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Which Side Of Watercolor Paper To Use, Front or Back?

You can paint on both the front and the backside of watercolor papers, as the former is rough, while the latter is smooth. The front side is well-suited for paintings with depth and texture, while the back side adds finer details.

Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper

No art medium is as fascinating as watercolor, but often, choosing between the 2 sides of watercolor papers is tricky.

One side is smooth, whereas the other is slightly textured. Many artists opine that there is no right or wrong side when it comes to watercolor papers, but to a great extent, the techniques you employ determine which side you should use.

This guide discusses in detail the 2 sides of watercolor papers and its various types.

Smooth Or Rough: Which Side Of Watercolor Paper To Use?

Smooth Or Rough: Which Side Of Watercolor Paper To Use?
© Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

Many artists, especially newbies, find it confusing to decide whether they should start watercolor painting on the front side or the backside of the paper. That’s mainly because there isn’t much difference between the two, except for the surface texture.

However, one aspect should always be kept in mind when deciding between the soft and slightly textured sides, i.e., handling properties. Sizing determines the handling properties of a paper, as it prevents pigments from sinking too deep into the paper surface.

The painting technique you employ to complete your watercolor painting project will determine which surface to opt for.

Smooth Watercolor Paper Side

Between the 2 sides, the back side of the watercolor paper is the smooth side because it has subtle textures. The difference in texture is due to the fact that it is squeezed against felt.

Also known as the wire side, the back side has a crisp texture, which is why it’s considered ideal for fine details. That means the felt side responds well to pencils, pens, and ink better than different surfaces.

A. Advantages Of Painting On The Back Of The Watercolor Paper

Most artists prefer painting on the front, but painting on the back can be advantageous in some situations. Below I have mentioned when can painting on the felt side be beneficial for artists.

1. Fine Details

Smooth surfaces are ideal for paintings with fine details. Be it layering, glazing, or wet-on-wet techniques, painting on the backside of your paper will add a good amount of texture to your finished work.

2. If You’ve Ruined The Front Side

Watercolor paints are unforgiving, meaning you cannot undo or fix your mistakes. Especially when people work with acrylics, gouache, or oils, they tend to make a lot of mistakes.

So, what do you do with those failed artwork? Instead of throwing them into the bin, flip the paper and use the back side to paint. Besides, you’ll save money on art supplies.


Not all manufacturers apply a coat of gelatin on the backside of the paper to size it. That means the backside of the paper will bleed if you pour pigment on it, rendering it useless. In case the paper isn’t sized, you can size it externally by submerging it into a tray of gelatin-water sizing solution.

3. Excellent Paint Flow

One of the significant advantages of a smooth surface is that the watercolor paint flows smoothly on the paper. Because the paint sits on the paper for quite some time, you can try your hands at various techniques on the backside of the watercolor paper.

Besides, blending pigments is not challenging on the backside of the watercolor paper, thanks to the smooth surface.

4. Ideal For Precision

Because the surface is fine-grained without any tooth, the smooth surface makes the backside of the paper ideal for adding fine details. Plus, color washes are more even on the backside compared to the front side.

Since the backside of watercolor paper lends itself to precision, making clean lines and sweeping strokes won’t be difficult. On papers with smooth surfaces, the layers, glazes, and washes on the finished painting appear beautiful.

5. Handles Pen And Ink Well

Smooth surface papers are also well-suited for painting styles in which inks and pens are used in conjunction with watercolor paints. On the backside of the watercolor paper, you can draw strong and beautiful lines, which makes it versatile.

Watercolor Paintings Best-Suited For The Smooth Surface

For paintings with a lot of details, most artists prefer the smooth side of watercolor papers, mainly because the texture handles multiple heavy washes really well. Watercolor paintings whose outcome is exceptional on the smooth surface are as follows:

  • Animals
  • Flowers
  • Rocky coastlines
  • Streams

Rough Side Of Watercolor Papers

The rough side, also known as the wire side, has more texture than the smooth side. Usually, manufacturers add texture to the front side of watercolor papers by squeezing it against the wire mesh of the mold.

