Watercolour Paper

Watercolour is an ‘alive’ medium. It behaves in myriads of different ways according to how it is used. One of the biggest variations in behavior of watercolor is actually not due to watercolor itself, but the surface on which it is applied. That is the watercolor paper. Watercolour paper is one of the most important parts of the watercolor jigsaw puzzle. If you are painting in watercolors you ought to know about different types of paper, so that you can choose the best paper that is suited for your style or for a particular piece. This post on Watercolor Paper is a complete guide on different types of watercolor paper and their properties. I’ll also touch upon alternatives and supplements to Watercolour Paper that you can use for becoming more effective at watercolor painting while saving money. In case you are a beginner in watercolor, before you dig any further I would recommend you to go through my post on Watercolor Painting for Beginners.

What is Watercolor Paper made up of ?

Painting on Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper
Painting on Hot Pressed Paper – Colors retain their vibrancy. Dry brushing does not work well.

Watercolour Paper is a special type of paper made with cellulose, which is the material that plants use to build their stems and leaves. The cellulose can be derive from many sources, but typically watercolor papers are made from the cellulose derived from cotton and wood pulp. Cotton is much stronger than wood pulp and is also pH neutral, meaning it is naturally acid free. Wood pulp is not as strong as cotton and is also acidic. Wood pulp has to be chemically treated during manufacturing process to make the paper acid free. In case you are wondering what does acid free mean, it is nothing but being neutral on pH scale. Residual acid make paper go yellow with age. Hence ideally you would want your watercolor paper to be acid free in case you want it not to yellow with age. Watercolor paper with more cotton content therefore is better from strength and acid free property point of view. Some papers are marked as 100% cotton. That means it will be a good Watercolour Paper and by the way more expensive too.

There are two types of watercolor paper available in the market based on quality. Artist grade and student grade. You would find that artist quality is made up of 100% cotton while student quality is not. And student quality may or may not be acid free, which makes student quality Watercolour Paper cheaper than artist quality Watercolor Paper.

How is Watercolour Paper Made ?

Painting on 400 GSM Rough Watercolour Paper
Painting on 400 GSM Rough Paper – Dry brushing has been used as the major technique here.

Individual cellulose fibers are separated by soaking and pounding of the pulp. Then it is mixed with water and this liquid is used to make the paper. When made by hand this is spread on a mould by hand and dried. This leads to variations in texture due to randomness in  direction of the fibre. The machine made paper has uniform texture as all the fibres get aligned in the same direction. If the paper is made with a cylindrical mould then its texture variation would be more than machine made paper, but less than handmade paper. Generally as a rule hand made paper would have deckled edges on all four sides, mould made paper would have it on two sides and machine made paper would have none.

Most of the time the machine made paper is sold as student quality paper, while the mould made and hand made varieties are sold as artist grade paper.

Weight and Size of Watercolor Paper

Though there are quiet a few specifications on the size of watercolor paper, the most commonly used are as follows.

Name Size in Inches
Full imperial 22 x 30
Half Imperial 15 x 22
Quarter imperial 11 x 15
Elephant(USA) 27.75 x 40
Double Elephant (USA) 29 x 41
Double Elephant (UK) 27 x 40
Emperor (USA) 40 x 60

Thicker watercolor papers can withstand rough use, buckling and bending due to effect of water. Hence watercolor paper is also specified according to its thickness using a term called Grams per Square Meter or GSM. It is defined as the weight of a 1 x 1 meter paper in grams. Sometimes you may come across another term called pound per ream or just lb. This is defined as the weight in pound of 500 sheets of full imperial size. Here are some of the commonly used watercolor paper according to their GSM specification.

Relative weight GSM Pounds per Ream Usage
Heavy 550-600 260-280 Generally used for large works. Does not need stretching.
Medium 300-400 140-190 Generally used for small to medium size works. May need stretching.
Light 170-280 80-130 Generally used for small size works. It needs stretching.

