Watercolour Paper – the Differences Explained

How did buying watercolour paper come to be so confusing? At first glance its specification reads like a scientific formula: 300g/m2(140lb)HP. Do I need NOT or Rough? Cold pressed, soft pressed or hot pressed? Paper, a block or a pad?

OK, let’s take it as you’d eat an elephant (though I hope you wouldn’t), one bite at a time.

watercolour paperWatercolour paper traditionally comes in three surfaces: Hot Pressed (HP), Cold Pressed (CP) – which is also called NOT – and Rough. Hot Pressed is the smoothest. That’s easy to remember if you imagine doing the ironing. (No, I try not to think about that either, but it’s a useful analogy for this purpose, so please bear with me.) If you pressed the paper with a hot iron it would be as smooth as possible. That’s Hot Pressed, the smoothest.

Next comes Cold Pressed. If you used a cold iron the paper wouldn’t be quite as smooth as using a hot iron, so that’s Cold Pressed, a medium texture.

Rough – sorry, no prizes for guessing this one – is the roughest texture.

Recently Fabriano have introduced Soft Pressed. That surface comes in between HP and CP.

Now for the numbers. Watercolour paper is measured by the weight of 500 sheets of paper at Imperial size (20”x30”). The basic premise is the bigger the number, the thicker the paper. A 90lb paper is quite flimsy, akin to the thickness of two sheets of photocopy paper. 140lb is a medium thickness suited to general purpose usage and 300lb is as thick as cardboard.

Beware, imperial vs metric starts to confuse things, especially if one manufacturer gives the imperial and another specifies metric. Instead of pounds, the metric measurement is grammes per square metre, written as g/m2 or gsm. Here are the equivalents: 90lb=190gsm, 140lb=300gsm and 300lb=638gsm. Each paper surface is available in each weight.

Now for paper, blocks and pads. Paper is available in sheets or rolls that the artist cuts to size. Sheets are usually sold in Imperial size or sometimes in half or quarter sheets.

Pads are either spiral bound or glued along one edge with a card cover. The cover is often emblazoned with the manufacturer’s branding and should also inform the buyer of the specification of the paper.

A block is glued around all four edges with a small section left unglued, usually in one corner. Once the painting on the top sheet has been completed, the artist inserts a blade in to the unglued part and slides the blade around all four sides, revealing a fresh sheet underneath.

I hope that has demystified the basics of watercolour paper, though we haven’t yet looked at deckle edged, rag-made, internally/externally sized, watermarked… we’ll save that for another day.

About Jackie Garner

Wildlife artist.
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18 Responses to Watercolour Paper – the Differences Explained

  1. michelle says:

    after hours of trotting through the virtual isles of numerous online art stores, trying to decide which paper i need from a seemingly infinite variety….thank you

  2. Delighted to have been helpful, Michelle. Thanks for your comment. Happy painting!

  3. Thanks so much for this, I’ve been messing around with watercolor for years now and never knew this. My hunt for paper will be much easier. I’ll be a new follower after this comment goes through!

    • Hi Daree. Very happy that you found the post useful and delighted to have found a new follower. I’ll be back to blogging regularly soon – I stopped while finishing my book – so I hope the new posts will be just as useful. Wishing you happy painting days.

  4. Digger says:

    I’ve just bought a watercolour pad from WH Smith 300grms. It doesn’t say whether it’s hot pressed, cold pressed or rough. It just says ‘Acid Free’. Should I assume it’s cold pressed? It’s not totally smooth.

    • Sorry, Digger, I seem to have missed replying to your comment.
      I haven’t seen the WH Smith pad, but I’d guess it’s a general purpose paper aimed at pleasing the majority of customers. It can’t be Hot Pressed if it has a texture, so yes, it’s most likely to be a medium surface: their version of Cold Pressed.

  5. jeannie says:

    its good to find clear explanation for the varieties of watercolour paper thank you . can you tell me what it soft sized paper is when it comes to watercolour please ? as I went to buy some masking fluid and it says do not use on soft sized paper .

    • Watercolour paper must be sized before an artist can paint on it, otherwise the paper will soak up the paint like blotting paper. The manufacturer determines how much sizing a paper has, making it more (or less) water resistant depending on the amount of size used. Hard-sized paper will be very strong but the paint won’t soak into the paper’s fibres so well, making the paper very suitable for watercolours. Soft-sized (aka light-sized) paper will be more absorbent. That’s why masking fluid won’t be suitable on a soft-sized paper – it will soak into the paper surface, making it difficult to remove and possibly even damaging the paper’s surface.
      Thanks for your question, Jeannie. I hope that helps.

  6. Ruth says:

    I’m a beginner and this was very very helpful.

  7. jeneliz says:

    Please explain the concept of “right side” and “wrong side” of watercolour paper. Is there “double-sided” paper available?

    • Hi Jeneliz. The “right” or “wrong” side depends on how the paper has been made. If you hold a sheet of watercolour paper up to the light, you should be able to see the watermark that shows the maker’s name. If you can read the watermark, that’s the “right” side. If it looks backwards, that’s the “wrong” side. Some papers are finished only on one side, so the “wrong” side could contain flaws, blemishes or a different grain. If you buy watercolour paper in a block or pad instead of a sheet, the top surface would be the “right” side. Most of the popular papers today are suitable for use on either side, so effectively they are “double sided”.

      • Jenny Chugg says:

        Thank you for your explanation which was clear and very useful. I have sometimes especially drawn a light composition and found that even light rubbing out can affect the surface quality of the paper. Very frustrating when the watercolour is applied and unwanted “extra” textures happen, NEVER as “happy accidents”….

    • I know what you mean about erasers affecting the paper surface. I use a Daler Rowney soft putty eraser, which works well without causing problems. I tried a Winsor & Newton putty eraser, but it was awful and left a greasy residue on the paper. Avoid! Normally i like their products, but that one was awful. Good quality watercolour paper should cope with light erasing though, so maybe experiment with different paper makes?

  8. Kathleen says:

    Simply explained and crystal clear… Thank you so much for ending my confusion! Now I have an idea of what to look for when buying online. Thanks again!

  9. Marie White says:

    Thank you! I’m new to watercolours and this article has been very useful; concise and clear.

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