Watercolor Paper

Now that we have chosen our watercolor medium, it is time to consider another important step in creating your masterpiece, the watercolor paper.

If you haven’t checked the watercolor medium yet, you should definitely do it now: Watercolor Paint Supplies

In this tutorial we will be covering the effects of different paper on the final outcome of your image. I have created an image and have painted it across 3 different kinds of paper, to show you first hand how things can be affected. Material: Drawing paper, lightweight paper, and heavyweight paper.

First, I transferred the line drawing to the three different paper types using a lightbox. You should always aim to have a good line drawing before you start painting, but there are many alternative ways you can approach this.

Now let’s talk about the importance of picking the correct paper when painting in watercolor mediums. There are a wide variety of papers out there that you can pick, but paper made specifically for watercolour comes in three varieties, cold, hot and rough pressed.

Watercolor Paper Types

From left to right: Rough pressed, cold [not] pressed, hot pressed

  • Hot pressed paper is smooth, the watercolor has a lot less to hold on to and absorbs when applied. This paper is great for creating fine detail but requires a lot of control in your application of paint.
  • Rough press paper has the most texture on the surface and is also the least compressed. You can create large vibrant areas of color washes as well as lots of texture and the paper will have minimal morph.
  • Cold pressed paper (also known as not pressed to add to the confusion) is the middle-most compressed of the three mentioned papers. There is texture on the paper surface, but it is also flat enough to create fine detail in addition to areas of wash. Cold press is probably the most versatile variety, giving you the benefits of both hot and rough pressed whilst still being easy to work with.

Watercolor Paper – Tinting

You may have noticed that in the above photos a couple of the sheets of paper have a slightly warmer tint to them. This is because traditional paper will tend to have a slightly warmer tint to it. Different companies offer a variety of different tints. White paper and high white paper is treated with more bleach and titanium dioxide pigment than other varieties. Choosing between tints is down to personal preference, as the watercolor paint on top will be affected. Tinted paper can be great for negative space or background color but you can also achieve this with a light color wash if you chose to work with white paper.

Watercolor Birds
Watercolor Birds

GSM Unit

The weight of the paper is also important in watercolor painting as it has to withstand the effects of getting wet with wash after wash. It determines if you need to stretch the paper before painting to prevent the paper from warping. You can avoid the process of stretching the paper by simply choosing a thicker paper.

Paper weight is measured in GSM (grams per square meter). Anything less than 300 gsm is considered lightweight paper making it prone to warping and anything above 300 gsm is considered heavy. Now heavy paper will save you time as it does not require stretching, it is however more expensive. If you are starting out and still finding your feet, you can pick a lighter and cheaper 140 gsm paper. A neat trick is to tape lighter paper down on a board before applying paint. This should prevent most paper morphing unless you are doing huge areas of wash on the paper.

Taped Paper

Paper can be purchased in various sizes and can come loose as well as in rolls, blocks and pads. Boards are also available.

Choosing which paper to use is down to personal preference:

  • If you do not want to be restricted to a certain size all the time, loose sheets or a roll of paper might be best.
  • Pads are easy to store, come in pre-cut sizes and keep all your paintings neat and ordered. They also make a great visual diary.
  • Boards are pre-stretched cavasses pinned to a frame, this saves you time in terms of not having to stretch your paper.

A block of paper, unlike a pad of paper, is glued on all four sides and comes on a strong board as a foundation. This prevents any morphing when painting. You paint on the top page and once it dries remove the finished painting revealing a new sheet underneath.

Halfway conclusion

To sum up, it all depends on your painting style, whether you like large areas of watercolor washes or more controlled paint application. If you are just starting out and trying to experiment with different methods of paint application, I recommend getting loose paper so you can test the different paper types before committing to a large quantity of paper.

The most cost-effective option, in the long run, is a roll of paper, which is great once you know which type of paper you work best with. There are times, however, when you want to paint away from the comfort of your home or studio and pads, blocks and boards are the best traveling companions.

Types of Watercolor Paper

There are clear differences in how each paper reacted to the amount of water that was applied. The drawing paper started breaking down and absorbed the water the fastest, whilst the light and heavyweight paper let the watercolor sit on the surface allowing it to be manipulated. Towards the end of the process, the drawing paper had points where the brush almost went through the paper when applying the highlights, whereas the heavy and lightweight paper held out with no signs of breaking.

Drawing Paper

Left image: Tear and overworking of the paper
Right image: Water stain

The drawing paper became increasingly hard to work with every time water was applied and there were visible water stains once the paper dried. This did not happen to the heavier papers.

Transparency of the paper

Left to right: Lightest to heaviest weight paper

In the photos above each image is held up against a light not long after the last color application. As you can see the drawing paper is very transparent due to the water application. The light and heavyweight paper are not showing signs of transparency or integrity issues.

As well as all the highlighted practical issues, you can visibly see that the superior quality of the heavier weight papers. Parker “Quink” ink was used for the areas of black in all three images and it seems to react differently on each kind of paper. Warmer tones come through on the thicker watercolor paper. Cooler ones on the lighter papers. You can see that heavyweight watercolor paper has the most vibrant finish. The drawing paper has turned quite dull as the ink has bled through the paper. Each image was treated with the same watercolor technique, but the end results are drastically different.

The very short conclusion is that you can practice with thin papers but you should definitely use thick paper for a very good result!

I hope you enjoyed this little article about watercolor paper.