If you’ve ever gone to Michael’s to get watercolor paper, you probably got overwhelmed and frustrated. There are so many varieties, and prices will range from 5 bucks a pad to over $100 for a big block. Watercolor paper has a lot of different varieties and qualities, and throughout your journey you’ll probably experiment with a lot of them and end up finding a favorite.
So what separates watercolor paper from other paper? Why can’t you just use regular drawing paper?
Watercolor paper is either made out of wood pulp and coated with a sizing that makes it water resistant, or it’s made out of cotton and is actually closer related to fabric than paper. Sometimes it’s a blend of the two. Either way, it’s designed to withstand water without breaking down. If you submerge good quality watercolor paper in the bath overnight, when you come back in the morning it’ll be good as new. If you put normal drawing paper in the same situation, it’ll disintegrate.
For learning, I recommend buying the sized wood-pulp: it’s cheaper and cheaper is better when you’re just getting off the ground.
There’s no point in stressing yourself out with the knowledge that every sheet was handcrafted in a paper mill that’s older than the United States when you’re still learning what a glaze is. That in mind, my favorite student grade brand is the Canson XL Series. It holds up well, isn’t a nightmare to paint on, and is cheap.
It looks like this and costs about 12 bucks:
This stuff is awesome because it lets you learn without wasting money. Eventually you’ll outgrow it and want to move up to cotton paper. Just keep in mind, once you start painting on cotton, you’ll never go back to anything else. Gotta just trust me on that one. After cotton paper, all other papers feel like painting on turds.
Another choice you’ll have to make is hot press versus cold press.
The name has to do with how it’s processed, but the end result is one is smooth and the other is bumpy. Hot press is smooth (it’s essentially ironed flat) and cold press is bumpy.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend cold press.
Why? Because watercolor travels quickly, and the bumps are tiny little speed bumps that slow things down and disperse pigment more evenly for you.
There are advantages to both, and I keep both around for different projects. You do achieve slightly different effects with each paper. For a comparison I did a quick little demo where you can see the differences:
The painting on the right is done on cold press, and the one on the left is done on hot press paper. For a quick rule of thumb, hot press is generally harder to paint on and will yield much harsher results. It is ideal for projects that are very detailed, as the rougher finish of cold press can make detail work difficult.
You may also see the rough option in the paper lineup. That’s just cold press paper on cocaine and is enjoyed by the texture enthusiasts of the watercolor world. I hate it, but to each their own.
You’ll also notice that watercolor paper comes in lots of different weights. The heavier the weight, the thicker the paper. In my opinion, anything under 140 lbs. isn’t worth your time. Anything heavier is unnecessary.
Watercolor paper also comes in a lot of different formats.
You have individual sheets, blocks, pads, and rolls. I’ve bought them all and they’re all great depending on your project.
When you’re just getting going, I recommend a pad of paper (I’ve never seen student grade paper in any other format).
Pads of paper are pretty straightforward.
Sheets are great for large paintings, or several smaller paintings if you need a size that isn’t standard.
Rolls are the only way to do gigantic paintings, if you’re inclined.
Blocks of paper are ingenious. They are glued down on all four sides instead of just one side like pads of paper. This keeps the paper taught and prevents buckling while you paint. After your painting is dry, remove the top page by carefully separating it from its’ flock with a pallet knife (back of a butter knife is fine too).
Because I’m a paper hoarder, I buy all of these formats with abandon. But you don’t need to do that. Just buy what works for you.
Whatever format you like, the brands I recommend are:
and I just started buying a brand called Fluid 100 that I’m very happy with*, but haven’t used enough to fully vouch for yet. But, it’s cheap and 100% cotton.
The takeaway for a first-timer should be: a pad of medium weight student grade cold press watercolor paper. Canson XL Series is my favorite for that. Have around 12 bucks ready.
As you grow, I think you’ll find that paper is just as interesting and variable as the paint and brushes.
*Update on Fluid 100: I really like it, but it does not hold up as well as Arches or Fabriano. It’s nice to draw and paint on, but things like tape or erasing will damage it much faster than the other brands I use. Still, it is easily half the price and I will keep buying it.