FIrst – not all papers are created equal
Actual watercolour paper is heavier than copy paper or even sketchbook paper. It’s also made with additives called “sizing” that allows it to absorb moisture in the proper way. It remains flat, has an even color tone, and doesn’t pill or tear.
The different types of paper are cold press, hot press and rough. Think of ironing clothes. A cold iron leaves texture while a hot iron smooths the material. Same for cold press and hot press paper. And rough is exactly what it says.
Cold press is easy to work with and has a slightly textured surface. It is the paper used most often by watercolor artists because it is good for both large areas of wash and fine detail. For beginners I always recommend cold press.
Hot press is a smooth surfaces paper that is ideal for highly detailed work, such as botanicals. It has a fine-grained, smooth surface, with almost no tooth. Paint dries very quickly on it. It can be a little tricky if you’re a beginner but with experience it may be perfect for what you want to paint. Fair warning, though. When I was starting out I bought some by mistake and almost gave up painting because it frustrated me so. Today, it’s definitely my go-to when I want to execute a lot of detail.
As you might expect, rough is the roughest texture paper available. It is pressed between sheets of textured felt during the drying process, which is why it has a felt-like texture. It’s not a paper I use but it certainly has it’s place in the art process.
What about those “weights”?
Standard weights are 90, 140 and 300 pounds. That simply means how much a stack weighs of 500 of those same sheets. The heavier the paper, the more that stack weighs. It also means the more water you can use without the paper buckling.
90 pound paper is best used with less water than the average watercolorist uses and will break down if you do a lot of “scrubbing”.
140 pound paper is probably the most commonly used paper and the one I recommend to my students. It’s thicker and can handle quite a bit of water and scrubbing. It has a mid-range price tag. making it affordable to learn on.
300 pound watercolor paper is probably the strongest, heaviest paper you will ever need. It will dry flat without buckling and can take quite a bit of abuse. But, of course, it’s also more expensive.
The brand I prefer is Arches. Their paper is 100% cotton which allows it to absorb a lot of water. It also reflects light well, which is a quality I prize. However, there are many good brands out there. Ask other artists for their recommendations. Just be sure to get paper that is acid-free
Paper, pigment and brushes are your basic tools as a watercolourist. I’ve seen too many people get discouraged and think they can’t learn this medium when in reality, they were fighting their tools. Give yourself a break and don’t skimp.