What is watercolor paper made of? | Student Grade and Artist Grade | Textures | Weights | Various Forms
When I first encountered watercolor paper as a student, I was truly amazed. I thought to myself, “Here’s what I’ve been missing all along”. Using the same cheap, student-grade watercolor paints, painting on regular sketchpad paper vs watercolor paper was an enlightening experience. The difference was so great that there’s just no going back. And this wasn’t even the 100% cotton kind. What is watercolor paper exactly and why is it so important to use the right paper? Let me go through the essential information that’s useful to know below.
ZenART’s Square watercolor paper (block/pad), 12 x 12 in.
What is watercolor paper?
It is paper specifically made for artists to apply paint on, most suitable for watercolors as its absorbent property allows the transparency of the said medium to fully shine. Nowadays, it’s also used as a substrate for other mediums as well, such as gouache, tempera, acrylic, pastels, graphite, charcoal, and even oil as long as it’s properly primed.
Handmade paper process using a mold and deckle.
There are various manufacturing processes for watercolor paper. They can be handmade, moldmade (made using cylinder-mold machines), and machine-made. Handmade being the most expensive, strongest, and comes with four deckled edges due to its manufacturing process. Moldmade paper follows with two deckled edges and is still quite strong, but not as strong as the handmade ones. And machine-made for last and usually comes with four straight cut edges. Though there are some that come with added deckling and there are also ways for you to mimic the deckling if you’re looking for that effect.
Handmade paper with four deckled edges.
What is watercolor paper made of?
Professional grade watercolor paper is almost always made with 100% real cotton and is also acid-free. This ensures that your paper won’t slowly start to yellow and break down as years go by, making it of archival quality. Sometimes also referred to as “rag” or “cotton rag”. Using professional-grade paper makes a huge difference and allows for a wide range of beautiful watercolor effects and can take more water and abuse.
This is a much cheaper option for those who are just starting out and exploring. They’re usually made of a combination of wood pulp and cellulose, or cotton and cellulose mix (with cotton at just 25%). This kind of paper is NOT acid-free more often than not and will therefore be non-archival. It doesn’t absorb as well either and layers get easily lifted, so it will greatly limit your painting techniques.
What is “sizing”?
You might have heard of this term in passing. So let me briefly go over this. Sizing is the addition of gelatin to watercolor paper. But for what reason? Adding gelatin allows for a more controlled absorption. Without sizing, the water and pigment will spread willy nilly and it would be such a pain to paint if so. How and what amount of sizing is added will differ across brands, so it will be a matter of personal preference which one you would be most comfortable using.
What are the different textures of watercolor paper?
You’ll find that there are three different textures of watercolor paper that you’ll commonly encounter: Hot pressed, Cold pressed, and Rough. They each have their own characteristics and the choice will depend on your painting style.
For comparison, I painted on the three different textures using the same color (Indigo), brush (#5 Round from the Turner Collection), and testing: color gradation, wet-on-wet, and line exercises.
All three were painted using Indigo from the Vista Palette and the #5 Round brush from the Turner Collection, both from ZenART.
What is Hot press watercolor paper?
Hot pressed watercolor paper is the smoothest, it still has texture but it’s the least textured of the three. From the term ‘hot pressed’, this paper is made by pressing it between hot metal rollers and as such gives it a smoother finish. This is a favorite choice among illustrators and botanical artists as they like to work with high precision, especially with their highly detailed and delicate painting style. I find that hot pressed paper doesn’t absorb as quickly and as much as the other two. You also need to be careful when layering as you can lift the previous layers much sooner than you think. So just be careful with those brushstrokes.
The smoother texture and great paper thickness make it very suitable for graphite drawing, charcoal, and pen and ink applications as well.
Below is Indigo on hot pressed watercolor paper.
What is Cold press watercolor paper?
Cold pressed watercolor paper is the opposite of hot pressed. It’s made by being pressed between cold metal rollers. This process in turn gives it its more textured surface. This is the most popular choice among many artists as it’s quite versatile. The added texture allows for more textural painting effects as the water and pigment can pool and sink into the little depressions on the paper. And yet it’s not too textured that it won’t be able to handle the detailwork. It’s also more absorbent compared to hot pressed, though doesn’t absorb the wetness too quickly, allowing you some valuable working time.
You'll also see this labelled as CP or NOT (not hot pressed).
