Best Watercolor Papers – Everything You Need To Know Before You Buy

The best watercolor paper

How To Choose The Best Watercolor Paper

The watercolor paper you choose will have a huge impact on your work. You need to know which papers work best and which ones to avoid. Over time you should get to know each major watercolor manufacturer. All papers aren’t created equally. There are other many assets to consider like grades, or weights, texture, size and so on.

Watercolor paper is created, or sized, to limit how much paint pigment is absorbed, but will absorb more water. Regular paper won’t absorb either. But at the very least you do need to use a product specifically made with watercolor painting in mind if you want any kind of satisfying result.

How watercolor paper is made.

Less expensive watercolor paper, also referred to as student grade, is made of wood pulp exclusively.

Medium grade watercolor papers are made from wood pulp and cotton fiber blend(s). The two materials are mixed to produce a product that works better than cheaper paper, but not as well as premium artist grade(s).

Premium watercolor paper is made of pure cotton. It’s commonly referred to as rag, archival and/or artists’ grade paper. As you would have imagined it typically costs more than lower grades because it’s usually hand-made. More on this later on.

How watercolor paper is made
Photo credit: Strathmore Paper

What does acid-free mean?

The short answer goes like this; the pulp used to form the paper has a pH higher than 7 (neutral). It’s also buffered with an alkaline reserve to neutralize acid compounds absorbed from the atmosphere. This will prevent the paper from yellowing and deteriorating over time.

However, there are no universal standards in regards to what makes paper archival. But in general the most accepted properties contain no roundwood or unbleached pulp and be free of optical brighteners which artificially make the sheet whiter.

The ultimate in permanence would be acid-free surface(s) made with 100% cotton.

Pads, blocks, sheets and rolls; what's the difference?

Watercolor pads are created in a notebook form, similar to a drawing, or sketch pad. It can be wire bound, or glued on one side to keep the pad intact. Pads are useful for a variety of reasons such as practicing techniques, small studies and painting outdoors. Having them bound in a pad form makes it easier to store and to perhaps refer to when needed.

Watercolor blocks are similar to pads but they’re bound on all four sides. This is ideal for watercolor painting since the paper has a tendency to buckle when wet. It’s common to need a letter opener, or knife to remove the top sheet in order to get to the next one.

Watercolor sheets are usually much larger such as 22 x 30 inches. This is obviously ideal if you prefer larger works.But many artists, including me, buy sheets and divide it into quarters which measure 11 x 15 inches. Lighter weight sheets such as 140 lb. have a tendency to buckle when wet. While heavier weight paper such as 300 lb. will work just fine without sizing.

Watercolor rolls are cost-effective but takes a little extra time to reduce paper to the desired size before painting. As with sheets it comes in two common weights which are 140 lb. and 300 lb. Because the paper is rolled you will need to size it to lay flat before painting on it.

best watercolor paper

What's the difference between cheap and expensive watercolor paper?

Cheap paper is made with mostly wood pulp, while the the higher grade watercolor paper is 100% cotton. Wood pulp paper is machine made and more easily produced. More expensive watercolor paper is hand-made or mold-made which takes more time and handling.

Why are some brands so expensive?

The manufacturing process and the ingredients of the best watercolor paper do make it expensive. Good paper is acid free and 100% rag content. Some paper manufacturers do make mid priced and student grade paper that is not as expensive as Arches. Canson’s Montval paper, Strathmore 400 or 500 series, or Global Fluid are some less expensive brands you might want to try.

What's the difference between hot, cold, and rough press?

Rough watercolor paper has a prominent tooth or textured surface. This creates more indentions in the paper where pools of water and pigment collect. This will result in a more grainy effect.

Hot-pressed watercolor paper has a fine-grained, smooth surface, with almost no tooth. Paint dries very quickly on it which makes it ideal for large washes. It’s suited for more detailed painting such as realistic portraits and landscapes.

Cold-pressed watercolor paper is in the middle of rough and hot press. It’s slightly textured surface is preferred by most professionals because it’s good for both large areas of wash and fine detail.

Different types of watercolor paper

What weight paper should you choose?

