Watercolor For Beginners: Paper Basics

The most important thing you can do in watercolor is start with good paper!  Painting with watercolor is essentially a process of repeatedly wetting your paper and working into the damp surface, so you need something that is resilient enough to stand up to that.


Your watercolor paper should have a weight of 140lbs or greater

The greater the paper weight, the thicker the paper.  The reason we want thicker paper is that light weight watercolor paper is going to buckle if you add a lot of water to it.

140lb paper is thick enough to use for professional painting, and it’s also good for practice.  I personally work on Arches 300lb hot press paper for finished paintings, which is even thicker than cardstock.  I like to use this paper because it can take lots of layers and washes without buckling.

Thicker paper is more expensive, so if you want to work on 140lb paper, you can stretch it to minimize buckling. To do this you have to wet the paper, stretch it out, and tape or staple it down to a board or table while wet.  I prefer to skip these extra steps.

Watercolor paper can be cold press or hot press

Cold press paper is what you might think of as a more traditional watercolor paper.  It has a rough texture on the surface, while hot press paper is completely smooth to the touch.

Stylistically, cold press is great if you like having white speckles of the page show through, or prefer a grainier look, and hot press is ideal for fine details and lines that won’t be disrupted by the surface of the paper.

Functionally, cold press paper stays wet longer, holding the water like a sponge, and hot press paper dries faster, which makes it easier for layering.  Which paper you use is mostly a matter of personal preference, so you should try both and see which you prefer. I personally love hot press paper and rarely use cold press.


You can get watercolor paper in a pad, block, or as a large individual sheet

Pads are just like any sketchbook with loose paper and binding on one side.  Blocks are pre-stretched and sealed on four sides, which helps to keep the paper flat while using a lot of water, and individual sheets can be cut down to custom sizes.  I typically use pads or blocks for practice, and sheets for finished paintings.

Since different brands and types of watercolor paper behave uniquely, it’s important to do your own research and find the paper that best suits your style. To try different papers without spending a lot of money, you can purchase a watercolor paper sampler from Legion.

Arches is the best brand for watercolor paper, and I highly recommend it.  Fabriano used to be a good brand, but their paper quality has significantly decreased over the years and I do not recommend using any of their watercolor products.  Cheaper brands such as Fluid and Strathmore can be limiting, though these are a fine place to start if it’s all you can afford!


There is technically a top and a bottom to the paper, but you can paint on either side

If you buy a sheet of paper, the watermark will generally be on the top of the paper, though this can differ from brand to brand. You can usually identify the top and bottom by the grain. In cold press paper, the top will have peaks and the bottom will have valleys. On hot press, it can be more difficult to decipher, but the top of the paper has a slightly more organic looking grain, and the bottom has a sort of pinprick grid look to the grain.

No matter what materials you're working with, the most important thing is that you paint regularly!  Watercolor is going to be clumsy at first, and it takes a lot of practice to begin to understand how different papers impact the way you paint.  Work with what you've got, and upgrade as you go.


If you’re just getting started with watercolor and want to learn more, consider taking my class on Skillshare! Sign up with the link below to get your first two months free.