What’s the best Watercolour Paper?
Battling for first place in the commonly asked ‘art’ questions would be: What is the best choice of watercolour paper? It’s a question that I hear multiple times a day – and that’s good, because you all want the best from your art – but choosing the right type of paper can be a confusing business, especially if you are new to watercolour painting. I will scrap some of the technical terms and ‘confusing’ bits and give simple explanations without making it seem like a complete minefield.
There are three main types of watercolour paper
Hand-made: Often considered the ‘best’ type of paper for watercolour artists as it’s made from 100% cotton, which means it’s very durable and forgiving. It’s able to cope with ‘scrubbing’ and ‘lifting’ techniques (essentially rough treatment) and the paper won’t need to be stretched first. I won’t cover stretching paper in detail here, but it essentially means soaking it, sticking it down and letting it dry to avoid warping when you come to paint onto the surface. The texture isn’t usually uniform due to the paper being made by hand – but watercolourists like this fact. Hand-made paper is expensive.
Machine-made – Artists can get a little snobby about machine-made paper! It’s not generally as good as hand-made paper, but it is very consistent in its texture which can be a bonus, and it’s much cheaper too!
Mould-made – It’s still machine made really, but is often favoured by artists. Especially if you want purchase the paper on a long roll. Mould-made is similar to hand-made, but will be more consistent in its durability.
Paper Weights and what they mean
I’ll keep this brief. There are a variety of ‘weights’ which is displayed in either grams per square meter or by lbs per ream. Usually 90lb – 560lb. Essentially, the higher the number the thicker and stronger the paper. The lighter the paper the greater the chances of it warping whilst making it wet unless you stretch it first (life is too short to stretch paper). Heavier paper (250lb +) is generally preferred.
Types of surface
If you’re new to painting, this part will be more important to you than how the paper was made. There are several types of watercolour paper, and many different brands. Some are HP, some are CP (NOT), or rough…… but what do all of these strange abbreviations actually mean? Let’s find out.
Hot Pressed (HP) – This is a very smooth paper. Almost like printing paper or smooth card in appearance. It’s favoured by those who tend to create smaller pictures, and those who demand very clean and precise line work. I use HP more than other types, because, as an illustrator I want to be in control of the pen or pencil lines a little more than I would on a bumpy surface. It produces a nice ‘flat’ feel to the work (you can of course bring to life with effective shading). Its favoured among botanical artists and children’s book artists – especially if using dip pens which can ping ink all over the place when being used on a rough surface. The downside (for some) is that the paint sits on the surface a little more and it’s very unforgiving if you want smooth and flat gradations in the background/skies. HP scans better for reproduction of your work.
Cold Pressed (CP) – This paper is often referred to as ‘NOT’ – I think it’s a conspiracy to cause a little more confusion. CP / NOT has a textured surface which makes it much easier to lay down smooth washes and gradations as the water/paint is distributed much more evenly. It’s the most popular choice as it’s considered to be the easiest paper to use. It’s favoured among watercolor purists and those painting large ‘washy’ scenes. I use it occasionally, but less so for my book illustrations as it doesn’t scan that well. Some illustrators like the scratchy surface (Quentin Blake being one of them) – but it’s NOT for me (no pun intended).
Rough – I accidently ordered about £500 of this paper thinking it was the same as CP when I was new to watercolour (oops). Rough is similar to CP, but with a much toothier surface. It is favoured for those who like ‘granulation’ an effect that some paints (particularly blues) give when the pigment doesn’t disperse evenly on the paper. The ‘rough’ surface captures the paint and emphasises the effect. I personally don’t recommend this paper to many (unless you want to buy £500 worth from me – then it’s the holy grail of paper that will make your work look like it was painted by the gods. See the contact section!!!).
Watercolour Paper Sizing
Despite what many think, this has nothing to do with the physical size of the paper. It’s all to do with paint/water absorption into the paper. Most paper is sized with gelatine, which forms a slight barrier for the paint to sit on before being partially absorbed into the paper.
TOP TIP: I don’t usually recommend spending as much as you can on art supplies, but with paper I make an exception. Buy the best that you can afford, and always make sure that it’s ACID-FREE. Poor paper will put you off painting. High-quality paper will make your painting experience a better one. And remember, the ‘BEST’ watercolour paper depends on what is best for you and your style – everyone will have different requirements. Just buy the best you can. Some of the best brands are, Arches, Fabriano and Saunders.
I hope that this was useful to you. Leave comments below with some of your top tips or if you’d like me to include anything extra on this article. Please consider sharing it with your friends too!