Watercolor 101: Understanding the Different Grades of Watercolor Paper

I’d like to start this discussion on watercolor paper by first saying that I don’t really like the term “paper”. Artist Johannes Vloothuis writes that when talking about watercolor that the term paper is a misnomer and I strongly agree with his take. What watercolor artists use is not similar to what you think of as paper, but is actually sheets of cotton. As Vloothuis says: “If manufacturers of these materials dispelled the word ‘paper’ and substituted it for ‘cotton sheets’, watercolor would have more associated formality because oil and acrylic paintings are also painted on cotton surfaces. This will not only add value to watercolor paintings but collectors may also stop viewing their investment as having a short life span”.

The value of watercolors is a long discussion for another time though.

In this post we’ll discuss the different terms used to describe grades of watercolor paper and which brand I prefer. But first off, regardless of brand or grade, there is one key thing any watercolor paper you buy needs to be: 100% cotton. You will find “student grade” blocks of watercolor paper that aren’t made entirely (and in some cases not at all) from cotton. Avoid these please to save yourself the frustration of having your paintings curl up or fall apart. Any paper you buy needs to be 100% cotton and acid free to avoid yellowing over time, so be sure to check that whatever paper you buy has 100% cotton listed on the packaging.

My Arches block of 9 x 12 paper.

Now, when you go to buy watercolor paper (after you’ve checked that it’s 100% cotton, seriously, that is important) you’ll see three terms pop up: cold pressed, hot pressed and rough. These terms describe the amount of compression that was used to create the paper. Different compression results in the cotton fibers being closer or more separated from one other. Each grade of paper will behave differently when painted on, so it is important to know the characteristics of each. I’ve found a detailed breakdown of each from the website artistsnetwork.com which I’ll share below:

Hot Pressed (the one I never use)

  • Very little pigment penetrates beyond sitting on the surface.
  • Hot pressed is not adequate for general watercolor painting.
  • It’s suitable for fine detail, such as pen and ink.
  • This type of paper works well with gouache.
  • Wet-on-wet application with diffusion will not work.
  • Glazing will lift the under layer.

Rough (the one I’ll occasionally use)

  • The pigment seeps even deeper into the fibers of rough paper.
  • The wet-into-wet application works well on this type of surface.
  • Glazing works better because the paper grips the first layer quite well.
  • It does not work well for scraping out rocks when painting landscapes.
  • The rougher surface is conducive to dry brushing, which is great for creating the illusion of foliage.
  • It’s harder to remove unwanted paint (with water from a spray bottle).

Cold Pressed (my preferred grade of paper)

  • Some pigment penetrates deeper into the fibers.
  • A painting on this type of paper ends up with a nice velvety look.
  • Diffused wet-into-wet application can be achieved on cold pressed, but there’s a risk of losing the forms from excessive pigment bleeding. The artist working with this paper must be quite skilled at controlling the degree of fugitive paint.
  • It works well for scraping out rocks with a credit card when painting landscapes.
  • Cold pressed is not optimal for glazing because the new layer tends to disturb the first layer.
  • It’s too smooth to apply the dry brush technique many artists use to create bushes and trees when creating landscapes.
  • This type of paper makes it easier to spray off an area that needs correction.
  • It has an excellent surface for combining pastels with watercolor, especially pan pastels.
Hummingbird I created recently on cold pressed Arches paper 140lb. weight.

As you can see, there are drawbacks and benefits to each (although, I don’t know why anyone uses hot pressed to be honest) and it really comes down to style. For me, I prefer cold pressed because it feels like the “middle of the road”. I can paint either really wet or dry as long as I pay close attention to my techniques. My advice for learning which paper best suits you is to try everything at least once (even hot pressed).

The next important thing to note about watercolor paper is weight because this is what will affect whether or not your paper buckles. As a rule of thumb, I suggest always stretching your paper regardless of weight. Here is a description of three weights you’ll find:

  • 90 lb. is not ideal for painting with watercolor, this will buckle almost instantly, avoid!
  • 140 lb. is a great weight, but must always be stretched to avoid buckling.
  • 300 lb. will not require stretching but is way more expensive. It can still curl if over moistened in one area, so you’ll need to at least attach it to a stiff surface when painting.

And if you don’t know what I mean by “stretching your paper” here is a short definition: Stretching the paper is when you completely wet the paper, fasten it to a stiff surface, then allow it to dry before painting. This will reduce the amount of buckling and curling when the surface becomes wet as you paint. I most often work with 140 lb. because the price is within my budget and I don’t mind stretching paper beforehand. When it comes to choosing between 140 and 300 lb. I believe budget is the biggest deciding factor.

My Arches loose sheets of cold pressed 140lb. paper.

The last thing, before discussing brands, that I want to bring up is buying a block versus sheets of watercolor paper. You can find sheets of paper up to 22 by 30 inches which you can then cut down into the size you want. There are also pre-cut packages available as well. Aside from loose sheets, you’ll find what are called “watercolor blocks”. This is a stack of paper tapebound together to help avoid buckling and curling. In my personal experience, the 140 lb. blocks will always buckle a little bit, but that being said I have purchased them because they’re great for travel and more affordable than a 300 lb. block.

My preference is to buy loose sheets of 140 lb. weight in different sizes, some smaller pre-cut ones and some large sheets that I will cut down to the size I need. This is another those things I think is influenced by budget. If you can afford to get a 300 lb. block of paper, then honey go for it, but there are plenty techniques and tools you can use with 140 lb. paper that will help you avoid curling and buckling.

Humming bird on Arches cold pressed 140 lb. weight paper.

And finally, we talk about brand which if you haven’t picked up on already mine is Arches. This is my preference for a couple reasons, the first being is it is readily available in most major and smaller art stores. You can get competitive pricing this way since it is easier to find then some other brands. Many times I’ve purchased blocks of Arches from Micheal’s for less than half by saving coupons and waiting for sales. Most importantly though, it is great quality paper that is always consistent. I’ve never had an issue with any purchase of Arches paper.

When it comes down to it though, finding the brand that works for you will be trial and error. Even though Arches is my favorite, it isn’t the only brand I use because there are some papers that hold up to different techniques better. Some brands offer more of an in between of cold pressed and rough, such as Daler Rowney Langton Rough, so you need to be willing to experiment when it comes to brands (even if you already have a favorite like I do).

If you have any more questions about watercolor paper or anything I’ve discussed, please let me know in the comments section below. Next week I’ll go over brushes (who didn’t see that coming) and how I keep mine in the best condition possible.

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