It can be overwhelming to choose a watercolor paper. There are so many different factors to consider and yes, your choice will have a big impact on your work, but it doesn’t need to be as complicated as it seems! We are here to help. (And yes, we sell watercolor paper, but it may not be the best fit for what you need so we are happy to point you in the right direction if it isn’t!)
There are three methods of production: by hand, mold, or machine.
If it’s made by hand, it’s not actually paper at all: it’s made using textiles (generally cotton, and be sure to invest in 100% cotton if you go this route!) and it’s extremely durable and long-lasting. The price tag is highest for this type and the properties vary greatly, but when you’re working on a special piece the investment will be worth it. It will have an irregular surface texture.
Mold-made paper is made on a cylinder-mold machine and feels similar to handmade, but it is typically made using a combination of paper fiber and cotton. The structure is more uniform than hand-made, and the quality is almost as good.
Machine-made paper is the least expensive, and tends to have an extremely uniform texture (although this will depend on the surface, which we will discuss). This is ideal for practicing. It may buckle or deteriorate when wet, but whether that’s the case depends mostly on the next factor…weight.
The amount of water paper can absorb is dependent on the weight. The most common weights are 140 lb and 300 lb.
You can find 90 lb paper which is not suitable at all for watercolor painting, but can be a great option for making prints and is very inexpensive.
Paper that is 140 lb/300 gsm may require stretching before use to prevent buckling. Stretching is easy; simply wet the paper and fasten (staple/tape) it to a board or another stiff surface. Instead of stretching, if you want to start painting in a hurry you can just tape your paper down.
If you want to use heavy washes or don’t want to stretch/tape your paper, you may prefer a heavier paper like 300 lb. If you use heavy washes you will still have to tape it or it will buckle/curl. However, double the thickness will usually mean double the cost.
There are three types of surfaces: rough, hot-pressed, and cold-pressed.
Rough watercolor paper is produced with very little pressure so the fibers are more separated. This works well for wet-on-wet applications and is highly textured.
Hot-pressed paper is produced with the most pressure and it has a very smooth surface. If you want to paint a lot of detail (especially incorporating pen and ink) this is a good choice, and it works well with gouache. You cannot use this type of paper for wet-on-wet.
Cold-pressed paper is a happy medium between rough and hot-pressed. It’s slightly textured so it works well with both smooth washes and detailed work. This is the most popular texture due to its versatility.
Block or pads
The final consideration is whether you want to buy blocks or pads. This is simply a matter of preference.
If you don’t want to stretch your paper, blocks may be a good choice for you. They are bound on all sides, and when you’ve finished painting you slice your work off the top with a knife to access the next sheet.
Watercolor pads are a great choice for practicing or working outdoors. They are either spiral-bound which you can flip over or tape-bound which will allow you to peel off each sheet.
Regardless of which you choose, be sure to choose one that is acid-free so that it doesn’t become yellow or brittle.
Please let us know in the comments which type of watercolor paper sounds like a good fit for you and if there are other topics you’d like us to cover!
You can check out our acid-free, cold-pressed, 140 lb/300gsm watercolor pads here!