Watercolor Paper – Everything You Need to Know When Starting Watercolor

Watercolor Paper is considered one of the most important art supplies you will use when painting with watercolor. You may have heard the phrase, “paper can make or break an artist.” And it’s true! If your paper isn’t working for you – then you are in for a wild ride of frustration as well as disappointment.

So what do we need to know about watercolor paper?

Believe it or not – there are technically only 4 things we need to know when it comes to watercolor paper. But each of these elements can drastically change the painting experience. So, what are they…

The Four Factors…


watercolor paper comes in two types of materials – cotton, wood pulp, or a combination of the two.
100% Cotton Paper – also known as rag paper – is prized by watercolor artists for its absorbency as well as color distribution. It is also important to consider that the “sizing” or glue/bonding agent used to hold the fibers of the paper together can also affect how your paint will be absorbed and/or distributed over the surface of your paper.

Most student-grade watercolor papers are made with some mixture of cotton and wood pulp. This helps keep the cost of materials low – but it also can lead to color absorption problems (especially for larger washes) and odd textures when using larger amounts of water.


Watercolor paper texture – also known as the tooth of the paper – simply refers to the surface of the paper being smooth, bumpy, or somewhere slightly in between.

  • HOT PRESS PAPER: is used to refer to smooth watercolor paper that has been “ironed” flat. This paper is great for detail work – such as inking or pencil sketching. It also is great for showing blossoms or blooms (even when not planned). This is a result of the paper being so smooth that the water will pool on the surface and dry unevenly along the surface.
  • COLD PRESS PAPER: is used to refer to slightly bumpy or grooved watercolor paper that has been pressed flat but not ironed. This paper is great for water control – and that is why it is considered the best type of paper for beginners to start on. Since the paper is slightly bumpy – it allows the paint and water to absorb more evenly into the fibers giving more control to the artist -especially when working wet on wet.
  • ROUGH PAPER: is the bumpiest type of paper available to artists. It is usually used for more abstract or impressionistic paintings that desire the paper’s texture to play a role in the final painting. This paper is especially absorbent – but not good with fine detail work.
  • SOFT PRESS PAPER: is somewhere between Cold Press and Hot Press paper. This paper is difficult to find – but is more of a happy medium when it comes to working with detail work yet still maintaining water control.


Weight refers to how thick the paper is or how absorbent the paper will be.

  • 140lb/300gsm weight: is considered the standard weight to begin painting with watercolor. Since we use water as our main agent for activating and applying our paint – we need to have a higher-weighted paper to stand up against the abuse with little to no buckling. Anything lower than 140lb/300gsm weight will most likely tear and buckle under the pressure of using watercolor.
  • 300lb/640gsm weight: If you desire a paper that can take more water abuse or want to paint a larger painting without the fear of warping or buckling – 300lb/640gsm weighted paper is an excellent option. While this paper is pricey it is a real lifesaver when working with more complicated paintings.


And finally, paper packaging! Watercolor paper can come in a variety of different forms such as journals, pads, blocks, and sheets.

  • watercolor journals are the most accessible and inexpensive type of paper I’ve found over the years. They are great for keeping all your paintings in one centralized location and for experimenting with new techniques and subject matters. One problem you will run into with watercolor journals is the size of the paper is usually rather small and higher weighted papers (such as 300lb/640gsm) are not available.
  • watercolor pads are another rather inexpensive option that often comes in larger sheets when compared to journals. Pads or watercolor paper are typically glued onto one side and easy to tear out and stretch onto a wooden board.
  • watercolor blocks are the next option one can purchase when choosing watercolor paper. Watercolor blocks tend to be glued down on all four sides and are often pre-stretched – making for the least amount of buckling and warping while painting. Watercolor blocks can also be purchased in heavier weighted papers – unlike the previous options.
  • watercolor sheets – this is probably my favorite option of all four. Most watercolor sheets are sold as 22×30 inches sheets. Personally, I like to purchase larger sheets of watercolor paper and then cut them down to the size I desire. By doing this, I can purchase heavier-weighted papers at a discounted price. I’ve also found that these papers tend to be more absorbent and softer when compared to similar papers from watercolor pads and blocks. If you are purchasing heavier weighted papers in sheets – you may want to invest in a cutting board that can handle thicker papers. Trust me – your hands will thank you later.

And that’s it! That is roughly everything you need to know about watercolor paper. If you are curious about individual brands of watercolor paper and my thoughts – over the next couple of months – I will be testing/rating specific brands based on these factors plus a couple of others I’ve added myself. So – make sure to check that out on my YouTube channel to follow that journey.

If you are curious about other watercolor supplies and how they can affect your painting process – make sure to check out my watercolor for beginner’s workshop – called PAINT PERSONALITIES. In it I break down the essential watercolor supplies every beginner starts with and how each one can hinder and help your painting process. Plus, I break down how watercolor paint properties can affect your painting. So make sure to check it out.

About Author

Hi there! My name is Carrie and I'm a Watercolor Misfit! What's a Watercolor Misfit? Well, anyone who is willing to try new things and not afraid to get their hands covered in paint! So what do you say, are you a Misfit-ian?

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