Paper basics: An overview of paper qualities

The basic knowledge of paper includes a few terms that are good to know for selecting your base. Selecting the right paper for alternative process prints is akin to choosing the perfect instrument for a musician. The paper should harmonize with your artistic vision and used to add to the experience. Factors like weight, texture, and absorbency are key factors. The choice of paper plays a crucial role in the outcome.

Writer and photography / Malin Fabbri

Choosing the right paper for alternative processes
Go to your local art store to get a feel for the papers, AND buy your papers there so they can stay in business

There are hundreds of different manufacturers from longstanding brands, like Fabriano—who have been making papers since 1264—to store-branded papers. If you can, go to an art store to get a feel for the papers instead of buying online. It’s a paper-jungle out there and the options are many. We have a list of paper suppliers here, it is in no way complete, but a good starting point. People who work in art stores are often very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. They may never have heard about alternative photographic processes, but they probably know a lot about papers; so, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

Texture of the paper

Texture is also known as the “tooth” of the paper. Watercolour papers come in various textures, offering artists the opportunity to choose a surface that complements their artistic vision. The three primary textures are hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough.

The terminology of describing texture can vary. Sometimes it's Cold Pressed is called CP or Fine Grain. Yes, it can be a little confusing! Arches Aquarelles Cold press is green, their Rough is orange and their Hot pressed are pink.
The terminology of describing texture can vary. Sometimes it’s Cold Pressed is called CP or Fine Grain. Yes, it can be a little confusing! Arches Aquarelles Cold press is green, their Rough is orange and their Hot pressed is pink.

Hot-Pressed (HP) papers

Hot-pressed papers have a smooth and fine surface, making them ideal for showing details. Hot-pressed papers are recommended to start with as the smooth surface will allow for a vibrant and sharp appearance to the print. If you find the words Grain satiné in French, Glatt or Fein, Satiniert or Heiß gepresst in German or Grana Liscia in Italian (or Satinata for a smooth feel), or Grão fino in Portuguese, or Grano Satinado or Liso in Spanish on the package it means hot-pressed.(1)

Cold-Pressed (CP) or Not (NP)

Cold-pressed papers are the most commonly used papers in painting, but for printing alternative photographic processes, they may add too much texture to the print. It is a matter of choice and preference. The papers usually feature a medium texture that strikes a balance between smoothness and grain. A package of cold-pressed paper may have the words Grain Fin in French, Matt or Kalt gepresst in German, Grana Fina in Italian (Fabriano Artistico has a called Grana Dolce with soft texture), Grão Cetim in Portuguese, or Grano Fino in Spanish.

Rough papers

Rough papers have a pronounced texture, providing a more granulated and expressive look, sometimes too much for a print. This texture allows a lot of emulsion to settle in the indentations, which can add to the print, but it can also make the print dull. Rough paper is Grain Torchon in French, Rauh or gerauhtes Papier in German, Grana Grossa or Ruvida in Italian, Grão Grosso in Portuguese or Grano Grueso or Torchon in Spanish.

Weight of papers

Though paper is measured in weight, in general terms it relates to the thickness of the paper. The weight of watercolour paper is measured in grams per square meter (gsm or g/m2 or g/m² or grammage) or pounds (lb), indicating the weight of the paper. A higher number means it is a heavier and usually thicker paper.

Canson Monteval 200 gsm
The weight is usually clearly marked on the package. On the Canson Monteval here is 200gsm, which will work well. Canson Monteval is available both in 200 and 300 gsm. A paper between 180-300 gsm is a good place to start.

To give you an idea of how the numbers correlate to weight, here are a few examples:

  • 60 gsm: A page in a newspaper
  • 100 gsm: A page in a book
  • 200 gsm: A magazine cover
  • 300 gsm: A high-end brochure cover
  • 400 gsm: A thick greeting card
  • 500 gsm: Thin cardboard

Thin paper such as copy paper will buckle, warp and tear when wet. Medium-weight paper offers a good balance between flexibility and durability without excessive buckling. Heavy paper is robust and less prone to buckling, but spending the extra money on heavy paper may not be necessary. If unsure what to get, try a paper at around 180-300 gsm. Note that this article covers Western papers. Eastern papers, like the Japanese Kozo, Mitsumata and Gampi papers use long fibres, and although their weight is low, they can be very strong.

Sizing or sized papers

A few decades ago, when I first started out, I believed sizing was about cutting the paper into the right size: I was very wrong. Sizing refers to the treatment applied to the paper to control the absorption of water and emulsion. Papers can be sized using internal sizing, external sizing or a combination of both. A few years ago, we asked artists if they use sized papers or not or find the need to size them. Read it to see what they say—in short, no extra sizing is generally needed if the paper is already sized.

Internal Sizing

Papers with internal sizing (also called engine sizing) have sizing agents added to the pulp during the papermaking process. This enhances the paper’s resistance to buckling and allows for the print to “stay on the surface”.

External Sizing

External sizing (also called tub sizing, or surface sizing) involves applying sizing to the surface of the paper after it has been formed by dipping it in a sizing bath. This method offers additional control over the paper’s absorbency, particularly for techniques that involve a lot of washing.

If you need to size a paper, take a look at Jill Enfield’s article for recipes.

Materials used to make the paper

The furnish, or the main ingredient, to make a paper can be a mix of wood pulp, cotton or linen, additives, fillers, dyes, bleaching, sizing and buffering chemicals.

Papers used for taking notes or photocopying are made from wood pulp, or cellulose from trees. Paper for watercolours, oil & acrylics and printmaking can be made exclusively from cotton or more rarely linen, but are often a mix of cotton and wood pulp. Cotton is considered more noble as the long fibres in cotton make the paper less prone to buckling or warping.

Wood papers: Papers with a high wood content and are machine-made are sometimes referred to as Student grade papers. Wood pulp is made of cellulose containing lignin. If a paper buckles or warps a lot when coated it may be an indication that it is a wood paper. These papers are not usually archival as the lignin release acids, especially when exposed to light and may cause the paper to turn yellow.

Wood-free papers: To confuse the issue, papers made with alpha-cellulose (wood pulp that is refined, removing the lignin) are referred to as “wood-free”, though they originate from wood pulp. When the lignin is removed the papers tend to be less prone to turn yellow.

Cotton papers: Papers made of 100% cotton or linen and mould-made – sometimes referred to as Professional grade papers – can have more tooth (texture) caused by the mould, and even more so if they are hand-made. They are generally softer, and a little more floppier than wood papers.

There are of course papers made from a mix of cotton and wood. Alpha-cellulose and cotton are considered more premium materials than unrefined wood pulp, so this tends to be mentioned on the package. Papers that do not mention “wood free” or “cotton” are likely to be made from less refined wood pulp and thus of a lower grade.

Many years ago, we did the “Big Paper Survey“. If you want tips on papers to use for your process, it’s a good place to start. However,  be aware that manufacturers change their process from time to time and what worked 10 years ago may not work now. Try to buy a sample sheet for testing before investing in a big pack.

Further reading and references


  1. The original list of words in Spanish, French, Italian and German was found in Chapter 2, ‘Choice and Coating of Paper, pp. 26-49 of the iBook ‘Chrysonomicon II – Practice’ and added to. The pdf has a lot of good information about paper and is well worth reading.

Further reading:

If you are curious to learn more, here are a few links to check out:

Good luck with finding your favourite paper!

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