Guide to Watercolor Papers for Beginners

watercolor paper guide Paper

Have you ever wondered how you manage to keep your watercolor paper nice and smooth while painting? Or how do your colors run opaque and yet evenly on the paper? The decision for the right watercolor paper is the basis for your successful watercolor painting.

Which watercolor paper is the best for you, we present it in detail in our guide. We have summarized the most important criteria, and other useful information, for you further down the page in our watercolor paper test.

The most important in a nutshell

  • the texture of the watercolor paper determines the appropriate painting technique;
  • different surface structures are suitable for different motifs;
  • there are different formats – from small postcard sizes to posters;
  • watercolor paper is produced in different paper thicknesses.

Buying guide for watercolor paper

Choosing the right watercolor paper to bring out the best in your painting depends on a number of factors. Not all paper is the same – different properties lead to different painting experiences and results.

To give you a better overview of the various criteria, we summarize the most important information for you in the guide section. Here you will find tips and suggestions for a suitable paper.

Relate: Guide to the right painting and drawing paper

Why is it useful to use watercolor paper?

You have probably painted with watercolors at school or in your free time. While painting, you probably noticed how you quickly reached the limits of the paper in certain places. The colors just don’t run the way you thought they would, and the paper starts to curl.

Watercolor paints are also water-based paints. Unlike classic school paints, they are not made of synthetic pigments, but of natural and high-quality pigments. As a result, the paint has a better brilliance.

In addition, you can build up colors properly – from very transparent to highly pigmented. This allows you, for example, to layer several colors on top of each other without completely covering one of them. The ability to build up the color gradually also means that you will automatically use more water.

Now you’re thinking: even more water? Don’t worry, that’s what watercolor paper is for. Any good artist will tell you that choosing the right paper is the most important thing in watercolor painting. No matter how high quality your paints and brushes are, good paper always provides the foundation for a successful painting.

What formats are available for watercolor paper?

You will quickly realize that the paper for watercolor painting is very diverse. Do you want to paint small and detailed, or rather conjure up large illustrations on your paper? The size of your work surface or where you want to paint is also crucial for the format.

Watercolor paper comes in a wide variety of sizes, from postcard sizes to poster sizes. There is a paper size for every subject and painting style. Popular sizes include: 16.5 x 23.4 in, 11.7 x 16.5 in, 8.3 x 11.7 in, 5.8 x 8.3 in.

Tip: If you want to paint landscapes or like to paint on the go, for example, the format A5 in the block.

What are the most important criteria for buying watercolor paper?

The quality of your watercolor paper is crucial for the result of your watercolor painting. To give you an overview, we list below the criteria that you should consider when making your selection.

What are the most important criteria for buying watercolor paper?

The quality of your watercolor paper is crucial for the result of your watercolor painting. To give you an overview, we list below the criteria that you should consider when making your selection.

Material

Often overlooked, but one of the most important characteristics of watercolor paper: the material. It determines how the paper behaves. Whether it is prone to crack and whether the color runs evenly or blotchy. Watercolor paper is wood-free and can be made of cotton, cellulose, or bamboo, as well as different blends of the aforementioned materials.

Cotton is the highest quality material, it is strong and durable. Therefore, papers made of 100 percent cotton (mostly rag) are best. Good quality watercolor paper is also acid-free. This means that the color fades less and the paper does not become brittle over time.

Basically, by the way, watercolor paper is roughly divided into two qualities: Study quality and Artist quality. Artist quality promises acid-free paper that is more durable. Study quality is suitable for practicing and experimenting. The quality not only determines the longevity of your watercolor, but of course the price. For practice, a good study quality paper is usually sufficient.

Grammage of paper thickness

The thickness of the paper, also called grammage, probably determines the most how the paper behaves in watercolor painting.

Commonly, 20-pound bond paper ranges between roughly 97 to 114 μm (0.0038 to 0.0045 in) in thickness.

Medium-weight watercolor paper with a basis weight of 300 g/m² is one of the most popular papers and well suited for beginners. The lower the grammage, the more unstable and prone to cracking and rippling the paper is. So if you like to paint wet on wet, a medium to high grammage paper is recommended.

