The Best Watercolor Paper – for my Painting Methods

Hot pressed  watercolor paper versus cold pressed watercolor paper?

I have so often asked the following questions:

  • Which watercolor paper is best to use
  • What is the difference between Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper and Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper
  • What is size – on watercolor paper and how does the size affect the painting

I am sure the answers to these and many more of your questions regarding watercolor paper will be of interest to many :

I have spent an enormous amount of time and dollars trialling papers, paint, brushes, tapes (you should see the huge pile of tapes I have sitting in my studio!) – all in a mission to find the most suitable products available. As you will surely know – there is a vast amount of choice out there!

In an effort to reduce the frustration, costly and overwhelming task all artists face when choosing product – from time to time I will let you know my findings. Hopefully my experience will enable you to save your time and money and keep your energy for the creation of your fabulous paintings!

Firstly I will begin by saying the products I use and recommend are chosen because they are the most suitable I can find for their properties and applications. I do not receive any financial benefit from any manufacturer – and for this reason I am free to give an unbiased and genuine appraisal of the products I have chosen to use.

Which watercolor paper to use?

I find the best watercolor paper – for my methods is chosen for a number of specific reasons. The first and most important one is the surface of the paper.

For my purposes Arches 140lbs (300gsm) Hot Pressed Paper (natural white) is ideal. Bright white is too white for my palette. I prefer a hot pressed surface to work on for the reasons set out later in this article.
I find all paper does require stretching if you are using water on your painting.

However a study painted in dry brush probably would not require stretching. Just securing your paper to your board with tape will be fine in that instance.

There are also 300lb (600gsm) hot pressed papers available. This  may not need stretching as long as you do not plan to create large washes that invariably require a reasonable amount of water.

When painting in watercolor (no matter which weight of  paper I use), regardless of paper weight – I always stretch my paper, as I use a great deal of water to create the exciting and three dimensional effects I love to create.

‘Floral Dance’ – watercolor painting © Susan Harrison-Tustain

Floral Dance. One of my favourite watercolor floral pieces. See the soft blending and color transitions in the petals. Compare those to the undulating leaves and ‘suggested’ leaves emerging from the soft watery background.

What happens when we don’t stretch our paper?

  • When laying in washes the water is absorbed into the paper and softens and swells the fibres. The paper begins to roll and develop troughs and highs. Imagine trying to paint when our paper has an undulating surface. This is what happens when our paper is not stretched:
  • The paper swells and rolls
  • Additional washes compound the issue with even more convincing undulations!
  • The rises result in great troughs
  • The paint pigment particles are suspended in water and is less able to settle on the rises and therefore will naturally accumulate in strength in the troughs
  • This results in sweeps of light color on the rises and a saturation of color in the troughs – resulting in a stripy painting that is impossible to disguise

What happens when we  stretch our paper?

  • >When dry our paper becomes as tight as a drum.

  • When rewet during washes, the paper remains flat and with an even surface tension. (Unless you use too much water of course)

  • Applying paint to a smooth surface means our paint has no undulations to contend with – therefore our paint is controlled and dries evenly.

  • When we are finished our washes – our paper dries as tight as a drum once again – totally flat, with an even tension, ready for your subsequent washes or if finished – ready for your frame!

‘Time for reflection’ – watercolor painting
© Susan Harrison-Tustain

Time For Reflection. A painting where hot pressed paper allowed me to create the smoothness of young skin and the soft folds of fabric and gentle nuances of reflected and seamless color in her skirt.

What is the best watercolor paper for my painting methods?

My choice is Arches Hot Pressed 140lbs (300gsm) paper. I choose this paper for a number of reasons:

It has the hardest gum size (and therefore surface), which means you have more time to manoeuvre your paint before it is absorbed into the paper.
It also means it can take a lot of battering without showing distress to the surface or fibres. It is therefore much more forgiving than any other paper I have found.

Arches Hot Pressed paper is quite smooth so it is also ideal for creating details and smooth graduations of color. This is ideal when painting petals, painting skin, painting skies, painting porcelain, painting water, painting fabric, etc.

This is a detail of my watercolor painting titled Awakening. A soft gentle composition describing the Awakening of womanhood. I chose to paint silk satin fabric to emphasize the elegance and grace of this woman, this moment, this atmosphere. You can imagine how imperative it is to have smooth soft transitions of color to describe the flow of the silk, the folds in the fabric and the youthful skin.