Surface Finish of Watercolour Paper

watercolor paper surface finish
Watercolor Paper surface finish – Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed and Rough

This is the most interesting feature of watercolor paper and this is going to play the biggest role in the outcome of your watercolor works. When mould made watercolor paper is dried it is either pressed using a press or a roller is rolled on it. Depending on the texture of this press or roller the paper gets its texture. In handmade paper making however the paper is left to dry on its own and the texture is formed because of the natural variation of the cellulose as it dries. There are three kind of surfaces that you get in the stores. The paper with maximum surface roughness or texture is called ‘Rough’. This is generally rolled or pressed between a felt cloth from where the texture of the paper is derived. The paper with smooth surface finish is called ‘Hot Pressed’. Paper is pressed between smooth plates and sometimes this plate is hot. Hence the name Hot pressed. And the one having roughness somewhere in between these two is called ‘Cold Pressed’ (Its called ‘Not’ in UK). This is pressed using a mechanical press with finer grains or rolled with a roller covered with felt cloth of finer texture than what is used to dry Rough paper. Here is a comparison table showing the difference of these surfaces from paint application point of view.

Finish Properties
Rough Most absorbent.Surface traps watercolor pigments creating an even watercolor wash. Best for dry brush technique. Not great for lifting and corrections. Best suited for aggressive brush techniques. Not for highly detailed works as the surface texture does not allow small details to be painted in correct shape. Color vibrancy is not the best on rough paper. Works well with all painting consistencies, from very diluted to undiluted.
Cold Pressed Medium absorbency. Washes come out almost as good as rough paper. Dry brush technique works to some extent. Some amount of lifting and corrections can be done. It can take most of the aggressive brush technique well. A good amount of detailed work can also be done on this. Vibrancy of colors is good as long as glazes are kept to a minimum. Works well with all painting consistencies, from very diluted to undiluted.
Hot Pressed This is the least absorbent paper. Washes turn out uneven, but it gives a nice juicy look. Dry brush technique just wont work on this. Best suited for lifting and corrections. Brush work has to be light and delicate. Aggressive brush work really does not work on this paper. Best suited for highly detailed work. This is the best paper for retaining the vibrancy of colors. Does not work well with undiluted paint.

Sheet, Roll or Pad ?

Painting done on Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper
Painting done on Cold Pressed Paper – Paper response is somewhere in between Rough and Hot pressed.

Watercolour paper comes in three forms. Sheets, Rolls and Pads or Blocks. Now a days rolls come in approximately 44 inch x 10 yard size, while sheets generally come in full imperial size. You can also get sheets which are approximately of the same size as elephant and double elephant papers. Pads are pre-cut watercolor sheets in a notebook form either spiral bounded or glued on one side. Blocks are like pads except they are glued on all sides. Hence you automatically get a pre-stretched paper with a support of the block to paint on.  If you take price per area of paper then pads and blocks turn out to be quite expensive in comparison with sheets and rolls.

I recommend using sheets and rolls in general because they can be cut to any size and and are cheaper. But its good to have pads of smaller size for quick outdoor painting and sketching. I generally use two pads. One is of size 10×14 inch while the other is 9×12 inch.You also get watercolor boards which is nothing but watercolour paper glued to a stiff board.In this form the paper is pre-stretched on the board.

Going Beyond Watercolor Paper

Painting Done on Chart Paper : Alternative to Watercolour Paper
Painting Done on Chart Paper – Its a decent substitute for Hot Pressed paper.

All said and done watercolor paper does not come cheap. Whether you are a student or a professional you are going to end up using a lot of sheets in a year. Most of them would be for practice and rough works. And it really does not make sense to use expensive watercolor paper every time. So I am going to suggest a few alternatives which is going to cost you much less than the standard watercolour paper.

Indian Handmade WATERCOLOR Paper

In India this paper made locally at different parts of the country and sold as handmade paper for watercolor. It is also exported to other countries like USA, UK. So getting them should not be a difficult task. This paper is around 250-270 gsm in weight and comes in rough and matte textures. The price of these sheets can vary from Rs 20 to Rs 50 per sheet. It responds as well as the best rough and cold pressed papers of the world to watercolor. This is made of 100% rag and hence painting on these is a great joy. If you want to use it as a substitute to rough and cold pressed paper you can. The biggest drawback however of these papers is that it is not acid free. And it can also be a little inconsistent as it is made with hands.