Worth knowing: Paper with a grammage of 150 g/m² or more is also called cardboard.

Number of sheets

The number of sheets depends on whether you buy watercolor paper in a pad, sheet, or roll. The most common variant is the purchase of a watercolor block. These usually contain between 30 and 40 sheets – so enough space for you to be creative!

There are also differences in watercolor blocks. Usually, the choice is between glued blocks and blocks with wire binding spines. Although you may think that a block with a binder spine is handier, we recommend a glued block (preferably 4-sided). The advantage here is that your painting can dry straight and without ripples.

Watercolor paper in sheets usually starts with a number of sheets of three. There are no upper limits. If you have a very specific motif and special format in mind, it is worth buying individual sheets.

water color paper use

How is watercolor paper made?

The most common way to make watercolor paper is machine pressed under heat or without. In this way, the paper fibers are more or less smoothed. Accordingly, a distinction is made between hot-pressed and cold-pressed paper.

Hot-pressed

Hot-pressed watercolor paper has a smooth surface, absorbs color very evenly, and is suitable for detailed work. On the other hand, the pigments mixed with water dry very quickly, and it is more difficult to touch up minor mistakes and build up colors in several layers.

Tip: If you want to digitize your watercolors, hot-pressed paper is a good choice. Its smooth texture makes it particularly easy to scan.

Cold-pressed

Cold-pressed watercolor paper, on the other hand, has an uneven structure. This gives you more time to work with color and water on the paper. It is also much more stable than hot-pressed paper, and therefore tolerates painting techniques with a lot of water better.

Worth knowing: Particularly high-quality artist paper is so-called handmade paper. Originally handmade, this paper is now also produced by machine using a cylinder mold. It is made of particularly fine materials and has a fibrous edge.

What surface structures are there?

The surface structure of the watercolor paper is closely related to the way it is manufactured. Even surfaces result from the fact that the sheets are hot-pressed between the rollers. Cold-pressed paper, in contrast, has much more texture.

Matte surface

Matte or fine-grain paper is very versatile and well suited for beginners. Although it is relatively smooth, it still has a fine texture. This allows you to work generously with water and create great, even color gradients.

Smooth, satin surface

This surface is very suitable for painting fine lines and details. Watercolor paints have a special brilliance here. However, satin surfaces are less suitable for working with wet-on-wet techniques. The paper hardly absorbs the water because of the satin finish.

Rough surface

Watercolor paper with a rough texture can absorb water particularly well. You can take advantage of the coarse-grained surface to conjure up unique effects on your watercolor. Especially if you want to paint landscapes with different textures, paper with a rough surface structure is a good choice.

Torchon

Torchon paper has a very rough texture like linen. Because of this unusual surface, water runs very differently on these papers than on others. Color gradients and coloring are more difficult to direct, but at the same time, there is a characteristic three-dimensionality. This paper is therefore particularly suitable for experienced artists.

Different surfaces, therefore, have different advantages and disadvantages that influence your painting experience. To give you an overview, we have compiled the most important differences and features in a table.

Structure Properties
Matt
  • relatively smooth;
  • but still has a fine surface;
  • well suited for beginners.

 

Smooth, satin finish
  • perfect for fine illustrations and details;
  • colors are particularly intense;
  • not suitable for too wet painting techniques.
Rough
  • especially suitable for wet painting techniques;
  • coarse, very stable paper;
  • ideal for landscape watercolors.
Torchon
  • very coarse, linen-like texture;
  • unique color gradients and three-dimensionality;
  • suitable for experienced artists.

Important accessories for watercolor paper

The right accessories can increase your painting fun even more.

Watercolor paints

At the very beginning of our guide, you learned the difference between conventional watercolors and watercolors. Briefly summarized again: Watercolor paints consist of high-quality pigments that can be dissolved with water.

