Picture this: you’ve got your watercolor kit and palette all set up, and you’re brimming with inspiration. But what’s the best watercolor paper option to make your artistic dreams come true?
Read on to discover how to choose the right watercolor paper and a few other surface options for your watercolor work.
In the world of watercolor paper, there are two main factors that affect your watercolor paper: texture and weight. Using the right (or wrong) type of watercolor paper can truly make or break a painting.
This type of watercolor paper is pressed using metal rollers, which create a smooth surface and an even texture.Hot-pressed paper is great for mixed media work. When combining watercolor with other media, even ink and graphite will glide smoothly over its surface.
Hot-pressed paper also captures detail well and offers a sleek finish. Plus, the smoothness of the paper is great for creating subtle color gradients, which is very useful when painting things like flowers, skies, skin and clothes.
This type of paper presents a rougher texture than the hot-pressed paper. When you glide your brush over it, some of the paint settles on it while skipping the indentations of the grainy texture, leaving them blank.
This creates a beautifully textured brushstroke, perfect for representing all kinds of sparkling bodies of water, such as lakes and oceans, among many other subjects. Cold-pressed paper is great for beginners and is also a favorite among many artists.
As the name indicates, this is a paper with a very textured surface, making it very different from hot-pressed paper. It’s not ideal for painting a lot of detail, but it creates expressive brush strokes that can provide a lot of character and emotion to a painting. This is a fun texture to work with, as you never really know what the results will be.
All three types of watercolor paper come in different weights. The heavier the weight, the sturdier and pricier the paper. (In fact, the weight is determined by the actual weight of 500 sheets of 20" x 30" sheets!)
- 90 lb. paper is quite thin and more suited for studies and training; it needs to be stretched.
- 140 lb. paper is of medium thickness and the most commonly used; it also needs to be stretched.
- 300 lb. paper is more like cardboard and doesn’t require stretching, but is more expensive and takes longer to dry.
Stretching watercolor paper
Most watercolorists stretch their paper before painting, especially when using a thinner paper. The process expands the fibers of the paper, helping to avoid buckling and warping. It’s much more enjoyable to paint on a flat surface and be able to use as much water as you want. Here's how.
Step 1: Soak
To stretch your paper, first soak it in cool water for 5 to 10 minutes.
Step 2: Check its soak level
Remove it when the paper is soft but not floppy.
How can you tell if the paper has soaked long enough? Try gently bending a corner: If it holds its position, then you’ve reached the perfect soaking time. If it falls down, it’s been in the water too long (don’t worry, you can still use it!); if it comes back to its position, it needs more time.
Step 3: Place on flat stretching surface
Place the soaked paper on your stretching support. The most common supports are stretching boards, gator boards (a kind of foam board) and medium-density fibreboard (MDF). This support needs to be acid-free and solid enough to stay flat when the paper dries and shrinks. The paper should cling to the stretching support.
Step 4: Remove excess water and secure
Remove any excess water by smoothing it with your hands. Secure the paper using the support’s system or with staples or tape.
Step 5: Dry
Let your paper dry in a horizontal position so the water is equally distributed. After a few hours, it should be drum tight and ready for painting.
Choosing the right paper for you
No type of paper is inherently better than the other. It all depends on your needs, your preferred watercolor techniques and what look you are going for in your painting.
Kateri Ewing has developed a quick testing system so that you can quickly assess if a type of paper will work well with your personal painting style.
Can you easily remove graphite without damaging the surface of the paper? This is important if you begin your paintings with a sketch and occasionally make adjustments with an eraser.
With an HB or number 2 pencil, draw a thin rectangle and fill it in with graphite. Using a hard white eraser, remove a section of graphite and then feel the paper for any roughness. Notice how well the graphite disappears and whether the paper holds on to the eraser debris.
2. Pigment over eraser marks
If you use a pencil, even very lightly, you want to be sure that paint won’t settle into the erased lines. You can also look at the brilliance of the pigment once it dries. Does it appear flat or dull because the paper is too absorbent? Or does it maintain its brilliance?
Draw an X on the paper, then erase it. Then, paint a layer of watercolor pigment over the place where you erased the X. If the paint settles in the grooves where the X was, you know the paper is too soft. If the paper looks abraded or rough in any way, you know the surface isn’t as strong to hold up to some painting techniques.