Even after the drying process, the rough paper retains the wire texture; hence, it’s called the rough side.

Advantages Of Painting On The Front Side Of The Watercolor Paper

Even though the majority of artists prefer the front side for watercolor painting, here are 2 specific instances when using it can be advantageous.

1. Loose Watercolor Painting Style

If you’re more interested in capturing the essence or impression of a scene, painting on the front side will be the best bet. That’s because rough papers express the painting better than those with smooth surfaces.

2. Uneven Pigments On Finished Paintings

A rough watercolor paper is full of irregularities, dips, and grooves, because of which paints granulate in them. Granulate, in simple words, means groups of flakes or small dots on the watercolor paper that are visible.

When pigments settle in dimples or holes in watercolor paper, an uneven paint layer is created. So, painting on a rough surface or the front side of the paper will help you imitate the granulation effect.

3. Expressive Painting Styles

For artists more interested in capturing impressions than replicating scenes, loose painting is the way to go because it’s far more expressive than other painting techniques. The rough surface of watercolor paper, ensures the textures and brushstrokes are prominent in the finished painting.

4. Allows For More Dramatic Washes

Rough sides of watercolor papers are best suited for variegated painting techniques, thanks to their textured surface. The variegated effect is achieved by blending 2 or more colors via wet-on-dry and wet-on-wet techniques.

Watercolor Paintings Best-Suited For The Rough Side

Watercolor paintings whose outcomes are exceptional on the rough side of watercolor papers are:

  • Abstract florals
  • Landscape
  • Mountain scene
  • Dripping fruit

Hot-Pressed Paper Vs Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper

So far, I have discussed the 2 sides of watercolor paper, along with their advantages.

But choosing between hot-press paper and cold-pressed paper is not easy, especially for beginners. That is why I’ll discuss the 2 types of paper in this section to help you decide which one would be the right one for your watercolor painting needs.

1. Hot-Pressed Watercolor Paper

Papers with incredibly smooth, non-textured surfaces are called hot-pressed papers. Because such papers are toothless, they boast a fine-grained surface.

As soon as the paper is manufactured, it is pressed between 2 hot metal rollers to smoothen and straighten it. Hence, it’s named hot-pressed watercolor paper.

Hot-pressed papers are well-suited to paintings with a high level of precision, like portrait paintings. And since the density of fibers is high in a hot-press paper, it’s less absorbent than others. Therefore, you get adequate time to work with watercolor paints.

2. Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper

Also known as “not paper,” cold-press paper is the go-to paper for the majority of watercolor artists because of its textured surface.

Cold-pressed papers are manufactured in the same manner as hot-pressed papers; however, they are squeezed through cold metal rollers instead of hot ones. Because such papers have tooth, pigments settle into the fibers quickly, giving artists less time to work with them.

Thanks to the bumpy surface, the cold-pressed paper adds to the aesthetic appeal of the finished painting.

Which Texture Is Right For Your Watercolor Painting Project?

What sets hot-pressed paper apart from cold-pressed paper is its texture– the former is smooth, whereas the latter is bumpy.

Because of the smooth surface finish, hot-pressed paper provides an ideal surface for multiple or variegated washes. Furthermore, its least textured surface is well-suited for artists who wish to recreate paintings with subtle details.

Even colors tend to be brighter on hot-pressed paper than on cold-pressed ones. And since it has no tooth, pigments stay on the paper for long, allowing artists to work at their own pace.

What’s more, its smooth yet hard texture makes it suitable for a variety of watercolor painting techniques like lifting off. But because of the smooth surface, you cannot glaze on hot-pressed papers. Also, some artists complain that the paper is slippery, and it gets difficult for them to control the pigments.

