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How To Choose The Right Watercolor Paper

How To Choose The Right Watercolor Paper

How to choose The Right watercolor paper For You

July 18, 2016 • Jenn peters


For the watercolor painter, there is a lot to consider when choosing the right paper. There are many different brands and options available, and for the beginner painter, the choice might seem a bit overwhelming. 

The seasoned watercolor professional will have their preference of papers based on their needs, and there is a bit of trial and error involved in finding out what paper works best for the type of painting the artist is doing.

For those who are looking to buy the right watercolor paper, but don’t know where to begin, this handy guide will help answer any questions and eliminate confusion.


Weight of paper is a bit of a tricky issue for those not in the know. Paper is weighed in pounds per ream and a ream is 500 sheets of paper. So the weight of the paper is how many pounds one ream weighs. Lightweight watercolor paper is anything under 140 lb. Heavy weight paper runs in the 300-400 lb range. Obviously, the bigger the number, the thicker the paper, so the watercolor painter will need to choose the type that works best for them.

For example, the advantage of a heavier weight paper is that it can take on a lot of washes or water. It tends to be better at holding its shape and doesn’t buckle or warp as easily as a lighter weight paper. 

But it is also more expensive than lighter weight paper, so a beginner might want to practice for a while with a cheaper, lightweight paper as they learn the techniques. 

Clamping or taping the paper down before painting can prevent warping. Because heavier weight paper absorbs more water, it takes longer to dry. 


Watercolor paper also comes in a variety of textures – choosing the right one is based on personal preference and what kind of effect the artist is looking to create. 

The three textures are hot press, cold press and rough

Hot press watercolor paper is smooth and even, and has a clean, almost slippery finish — it can create some beautiful results. It doesn’t soak up the paint as fast as a textured paper so there is some versatility with the paint here and it can be moved around a bit before it dries.

Cold press is slightly textured and has some pits and grooves. These little pockets hold the pigment and create different textures in whatever is being painted. It absorbs the pigment more readily than hot press paper. It is the most popular choice for watercolor artists. 

Rough paper is the most textured and has the most pronounced bumps and ridges. Artists use rough paper to create interesting shading and effects, as the pigment will pool in the individual pits and grooves. But it isn’t necessarily as good as hot press paper for small detail type painting. 

Tint and Content

Tint is another watercolor paper option and is also up to personal preference. An obvious choice would be white, but watercolor paper comes in a variety of shades of yellows and whites to suit every artist. 

In terms of content, watercolor paper will either be made by machine or by hand and will contain a mix of water and cellulose fibers. These fibers might come from wood pulp, linen or cotton. The better quality of fiber, the more expensive the paper will be. 

The best quality paper is made from 100% cotton or linen. This type of paper is durable, absorbent and can take a lot of moving around, taping and re-taping. Linen absorbs slightly less water than cotton based paper but is very strong. 

The lowest quality watercolor paper is made from wood fibers. This type of paper does not stand up well to a lot of washes and is quite a bit cheaper so it is best for the student or the new painter just looking to practice. 

Acid Vs. Acid Free

Choosing acid or acid-free paper is one more choice the watercolor artist will need to make and this is largely dependent on what type of painting they are doing. Acid occurs naturally in wood based paper because of its presence in the pulp. Much of the paper made in recent years has this acid neutralized during production. Still, cheaper paper not specifically marked as acid-free may still contain acid.

For the new artist who is looking to learn and experiment with the medium, it is completely fine to buy paper that isn’t acid free. This paper may be sold as student quality and is more affordable. Paper containing acid will not stand up over time as well as acid-free paper and may fade, become brittle, or even change color.

Paper that is acid-free or artist quality paper will last longer so if the artist is doing any sort of professional or non-practice work, this is the paper they are going to want to use. Acid-free paper won’t yellow over time and the paint itself will retain its original color. If the work is to be framed, this is the paper to use.

These tips should be a good starting point for any artist looking to delve into the beautiful world of watercolor painting. The more the artist can experiment with different types of paper, the more they will develop their own preference and determine what works best for them.

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