3. Clean edges
If your painting requires clean, sharp lines, make sure your paper will maintain them. Some papers tend to let paint seep around the edges, no matter how careful you are.
For this test, draw a square shape with your paint and then fill it in with the same paint. When it dries, it should maintain the edges and there should be no seepage.
If you paint wet on wet or use water glazes, you want the paper to have good flow. If you add more pigment or drop color into a water glaze, it should flow well over the surface.
Paint a rectangle with clear water, then drop pigment in the upper right corner. If it starts to move across the water glaze, it has good flow. If it stays put and doesn’t move, it does not have good flow. Don’t forget to look at after it dries to see if it has migrated well across the rectangular water glaze.
5. Lifting when wet
Color should lift easily with a clean, damp brush, and the highlight should remain without too much of the paint seeping into the area where it has been removed.
To test, paint a rectangle, let it settle for a moment and then use the tip of a clean, damp brush to lift some of the pigment.
6. Lifting when dry
You also want the paper to stand up to lifting techniques once the paint has dried. The paint should lift off where you scrub it and not leave the paper abraded.
Paint a rectangle and let it dry completely. Once dry, swipe a clean, damp brush in a small line back and forth in the center of the paint swatch, about eight times. Then dab it with a clean tissue and see how the pigment reacts.
7. Holding a mark
It’s very important that paper holds your marks crisply. For this test, pick up paint with your brush and make swift X marks and random lines. When dry, the edges should be crisp and as you made them.
8. Smooth washes
The ability to hold a smooth wash is incredibly important. Student-grade papers often absorb the paint too quickly, leaving you with streaks in an uneven wash. Most artist-grade papers take washes very well, but it’s still worth testing.
Make a juicy wash, then use a pointed round brush to pull the wash down, in rows, from left to right, always picking up the bead that has formed from the row before.
Yupo, a synthetic paper made from polypropylene, offers an amazing surface to work on for watercolor painting. Because it’s waterproof, when watercolor painting on yupo paper, the paint dries only by evaporation, creating really nice watercolor textures in the process.
Another nice advantage painting on yupo is that if you make a mistake, you can wipe it off as long as the colors are not staining, which is really nice because watercolor is not always the most forgiving medium to work with.
The first thing you’ll notice about illustration board is that it’s really thick. In general, you’d have trouble folding the stuff in half. Like watercolor paper, it comes in hot and cold press varieties. However, the texture is less pronounced, which means that it’s a better option for mixed media, from pen and ink to pencil or even incorporating other types of paint, such as gouache or acrylic.
This sturdy paper is also easy for making digital reproductions, as its surface scans well. However, illustration board is on the more expensive side, so it should be reserved for finished pieces.
Bristol board is a multimedia surface that falls somewhere between illustration board and drawing paper in thickness. It comes in two primary finishes:
- Vellum, which is lightly textured and has a gentle “tooth” to the texture
- Smooth, which isn’t as absorbent, making it less suited to watercolors, which tend to bleed.
A vellum bristol board is less absorbent than watercolor paper but far more so than a typical drawing paper. Since bristol board is typically a slightly thicker paper stock, light watercolor washes typically won’t warp it.
If you work fairly small in scale or have a light hand with your watercolor, vellum bristol board may be a good pick. Alternatively, it might be a good paper for practice painting before you move on to more finished pieces on pricer and thicker watercolor paper.
Watercolor art boards, such as Aquabord, offer a unique alternative to watercolor paper on an elegant, interestingly textured surface. It’s an archival, acid-free, gently textured clay surface that has the ability to absorb watercolor paints like paper and allows the watercolor to retain a full vibrancy. These boards can be on the pricey side, but they’re well worth experimenting with if you have the chance!
Its unique surface is perfect for watercolors and gouache, needs no stretching, and will not tear, shrink, or buckle.
Canvas is not a suitable medium for most watercolor paintings. Because canvas is usually primed for acrylic and oils, it is not very absorbent and doesn't hold watercolor paint well.
That said, you can try using canvas for more abstract watercolor pieces! It will be a little messy and flowy, but that's part of the fun. Beware that canvas may not be nice to your delicate watercolor brushes, so consider using an old brush when painting with watercolors on canvas.