In watercolor painting, brushes are important, paints are paramount, but the paper we choose to paint on is the foundation of our work—and like a house, a good foundation is critical for the success of a painting.
Just like watercolor brushes, watercolor paper is specially made for watercolors. Watercolor paper contains sizing, which reduces the absorption of paint by the paper and prevents the wet paint from soaking in. This keeps the paint on top of the paper, letting the white show through transparent paint. The effect is brilliant, clear color.
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When you buy watercolor paper, the first thing you should consider is its weight.
Standard watercolor paper weights
Watercolor paper is measured by how much it weighs per 500 sheets. The heavier the paper, the more it weighs and the more water it will take without buckling. The three standard watercolor paper weights are 90, 140 and 300 pounds.
90 pound watercolor paper will accept a fair amount of water, but is best used with less water than the average watercolorist uses and cannot survive a lot of “scrubbing” or abrasion of the paper. It is also the least expensive.
140 pound watercolor paper is probably the most commonly used paper by watercolor painters. It is thicker and can handle quite a bit of water and scrubbing. (140 pound paper has a mid-range price tag as well.)
300 pound watercolor paper is probably the strongest, heaviest paper you will ever need. This weight of paper is like card stock and needs no stretching. (Stretching is outside the scope of this article, but I’ll write a tutorial on that later as well.) Heavy 300 pound paper will dry flat without buckling and can take quite a bit of abuse. Naturally, it is also more expensive.
Watercolor paper texture
Besides weight, you will also want to take note of the texture of the paper that you’re buying. Watercolor paper comes in three different “finishes” or textures: hot press, cold press, and rough.
Hot pressed watercolor paper has a smooth surface with no “tooth”. Think of a smooth, unwrinkled ironed pair of pants—that’s hot press.
Cold pressed watercolor paper on the other hand has a lightly textured surface and is probably the most commonly used type of paper, somewhere between the hot and rough paper.
Rough watercolor paper is just that—rough! It’s already got texture, so using rough paper is another good way to add visual interest to your painting, especially when painting with a dry brush technique.
Most brands and weights of paper offer all three surface textures, so you can mix and match and find the exact type of paper that you prefer.
Watercolor paper comes in natural white and bright white. Which color you choose is a personal preference—I use both, depending on the specific situation.
Yupo is a synthetic watercolor surface, so while it’s often called “paper,” Yupo is not really paper at all. Yupo has applications for watercolor as a surface, but since it is not a true paper we will cover how and why to use Yupo in a related article.
Paper is sold in different sizes and is packaged differently. The most common way to buy watercolor paper is in pads, blocks or individual sheets.
Individual sheets are the cheapest depending on their weight. Sheets are large and measure 22×30. I buy sheets most often for larger works, but also tear them down to any size I want. Sheets are harder to store since they require a large place to lay flat to keep the surface smooth, clean and unharmed. Some places sell sheets in packs of five and half sheets in packs of five or more.
Pads are smaller individual sheets that are bound on one edge in some way and may be removed from the pad. Pads contain as few as 10 sheets to as many as 50. Pads are easy to transport and readily available in most art or arts and crafts stores.
Blocks are sheets of paper bound all around the edges so there is no need to stretch the paper before using. Blocks are also easy to transport but they are a bit more expensive since they require no preparation before painting and usually come with 20-25 sheets. You also have to remove each sheet to start another painting, which is problematic if the painting is wet and you want it to dry flat.
What if I’m just beginning? Do I need good paper?
I feel that paper is of great importance, especially for the beginner who is learning.
Why learn on a paper that is not of good quality and have to adjust your process when you move up to a better paper? While every watercolorist has a preference, as a teacher I feel that good paper and good watercolor brushes are the most important tools you can have. Always look for quality tools, even if you’re just starting out.
That said, I do not work on the most expensive papers. I don’t need such a strong working surface for my everyday painting. I recommend a good 140 pound cold pressed paper in sheets, pad or blocks.
There are higher and lesser quality papers than these, and each artist must find the one that works for them, but I find the quality of these brands to be high and the cost reasonable. Plus, they are all readily available both in art stores and online.
To sum up everything in this article. . . when it comes to painting with watercolor, paper matters! So don’t skimp when you’re buying it. Your painting experience (and finished product) will be so much better for it!