Which Side of Watercolor Paper to Use

Is there a correct side of watercolor paper that you are supposed to paint on?  Or is there one side of watercolor paper that is better than the other when it comes to painting?

The Correct Side of Watercolor Paper

When talking about pads and blocks of watercolor paper – the answer is pretty obvious that manufacturers prefer you use the sheet of the page that is pointed up – also known as the “front” side. But what about when it comes to sheets of watercolor paper? Is there a correct side and if so how do you know?

Well, after some research I found that when purchasing sheets of watercolor paper the manufacturer will stamp their logo usually onto the corner of the sheet to signify that this is the “front” side you are supposed to paint on.  Basically – if you can read the logo – that is the correct side – or the side the manufacturer designates as the side which you are supposed to paint on.    

Blue Whale Painted on Arches Watercolor Paper with Mixed Media Watercolor

Is There a Difference

That got me wondering – if there is a “correct/front” side to watercolor paper – what would happen if you painted on the opposite or “back” side.  Is there a difference and if so what is it?

After laying down a small swatch of color on both sides – I began to see subtle differences.

  • First – the paint lay on the “back” side slightly smoother than the “front” side
  • Second – dry time seemed to last a bit longer on the “back” side compared to the “front” side
  • Third – the “back” side seemed to show more blossoms and blooms when compared to the “front” side.
  • The Biggest Difference however was the smooth “tooth” or texture of the “back” side compared to the “front” side.
Comparing front and Back Side of Watercolor Paper

Why is there a Difference?

So why is there a difference between the two sides? Without getting into too much detail – it mainly comes down the how the paper is processed. One side is usually squeezed against a wire mesh while the other is pressed against felt. As the paper is processed – it typically retains the slight pattern or groove of the wire mesh on the front side and remains smooth or flat on the felt side or back side. Thus creating the two distinct sides.

Which Side is Better?

It’s really up to the artist. Personally – I preferred painting on the smoother or “back” side of the watercolor paper since my paintings tend to have a good amount of fine details. I also like to work with Mixed Media elements such as pencils, pens, and inks – which work easier on smoother surfaces. So – if you like the smoothness of hot press paper but the absorption of cold press – flipping your cold press over onto the back side is kind of a happy medium. You get the absorption of cold press paper but a smoother texture similar to hot press.

But ultimately the choice is up to you! So take a chance and try it out for yourself! Also, keep in mind that different brands have varying degrees of texture. I used Arches and Fabriano cold press 300lb paper as examples for this post – but other brands can have different results. So explore and have fun during the process!

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?


  • Pam
    March 9, 2022 at 2:37 pm

    Carrie –

    Great information . . . love how you think outside the box and how it can lead to great discoveries.

    Thanks, Pam

  • Laurel
    April 14, 2022 at 12:32 am

    Thank you for taking the time to assess and share about both sides.. I try to use every available surface since I am a beginner and have a LOT of practicing to do, I want to be as thrifty as I can be while getting in as much painting as possible. I’ve noticed differences, like the slightly smoother texture, and appreciate your noting that detail is a bit easier on the smoother side.

  • Kate
    August 23, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    I recently got a sample pack of different papers. They were cut from (I assume) 22 x 30 size sheets, and so there’s no logo or marking on the pieces i have. I notice that while both sides are textured, one side is noticeably less textured. I assume that’s considered the back. I always use both sides – I’m a beginner and can’t afford to waste any paper. The paper I’m looking at now specifiacally is Canson Heritage 140# cold press.
    I like the sketchbook style of painting and use micron markers along with the watercolor, so a somewhat less textured paper goes better with using the pens.

  • Dixie
    November 16, 2022 at 3:52 am

    I offended use the so called wrong side particularly I I want a detailed painting. My preference is the rough side for landscapes etc . Good to discuss as many people don’t realise there is a front and back it’s just paper .


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