Watercolour Paper – Starting Out – Watercolour

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Using substandard watercolour paper, is one of the main reasons watercolour beginners give up before they have really started.

In a previous blog post, I cover the importance of understanding the nature of transparent paints.

I also mention how beginners to the medium make life difficult for themselves, by using substandard watercolour papers.

In this blog post I share my experiences as a watercolour painter using different papers.

What is watercolour paper?

Watercolour paper is a thick paper designed to be absorbent and withstand multiple washes of watercolour paint.

A good quality paper, will allow transparent watercolours to appear their most luminous.

It can also be used for other art mediums such as acrylics, gouache, and charcoal.

The choice of medium you use is likely to influence which surface and type of watercolour paper you choose to work on.

It can be made exclusively from wood pulp, or mixed with cotton fibers.

But it can also be made from pure cotton, which costs more than pulp based paper.

Machine made paper is an automated process. The pulp is injected onto a mesh cylinder and pressed between felts.

You can also have mouldmade paper. This paper will have what is called a deckle edge. One of my favourite mouldmade papers is produced by St Cuthberts Mill in Somerset in the UK. Here they tell you more about how they make their papers.

For artists, all papers needs to be acid free to help with it’s preservation and that of your painting.

Types of watercolour paper

There are not only surface textures to consider but weights of paper as well.

Depending on the manufacturing process, it can be hot pressed, cold pressed or rough.

Traditionally, paper comes in 90, 140 or 300 lb weights – the heavier/thicker the paper the more expensive it is.

So a pure cotton 300 lb paper will be significantly more expensive than a wood pulp 90 lb paper.

Hot pressed paper

Hot pressed paper is a non textured smooth paper.

It is made by processing sheets through smooth heated rollers under a high pressure.

This type of watercolour paper is perfect for combining pen and ink drawings with watercolour and for fine detail.

This is the paper I used when creating my watercolour floral illustration:

For the beginner this is probably the most difficult paper to master.

Cold pressed paper

In the United Kingdom cold pressed paper is often referred to as NOT, which means not hot.

The surface has a texture which comes from the textured felt which is used on the cold rollers.

The texture is enough to make textural effects with looser watercolour painting styles, and is a favourite amongst landscape artists.

Rough paper

Rough or extra rough paper has even more texture than cold pressed paper, making it perfect for bold expressive strokes.

In heavier weights, it also perfect for mixed media work.

Used in conjunction with gesso can be great for using as a non absorbent surface.

Differences in quality

Paper can be divided into two general grades – student and artists grade.

Student grade is usually made of wood pulp which is less absorbent than cotton made paper.

This means you do not get the same results when painting on these different grades of paper.

Also wood pulp student grade paper is usually machine made.

In many cases is not pH neutral which means it will yellow over time and is therefore not archival.

There are also papers that that are not even the quality of student grade.

These are the types of papers that become Christmas or birthday gits from non painters. These are usually the offending papers that cut short the beginners watercolour journey.

One of the challenges of using inferior paper is that it will warp and buckle. This makes it impossible to learn how to paint with watercolours.

Choosing the best paper for your needs

The majority of beginners usually purchase the cheapest paper for practicing on. Then end up for all the reasons above not progressing or giving up entirely.

In my experience, the best approach is to try and purchase small amounts of a variety of quality paper.

Doing this allows you to explore and learn how to control the medium. It also allows you to explore which papers suit your painting style.

Visiting events and demonstrations are a perfect place to try out different papers. For example, in the UK Patchings hold an annual art festival. Most of the well known suppliers have samples for you to try.

Also try searching art suppliers on line. Ken Bromley sells a perfect starter pack of papers which would be a great purchase for any beginner.


I hope that this short blog post has given beginners to watercolour an insight into some of the basics when starting out with watercolour painting.

Please feel free to get in touch with any questions, and don’t forget to follow for future blogs, tips and techniques.

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