Watercolor Paper 101: Types and Which Side to Paint

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When painting with watercolors, you need to use a substrate that will have a certain amount of absorbency. This will allow the transparent watercolors to be bright and colorful.

This is why most artists use watercolor paper when working with watercolors. This paper can also be used with other mediums, including acrylic paints, gouache paints, pastels, pencils, charcoal pencils, and even oil paints.

I always keep a few books of watercolor paper around. There is always one at home to use, and I like to keep one in my car, just in case I want to paint while I am on the road. You can create several paintings from one watercolor pad, which takes up as much space as a single canvas.

Today we are going to talk about watercolor paper. You will learn what it is made from, the various textures it is available in, and more. Let’s get started.

What Is Watercolor Paper?

Watercolor paper is a specialized type of paper with a versatile surface designed specifically for use with watercolors. It is made to withstand the unique properties of watercolor paints, such as their water-based nature and tendency to bleed and spread when applied to paper.

What is the difference between regular paper and watercolor paper?

Watercolor paper is typically thicker and more absorbent than regular paper, allowing it to handle the water and pigment without warping or deteriorating. It comes in various textures, including rough, cold-pressed, and hot-pressed, each offering different surface characteristics for artists to achieve their desired effects. 

The quality of watercolor paper can significantly impact the final result of a painting, making it an essential choice for watercolor artists to achieve the best possible outcomes.

Which Side of Watercolor Paper to Use?

When using watercolor paper, the side that you should paint on depends on the type of paper you have and your painting purposes.

For most watercolor papers, the side that has a slight texture or a more noticeable grain is the side meant for painting. This is usually the side that feels slightly rougher to the touch. The textured surface helps the paint adhere to the paper and allows for better water absorption and pigment diffusion.

On the other hand, the smoother side of watercolor paper is great for detail work and is often used for drawing or sketching, but it may not hold the watercolor paint as effectively as the rough side.

However, some watercolor papers are “dual-sided,” meaning both sides are suitable for painting. In this case, you can choose the side that best fits your painting style or preferences.

If you’re uncertain about which side to use, you can always check the manufacturer’s instructions or do a quick test on a small piece of the paper to see which side provides the desired results for your painting.

What Is Watercolor Paper Made Of?

Watercolor paper is made from pulp. This pulp can be made from a variety of materials. The quality of the pulp determines many things, including the paper’s strength, longevity, resistance to abrasion, and of course, price.

Let’s take a look at the various materials used to create the pulp for watercolor paper.

#1. Acid-Free Wood Pulp

The least expensive watercolor paper will be made from acid-free wood pulp. Many of the watercolor books you find in art supply stores will contain paper made from this pulp.

The naturally occurring acids in wood pulp, such as lignin, are removed before the paper is made. This ensures that the paper will not be prone to discoloration and yellowing over time.

The only downside to using this type of watercolor paper is that it isn’t as durable as paper made from other fibers.

#2. Cotton Linters

The best and purest source of cellulose fibers are cotton linters because they are longer than wood-free pulp. These fibers create a durable paper that can take a lot of heavy painting.

When you see watercolor paper that is made from 100% cotton, you can be pretty sure that most of them are made with cotton linters. The one downside to this paper is that it is rather costly.

#3. Acid-Free Wood Pulp/Cotton Linters Combo

If you want the strength of paper made from cotton linters but don’t want the expense, look for watercolor paper that is made using a combination of acid-free wood pulp and cotton linters.

The cotton linters give the paper durability and strength. Because there is also wood pulp added, this paper is less expensive as paper made totally from cotton linters.

#4. Cotton Rag

Recycled cotton textiles are used to make cotton rag watercolor paper. These textiles are made with the longest fibers from the cotton plant, making the paper stronger than paper made from cotton linters.

The cotton rags are beaten, mechanically. This is how the manufacturers can get this extra-long fiber length.

#5. Cotton and Linen Rag Combo

Some manufacturers make watercolor paper using a combination of cotton rag and recycled linen cloth. The linen comes from flax, and it is stronger than cotton.

Linen rag has long, thin fibers that will connect with the cotton fibers. This gives the watercolor paper plenty of durability.

Types of Watercolor Paper Texture

Now we are going to take a look at the various watercolor paper textures. For paint to adhere, the paper used must have some sort of texture to hold onto the paint.

Let’s take a look at the three textures of watercolor paper.

#1. Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper

The type of watercolor paper that has the least amount of texture on the surface is hot pressed paper. This paper is pressed between metal rollers when it is being manufactured.

Hot pressed paper is popular with those who tend to add a lot of little details to their paintings. It is the least absorbent of all the watercolor papers, and watery washes will sit on top of the paper for some time.

You can also use hot pressed paper for working with various pens, ink, and graphite drawing.

#2. Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper

Cold pressed watercolor paper is created by pressing the paper through cold metal rollers. It has a bit more texture than hot pressed paper, and it is great for many different styles of painting.

There are tiny dimples on this paper, which the paint will sink into. Don’t worry, this paper is still good for detail work.

Cold pressed watercolor paper is more absorbent than hot pressed paper. This means a watery wash won’t sit on top as long and will absorb into the paper quicker.

#3. Rough Watercolor Paper

If you are looking for watercolor paper that has a rough texture, try using rough watercolor paper. This paper has the roughest texture of all the watercolor papers.

Rough paper is pressed between sheets of textured felt as it is drying instead of being pressed between rollers. This is what gives the paper its rough texture.

If your painting style is bold and expressive, I recommend using rough watercolor paper. Its heavy texture allows for enhanced granulating effects.

Not All Papers Are the Same

Many different companies produce all three types of watercolor papers. But, this doesn’t mean that one rough paper will be the same as the other, or that hot pressed or cold pressed will be the same.

Not only do the surface textures vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, they can even vary between batches. This is particularly true of handmade watercolour paper.

You usually will need to flatten watercolor paper paintings to make it look good.

Watercolor Paper Color

We all know that watercolor paint is transparent. So, white paper will affect how the paint appears once it is applied.

You can get cotton watercolor paper in a variety of shades of white. The color depends on how it is sized, the purity of the water used to make it, and the raw materials.

Most pure cotton papers are more of an off-white color, but some manufacturers do use optical brightening agents. These agents make the paper appear brighter and whiter.

I don’t advise using papers that have been treated in this manner. The brightening agents can deteriorate over time, which will change the colors in paintings. I suggest using an archival standard watercolor paper that is made with a lightfast white pigment, such as titanium dioxide.

You can also get watercolor paper that is tinted, or even black. The only problem with these papers is that the dyes used are not lightfast, so the paper can fade over time.

Also check my guide on watercolor painting techniques for more tips.


If you are just getting into watercolor painting, I advise not spending a lot of money on pure cotton paper until you know for sure if you like using this medium.

Instead, look for inexpensive pads of watercolor paper that student-grade. These papers will work well for beginners, and you can purchase a pad for less than $30.

When working with watercolor paper, be sure to tape it down with masking tape or painter’s tape, all the way around. This will help to prevent buckling and keep the finished artwork nice and smooth.

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