Thaaaaaat being said, don’t buy the cheapest version of everything. I used to think I hated watercolor, but then I realized I was just using all the cheapest components - including the paper! It would turn to mush and get all pilly like a bad sweater.
I’d say pick one component to splurge on each time you restock your supplies.
Like Neapolitan ice cream, watercolor paper comes to us in three flavors:
- Hot Press
- Cold Press
Hot Press is the smoothest, Rough is the roughest, and Cold Press is the Goldilocks middle ground between the three. If you don’t know what to pick, get Cold Press.
Like the classic 2011 film duology The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, paper quality comes to us in two parts:
- Student Grade
- Professional/Artist Grade
As you might imagine, Professional Grade is considered higher quality than Student Grade. But what does that mean?
I could do a whole blog post on paper quality (and perhaps I WILL, READER). There are dozens of variables to consider, from more obvious characteristics like texture, to subtler differences like how the paper absorbs paint.
For now, the most important difference is that Student Grade paper usually yellows over time while Artist Grade does not. And when I say "over time", I'm talking about years, not weeks. If this is a concern for you, look on the packaging for “Archive Friendly” or “Acid Free.”
Like the common geological classification for rocks (igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic) paper weight falls into three categories:
Light = 90lb
Medium = 140lb
Heavy = 300lb
“But why is the paper defined by pounds?” you ask. I, too, once wondered those fallow fields of ignorance. BUT NO MORE:
The weight of paper is defined by the weight of 500 sheets in its uncut size. For example, 500 sheets of uncut printer paper (17x22 inch) is 20lbs. Then, it’s cut to 8.5”x11” and labeled as 20lb paper. Mystery solved!
If that definition sounds ridiculous and kind of arbitrary, just remember that for literal centuries an inch was defined as, “Three grains of barley, dry and round, placed end to end, lengthwise.”
Like, a king decreed that. Imperial measurements: much like imperialism, they stink!
Like Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, paper format comes to us in threes:
Pads are many pieces of watercolor paper bound at one edge, like a sketch book. The quality is usually student-grade.
Blocks are many pieces of paper glued together around multiple edges. The quality is usually student-grade to artist-grade.
Sheets are usually higher quality, larger, and expensive. Because they’re big, some people buy large sheets and then cut them down to the size they need.
If you’re just staring out, get a pad of around 25 sheets. This will be enough to experiment with, but you won’t be stuck with that brand of paper for the rest of your days. Speaking of brands:
Like blog posts about the classic 2011 film duology The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, there are literally millions of paper brands.
I tend to like Arches and Winsor Newton.
Don’t feel pressured into buying XYZ watercolor paper because it has “an advanced gelatin based manufacturing technique dating back to blah blah blah.”
Find something you like and go with. Like most things, watercolor painting takes practice. Experiment with different paints, brushes, and papers. There are no rules.