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Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor – Part 3 The Paper

Installment 3 in the Beginner’s Guide to Watercolor is all about paper. This is a brief guide today.

If you missed a part, or want to review something else, here is the article list.

Technical notes about paper:
Some technical terms about paper such as weight, sizing, and grammage will be used in this post. If you want to know more technical details about paper please check out this interesting post by I am working on a detailed explanation of all the paper terms for those of us who love the nerd factor of art.

Lightweight General Use

Lightweight general use paper is typically copy paper or lined notebook paper. It’s not typically geared toward art use, but certainly can, and is, used for art. I use copy paper for my rough sketches and lined paper for layout sketches with lettering. Neither of these papers accept water well. I’m sure you’ve dropped or spilled water on a notebook at some point and and saw it wrinkle or tear.  If you have no other paper you can make this work if you understand it’s limits.

  • It cannot take much water.
  • It cannot be “scrubbed” or worked over with a brush while wet very much.
  • It will suck up the water quickly and have difficulty letting you blend.

If if you are going to use light amounts of water this could be ok, just not good. You will be very frustrated if this is your first experience with watercolor.

Heavy Cardstock

Heavy cardstock is similar to general purpose. The major difference is the thickness, weight, of cardstock allows it to let a little more water to be used without major buckling; however, it still will tear up. I sometimes practice brush lettering with a water brush on cardstock. Water brushes are great for this as they tend to work better a bit more dry.  I do use cardstock for a variety of lettering projects.

Mixed Media

Mixed media paper is designed for exactly what it sounds like. It is for a variety of media to be used. It is not as heavyweight as watercolor paper and has a smoother finish. They have a coating that allows them to accept different wet or dry media. This is a great option.

Watercolor Paper

I can find watercolor paper easily in 3 weights, but there are other weights available by different manufacturers and artisans.

  • 90lb (192gsm)
  • 140lb (300gsm)
  • 300lb (640gsm)

The paper pads and blocks you mostly find are 90lb and 140lb. I usually see 300lb as loose sheets as it is super thick! It’s almost like chipboard. 300lb is usually reserved for final pieces, especially larger pieces, due to it’s structure. 90lb is usually in budget level products. 140lb is a great happy medium and is the most common used. Different brands will give you a different experience. Even within a brand you will find different levels of quality.

Some other variations amongst watercolor paper are the finish. You will find cold and hot pressed. Cold pressed has more texture or tooth. Hot pressed is smooth. Cold pressed is what people usually think of with watercolor paper.

What to Buy

Ultimately, you truly will need to experiment and determine what feels best for your application and purpose. Sometimes a sample pack is available from different companies. Another idea is to do a product exchange with some friends. Send samplings of different supplies to each other so you can test it out. When you start out, I recommend something affordable for you.  Canson XL 140lb  is my main practice and play paper. I also use Strathmore watercolor sketchbooks for my daily practice. I often use Arches for larger pieces where I plan to work with a lot of water.

Here are some popular brands to consider:

  • Artistloft 140lb
  • Canson XL 140lb
  • Canson Montreal 140lb
  • Strathmore 400 series 140lb
  • Strathmore 300 series 140lb
  • Strathmore 200 series 90lb
  • Bee Paper Aquabee 140lb
  • Arches Cold Pressed 140lb
  • Winsor and Newton Cotman 140lb
  • Winsor and Newton Artists’ 140lb
  • Legion Stonehenge Aqua 140lb
  • Fabriano Artistic 140lb

The takeaway here is, buy yourself the right kind of paper to get started on the right foot.  Do you have a favorite paper? Let me know in the comments below!