WATERCOLOR / WATERCOLOR SUPPLIES

Choosing the Best Watercolor Paper: for Beginners

The Most Important Supply You Will Own…  

Watercolor Paper – In my opinion, it’s the most important supply on our list.   Your paper can easily make or break a painting depending on the material, quality, and even texture.   

As a beginner of this medium many years ago, I remember the feeling of excitement when grabbing my first watercolor paper pad off the shelf of our local art shop.  At that time, I knew very little about this magical world of watercolor other than I wanted to try my hand at it.  

So I grabbed the first loosely bound and inexpensive notebook with watercolor printed boldly on the cover.  Imagine my confusion when arriving at home – to find my watercolor paints didn’t adhere to the paper similar to what I had seen from other artists.   

Was I Doing Something Wrong And Why Was This So Hard?  

No matter how hard I tried – I could NOT get the paints to mingle and mix on the paper as I had seen on TV.  (Yeah – we didn’t have internet then).    

They say – “Knowledge is Power” and for a good reason.   Since I was new to watercolor – I went with my gut (which turned out to be very wrong).   If I had known then what I know now – my initial painting headaches and overall frustrations would have been far less.   So here’s a quick summary of what you need to know when choosing watercolor paper starting out as a beginner. 

EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT

PAPER MATERIAL (WOOD PULP VS. COTTON)

IMPORTANT INFO: Watercolor paper is very different from other paper types – such as drawing or Bristol paper.   Why because watercolor paper should be designed to absorb your paints into the fibers of your paper.  So logically, it makes sense – we would want a material that is good at absorbing – right?   Well, truth be told, most cheaper watercolor papers are actually made with a material called wood pulp or a combination of both cotton and wood pulp.  This is how manufacturers keep the price low – but the painting experience on these papers isn’t enjoyable.   The best type of watercolor material to paint on is 100% cotton – which is great for absorbing water and your paint mixtures.   

PAPER TEXTURE (COLD, HOT, SOFT, & ROUGH)

IMPORTANT INFO:  The next deciding factor when choosing paper is its texture – also known as the tooth of the paper.  There are actually 4 types of paper texture – Cold Press, Hot Press, Soft Press, and RoughRough is the most absorbent but also the bumpiest of all the papers.   Cold Press is the most popular type of texture among watercolor artists since it is very absorbent but only slightly bumpy compared to rough paper.   Hot Press paper is the opposite extreme – or very smooth to the touch.   It is great for inking – since there are no bumps or grooves to hinder the pen’s nub but is considered the least absorbent of all the papers.    And finally, soft press paper is an “in-between” paper texture of Hot and Cold – basically means it has some texture allowing for absorption but fairly smooth compared to Cold Press paper.  Soft Press paper is my favorite, but if you are an absolute newbie to watercolor, Cold Press is your best option.  

PAPER WEIGHT(DURABILITY)

IMPORTANT INFO:  After choosing which texture to use – we next have to discuss paperweight.   Paperweight comes in various sizes ranging from 90 lb all the way up to 500 lb.  The three most common are 90lb/190gsm, 140lb/300gsm, and 300 lb/640gsm.   As you probably guessed, the higher the weight, the more durable and sturdy the paper – meaning the more abuse it can take.   

IN MY OPINION – stay clear of anything lower than 140 lbs.   It’s just not worth your time.   140 lb weight is best for beginners – since it gives you a feel of what good paper works like without totally breaking your bank account.   My preferred paperweight is 300lb weight for full/commissioned illustrations – but 140lb weight for exploration and personal work.    

PAPER PACKAGING (STRETCHED VS. LOOSE)

IMPORTANT INFO:  Another important factor when choosing your paper is the packaging.  There are many different packaging options for watercolorists – depending on what suits your needs best.   Watercolor journals are great for on the go exploration.  They can also be fairly inexpensive and tend to be bound on one side.  Pads are the next option and are also typically bound on only one side – but differ from journals in that their pages can easily be torn out.   Blocks are paper bundles that are bound with adhesive on all four sides – thus pre-stretching your paper (or preventing it from buckling as your paint).  These can be fairly expensive but are nice if you want to skip the stretching paper step.   The last two paper options are sheets and rolls.   A professional artist typically uses these to keep costs down – yet purchase higher quality and weighted papers.  They also come in larger sizes – giving the artist the option to paint bigger than the other packaging options.   

If you are an absolute beginner – I recommend purchasing a journal or pad.   These are the least expensive of all the options discussed.   

Watch Me Paint on 400lb Watercolor Paper

THE BEST WATERCOLOR PAPER FOR BEGINNERS?

TO SUMMARIZE:  THE BEST WATERCOLOR PAPER FOR BEGINNERS IS…

  1. A MATERIAL THAT IS MADE OF – 100% COTTON 
  2. A TEXTURE THAT IS – COLD PRESS
  3. A WEIGHT THAT IS – 140LB/300SM OR HIGHER
  4. AND PACKAGED  IN A – JOURNAL OR PAD

BELOW ARE SOME WATERCOLOR PAPERS THAT I RECOMMEND

INEXPENSIVE/STUDENT GRADE 100% COTTON PAPERS

Paul Rubens Watercolor Journal, 100% Cotton 140 lb Hot Press

Bee Paper Company Bee Paper Bee Creative Watercolor Book

ARTIST GRADE PAPERS

Arches Watercolor Paper Pad

Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Cold Press

Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Soft Press Sheets

Fabriano Artistico 300 lb. Soft Press Sheets

If you want to learn more about watercolor paper and learn how to make watercolor work easier for you, then make sure to check out my brand new and latest watercolor for beginner's course! (Click Here to Learn More).

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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