Chart Paper

Surprised? Yes I am talking about the everyday cardboard paper or chart paper. Its weight is around 250 gsm and comes in a smooth finish. Its surface responds to watercolor in a very similar manner to hot pressed paper. The problem again with these is that they are not acid free in general. Acid free chart papers are also available. But they are slightly more expensive, but still cheaper than hot pressed watercolor paper.

Cartridge Paper

Cartridge paper is generally used for sketching purpose. But it can also be used for making a full blown watercolor painting. Care has to be taken to keep the glazes to a maximum of 2-3. Many artists are not comfortable with cartridge paper due to its wight as its comes in 120-150 gsm. But still this paper is excellent for quick outdoor sketches in small formats.

How to Choose Watercolour Paper

Sketch done on Indian Handmade Paper
Sketch done on Indian Handmade Paper – The surface response is as good as the best rough paper. But it is not acid free.

Now that you have a great amount of information on the watercolor paper, when the time comes how do you choose the right watercolour paper? Let me summarize everything here.

  1. If you are starting out then I would suggest to use Indian handmade paper, chart paper and cartridge paper to get a good understanding of different surfaces at a much lower cost. Gradually start buying watercolor paper when you area a little comfortable with handling watercolor.
  2. If you are buying paper for doing your final works then
    1. Check if your paper is 100% cotton.
    2. Check for acid free tag.
    3. Choose a paper that is at least 300 gsm.
    4. Choose the surface according to your style and techniques that you generally use.
    5. Preferably buy hand made or mould made papers. If you are buying machine made paper, make sure that is it artist quality.
  3. Buy sheets and rolls for paintings. For quick outdoor paintings however its good to have small size pads.


Few Tips

Sketch done on Cartridge Paper : Alternative to Watercolour Paper
Sketch done on Cartridge Paper – Cartridge Paper is best for quick sketches

Do bulk buying during discounts season to save some money. Bulk buying in a group also helps save a lot of money. But be sure to store them away from moisture.

Sometimes paper manufactures close their shop or sell their business to another company. In such cases either you stop getting your favorite paper or the quality of the paper changes. So it is best not to get used to one brand of paper. Try out all brands and all types of paper to see what suits your style. Zero down on at least 2 brands and at least 2 surface finishes. Get used to all of them.

Painting on different surfaces also helps you find new horizons in your work. So paint on different surfaces like chart paper and cartridge paper.Talk to your artist friends to find out what surfaces they paint on. Exchange your papers and try them out. Experiment with different papers, surfaces finish and find out the best paper suited for you but dont get stuck to just one of them.

My last words would be to forget the cost of the paper when you are painting. When you worry about it, you would want to create a masterpiece every time you paint and that would put undue pressure on yourself. Unfortunately it would show in the painting. So forget about it and just play with paint and have fun.


Approach to Watercolour Painting for Beginners Explained

One of the most common questions that I get from people from different walks of life is this. “How do I start painting with watercolour or how do I approach watercolour painting?” And this is the exact question that I had in my mind before I started painting in watercolour. Earlier I used to paint only in opaque medium like oils and pastels. The transparent watercolour paintings remained an enigma for me until I did my first watercolour painting. And after my first attempt at the medium, watercolour puzzle became even more difficult to solve. Having painted in opaque medium all my life, painting in a transparent medium was like trying to walk on water. And the ‘lively’ nature of watercolour was not making things easy for me either. After my first few paintings in watercolour failed miserably, I had decided never to try watercolour in my life. But destiny had different plans. When I reflect on this now I am left to wonder about how many people on earth would be giving up on watercolour everyday. And the main reason I strongly feel behind this is the lack of proper guidance. Hence I thought it would be a good idea to write on “Watercolor painting for beginners”.


Inspiration before you begin with watercolour

watercolor inspiration
Go to see an exhibition to get some inspiration for watercolor.

