A Few Words About Paper

Christmas knits gift tags using marker pens You have collected a palette of your favorite colors.  You have invested in some good quality brushes.  You've signed up for some great watercolor classes.  What else do you need?  PAPER, of course!  While I don't profess to be an expert on the vast and mysterious world of watercolor paper,  I can give you a primer on what to look for and where to begin your search. Let's start with the basics:

  • What is paper?  Paper is a dried, compressed mat of cellulose fibers.  Wood pulp, grasses, and other plant fibers, such as cotton or linen, are combined with water and sizing.  The resulting mush is spread evenly onto a screen, and the moisture is drained out of it.  The product is then pressed into sheets and dried.
  •  "I'm a beginner. What kind of paper should I start with?"   Hey, life is hard enough these days - go for the good stuff!  Practice makes permanent - start with a good-quality paper so that you can quickly learn to foresee how your paint is going to react with the surface.  Bad paper = poor results = frustrated painter. The papers mentioned below give good results at a reasonable price point. 
  • What is the difference between Hot Press and Cold Press?  The terms Hot and Cold refer to the manufacturing process by which the paper is pressed into sheets.  Hot Press paper has a smooth finish ideal for use with markers, pens, and inks.  The gift tags shown on the left were done with Tombow Watercolor Brush Markers and a Pitt Fine Line Permanent Ink Pen on Strathmore 500 Series Hot Press Watercolor Paper.
  • Cold Press paper is more absorbent and has a textured finish ideal for water media and brushwork. The tags in the photo below were painted with Derwent Watercolor Pencils on Cold Press Paper (Arteza brand Cold Press, 140 lb. highlighted below) The texture of the paper "grabs" more of the dry watercolor pencil before it is activated with water.

Arches Watercolor Paper (Blocks and Pads) - Cold Press, 140 lb.  $$$+

This good quality 100% cotton fiber paper has a medium texture that handles well with washes, yet captures details as well.  Since it is a fairly "hard" paper, it holds up well to "scrubbing" and lifting out pigment without distressing the surface.  For class purposes, I use the 9" x 12" size because it can be cut into four postcard-sized pieces.  Other sizes are available in blocks and as individual sheets (22" x 30").

Arches also offers Hot Press papers with a smooth plate finish for graphic design illustration and lettering.  Hot Press paper is ideal for markers, pens, inks. and any water-based media.

Strathmore Watercolor Journal 400 - Cold Press. $$

Love this journal! The paper is heavy enough that you can paint on both sides. It lays flat when open. 8" x 5.5" size is easy to handle, yet a great size for most illustrations and exercises! You can find Strathmore 400 Series, 140 lb. paper in pads, too.  Look for the pads with the brown cover at your local craft & hobby store.

Strathmore 300 Series paper (with the bright yellow cover) is a softer, less durable student grade product - it's less expensive, but may not give you the results you hope for. $

Strathmore 500 Series, 140 lb. Premium - Hot Press $$$

This premium-grade paper comes in standard size sheets for readymade frames and mats.  It is 100 % cotton, acid-free, and archival.  Your pens will love the smooth plate finish.

Arteza Cold Press, 140 lb. Acid-Free, Dual-Sided (smooth and textured) $$

I bought two of these 32-sheet pads on special on Amazon for a great price.  Originally, I had thought to use this paper for rough drafts and for kids' classes, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality.  It has good weight, subtle texture on one side, and a smooth texture on the other, and it has a good white color.  As is typical of a wood pulp paper, however, it does tend to dry out rather quickly, and the paper surface breaks down to pulp if you need to scrub out some color for corrections or highlights. 

Not worth your time and money - Bargain brands from the Dollar Store or Job Lot (Marseilles Studios Made in China 140 lb pad).  The paper turns gray and smells like dirty socks when it gets wet. It's like trying to paint on a sponge - once it is saturated with water it takes forever to dry. 

You deserve better!  Go for the upgrade!  Happy painting!