Improve your Watercolour Artworks with Quality Paper

Improve your watercolour artworks with quality paper

A common question that I regularly get asked is...

Which watercolour paper is best to use?...

This is a really great question. The paper you choose is very important and the correct surface and weight of your paper will help you achieve the best results. Watercolour papers come in different weights, surface types and qualities all of which will perform differently according to the techniques you use.

Why can’t you just use ordinary plain paper? The nature of watercolour paper is that it is designed to absorb water mediums and water with ease. Regular paper will not absorb either successfully. To get the true perspective of what your watercolours can do, you will need to invest in watercolor paper.

The paper you choose for your watercolour masterpiece is just as important as the paints you use.

There are many different types, brands and qualities of watercolour paper on the market and believe me it can get a bit overwhelming when you are faced with the selection available. The paper you choose will influence the results you achieve so it is very important to understand the characteristics of the papers and what makes each paper different from each otherIn this blog I am going to take you through the different surface types, paper weight, paper quality and the papers I love to use for my watercolors.

Watercolour papers are an extremely versatile paper and can be used with many mediums such as gouache, tempera, pastel, charcoal, pencil and crayons, and can even be used for acrylicas and oils making it a great go to paper.

Surface Types

The first thing you will need to choose is a surface type for your artwork. Watercolour paper come in three different surface types; Hot Pressed (HP), Cold Pressed (NOT) and Rough. Every artist has their own preference and as you develop your watercolour skills you will get a feel for what your favourite is.

Watercolor Paper Surfaces

From left to right: Rough, Cold Press, Hot Press

Let me run through the three types of paper surfaces...

Hot Pressed

Hot pressed has a smooth, fine grained surface with almost no texture. The paint dries very quickly on this surface making it ideal for large, even washes of multiple colors. This is a popular paper with illustrators because it is ideal for fine detailed work and having a smooth surface makes it a good paper if you are wanting to create artworks for reproduction. Good for mixed media works.

Cold Pressed

Cold pressed paper is a semi smooth, slightly textured and more absorbent than hot pressed. The texture of cold pressed paper is between the texture of hot pressed and rough paper. It is the most popular and versatile watercolour paper because it is easily workable and can hold a lot of water media. It is great for beginners and experienced painters because it is suitable for washes and detailed work and is also compatible with a variety of techniques and applications.


As the name suggests, rough is very textured and absorbent. Color skips across the surface and settles in the hollows. Great for bold work and washes but not for detailed paintings. The grain of the paper breaks up the brushstrokes creating broken lines and areas of color. The texture is accentuated when the paint dries. A great paper for artists with a loose painting style.

Watercolour paper can come in a pad, loose sheets or blocks of paper that have been glued on the sides to help keep the paper from buckling whilst painting.

Variety of watercolor papers
Hot press v cold press watercolour paper
Paper weight

Another important factor that you will need to consider is the weight of your paper. Now, the weight of the paper does not influence the quality of the paper, as good quality paper comes in both light and heavy varieties, it refers to the thickness of the paper and is measured in either grams per square meter (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb).

Standard paper weights are 180gsm, 200gsm, 300gsm, 356gsm 600gsm and 640gsm.

What weight you choose really depends on the techniques and how much water you will be using. 180gsm paper, in my opinion is too thin for anything other than color swatches, experimenting and practicing. Light paper is classed as anything less than 300gsm.

An important thing to remember is the higher the GSM, the more water the paper can absorb. Also, the thicker the paper the less likely it will buckle. 600gsm allows you to create more layers of color and transparencies and because it is so thick it doesn’t buckle or pill with a lot of water and rough techniques. 600gsm hot press paper is also good for reproduction prints when taking your artwork to be photographed or scanned for prints.

It is recommended that paper less than 356gsm should be stretched before use to prevent buckling or warping but to be honest I don’t often do this especially if I know I am not going to be using much water. If I am going to be using a lot of water, I’ll use a heavier paper such as 600 or 640gsm.

By stretching your watercolour paper your paper will remain flat regardless of the amount of water you use.


If you don’t want to stretch your watercolour paper, you can coat the back of the paper with water and leave to dry before painting.

How To Stretch Watercolour Paper

Stretched paper needs to be attached to a timber board either by stapling it or using a gumstrip. Paper expands when it is soaked in water and by attaching it to a board whilst wet keeps the paper in its’ expanded state and keeps it stretched when dried so that it will not buckle when painted on.

If you are interested this is how to stretch your watercolour paper follow these instructions:

1. Immerse your paper under water in a clean sink or bath for about 10 minutes.

2. Drain off the excess water by gently sponging.

3. Lay the paper on top of the board and use a sponge to gently flatten and staple or tape (using gumstrip) in place and leave to dry. Once the paper is completely dry it is ready for paint. Allow 4 - 12 hours drying time depending on the thickness of your paper.

Paper quality

Just like your art supplies, paper also comes in different qualities – student grade and artist grade. The choice of paper will influence the techniques you use and the types of marks you can make and affects the end result of your painting.

All artist grade paper, also known as archival, is acid free, pH neutral and 100% cotton which means the paper will not deteriorate or yellow over time. Less expensive student grade papers tend to be made from wood pulp or sometimes a combination of cotton and other cellulose fibers and are not as permanent or durable as artist quality.

If you are a beginner and practicing or even an experienced watercolorist and trying out a new technique using cheaper grade paper is fine, but the watercolour pigments won’t perform as well as on artist quality paper.


My advice is to buy the best paper you can afford. Buying poor quality paper will affect the look of your work and may leave you disappointed with your artwork and deter you from using watercolors in the future.

You might save a bit of money with lower quality paper, but you will find that your watercolour paints won't respond as well on cheaper paper. You also don't want your paper to start pilling and falling apart when you start adding water and layers of color. So, your paper choice and quality of your paper is really important.

A personal favourite of mine is paper by Hahnemuhle. The papers allow for optimum colour reproduction, have a resistant surface and withstand repeated erasures. Their hot press 640gsm Lanaquarelle is divine to work with and great for combining other water media such as gouache and inks.

Watercolour on Canvas?

Thanks to this amazing product I am about to mention, watercolour can now break free from the confines of just watercolour paper and can turn just about any surface into a watercolour “canvas”.

To prepare a canvas for watercolour you will need a product called Watercolour Ground which is an absorbent primer that you can paint onto a variety of surfaces to create a paintable surface for watercolor. Watercolour Ground is basically what gesso is for heavy bodied mediums like acrylic but formulated for watercolour.

Not only can you prime canvas for watercolours but you can paint this product onto paper, plaster, timber, glass, plastic and even metal. Allow to dry for 24 – 72 hours and viola you can paint watercolour on just about any surface.

I have only used the titanium white and iridescent gold but I would love to experiment with the transparent watercolour ground as it allows the surface of your substrate whether that is timber or a pattern paper to show through when you paint over with your watercolours.

I will have a video about watercolour grounds on my YouTube channel very soon. So, keep your eyes peeled.

watercolor grounds

If you haven't already checked out my YouTube channel and don't forget to subscribe so you can keep up-to-date on the latest tips and tricks to improve your art practice.

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