I am sure if you are keen on starting with watercolour you must have been inspired by watercolour works of different people. But still it is not a bad idea to get inspired further. The first place to start is right in front of you. Just search the internet for watercolour master artists and look at their works. Look at works of watercolour artists from different parts of the world. Try and understand their approach to watercolour painting. It will give an idea about the endless possibilities of watercolour. Look at different subjects. See what are you drawn to most. And then go to your local gallery or some art show where you can get to see watercolour directly in front of you. Seeing a picture on the computer just can not match looking at a watercolour that is directly in front of you. In case you get a chance to talk to the artist in the gallery there is nothing like it.

Now that you have been inspired and roaring to go and paint your first masterpiece in watercolour, this is the exact time when you have to forget about things you have seen. Inspiration is good. But it can also become a baggage as you’ll start to compare your paintings with what you have been inspired by. Unless you are a genius who just cannot do anything wrong, your first watercolour painting is not going to be comparable to the works of masters. Hence there is no use of having astronomical expectation from yourself which can lead to de-motivation. In fact what you have to ponder on is that the first watercolour work of the maters may not have been as good as your first work. How about a little bit of positive thinking.


Watercolour supplies

The next thing that you need to do is to go and buy supplies. Most beginners of watercolor always end up buying a lot of unnecessary supplies. My advice would be to keep things simple and compact to start with. This is my suggested list of supplies that is enough to start painting in watercolor for beginners.

  1. Brushes – One each of 1 inch flat, No 12 Round, No 8 Round, No 4 round, No 6 Rigger brush is a great set to start with. Try and get natural hair brushes like sable or squirrel hair for the first three brushes mentioned as they would be able to hold more water and will be gentle on the paper. For the no 4 round get a synthetic hair brush. A stronger brush tip of the synthetic hair brush is good for details. I prefer a synthetic hair rigger just for the bounce it gives on paper.
  2. Palette – 8 to 12 well palette with 2 mixing areas is good enough. If you can get a foldable one, its even better because you can easily travel with it.
  3. Paper – Watercolour paper surface and quality are very important for a successful watercolour work. To start with you can get cold pressed paper, whose surface is somewhere between rough and hot pressed paper in texture. In case you can get hold of Indian handmade paper just buy it. Though it can be a bit inconsistent, the surface quality compared to the cost is unmatchable. A full imperial paper comes in the size of 22 x 30 inch. Divide each sheet into 8 parts. I would not recommend painting on any bigger size of paper when you start with watercolour painting. Gradually with experience you can increase the size of the paper. Alternatively you can buy a watercolour pad of similar size. But it will cost you more.
  4. Paints – Though you’ll want to try out all the colours and its different shades in the world in the beginning (just like I did) I would strongly discourage that. Working with a lot of colour initially will confuse you and make your work also look very confusing. So stick to a few basic colours to start with. My recommended list of paints is 2 shades of each primary, 1 shade each of secondary, a brown and a black. The list is as follows.
    • French Ultramarine – Warmer blue
    • Cobalt Blue – Cooler blue
    • Vermilion – Warmer red
    • Crimson –Cooler red
    • Gamboge Yellow – Or any other brighter yellow
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Sap Green
    • Orange
    • Burnt sienna
    • Paynes Gray
  5. Other tools – You’ll need a few other tools to paint in watercolours. These are a board and some paper clips, a cotton towel, pencil and a spray bottle. Some people ask me whether masking fluid is also needed. I strongly discourage the use of masking fluid for beginners. Use of masking fluid can cause bad habits to develop, which will be very difficult to correct later on.


Studio setup

elaborate artist studio
Watercolor studio does not have to be elaborate. You can even paint on your dining table.

Now that you have got your supplies you need a place to paint. If you can manage then try and get a quiet corner in your home or garage. Just put a table there are you are good to go. If you cant get a separate place for painting, then don’t worry, your study table or even your dining table is good. Watercolour is easy to clean up, pack and store. So just open your supplies on your dining table when you are not eating and store them away when you are done with your painting. However just make sure that the place is well lit up, so that you can easily see what you are painting.


