Understanding the Different Grades of Watercolor Paper

This tutorial will deal with the comparisons of hot pressed, cold pressed and rough watercolor paper. To begin with the usage of the term “paper” is a misnomer. In a way this term devalues the price for watercolor paintings in galleries. It suggests the surface is not permanent because the image is painted on paper, and isn’t much different than a print or a poster. For some reason the manufacturers of these materials have not dispelled this faulty usage of the term “paper” and substituted it for “cotton sheets.” This would add more formality to this medium because oil and acrylic paintings are also painted on cotton surfaces, so the watercolor will be placed in the same category. This will add value to watercolor paintings and collectors will not think their investment has a short life span.

Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

A watercolor painting on Arches cold pressed paper

Be careful when you buy watercolor paper. Art stores actually do sell wood pulp paper watercolor blocks. Unless the product says 100% cotton on the cover, you can end up with the wrong product that will terribly hinder you from succeeding in watercolor. These student watercolor blocks simply are a total waste. I refuse to do any touch-ups on my workshop attendees’ paintings when they bring these.

As noted above, the surface of professional watercolor paper is real cotton and 100% acid free, which means the white surface will not turn yellow over the years. Consider cotton baby diapers: add a gelatin sizing to it, compress it, and you have a sheet of compressed cotton that absorbs wet paint. The sizing reduces the sheet’s flexibility when dry and allows a slow seeping of wet paint into the fibers.

The amount of pressure during the compression process determines the different kinds of paper surfaces: hot pressed (very compressed), cold pressed (semi-compressed) and rough (loosely compressed). This is important to know because the degree of compression results in the fibers being closer or more separated from each other. This will make the paper behave differently by the sheer absorption process. As an analogy, it works like this: a kitchen towel sucks more water than a cotton shirt. That’s because a towel has more gaps between the fibers, which allows the water to penetrate deeper into the fabric. Knowing this will help you make the right choices. Here are the applications and setbacks of each grade.

Hot Pressed (Very Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• Very little pigment penetrates beyond sitting on the surface.
• Not adequate for general watercolor painting. More suitable for fine detail, such as pen and ink; works well for gouache
• Wet-on-wet application with diffusion will not work
• Glazing will lift the underlayer

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Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

A watercolor painting on Fabriano cold pressed paper

Cold Pressed (Semi-Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• Some pigment penetrates deeper into the fibers.
• The painting ends up with a nice velvety look.
• Diffused wet-into-wet application can be achieved, but there’s a risk of losing the forms from excessive pigment bleeding. The artist must be quite skilled to control the degree of fugitive paint.
• It works well for scraping out rocks with a credit card, which is a well-known watercolor painting technique.
• It’s not optimal for glazing because the new layer tends to disturb the first layer.
• It’s too smooth to apply the dry brush technique that artists use to create bushes and trees.
• It’s easier to spray off an area that needs correction.
• It has an excellent surface for combining pastels with watercolor, especially PanPastels.

Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis, ArtistsNetwork.com

A watercolor landscape painting on Arches rough paper

Rough (Loosely Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• The pigment seeps even deeper into the fibers. With just a little experience, the wet-into-wet application works well.
• Glazing works better because the paper grips the first layer quite well.
• It does not work well for scraping out rocks.
• The rougher surface is conducive to drybrushing to create the illusion of foliage.
• It’s harder to remove unwanted paint (with water from a spray bottle).

Each of these papers comes in 22×30 inch sheets that can be cut into various sizes. The stocks are as follows:
• 90lb. is useless for painting with watercolor, but good for printing copies
• 140 lb. must be stretched to avoid buckling
• 300 lb. does not require stretching but is more expensive. It will still curl like a potato chip if it’s moistened in large areas, so it must be fastened to a stiff surface.

Watercolor blocks are handy for plein air painting and transporting to workshops but, with the 140 lb. version, the paper still buckles*, which basically defeats the purpose of paying the extra money. The 300-lb. blocks are handy, but you’ll pay considerably more for them. If you use 140-lb. sheets, I highly recommend working with a Guerilla Watercolorboard, a fantastic product that stretches the paper so it won’t buckle when you rewet it.

*Buckling: When cotton paper is soaking wet, it will expand, creating bumps like hills on an uneven terrain. This makes respecting the contour of a form during wet-into-wet application more difficult because the paint settles into the paper’s grooves. Stretching the paper before you begin painting is a necessary practice. Wet the paper, fasten it to a stiff surface, then allow it to dry. When you rewet the paper, the expansion will be less, which will reduce the buckling.

Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each of these papers, I select the grade of paper based on the theme of my painting. In the case that the scene contains lots of foliage that is close up, I will resort to rough paper. If there is a lot of edge diffusing that requires some control, rough paper will be my choice. If the scene contains rocks and not many soft edges, then I will go for cold pressed. If I intend to incorporate pastels to create the appearance of mist, add texture, or enhance my watercolors, cold-pressed paper is perfect. The velvety look with cold-pressed paper works well for flower paintings.

There are different brands of watercolor paper. Arches is the most common. Fabriano is also quite popular as well.

Recently, I discovered Daler Rowney Langton Rough which is not as grainy as the other papers but offers an in-between of cold and rough, offering the advantages of both. Although there are other brands, I’m using Daler Rowney more often now. I’ve not tried them all but as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The Daler Rowney works just fine for me.

In my next tutorial I will give a review on the different paints and their properties, as well as how to control fugitive wet-into-wet application and recommendations where these should be present in your artwork. Stay tuned! Meanwhile you may want to visit my website, http://improvemypaintings.com to download courses I have given, to buy my book, “Landscape Painting Essentials” or join our ongoing live online art classes.


“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at NorthLightShop.com. North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at http://improvemypaintings.com.

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