Watercolor brush

Since you work with a lot of water when painting watercolors, your brushes should be able to absorb water well. Synthetic or human hair brushes are suitable. However, the shape and length of your brushes are also important. Here is a brief overview of the different types and functions of watercolor brushes:

Type Features
Round brush
  • Standard brush for watercolors.
  • Well suited for beginners.
Flat brush
  • Perfect for corners and edges.
  • Cannot absorb much water.
Wash brush
  • Large round brush.
  • Suitable for spreading water and paint.
Tug brush
  • Can absorb a lot of paint.
  • Has a nice dynamic when painting.
Fan brush
  • Cannot absorb much water.
  • Good for blending paint and water.

If you like to paint large color gradients, a wide flat brush is a good choice. If you attach more importance to detailed illustration, a short round brush is more suitable.

Water

Of course, very important in watercolor painting: the water. It dissolves the pigments and allows you to paint the most beautiful pictures. It is best to place two larger glass containers with water next to your watercolor paper. The water in one of the painting jars should remain as clear as possible so that you can use it to wet your page or to create color gradients. In the other jar, clean your brushes.

Tip: Lukewarm water dissolves the color pigments more easily.

Masking fluid

Adding white watercolor to your painting is difficult. That’s why many artists use masking fluid or scratch crepe to leave white areas on the paper-free. Think about your subject and cover the areas you want to remain white with masking tape.

Masking fluid consists of liquid latex. Paint over the masked areas, as usual, let everything dry well, and then remove the material without leaving any residue. Note, however, that you should not use masking tape on paper that is too thin – there is a risk that the paper will tear when you remove it.

Mixing palette

Whether you work with watercolors from a paint box, tubes, or liquid pigments, you should always have a mixing palette. There are open and closed palettes made of plastic, ceramic, and aluminum.

Plastic palettes are usually inexpensive, durable, and very light. However, the material will discolor over time. Mixed pallets made of aluminum are even more robust. Even if these gradually scratch, they do not lose any of their functionality. Ceramic pallets are slightly heavier, usually dishwasher safe, and do not discolor.

Adhesive tape

If you are working with individual sheets, be sure to tape them to your work surface. Loose sheets would warp and dry wavy as soon as you apply the paint with water. Special watercolor tape is best, but you can also use smooth crepe tape.

Paper towel

Very simple, but a great helper: kitchen roll or any comparable paper towel. Use the edges of the towel to soak up excess water from your watercolor paper.

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FAQ – Frequently asked questions about watercolor paper

Despite all the information and tips from our guide, you may still have a few unanswered questions about the watercolor paper. We would like to answer them again in the FAQ section.

What does satin watercolor paper mean?

Satin watercolor paper passes through several rollers until a very smooth and glossy surface is created. This gives the paper a high density at a comparatively relatively low weight. This type of paper is particularly well suited for illustrations using the wet-on-dry technique.

How do you get watercolor paper smooth again?

To smooth your paper, we recommend two methods: pressing the paper and ironing the paper smoothly. For the first method, carefully wet the back of the paper with a spray bottle. Then you put the watercolor paper between two sheets and put heavy books on it.

The second variant is much more effective and is also suitable for very curly paper. You need two slightly moistened kitchen towels and an iron. Put one of the towels on a table and place your watercolor on it. Then you put the second towel on top of it and you iron slowly until the top towel is dry. Turn it over and iron again until the second cloth is dry.

If your watercolor is only slightly wavy, it may help to fix the picture in a suitable frame. The tension automatically makes the paper smoother and the waves may not be visible at all. If this is not enough, you can use the other two methods.

How can you protect watercolors?

Again, the higher the quality of your paper, the more durable and long-lasting it is. Acid-free paper made of cotton is therefore always a good choice if you want to preserve the color brilliance of your watercolors for a long time. If that’s not enough, you should look into finishing treatments for art papers.

Spray fixatives are a popular method of final treatment. Fixatives are solutions designed to preserve the color brilliance of the image while protecting it from changes. Once your image is dry, simply spray it evenly from a distance of about 40 cm. Be aware that this type of sealing is not suitable for very thin paper.

For lighter papers and in general: Watercolors are always best protected in a picture frame. It is even better if you place a passe-partout between the picture and the glass pane. This way you run less risk of your watercolor warping over time.

Watercolor Paper Types Explained – Video

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