There are a few things to consider: the quality of paper, the gsm count(which is another way to weigh the paper), and deciding between Cold/Hot/Rough Press. What will work best will ultimately be preference, but higher quality watercolor paper is usually less frustrating because the paper doesn’t break down or warp as easily.
First of all, look for the paper that is categorized for watercolor, it is designed to handle the amount of water that watercolor requires. Most of the watercolor paper available at hobby stores are not 100% cotton, but good for practicing. 100% cotton paper can handle more scrubbing to take up color and washes. It is also the highest quality and will keep your preserve your artwork better. To understand the quality of the paper, one should look into what the paper is made off. They can be made of wood pulp or a mix of wood pulp and cotton fibers, up to 100% cotton paper.
GSM is grams per square inch. Paper is usually labeled in pounds and gsm. 140# is 300 gsm. 140# paper is a good weight to start with, because it can absorb more water and will not disintegrate easily when painting. The use of Cold or Hot press papers is up to preference as well. Cold press is rougher and Hot press is slicker. Cold press can show texture and rough paper will bring luminosity to the paper because of the way the watercolor dries. On Hot press paper the watercolor will move around easier. For more information, Thaneeya McArdle has a very detailed blog post about student/professional grade and lots more that helped me write this post.
I compared a couple popular, beginner brands of watercolor/mixed media paper to see what the differences are and to help you decide which paper would fit your needs best. Even though most of technically student grade, I have been painting and practicing for more than 7 years and I still some of these. There are so many more options out there and brands have higher or lower qualities.
Master’s Touch Cold Press Watercolor Paper, 140 lb, 300 GSM
This brand is good for practicing, it holds together and the watercolor moves like it would on other cold press student-grade paper, but the texture tends to distract. If you look closely you can see a squarish repeating pattern in the blue watercolor.
Canson brand 90 lb, 185 gsm Mixed Media, Rough
This is also a student grade paper and not specifically for watercolor. I bought it to practice with acrylic. I decided to see how it would last with watercolor. I used the smoother side of this paper; this might show what a hot press paper of lower weight might look with watercolor. On this paper you can see the brush strokes are more visible, other than that, it seems to move well on the paper. I’ve found that 90 lb paper is also fairly good for practice, but doesn’t hold up as well with water.
Fluid Watercolor Paper, Cold Press, 140 lb
This is a better quality paper that will be better for artwork that you want to last. It is acid-free, which helps preserve artwork, and good weight to prevent buckling, as long as there is not too much water and washes used.
Strathmore 300 Series, Cold Press Watercolor Paper, 140 lb
This 140 lb paper did a good job holding the water on my wash. It is closer to a student grade paper, but seemed to take the paint and water well and acid-free so it will preserve your artwork better.
Strathmore 400 Series Cold Press Watercolor Paper, 140 lb
This is the best quality paper that I did in my study. This one is very easy to work with and it did not warp with my red and blue wash, when almost all the others did.
My favorite papers were the Fluid and Strathmore 400. All of these watercolor papers work well for practice and beginners and most of them can be found at Hobby Lobby. If you are doing heavy washes and want your artwork to last, I would suggest an acid-free, more artist grade paper like the Strathmore 400 series, and the other higher quality 140 lb papers would also do well.
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