Join a watercolour class

Bad habits are easy to develop and difficult to give up. Its true while painting in watercolours too. Hence find out a watercolour course in your area and join that. It is very difficult to find out your own mistakes, because while painting it is not easy to observe your own habits. An experienced teacher can easily find out the bad habits that you have or may develop. Additionally its good to get a hang of basic watercolour techniques like different kind of washes, wet in wet and dry brush techniques from an experienced teacher. In a short time you’ll be able to master these techniques if you learnt directly from a teacher, because again she will be able to guide you well on those. Books are good, but then they will not be able to tell you where you are going wrong in your approach to watercolor painting.

Another advantage of a class is that you’ll not be alone. There will be many others in the class and it is always fun to learn in a group. You’ll also be able to learn quite a bit from each other. So go ahead join a class and have fun.


Get outside

Painting outdoors or en plein air is great for improving in watercolor.
Painting outdoors or en plein air is great for improving in watercolor.

Most artists would tell you that Mother Nature is the best teacher of art. Painting outside in the lap of nature is an invigorating and refreshing experience. You’ll not only develop a keen sense of observation and colour when you paint outside, the sheer joy of painting outside will also improve your work. It may be a little difficult initially to stop worrying about all the curious people looking at what you are doing and probably judging your work. But with frequent outdoor session you’ll get over these issues.

While painting in the open or en plein air you’ll have to work faster than your usual pace. You’ll also have to work with a limited set of equipment and colour. All these will bring spontaneity and freshness to your work. If ever I have to choose just one point approach to watercolour painting for beginners, then that would be to go outside and learn from life.


Keep your approach to watercolour painting simple

One mistake everyone does when they start painting is to paint every detail they see. Watercolour is a simple medium. And it works best when things are kept simple. Work in big shapes. Avoid all the tiny winey shapes in your painting. Paint outside the line. And most importantly don’t try to control watercolours. Let it do what it wants to do. Be a bystander and watch watercolour do its magic on paper. Approach watercolour like a partner and not a servant. Don’t try to do all the work yourself. Watercolour will paint itself if you let it.

Practice and Have Fun with watercolour

Just like any other art discipline watercolour also needs dedicated hours of practice everyday. So just make sure you have some time reserved everyday for yourself to practice. Even 30 minutes of practice on a daily will do wonders. You could reserve 30 minutes out of your lunch break or reserve the first 30 minutes of the day for it. Suit yourself. Because watercolour is so portable, you can carry it anywhere and practice anywhere.

But at the same time don’t get too serious about producing masterpieces every time you paint. Stop having fixed ideas about the outcome. Practice is supposed just what it is; practice. So just have fun with watercolor instead of getting bogged down by it. Paint anything and everything. Just paint whatever is in front of you. It does not have to be a pretty flower or a landscape. It could be an ugly insect too. But your approach to watercolour will make it beautiful. So just paint and have fun.


Artist’s Block

There will be many times when you’ll feel that you are not going anywhere. You are stuck at the same place and not able to improve from there. Don’t worry. It’s a very well known psychological condition called the artist’s block. You are bound to suffer from it time and again during your watercolour journey. The good news is that the cure is very simple. Just take out your older works which you had done probably a year back and compare them with your latest works. There would be great difference if you have been painting regularly. That will tell you that the improvement comes gradually and not overnight. So have patience.

And then just forget watercolor for sometime. You can also simply go out, watch a movie or meet up with friends or just cook dinner for the family. Do anything to take your mind off watercolour. When you come back to it you’ll find that your painting actually looks better. The reason is that artists tend to be very self critical and judgmental about themselves. While it helps to become better at what they do, it also can become de-motivating. Sometimes it is required for you to just stop judging your own work and appreciate it for what it is.


If someone had given me some idea about how to approach watercolour painting in the beginning it surely would have been very helpful. Though eventually I learnt everything on my own it did take longer to discover these things which were already known by seasoned artists. And thankfully I did not give up in the beginning as many other do because of these road blocks. I hope this post on approach to watercolour painting for beginners explained, will help everyone who is planning to pick up watercolours. Let the watercolour tribe increase.