The short answer is YES! If you want a longer, detailed answer, keep reading. While gouache works well on pretty much any kind of paper, watercolors are a lot more demanding. Choosing the right kind of paper can lead to impressive results.
The variety of watercolor paper in art supplies stores is truly mind-blowing. It comes in different sizes, formats, textures, and weights. It may be produced using different methods and be made from different materials. What information should you look for in the description of watercolor paper?
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Watercolor paper is designed specifically for watercolors. You can't just use regular drawing/sketching paper and expect good results.
Here is what watercolors on drawing paper look like: the transitions and the edges of the painted area are very rough. Drawing paper is excellent for other purposes, but it is absolutely unsuitable for watercolors.
There are two main types of paper regarding quality: student-grade and professional.
Professional paper is more expensive, but I recommend that even beginning artists use professional watercolor paper because it guarantees a much better start! Professional watercolor paper is thicker and thus more durable, doesn't buckle so much, and doesn't get yellow over time.
Look for the words professional or artists' in the name and description of the watercolor paper.
I realize that price is often an issue for beginners: it is scary to spend so much money on professional paper when you are not sure you will do well. First, I want you to believe in yourselves and know that you will do great! Second, practice makes perfect! No one starts painting professionally right at the beginning, but using professional paper will give you a smoother start, a better result, and more satisfaction. Third, you can buy just one sheet of paper and cut it up into smaller pieces. It will be much cheaper than buying a pad or a sketchbook.
There are three main surface types: hot press, cold press, and rough. As you can see in the photo below, hot press paper is the smoothest, cold press has more texture, and rough, as the name suggests, is very textured.
Which type of surface do you need?
If you are a beginner or not sure what kind of project you will be using it for, go for cold press. It works well for a wide variety of techniques and is suitable for most watercolor projects.
Hot press is great for projects with a lot of small details, and if you are planning to add fine details with a thin fineliner.
The 'dents' in the rough paper make it difficult to use a fineliner in your watercolor painting. However, they help you achieve a charming loose effect in your painting. The granulation prevents the painting from looking flat and dull.
The terms hot press and cold press refer to the method of manufacturing. As you can guess from the names, hot press paper is made by pressing a sheet between hot rollers, which gives the paper its smoothness. As for cold press, well, no heat is involved!
Here is a sketch made on hot press paper. Hot press paper has a very smooth surface (almost no structure), making it great for fine, detailed work. I can use the thinnest fineliner on this paper, and it still works well. On the other hand, hot press paper doesn't soak watercolor and water that much, so it's more difficult to create smooth and beautiful gradients.
The following sketch is made on Cold Press paper: the sheet has more structure, paper soaks up more water and soaks it up faster, which allows you to create amazing gradients. It's a rougher paper, so the lines look a bit rougher. You need a thicker fineliner to work on it. Colored pencils also appear rougher with spectacular textures. This is my favorite! And once again: great for beginners.
Rough paper has a very grainy structure. It's not suitable for detailed work, but it's amazing if you love beautiful gradients and textures. In the sketch below, you'll see that the colored pencil lines are extremely rough. The texture looks great; just be warned that you'll have to do a lot of sharpening! You need a thicker fineliner for this paper.
If you would like to learn how to create colorful urban sketches, join my class Urban sketching for beginners: Watercolor sketch in Three Easy Steps on Skillshare.
If you are not on Skillshare yet, use my referral link to get your first month free.
The two most common materials are cotton and cellulose (wood pulp). Paper can be 100% cotton, 100% cellulose, or a combination of the two in different proportions. The materials the paper is made from are the key factors affecting the price and quality of the product.
Professional watercolor paper is 100% cotton. It's the highest quality available. Cotton makes this paper durable and ensures its water-absorbing properties but also makes it more expensive (and not exactly environmentally friendly).
100 % cellulose paper is a more affordable choice. It is made from wood fibers (pulp), which are chemically treated. Look for acid-free varieties if you want to keep your artwork for a long time. The acid may destroy the colors and fibers, making the paper brittle or yellow. Cellulose does not mean bad quality. The quality of cellulose paper depends on the brand and the intended use (kids, students, professional artists).
Mixed paper contains wood pulp and cotton in various proportions. Even if it's 99% cotton, it is still considered a mix. There may be different combinations of materials: cotton + cellulose, cotton + bamboo. Mixed paper is a good compromise, suitable for beginning artists.
Bamboo paper is the most environmentally friendly option. So if you are looking for a sustainable solution, give it a try!
Watercolor paper comes in different formats:
separate sheets of different sizes
Separate sheets and rolls are often a convenient format because you can cut them into sheets of any size. So it often works out as an economical solution and gives you a lot of flexibility.
Blocks of paper also come in different sizes, usually indicated in centimeters and inches.
Glued blocks have different kinds of binding:
They may be glued on just one side, or they can be glued on all four sides. The main advantage of the four-side glued blocks is that the paper doesn't buckle when you paint. It remains perfectly even. With one-side glued blocks, I recommend taping the page to the rest of the block with masking tape on all four sides to prevent the sheet from bulging and buckling.
Sketchbook is an excellent choice for drawing on location. It is compact and fits into most bags. I love my Etchr's Perfect Sketchbook. It's 100% cotton, cold press, and acid-free. I use it both for watercolors and gouache. You can get it from Splendith.
To see what other supplies I use for sketching on location, peek inside my Urban Sketching Kit.
Another clever paper format is Winsor & Newton's postcard pad. You can use it to make sketches on location during your holidays and write a short message and the address on the other side. Just don't forget the stamps! Your loved ones will be delighted to get such a personal postcard from you.
OKAY, READY FOR A QUICK TEST?
Look at the two paper blocks below. Can you find the following information:
size and number of sheets;
what it is made from?
Is there any other important information? Which characteristic have I NOT explained so far? :)
If you look closely, you'll see the Canson block mentions a 'cylinder mould.' This refers to the manufacturing method. According to the manufacturing method, there are three main types of paper: hand-made, mould-made, and machine-made watercolor paper. Each type has its place in watercolor painting, as the manufacturing process affects the arrangement of the fibers, thus affecting the overall character of the paper.
One last characteristic that needs mentioning is the thickness (or rather, the heavy-weight quality of watercolor paper). It is indicated as grams per square meter (g/m2 or gsm) and pounds (lb). 300g/m2 and 140lb is what you should be looking for. Lighter paper will not hold as much water and will deform easily.
Getting your head around all the different kinds of watercolor paper is really hard. While it is essential to know these basic features of paper, there is another great way to get to know your art supplies: experimenting! Do not be afraid to try and fail. This is the only path to success.
I also have a Guide to Perfect Paper for Alcohol-Based Markers, in which I show my experiments with different kinds of paper and compare them from the point of you of their blending and bleeding characteristics, their advantages and disadvantages.
If you are not on Skillshare yet, use my referral link to get your first month free.