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Understanding Watercolour Paper
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An Overview of Terms.
If you are new to water-colours one of the most baffling subjects is understanding the terms for different types of paper, often referred to as 'supports', and choosing the right one for you. You will need to consider the surface, weight, materials and format of the paper you choose - quite daunting when you just want to get painting!

Commercially made water-colour papers are produced in three main surface types;

  • ROUGH - this is pretty self explanatory, the surface of the paper is highly textured with plenty of 'tooth' which will grab applied pigment enabling you to create great textural effects.

  • SMOOTH - also known as HOT PRESSED. This is a very smooth and even grained paper ideal for highly detailed fine work.

  • NOT - or COLD PRESSED. This is the most popular watercolour paper. It has a gentle texture and suits a wide range of watercolour styles.

The most common raw materials in commercial papers are:

  • CELLULOSE fibre (wood pulp)

  • COTTON rag

  • GELATINE used for sizing the paper. Good paper is sized externally on both sides and internally during manufacture.

Weights of paper are expressed in grams per square metre (gsm) or lbs per ream (500 sheets of paper). The greater the weight - the denser or sturdier the paper. Standard commercial weights are;

  • 190 gsm (90 lb)

  • 300 gsm (140 lb)

  • 356 gsm (260 lb) 

  • 638 gsm (300 lb).


Lighter papers (190 and 300gsm) are likely to 'cockle' (buckle and warp when wet), though this will depend on how 'wet' you work. Thinner papers may be 'stretched' to avoid cockling (more on stretching later).

Physical size and format. Art papers are often sold in sheets in a range of sizes. You can also buy paper in books/pads (bound or gummed), blocks (each sheet is gummed on all edges).


  • Full sheets are often an economical way to purchase paper. You can cut whole sheets down to the size you require but be sure that you can store full sheets properly and avoid excessive handling.

  • Pads and books are a convenient way of storing your early work - you can simply work on each page in the book/pad and keep it there for reference. They come in all shapes and sizes and surfaces so you'd easily find a size to suit your style and situation. You can buy beautifully bound watercolour (or sturdy cartridge paper) sketch books which make wonderful illustrated journals.

  • Watercolour blocks are similar to pads except they are gummed all the way round and must be removed with a craft knife or similar. The idea is that the all round gumming will help keep the paper flat and avoid cockling.

So that explains how paper is sold now we have to decide on what to buy to get started!
Assuming you are a complete beginner, yet to find your preferred style and techniques, I would recommend the following to begin with.;

  • NOT (COLD PRESSED) surface

  • Cellulose or mixed fibres

  • 300gsm (140lb)

  • A4 or A3 in the format of your choice

DO - ask for samples of different paper types - retailers in stores and on-line sometimes give  away sample packs or sell at a small cost.
DO - Store it out of direct sunlight and in dry conditions.
DON'T - buy tons of paper before you know how your work will develop.
DON'T - handle it too much - even clean hands have natural oils which can spoil the surface of your paper.

DON'T - buy 'gimmicky' papers with unusual textures or shiny surfaces - there's plenty of time to experiment later!
DON'T - buy very expensive paper (to start with) - it may be 'the best' but it will intimidate you and you'll worry about 'wasting' it.

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