Coming to cold-pressed papers, they are quite popular among watercolor artists of all levels because they are easy to work with. The outcome of watercolor paintings on such papers is velvety due to their textured surface.

Compared to hot-pressed papers, paintings on cold-pressed papers aren’t vivid; rather, the colors appear flat.

However, the textured surface makes cold-pressed paper ideal for smooth washes. Not just that, but it’s also suitable for dry brush technique and scraping, so cold-pressed papers are commonly used for landscape painting.

On the flip side, cold-pressed papers aren’t fit for glazing, as the first layer tends to get disturbed after the application of the second layer. All in all, I’d say cold-pressed papers are ideal for both beginners and experts who are interested dry brush techniques. Not to forget, they can tolerate lifting techniques, too.

How To Determine Which Side To Use On Each Type Of Paper?

While there isn’t much difference between the 2 surfaces of hot-pressed watercolor paper, the surface texture of the 2 sides of cold-pressed paper are different.

More often than not, people prefer to use the top side of the paper because it has a watermark but that doesn’t mean you cannot use the other side. When it comes to watercolor papers, you can paint on whichever side you want.

Check the texture of the 2 sides and try to figure out which side will allow you to carry out the painting techniques you want. Smooth sides are meant for detailed paintings, artwork with high precision, and if you don’t want textures to be prominent in your paintings.

On the other hand, rough surfaces would be ideal for loose watercolor painting styles because of their tooth. Even the outcome of paintings with dramatic washes is greater on the rough side than on the smooth one.

Whichever side you choose depends on your painting style, the outcome, and the techniques you wish to employ.

Side Of Watercolor Paper FAQs

  • Why is there a difference between the 2 surfaces of handmade paper?

    Cotton papers, which are handmade papers, are manufactured by mixing cotton fibers with a large quantity of paper pulp.

    A rectangular hand-held mold is used in the process, which is immersed into a vat of water-pulp mixture. The mold is squashed to distribute the pulp equally across the mesh.

    As the pulp adheres to the mesh, water drains from the surface and the pulp sheet is moved to a felt sheet for drying. The side to which pulp (paper) adheres to is the wire side, whereas the other side placed on felt for drying is called the felt side.

    Even though the impression left by the felt is reduced, wire marks often persist. And that’s why there is a noticeable difference in the texture of the 2 sides of handmade paper.

  • Which side of watercolor paper should I use if I want to achieve fine details?

    I suggest the smoother side because it brings out fine details exceptionally well.

  • When can I paint on both sides of the paper?

    Weight is an important factor when it comes to watercolor painting. Only heavyweight paper is ideal for painting on both sides because it’s thick; the heavier the paper, the less it will buckle and bleed.

    As a rule of thumb, go for watercolor papers from a reliable brand because the quality of their papers is top-notch.

  • Are the 2 sides of the Fabriano Cold Press paper different?

    Yes, there is a noticeable difference between the 2 sides of Fabriano cold-pressed paper. The top side of the paper is crisp, whereas the back side is relatively smooth because it has slight textures.

  • Wrapping It Up With Watercolor Paper Use
    © Homesthetics - Dylla Setyadji

    Wrapping It Up

    Now that you know the ins and outs of watercolor paper, hopefully, you’re ready to start watercolor painting.

    Contrary to what most people believe, there is no right side or wrong side in regard to watercolor papers. Both rough and soft sides of watercolor papers are usable– one is ideal for creating depth and dramatic washes, whereas the other is for precision and fine details.

    Ultimately, the side you choose boils down to your personal preference.

    Never should you buy an entire watercolor block as a beginner, or you’re only going to waste your money. If you’re a newbie in the watercolor painting world, I’d suggest you use a few sheets from different brands and paint on both sides.

    After a while, you’ll understand which side is well-suited for your painting style. You can let me know how you enjoyed watercolor painting after reading my guide, by reaching out on my social media handles!