Watercolour paint on rough watercolour paper

Learn how to choose the right watercolour paper for your next painting with this ultimate guide to watercolour paper.

Not sure what watercolour paper to use for your next painting or don’t know the difference between hot pressed or rough watercolour paper? This easy guide to watercolour paper will take you through the types of watercolour paper, how to choose the right watercolour paper and much more!

What is watercolour paper?

Watercolour paper is made from two main ingredients, cellulose fibres (found in plant material such as cotton, jute, hemp and wood pulp) and water. There are three ways that the watercolour paper can be made - handmade, machine-made and mould-made. Handmade paper is made by dipping a mould into a vat of pulp, however most of the popular papers, such as Arches, Bockingford, Cotman, Langton and Saunders Waterford, are machine-made on a cylinder-mould machine. 

What is the difference between watercolour paper and regular paper?

The main difference between watercolour paper and regular paper is the weight and thickness. Watercolour paper is thicker and heavier, as it needs to withstand multiple washes. Watercolour paper also comes in a variety of textures which will affect the look of your watercolour painting.

Types of watercolour paper

There are three types of watercolour paper, all of which have different surface textures.

Comparison of the types of watercolour paper

A comparison of the three types of watercolour paper, as featured in The Artist January 2017 issue. Credit – Ian Sidaway.

HP (hot pressed) - smooth texture - HP watercolour paper has a smooth, firm surface and is pressed through hot metal rollers during the manufacturing process. If you work with line and wash techniques, or if you want to concentrate on flower paintings or similar types of work in which small amounts of paint will be applied in a controlled manner, then you should use HP watercolour paper.

NOT (cold pressed) - slightly textured - NOT watercolour paper has a slightly textured surface and is the most commonly used watercolour paper by artists. During the manufacturing process, the wet sheets of paper are repressed by running them between cold metal rollers. Choose this paper if you want a reliable, general purpose paper that will suit most techniques and subjects, whether you want to work with control and detail or in a much more spontaneous way.

Rough - obviously textured - Rough watercolour paper has a noticeable, rough texture, which it picks up from the couching felts during the manufacturing process. It's then left to dry without additional pressing. Choose this paper for broad, expressive work in which texture is important as well as techniques such as dry brush, broken washes, lifting out and scratching back.

Rough watercolour paper comparison image

Comparison of two different brands of Rough watercolour papers, as featured in The Artist January 2017 issue. Credit – Ian Sidaway.

How to choose the right watercolour paper for you

Still not sure which type of watercolour paper is the right one for your next piece? Use our visual guide below to decide which watercolour paper you want to use for your painting.

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The images below show the finish you will get from your paint due to the different textures of the watercolour paper.

Hot pressed watercolour paper

Hot pressed watercolour paper

The brush marks tend to sit on the surface and dry as they are, rather than blend together.

NOT (cold pressed) watercolour paper

NOT watercolour paper

The result will be an even colour wash (this type of paper is good for other wash techniques).

Rough watercolour paper

Rough watercolour paper

When you apply a wash to a rough surface, particularly if the brush is not too heavily charged with paint, you get a more broken colour effect.

An example of paint on the three types of watercolour paper, as featured in The Artist October 2020 issue. Credit - Millie England.

What is the best watercolour paper weight?

The most popular weight for watercolour is 140lb (300gsm).

The weight is an indication of the thickness of the watercolour paper for example, a 72lb (150gsm) paper will be light and thin, whilst a 400lb (850gsm) paper will be much thicker and more robust. 

Measured in pounds (lb), the weight refers to a ream: 500 sheets of Imperial size, 22x30in. (56x76cm) paper. Most countries now use the more accurate metric equivalent of grams per square metre (gsm).

Which watercolour paper size should I use?

Watercolour paper is sized to make it more water resistant. The size is normally added to the pulp during the manufacturing process; however, some papers are also surface sized by dipping the sheets in a bath of gelatine after they have dried. This makes the paper less absorbent, which means that the colours will be more vibrant and easier to blend. The tougher surface is good for techniques such as lifting out, sponging and scratching through the paint layer without damaging the surface. 

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Should I use watercolour paper sheets or watercolour paper pads?

The usual sheet size is 22x30in (56x76cm). It can be more economical to buy watercolour paper sheets of this size and cut them into the sizes that you need.

If you’re painting outdoors or experimenting with techniques, we recommend buying an A4 spiral watercolour pad or a watercolour block. For testing out ideas and effects, use cheaper cartridge paper, paper off-cuts, or other types of scrap paper first.

To begin with, we would recommend buying one or two sheets of one of the popular 140lb (300gsm) CP/NOT papers, such as Arches Aquarelle, Bockingford or Saunders Waterford. All of these are reliable, good quality acid-free papers that will suit most subjects.

Watercolour pad and watercolour sheets

Watch the video below, to see Sandra Schultz discuss the differences between Arches, Fabriano, and Canson XL watercolour paper.

Top Tip! Look for paper that is acid free, because this means the paper does not contain chemicals that will degrade the sheet and cause yellowing. Some papers also include a buffering agent, which prevents them from being attacked by atmospheric acids and pollutants.

Types of watercolour paper

A comparison of different brands of watercolour paper, as featured in The Artist January 2017 issue. Credit – Ian Sidaway.

Can you use both sides of watercolour paper?

Yes, it is a matter of preference as to which side you choose. With most watercolour papers there is very little difference in the surface texture between one side and the other. Traditionally, with embossed and watermarked papers, the correct side is the one where the watermark appears the right way round; some papers have a ‘mould’ side. If you hold it up to the light, you will notice that it has a more regular surface texture than the other side. It's a matter of preference as to which side you choose.

How do I store watercolour paper?

Always store watercolour paper flat, either in a drawer or on a shelf. The surface of watercolour paper is very sensitive, it will easily indent if something heavy is placed on it, and it will even pick-up marks from your fingers – so handle it with care!

Now you know which watercolour paper to use, why not read our full collection of handy watercolour guides that are perfect for beginners or if you just need a refresher!