When painting a line – I do not want to contend with indentations that cause a line to appear erratic or less straight.

Hot-Pressed paper also allows me to chose if I want to paint a straight line, a lost and found line, a wiggly line – in a painterly style – or in a more detailed style of painting in watercolor. I often use both styles in the one painting. This is a great tool to be aware of as the painterly area of a work, will guide the eye over the restful area and allow the viewer to become absorbed within the emotion and finer, more detailed work that weaves the story I want to tell in watercolor.

Hot Pressed paper is also perfect for reproduction purposes for books, art magazines, and images.

It is interesting to note that Arches 90lb and Arches 300lbs Hot Pressed has much less size on the surface so the paint and water is absorbed much more readily than it is when using 140lbs Hot Pressed.
90lbs Hot Pressed also buckles readily even if stretched.

I immerse my paper for 3 minutes. Then stretch it using water activated watercolor stretching tape.
I dry it flat and stretched on Gator Board.

The heavier the paper certainly does not equal ‘better’ paper to paint on.

Different weight papers have different gum sized surfaces as explained above. But each paper manufacturer will use a different set of criteria.

Be aware not all hot pressed papers are equal. Many hot pressed papers are fine – but generally the amount of size used on the surface of the paper can vary. The more size used – the harder the surface and the slower the absorbency of our water. This is important. If less size is used It is easier to damage a softer surface and the paper absorbs water very quickly.

There are different surfaces available in watercolor paper. I use hot pressed exclusively. Here is a list of other surfaces commonly available. These are good papers – but best used for different painting methods than mine:

Cold Pressed Watercolor paper:

There are many excellent brands of cold pressed paper available. In my experience I find these have a much softer and more absorbent surface. Once again these are not as ideal for my painting methods as the Arches hot pressed 140lbs paper that I love to use.

My comments above on the effects of the indentations are also true of cold pressed paper.

Cold pressed paper is wonderful for very painterly works. You can skim across the top of the paper with your brush held on it’s side – clipping the surface and leaving the indentations to remain white. A wonderful way to create the sparkling sunlight on a rippled sea. But of course – not so useful when you want a beautiful smooth and gentle transition or blend of colors describing soft skin or petals etc.

Rough Watercolor Paper

“Rough” is the name given to a very rough surfaced watercolor paper. This is another excellent paper but it performs very differently from Hot Pressed paper. The undulations on the surface of Rough paper are very apparent. Therefore this paper is best kept for very painterly watercolor work. It would be very difficult to create fine detail with this watercolor paper.

I personally prefer to use Hot Pressed because I then have the best of all worlds: I can paint in fine detail where I want the viewers eye to focus and engage with my subject. I can also paint in a very painterly manner surrounding my main focus. This acts as a foil and a support to guide the viewer to my main subject.
I do hope that helps you with your questions about which watercolor paper to use for the methods I love to teach and paint.

Watch this space for more hints and tips to help you on how to paint in watercolor and how to paint in oil.

Have fun on this wonderful journey we are all walking together!
You can also find information stretching paper here:

(as well as numerous other free painting articles I have written).

Check out the other reference and informational areas on my website. They are created for especially to help artists. I remember so very clearly, the time when I was frustrated and felt I was stuck on a plateau and yearned for the knowledge that would help me lift my work so much higher – to know how to paint all I wanted to paint, capture what I was passionate about, express the feeling a subject brought to me and speak to the viewers of my work. There was no one who was painting as I wanted to paint. No one I could ask or learn from.

This is my motivation in writing, filming, sharing and teaching.

Join me in my How to Paint in Watercolor DVDs:

My how to paint in watercolor DVDs are designed to extend you even further. Every day I receive numerous messages from artists from all over the world who have purchased my DVDs. (in excess of 25,000 DVDs sold around the world). It is a humbling notion that my DVDs are helping so many artists. It was my dream to help – spurred on by my own early career when I felt the frustration that came with the thirst for knowledge and understanding of painting. The breakthroughs and revelations I discovered, developed and learned on my ‘self taught’ journey, opened a whole new way of thinking, painting and potential. My DVDs are dedicated to sharing all the skills and knowledge that have allowed me to reach way beyond my dreams. Enjoy this magical journey!


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