Thursday, February 18, 2016

Understanding the Different Grades of Watercolor Paper

This tutorial will deal with the comparisons of hot pressed, cold pressed and rough watercolor paper. To begin with the usage of the term “paper” is a misnomer. In a way this term devalues the price for watercolor paintings in galleries. It suggests the surface is not permanent because the image is painted on paper, and isn’t much different than a print or a poster. For some reason the manufacturers of these materials have not dispelled this faulty usage of the term “paper” and substituted it for “cotton sheets.” This would add more formality to this medium because oil and acrylic paintings are also painted on cotton surfaces, so the watercolor will be placed in the same category. This will add value to watercolor paintings and collectors will not think their investment has a short life span.

Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis,

A watercolor painting on Arches cold pressed paper

Before you buy watercolor paper, be careful. Art stores actually do sell wood pulp paper watercolor blocks. Unless the product says 100% cotton on the cover, you can end up with the wrong product that will terribly hinder you from succeeding in watercolor. These student watercolor blocks simply are a total waste. I refuse to do any touch-ups on my workshop attendees’ paintings when they bring these.

As noted above, the surface of professional watercolor paper is real cotton and 100% acid free, which means the white surface will not turn yellow over the years. Consider cotton baby diapers: add a gelatin sizing to it, compress it, and you have like a bed sheet of compressed cotton that absorbs wet paint. The sizing makes the sheet non-flexible when dry and allows a slow seeping of wet paint into the fibers.

The amount of pressure during the compression process determines the different kinds of paper surfaces: hot pressed (very compressed), cold pressed (semi-compressed) and rough (loosely compressed). This is important to know because the degree of compression results in the fibers being closer or more separated from each other. This will make the paper behave differently by the sheer absorption process. As an analogy it works like this: a kitchen towel sucks more water than a cotton shirt. That’s because a towel has more gaps in between the fibers, which allows the water to penetrate deeper into the fabric. Knowing this will help you make the right choices. Here are the applications and setbacks of each grade.

Hot Pressed (Very Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• Very little pigment penetrates beyond sitting on the surface.
• Not adequate for general watercolor painting. More suitable for fine detail such as pen and ink. Works well for gouache.
• Wet on wet application with diffusion will not work.
• Glazing will lift the underlayer.

[Do you have your copy of Landscape Painting Essentials yet? Get it here today!]

Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis,

A watercolor painting on Fabriano cold pressed paper

Cold Pressed (Semi-Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• Some pigment penetrates deeper into the fibers.
• The painting ends up with a nice velvety look.
• Diffused wet-into-wet application can be achieved but there’s a risk of losing the forms by excessive pigment bleeding. The artist must be quite skilled to control the degree of fugitive paint.
• Works well for scraping out rocks with a credit card, which is a well-known watercolor painting technique.
• Not that good for glazing because the new layer tends to disturb the first layer.
• Too smooth to apply the dry brush technique that artists use to create bushes and trees.
• Easier to spray off an area that needs correction.
• Excellent surface to combine pastels with watercolor, especially PanPastels.

Types of watercolor paper | Johannes Vloothuis,

A watercolor landscape painting on Arches rough paper

Rough (Loosely Compressed) Watercolor Paper
• The pigment seeps even deeper into the fibers. The wet-into-wet application is very cooperative with just a bit of experience.
• Glazing works better because the paper grips the first layer quite well.
• Does not work well for scraping out rocks.
• The rougher surface cooperates for dry brushing the illusion of foliage.
• Harder to remove unwanted paint with a spray bottle.

These papers come in 22×30 inch sheets that can be cut into various sizes. The stocks are:

  • 90lb. – useless for painting with watercolor, but good for printing copies
  • 140 lb. – must be stretched to avoid buckling
  • 300 lb. – does not require stretching but more expensive. This will still curl like a potato chip if wetted in large areas so it requires fastening.

Watercolor blocks are handy for plein air painting and transporting to workshops but with the 140 lb. version, the paper still buckles, which basically defaults the purpose to pay the extra money. The 300 lb. blocks are handy but you’ll pay considerably more for them. If you use 140 lb. sheets there’s a fantastic product that will stretch the paper in such a way that if you rewet it, will not buckle. I highly recommend “The Watercolorboard” from Guerilla.

Buckling: When the cotton paper is soaking wet, it will expand, creating bumps like hills on an uneven terrain. This makes it more difficult to respect the contour of a form during wet-into-wet application because the paint settles into the grooves. Stretching is a necessary practice. Wet the paper first, fasten it, then allow it to dry. Once you rewet it, it will decrease this expansion, thus less buckling.

Considering the advantages and disadvantages of each of these papers, I select the grade of paper based on the theme of my painting. In case the scene contains lots of foliage that is close up, I will resort to rough paper. If there is a lot of edge diffusing that requires some control, rough paper will be my choice. If the scene contains rocks and not many soft edges then I will go for cold pressed. If I intend to incorporate pastels to create mist, add texture, or enhance my watercolors, cold pressed is perfect. The velvety look with cold pressed works nice for flower paintings.

There are different brands of watercolor paper. Arches is the most common. Fabriano is also quite popular as well.

Recently, I discovered Daler Rowney Langton Rough which is not as grainy as the other papers but offers an in-between of cold and rough, offering the advantages of both. Although there are other brands, I’m using Daler Rowney more often now. I’ve not tried them all but as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” The Daler Rowney works just fine for me.

In my next tutorial I will give a review on the different paints and their properties, as well as how to control fugitive wet-into-wet application and recommendations where these should be present in your artwork. Stay tuned! Meanwhile you may want to visit my website, to download courses I have given, to buy my book, “Landscape Painting Essentials” or join our ongoing live online art classes.

“Landscape Painting Essentials” and other video courses are available at North Light has also just released a new eBook written by Johannes titled Landscape Painting Essentials. Join his online art classes at

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