making it very different from hot-pressed paper. It is not ideal for painting a lot of detail, but it creates expressive brush strokes that can provide a lot of character and emotion to a painting. This is a fun texture to work with, as you never really know what the results will be.
No type of paper is inherently better than the other. It all depends on your needs, your preferred watercolor techniques and what look you are going for in your painting.
Watercolor paper: weight
Mixed media (watercolor and ink) sketches via Antonella
All three types of watercolor paper come in different weights. If you are practicing or sketching with watercolors, you might want to go for one of the thinner papers, like 90 lb. or 140 lb., since they are more inexpensive. Keep in mind that the thinner paper should be stretched before you start painting, otherwise you will end up with a warped and buckled painting.
If you are creating a more important piece, or you simply use heavier washes when painting with watercolors, you will want to use something thicker. Try looking for something like 260 lb. or 300 lb. paper, which will absorb more water and won't buckle.
Extra tips for choosing watercolor paper
Stretch your watercolor paper before getting started to prevent warping. There are blocks of paper available that come “pre-stretched,” meaning the pages are glued together on all four sides, ready to be painted on. Once you are done, all you have to do is let it dry on the block, and then carefully separate the sheet from it.
Side-by-side comparison of rough watercolor paper and regular drawing paper.
Look for acid-free paper if you want your painting to retain its color and quality through time. Acid-free paper will yellow significantly less with age.
All artwork by Antonella
All three of these papers can seem a bit pricey if you want to sketch or practice in quantity without worrying about "ruining" it. What I like to do in these instances is use smooth, regular drawing paper. It won't work so well if you are using heavy washes or painting wet on wet, but it's a good cheap alternative for sketches and allows for a lot of practice work if you use dry-on-dry or wet-on-dry techniques.
Find even more watercolor instruction in the Craftsy class Watercolor Flower Bouquet. The class focuses on painting a still-life flowers, but the techniques you learn, like composition, value and color, will translate to essential watercolor techniques you can use again and again!