Here’s the one for cold pressed watercolor paper:
Indigo from the Vista Palette painted on a 4 x 6 in (Albert Card) watercolor paper block, both from ZenART.
What is the difference between hot press and cold press watercolor paper?
The main differences between the two are their textures and their absorbent properties. Hot pressed absorbs slower compared to cold pressed. It’s also much easier to lift off the paint on hot pressed paper even when fully dry. They’re both equally good paper. It just boils down to preference and what’s more suited for certain styles and techniques.
What is Rough watercolor paper?
The aptly named Rough watercolor paper is the one with the roughest texture of them all. It’s rougher because unlike the previous two, it’s not pressed between rollers at all giving it its much rougher surface.
This is not the paper to use if you like to work with detail or want great control with your brushstrokes and effects. The very toothy surface is fantastic for more expressive painting styles as you’ll get beautiful dappled effects when the water and pigment settle into the little craters. And some white bits of the paper remain unpainted if it’s not too wet of an application. Granulating paints and effects will also be intensified and many artists take advantage of this beautiful unpredictability.
And finally for the rough watercolor paper:
What is the difference between hot press and cold press watercolor paper?
The main difference between the two is their texture. Rough is rougher and toothier than cold pressed. Their absorbent qualities are quite similar.
Just like the brushes, the textures of all three papers will vary across different brands. The different manufacturing processes (handmade, mold-made, and machine-made) also affect the variety of textures available.
What is the difference between watercolor paper and regular paper?
Most regular paper is made using recycled wood shavings or wood shavings mixed with a very small percentage of cotton. This allows it to be very thin and have an ultra-smooth surface. And that’s appropriate and more than enough for our general use of paper. Regular paper (like printer paper) usually ranges from 20-30 lb while a ‘thin’ or ‘light’ watercolor paper is 90 lb.
But watercolor paper, since it will be used with a great amount of water, needs to be much, much more absorbent than the regular paper. For this to be possible, the watercolor paper contains cotton in varying amounts that are mixed in with the fibers. If you use regular paper for watercolor, it will drastically warp, buckle and even tear or break down. But with the cotton in the watercolor paper, this issue is highly reduced or even eliminated – depending on the thickness and the amount of cotton.
Different watercolor paper weights and what they mean
You’ll most likely often see the following weights: 90lb / 190gsm, 140lb / 300 gsm, 300lb / 640 gsm. The higher the weight, the thicker the paper. GSM means the grams per square meter, and lb is for pounds per ream. Sizes of sheets in reams differ across brands. So I usually go for the gsm measurement when looking as I find there’s less confusion for me there.
If you go for thinner paper, you need to stretch it before using it. Stretching requires you to pre-soak the paper. Then place it onto a clean, rigid surface that won’t easily warp or bend and blot out the excess water with a sponge. But not too dry, mind you. And lastly, tape it down on all four sides using gummed kraft paper tape. Leave it flat to fully dry (best to wait till the next day) and you’ll see that the paper will get stretched so tight and flat. So you’ll be able to use more water than usual when painting, the paper will get stretched flat again once it dries.
I find with my usual go-to, 300 gsm, I don’t have to do pre-stretching for my general painting needs. If I’ll be working with a wetter application, then I use my blocks.
For painting with very, very wet applications, I suggest you use 640 gsm paper. Most professional painters paint on this thickness, or at the very least 300 gsm.
Various forms that watercolor paper come in
Now armed with the knowledge of various textures and paper qualities, it’s time to get to know the different forms you can get them in. You can buy them in rolls (individual sheets too), blocks, pads, panels, and even canvas.
If you’re just starting out you can start with pads and blocks, and not necessarily 100% cotton. But do get the best you can afford as the quality of the paper will greatly limit you and the techniques you can do. Eventually, you can spring for higher-quality paper when you’re more confident that you won’t be wasting it.
Many professional artists opt for buying sheets for their works as they can have the option of using the entire sheet or cutting it up into different sizes. But they also have blocks and pads for general convenience and smaller works. It all comes down to personal preference whichever form you choose.
Rolls or sheets
Sheets can be bought individually or in a pack and are usually 22” x 30” size-wise. While rolls can be as long as 10 meters. 90 and 140lb paper will need to be stretched before you paint on them, otherwise, they will buckle. If you don’t want to go through this extra step, you can get the 300lb paper.
If you’re looking to try out various paper weights and textures, this is a good option. You can just start with a sheet of each for testing out before investing big time.
