Watercolor Paper (Hot vs. Cold vs. Rough) Key Differences

Michael Daly
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Importance Of Watercolor Paper Is Greatly Under Estimated

Many artists just learning watercolor often ask me about the differences between hot press, cold press, and rough in-between paper when it comes to starting out. It’s easy to find a paper that feels good to work on and to try painting on a piece to see what you think. If you are just starting out, I recommend hot press or cold press paper, more specifically either 140 lb or 90 lb respectively. These weights of paper are great for detailed and subtle paintings. Rough paper would be better to use for your scratchy paintings.

Watercolour paper is small and thick, usually 105 lbs or more. It’s made of super thin fibers of cotton. The thickness of the paper is more important than its size even though both are equally important. The weight of the paper is equivalent to its thickness. The higher the paper weight, the thicker the paper. It’s important to note that the thicker the paper, the more water resistant it is.

What Does It Really Mean To Be Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed, or Rough?!

First of all, there is no governing body that dictates black and white standards for what a watercolor paper should be. So it’s really up to each individual manufacturer to determine the standards of what they consider to be hot pressed, cold pressed, rough, or smooth watercolor paper.

Texturally Speaking, Hot vs. Cold vs. Rough Watercolor Papers Are All Different

The most important thing to know about cold press, hot press, and rough watercolor papers is that they're all differentiated based on the manufacturer.

Different companies have different processes for making each one.

So if the company which sells you hot press paper is also selling you cold press, whatever the differences might be between them, they can't be that significant.

Because that company's hot press and cold press paper are made in the same facility by the same equipment. They are two versions of the same thing in this case.

So don't let a salesperson convince you that buying paper from them is going to make your art better than it would have been with paper from another company.

That said, we do have some takeaway points that we can share with you, that you can make good use of when trying to figure out which watercolor paper to buy.

The first thing you want to keep in mind is that the texture of hot press paper is smooth to the touch, and much more so than cold press. It is also smoother on the tooth, or the weave, of the paper than cold press is.

So hot press has more of a uniform texture when you're looking at the paper from different perspectives. The finish is consistent through each sheet.

Cotton Fibers vs. Wood Pulp – Is It Worth The Extra Cost?

Long ago in Asian countries, artists and calligraphers would use thin and flat slabs of cardboard-like paper made from the inner bark of mulberry trees. These cotton fiber pieces of paper would be folded and glued to create a thin and substantial watercolor block for centuries. The practice still exists to this day and results in a unique, smooth, white surface.

The Western equivalent of this Japanese style paper is made by West Point Cotton. They produce about two million reams of this paper every year, and each square foot is produced by hand.

This type of paper is quite expensive and not readily available in local art stores. It’s mostly stocked and sold online. The traditional packaging is a stacks of individual 4-ply sheets that look similar to a traditional folded sketchbook. It’s a great option if you are into Asian painting styles.

Another cotton fiber paper that is available much more locally is Canson. They make a wide variety of papers including watercolor paper. When you open a sheet of Canson Watercolor paper, you’ll find a distinctive Canson texture that focuses on producing as natural a feel as possible. It’s incredibly thin and has a white/cream color.

Beyond Hot, Cold, And Rough Watercolor Paper Types – Weight Is An Important Consideration

The three main categories of watercolor paper (hot, cold, and rough) should be the first consideration for new artists. From there, you can compare differences between manufacturers, parts of the world, and the different brands. These are the key characteristics of hot, cold, and rough watercolor paper:

Hot: Hot press is the smoothest and flattest paper of the three. This means your paint will flow the smoothest and have the highest amount of color saturation. The downside to hot press is that it can be quite slippery, and your paint brush can glide off the surface. Some artists find this benefit, but it keeps other artists from using it as they can’t control it as well.

Cold: Cold press has some texture to the paper. This can be great for certain kinds of painting techniques. For watercolor painting, it is not ideal. Cold press watercolor paper usually needs a primer before use, as the texture requires more water to be absorbed by the paper.

Rough: Rough watercolor paper is for the adventurous artist that is already familiar with watercolor painting. It is the least smooth of the three types so there can be some intermediate learning curves. The benefits? It’s also the cheapest! For a budget pick, this would be ideal since you can practice and experiment more.

Which Watercolor Paper Type Will Be Best For You?

When you look at the range of watercolor papers available, it can be a bit overwhelming to know which paper is best for you.

In the current market, you will find that watercolor papers are widely available in hot press (HP), cold press (CP), and rough (R).

Hot and Cold are the two main processing methods used when making fine art papers and have a major effect on the surface of the paper.

Hot paper is coated with wax and resin while cold press is coated with only resin. This paper is the smoothest surface and it is ideal if you are just starting out.

What about rough paper?

The difference between rough and cold press is that the latter is a bit smoother than the rough. Rough papers are best for practicing techniques and working on paint handling.

If you want a more bumpy texture, then you should opt for rough but if you want to have a very smooth paper for details, then go for cold press.

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Watercolor paper types vary in texture and price. Each paper has its own set of characteristics you must consider when picking the right paper for your project. The hottest selling watercolor papers are from Canson, Daler Rowney, Arches and Fabriano. Watercolor paints are designed to be used with hot pressed watercolor papers and can cause the rough watercolor papers to dissolve or thin out. Here are the difference between hot watercolor papers, cold watercolor papers, and rough watercolor papers.