Here are a few watercolor sketches in my Stillman & Birn sketchbook.

When I start to feel like I’m in a rut with my artwork, I like to switch things up by trying out new tools and materials. One thing that I’ve discovered about watercolor painting is that the paper you choose will have a dramatic impact upon the results.

Can you use drawing paper for watercolor? Some drawing papers may accept light washes of watercolor, which is suitable for quick studies. However, you should expect some buckling and pilling. Drawing paper also lacks the texture of watercolor paper that you can use to create interesting effects. Select a brand name watercolor paper for the best painting experience.

Many beginners assume that you can use any type of paper for watercolor. Drawing paper is tempting to paint on because it’s much less expensive than watercolor paper. Don’t be fooled though, while you will save money, painting on drawing paper can be frustrating. Selecting the right paper can dramatically improve your paintings. Continue reading to find out why watercolor paper is superior to drawing paper for watercolors.

Drawing Paper Is Designed for Dry Media

Unless the manufacturer states otherwise, most drawing paper is for drawing with dry media. Graphite, pen and ink, and charcoal are examples of dry media that are work well on drawing paper.

Drawing paper is commonly made from wood pulp, while the higher quality watercolor papers are made from 100% cotton. The wood pulp found in drawing paper won’t hold up to many common watercolor techniques. That’s because painting with watercolors is rough on the paper.

“Pilling” is when the fibers of the paper begin to deteriorate and pull back from the surface. Scrubbing the paper with a brush is what causes pilling, especially if the paper is extra wet. Pilling can give your watercolor painting a fuzzy or grainy appearance. If your watercolors are grainy, you may want to read my post about the causes grainy watercolors (coming soon).

A typical watercolor painting may require numerous washes of color. This means that the paper you choose has to be able withstand water, and abuse from the brush.

Why Drawing Paper Buckles With Watercolors

When you apply water to paper, the fibers expand. Some fibers will expand more than others since painting involves applying water to one side of a paper in an uneven fashion. This uneven expansion causes the paper to buckle.

The problem is that the watercolor paint will drain into in the lowest areas of the buckles. This can be frustrating if you’re trying to paint a smooth wash of color, or a smooth gradient. For example, if you’re painting a landscape, the pools of color will make your sky look blotchy and weird.

Another issue is that the buckling will remain after the paper dries. A watercolor painting with buckles in it can look unprofessional. If you’re painting in a sketchbook that contains drawing paper, the buckling will make it more difficult to close it flat. In the photograph below, you can see the cover of the sketchbook is slanting at an angle because of the buckling.

I use a sketchbook for watercolor studies and sketches. You can read my review of the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks. It contains more photos of my watercolor sketches.

This is the bottom edge of my sketchbook. The pages contain some buckling, even when it’s dry.

Even watercolor paper can buckle when you paint on it, but it usually dries relatively flat. There are ways to prevent it from buckling, such as painting on a watercolor block instead of individual sheets. Some artists like to stretch the paper so that it tightens as it dries, which eliminates the buckling.

However, the techniques that prevent buckling won’t work with thin drawing paper. Flat sheets of drawing paper probably won’t survive the stretching process without tearing. You also can’t stretch the paper in your sketchbook. I find that minor buckling is acceptable for sketching with watercolors.

Why Watercolor Paper Is Superior to Drawing Paper

It’s the cotton fibers, the thickness of the paper, and the gelatin sizing that gives watercolor paper many advantages over drawing paper. Watercolor paper is also available in a variety of textures and thicknesses.

Watercolor Paper Contains Sizing

“Sizing” is the coating that manufacturers apply to watercolor paper to prevent it from absorbing too much water.

Gelatin is the most common form of sizing, although a few manufacturers use alternatives. Internal sizing is when the gelatin is added to the pulp. External sizing is when the sheets of paper are coated with gelatin. Some papers are sized using both methods.

The sizing is a crucial component of watercolor paper. Without it, the watercolor paint will absorb into the paper almost as soon as you apply it. This is a major disadvantage because you won’t be able to manipulate the paint before it dries.

The beauty of watercolor paintings is that they have a fresh and spontaneous look. This look is difficult to achieve if the paint dries too quickly.

If the paint dries while you’re applying it, it will look fussy. Imagine trying to paint a large area of a sky and having the beginning of a wash dry up as you’re working on it. You would have to paint the sky in segments which would make it look patchy.

There are many watercolor techniques that require the paper to remain wet while you’re working on it. For example, working “wet into wet” is a popular technique where you paint into a wet section of the paper. The paint will spread into the moist areas of the painting and create a soft edges and other effects. These blurry edges are an important part of watercolor painting.

These techniques are frustrating if you try them on regular drawing paper. You might try to compensate for the absorption by adding more water to the drawing paper, but the paper probably won’t be able to handle the excess water.

Watercolor Paper Allows the Pigment to Sit on the Surface

The fact that the pigment sits on the surface of the watercolor paper will give you more options. For one, paper that has a lot of sizing will allow you to “lift” it. Lifting is when you lightly scrub the paper with a damp brush. The bristles will lift the pigment from the paper, and lighten the color.

Lifting watercolor pigment from drawing paper usually creates pilling. The surface of most drawing papers are too delicate to take the scrubbing. Watercolor paper is more durable so it’s less of an issue.

Colors Look More Vibrant on Watercolor Paper

The paper on the left is Canson XL Mix Media. Arches rough watercolor paper is on the right. The colors on the drawing paper look pale in comparison to the watercolor paper.

The colors will also look more saturated on watercolor paper because they’re not sinking into the fibers of the paper. Above are some example washes that I painted on Canson Mix Media drawing paper and on Arches rough watercolor paper. The drawing paper produces washes that are pale and less intense.

It’s frustrating to not be able to paint bright or dark colors because of the paper. Just by switching papers, you can achieve a greater intensity of color and more contrast.

Some drawing papers will work better for watercolor than others. I don’t use the Canson Mix Media for watercolors but I find it useful for sketching with ink and other dry media. I prefer the Stillman & Birn sketchbook for sketching with watercolors.

Watercolor Paper Is Thicker and Has a Better Texture

Another advantage of watercolor paper is that it’s usually thicker than drawing paper. Thicker paper will resist buckling. This is especially true if you want to apply a wash that contains a lot of water. The thin drawing papers will buckle and it may even deteriorate if you paint over it too much with the brush.

Thinner drawing papers may also turn translucent when you apply water to them. Painting on translucent paper isn’t going to be very satisfying. The paint may even bleed through to the other side.

Watercolor paper is available in three textures: rough, cold press, and hot press. Hot pressed is very smooth and has very little texture at all. Rough is very bumpy and is great for dry brushing. Cold pressed is usually somewhere in between rough and cold pressed.

The texture in watercolor paper will give your paintings another element that you can use to your advantage.

Related Questions

Can you watercolor on regular paper? Most common papers aren’t very suitable for watercolor paintings. Printer paper is far too thin for watercolor. It will turn translucent when you apply water to it. Since it doesn’t contain any sizing, it will absorb the water too quickly and buckle. The colors may look flat and dull because the paper will absorb it instead of resting on the surface. You may be able to use it for quick studies or thumbnail sketches. However, I don’t recommend it for watercolor painting.

What is the best weight for watercolor paper? The most common weight for watercolor paper is 140lb. The thinner 90lb paper is less expensive, but it has a tendency to buckle. Some of the thicker watercolor papers are much stiffer and resist buckling but they cost more. The 140lb is a good compromise between performance and price.

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