ZenART’s watercolor paper comes in blocks of various sizes with the biggest measuring 12 x 16 in (Pythagorean 4/3) and the smallest 4 x 6 in (Albert Card).
Watercolor blocks are my favorite. They come pre-glued on the sides so you won’t have to stretch your paper beforehand. A block is just like a pad but with all sides glued together. You just paint on the sheet directly, and even if it warps a bit, it’ll straighten out once it dries as the glue will keep the paper stretched.
Once your work is done, you can remove the top sheet by using a palette knife. Just find the small unglued section (usually at the top-middle) and carefully run the edge of your knife all around until you’ve separated the entire page from the block.
The downside to this is you won’t be able to use the sheets below until you’re done with the one at the top. You can of course have several blocks like me since I don’t always get to finish my work right away. And I don’t want to be rushed into finishing it for this reason.
Watercolor pads are very convenient to have on hand for sketchbooking, practice painting, and for plein air painting. Pads come tape-bound or wire-bound. Some wire-bound ones come perforated near the wire so you can easily remove each page if you want. This form makes it very convenient to just flip from one page to the next – provided of course that it has dried. And as such is great for bringing along when traveling.
When buying pads just be careful to check all the details so you know what you’re getting. A lot of them contain student-grade paper and that’s why they’re also cheaper. There are student-grade ones that are acid-free, so just make sure to get those at least. But not to worry, there are pads containing artist-grade paper too. If you’re looking for those, just make sure that it checks all the specifics that you’re looking for.
This is what makes ZenART’s watercolor paper so convenient - designed as a pad and a block in one! Just run your palette knife across one glued side and et voila you have a sheet just glued on one side just like on a regular pad.
So what is the best watercolor paper?
The best watercolor paper is the best one that you can buy considering your budget. If money weren’t an issue, there’s no doubt we’ll always choose the best of the best. Especially when it comes to our art supplies.
My personal choice is cold pressed watercolor paper, 300 gsm, 100% cotton, and acid-free. I have it in various forms from pads to blocks and also a few sheets. ZenART’s watercolor paper is the perfect cross between a block and a pad. It’s glued on two sides instead of four allowing for much easier removal. And comes in a multitude of awesome sizes! Coldpressed, 300 gsm, acid-free, and made with 100% cotton - what more can you ask for?
The artworks featured on the covers were painted on the very watercolor blocks they’re placed on by ZenART’s Brand Ambassador, the talented Anastasia Shimshilashvili.
The eagle watercolor painting below is painted on the Square watercolor block (12 x 12 in) using colors from the Art Nomad travel set, both from ZenART Supplies.
There’s so much to consider when choosing which watercolor paper to buy or which is right for your style. But don’t stress too much over it, it all comes down to your own personal preference. I suggest you try them all out so you can fully explore what you can do with each one. Start small or buy in sheets so you won’t be spending so much.
Just keep in mind that the quality of your paper will greatly affect the final quality of your creations. Good-quality paper will allow you to do so, so much more than the cheaper student-grade paper. You’ll be able to achieve effects, techniques, and beautiful granulations and layering that won’t always be possible on cheaper paper.
I hope this will help you narrow down your choices at the very least, or will be a useful guide when you’re ready to invest in artist-grade paper. If you have any questions that I haven’t covered or answered here, please do comment below. I’d love to hear from you and provide more useful advice or information.
Looking for some extra guidance in starting out your watercolor journey? Find out how to choose watercolor paints, what are the essential watercolor techniques to know, and many more in our Toolkit section!
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What kinds of watercolor paper have you tried using so far? What do you find is your favorite watercolor paper texture? Comment away below! Join our friendly art community Painting Inspiration Daily on Facebook. You can share your art and ideas, watch LIVE tutorials, and be inspired to paint!
Looking to try out gouache? Watch out for our next Toolkit covering basic gouache techniques and some painting tips. Until then, good luck on your quest to choose the right watercolor paper for you!
- MEET THE AUTHOR -
Kathleen is the Wordsmith at ZenART, resident artist and art editor. When God sent a shower of talents, Kathleen made sure she got a basketful of them! She's a visual artist with practical knowledge on various fields from painting and sculpture, to costume and set design which comes in very handy when writing about various art techniques and theories. She also shares her passion for the arts through teaching. She runs her own brand of handmade wirework jewelry designs.