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Understanding Watercolor Paper: Types, Usage, and Importance

Watercolor paper is a crucial element in the world of watercolor painting. It's not just a surface to paint on, but it plays a significant role in determining the final outcome of your artwork. Understanding the different types of watercolor paper and their usage can significantly enhance your painting experience.

Types of Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper comes in three main types: hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough.

  1. Hot-Pressed Paper: This type of paper is smooth and has a hard surface. It's ideal for detailed work, but it might not hold washes as well as other types.

  2. Cold-Pressed Paper: This paper has a slightly textured surface. It's versatile and suitable for both detailed work and washes, making it the most commonly used type of watercolor paper.

  3. Rough Paper: This paper has a pronounced texture, great for creating effects with granulating colors and for loose, expressive work. However, it can be challenging to use for detailed work.

Watercolor Blocks vs. Sketchbooks vs. Loose Sheets

  1. Watercolor Blocks: These are stacks of watercolor paper bound on all sides. The advantage of a block is that the paper remains stretched while you paint, preventing it from warping when wet. Once your painting is dry, you can remove it from the block with a palette knife or a similar tool. Blocks are great for plein air painting or for those who don't want to bother with the stretching process.

  2. Watercolor Sketchbooks: These are books of watercolor paper, perfect for artists who like to keep all their work in one place or for those who enjoy painting on the go. The paper quality can vary, so it's essential to choose a sketchbook with good-quality watercolor paper.

  3. Loose Sheets: These are individual sheets of watercolor paper that you can buy in various sizes. They offer the most flexibility as you can choose the exact size and type of paper you want. However, they may need to be stretched before use to prevent warping.

Watercolor Paper Weights

Watercolor paper is typically measured in grams per square meter (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb). The most common weights are 190gsm (90lb), 300gsm (140lb), and 638gsm (300lb).

  1. 190gsm (90lb): This is the lightest weight commonly used for watercolor paper. It's thin and lightweight, making it suitable for practice sketches or light washes. However, it tends to warp when exposed to a lot of water and usually requires stretching to prevent buckling.

  2. 300gsm (140lb): This is the most popular weight for watercolor paper. It's thick enough to handle heavier washes and multiple layers of paint without warping too much. It may still require stretching for very wet techniques, but many artists use it without stretching.

  3. 638gsm (300lb): This is the heaviest weight and is very thick and sturdy. It can handle a lot of water and doesn't usually require stretching. However, it's also the most expensive option.

The weight you choose depends on your painting style and the techniques you plan to use.

  • If you're a beginner, practicing techniques, or doing light washes, 190gsm (90lb) paper can be a cost-effective choice. However, remember that it may not hold up well to heavy washes or extensive layering.

  • For most artists and a variety of techniques, including heavy washes and layering, 300gsm (140lb) paper is a versatile and reliable choice. It offers a good balance between performance and cost.

  • If you're planning to use a lot of water, doing complex layering, or if you simply want to avoid the possibility of your paper warping, 638gsm (300lb) paper is the best choice. It's also a good option for finished pieces or if you're selling your work, as the thickness and sturdiness of the paper convey a high-quality feel.

Why Use Watercolor Paper?

Watercolor paper is specifically designed to handle large amounts of water and pigment. It's typically heavier than other types of paper and is made from cotton or a mix of cotton and other materials. This composition allows the paper to absorb water well without tearing or buckling.

Using regular paper for watercolor painting can lead to disappointing results. The paper may warp, the colors may bleed, or the paper might even tear. Watercolor paper, on the other hand, preserves the vibrancy of your colors and allows for techniques like wet-on-wet or lifting color.

How to Use Watercolor Paper

Before you start painting, consider whether you need to stretch your paper. This process involves soaking the paper in water and then securing it to a flat board until it dries. Stretching helps prevent the paper from warping when you paint on it. However, if you're using a watercolor block or heavy-weight paper (300gsm/140lb or more), you can skip this step.

When painting, remember that watercolor is transparent. Start with lighter colors and gradually build up to darker ones. Also, remember that you can use the white of the paper as a color itself, leaving areas unpainted for highlights.

In conclusion, understanding and choosing the right watercolor paper can make a significant difference in your painting experience. Whether you're a beginner or a seasoned artist, it's worth investing time and resources in quality watercolor paper to ensure the best results for your artwork.


This is my go-to size, weight, and brand. 300lb does not buckle, and 12x16" fits perfectly into my storage drawers.

Use Hot Press for when you want to paint something super detailed.

Opt for rough paper specifically when you intend to utilize the dry brush technique.

Fluid Artist Watercolor Block, 140 lb Cold Press Paper Binding, 9 x 12 inches, 15 White Sheets

Purchase any painting knife to release the paper from the block. Simply find the one small section toward the top that is unglued. Slide the knife in and turn the block, breaking the seal of the glue.


Canson Artist Series Watercolor Paper, Wirebound Pad

Strathmore P440-3 Watercolor Pad, 12"x18" Wire Bound, 12 Sheets

Indigo Artpapers Watercolor WiroPad

Etchr Mixed Media Hardbound Sketchbooks

Loose Sheets:

Loose Sheets of Arches Watercolor Paper

Loose Sheets of Blick Watercolor

Strathmore Ready Cut Watercolor Sheets

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Paper

Remember, good art starts with good materials. Great Watercolor Paper will set the stage for your best work, and the best is yet to come.

Happy painting!

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