Choosing Watercolor Paper: Everything You Need to Know! - This Creative Nest Blog

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Choosing Watercolor Paper: Everything You Need to Know!


July 28, 2019

When it comes to watercolor paper differences, hot press or cold press, textures and weights, do you ever feel just a little bit like Angela, from The Office?

Choosing Watercolor Paper - Hot or Cold Press - Angela from the Office Hot Is A Temperature People

(If you’re not an office fan, I apologize for my endless references to this show – it’s my favorite! Can’t help it!)

Either way, when watercolor educators start talking about hot press or cold press paper, rough versus smooth, and the different weights they come in, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed by the options. So let’s break it down!

We’ll look at the different weights of paper, the different finishes and different “mount” options they come in. 

Paper Weight

The heavier weight of a paper, the thicker it is, and the more water it can withstand without buckling. That’s why if you try to create a watercolor piece on a regular sheet of paper or cardstock, you can’t achieve the lovely blends you might be looking for. The number one key to beautiful watercolor art is quality, heavyweight watercolor paper. You should seek out paper that is 300 gsm, which means it’s weight is 300 grams per square meter. Anything less than 300 gsm and you’ll notice the paper starts buckling and warping as it dries. While this can happen even with 300 gsm paper, it’s much less likely, and there are means you can take to prevent it (which we’ll talk about in the mounting section!).

Paper Quality

You should always choose watercolor paper that is 100% cotton, acid-free and pH neutral. This paper is designed for longevity and will allow you to create lasting artwork. If there is any acid in the paper, your artwork will fade over time. And if you’re putting so much time and energy into it’s creation, you want it to last, right?!

Paper Finish/Texture

Let’s start with the two most basic types of watercolor paper finishes. Hot Press and Cold Press.

Cold Press paper is a bit more bumpy and textured, while Hot Press paper has a smooth finish and feel. 

You might hear me refer to the “toothiness” of Cold Press paper or sometimes I’ll say it’s “thirsty” – those are both good descriptions of cold press paper characteristics. Cold Press paper does tend to be more popular than Hot Press, due to it’s ability to hold water well, stay wet longer and allow for beauitful blending to be achieved. It’s texture shows through as the paint dries, lending some texture to the finished piece.

Hot Press paper is incredibly smooth and allows your brush to glide easily over the top. Since there aren’t bumps or texture pulling at the brush, you get cleaner, more detailed brushwork. If you’re working on a piece that is highly detailed, Hot Press paper is a great option.

Alternatively, you can also purchase Rough watercolor paper which is even more textured and toothy than Cold Press paper. It’s incredibly thirsty and allows a lot of water to be applied. However, keep in mind that your colors will look a bit more faded since the paper is going to absorb so much of the pigment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but something to keep in mind as you use it. 

Watercolor Paper Mounting

You might wonder why you sometimes see my watercolor paper taped down on the edges, while other times I don’t. This is because sometimes depending on sales, I’ll purchase is in blocks or pads or even loose sheets. So what’s the difference?

Watercolor blocks are simply multiple sheets of paper that are mounted and glued together at the edges. They have a tiny slit at the top you can run a palette knife through, and peel the paper off after you have finished your painting. Because it’s glued down, it removes the need for taping the edges to keep it from buckling.

When my paper comes in loose sheets or pads of paper, I’ll mount the paper to a sturdy board with masking tape about ¾” around the edges. This ensures that as I add water, and the paper dries, it won’t shrink in on itself further than the original size. You can also completely soak your watercolor paper, tape it down with gum tape, and let it dry in order to pre-stretch your paper, but I often skip this step as I don’t tend to use so much water that ths step becomes necessary. 

And that about wraps up this mini-lesson on Paper types, finishes and options. Personally, I use Arches 300 gsm Cold Press Watercolor Paper for all of my paintings and can’t recommend it highly enough! It’s heavy, acid-free, 100% cotton, pH neutral and has an amazing toothy texture that literally drinks up water and holds it there. On occasion, if I’m doing extremely detailed brushwork, I’ll use their Hot Press paper, too. 

I’ve explored a few other brands that I like as well, and am listing them here below! They’re amazing quality, as well. You can check them out and order a few on Amazon to see which you like best. For me, I’ve just gotten really comfortable with Arches and have made it a habit to re-order their paper. Explore a few brands, a few finishes, and see which is your sweet spot!

 I’ll also be popping on Facebook and Instagram Live to answer questions this week (I’ll post the video below afterward for future visitors, too)


Cold Press

Hot Press

Rough Press

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