The thickness of watercolor paper is indicated by its weight, measured either in grams per square meter (gsm) or pounds per ream (lb.).

The standard machine weights are 190 gsm (90 lb.), 300 gsm (140 lb.), 356 gsm (260 lb.), and 638 gsm (300 lb). Most artists prefer stretching paper that’s less than 356 gsm (260 lb.), otherwise, it is likely to warp.

Most experienced watercolorists prefer 140 lb. as it will handle a few washes without any degradation. Since it’s less than 260 lb. you may consider stretching it to avoid warping white wet.

The amount of washes (or, how much water) and paint you’ll use influences what weight you’ll need. Paper that’s 90 lb. is likely too thin for anything but sketching or practice exercises.

If you are new and want to experiment, look for an assortment pack. This will give you a good range of weights and surfaces to test out.

Types of watercolor paper

Alternative watercolor papers

If you want to step outside of the traditional watercolor paper, but still use paper, you can try;

  • Parchment
  • Yupo
  • Rice paper

If you want something completely different than paper, there are;

  • Wood sheets
  • Aquabord
  • Fabrics such as silk and possibly very fine cotton and other natural fabrics
Watercolor blocks

How to choose the best quality paper for your art?

Choosing which paper to use will come down to trial and error, and what style and subjects you prefer.

Here are a few tips that will help determine the best paper for you;

  • Watercolor paper differs from manufacturer to manufacturer. Experiment not only with the different kinds of paper, hot, cold and rough press, but also with various brands of paper.
  • Watercolor paper is usually white, but not always. A variety of cool and warm tints may be worth a try to see if you like it over pure white.
  • Use 100% acid-free paper for paintings you wish to keep, as this type will yellow less with age.

What does sizing mean and should you do it?

Many artists soak or stretch their watercolor paper prior to painting. This is typically done on lighter-weight watercolor sheets to stop the paper from buckling when wet media is applied to the surface. When watercolor is added, the moisture causes the surface to expand slightly on the wet side.

What type of watercolor paper to avoid?

100% wood pulp papers! Try to avoid anything that doesn’t have at least 25% cotton because it’s going to respond poorly to water and will not hold-up well with many watercolor techniques like multiple washes, lifting, etc.

Also watch out for paper that’s too light-weight like 90 lb. press.It’s okay for quick studies but avoid it for finished work because it will buckle and breakdown easily.

What's the best watercolor paper for beginners?

The best paper for beginners comes in two categories. But first I need to explain why beginners need a lot of paper but should pass on premium options.

Beginners should focus the first three months on learning the basic fundamentals, understanding color, value and getting familiar with tools and materials. Yes, there will be opportunities to paint small studies but these are not intended to be award winning museum quality pieces. Again, get a lot of paper but try to avoid the bottom-of-the-barrel options and opt for some medium grade papers.

Fabriano Watercolor Fat Pad

Description: 100 sheets of 9 x 12 inch paper that’s 25% cotton. It’s in a wire-bound sketchbook so you can easily keep studies together for quick reference.

Price: $16.98

Blick Premium Sheets – 140 lb. cold press

Description: I would only suggest purchasing and using this quality paper when you are comfortable with the basics. It’s affordable watercolor paper that you can easily divide into smaller 11 x 15 sheets. This is the perfect size for smaller studies and more finished work when the time comes.

Price: $5.25 each

What's the best paper for experienced watercolorists and professionals?

The best paper for professionals comes in two categories. As you may know you need the everyday sketch pad for working out your color ideas and value studies. Then you need the quality paper where you can complete the finished art.

Fabriano Watercolor Fat Pad

Description: 100 sheets of 9 x 12 inch paper that’s 25% cotton. It’s in a wire-bound sketchbook so you can easily keep studies together for quick reference.

Price: $16.98

Blick Premium Sheets – 140 lb. cold press

Description: I would only suggest purchasing and using this quality paper when you are comfortable with the basics. It’s affordable watercolor paper that you can easily divide into smaller 11 x 15 sheets. This is the perfect size for smaller studies and more finished work when the time comes.

Price: $5.25 each

Saunders Waterford Watercolor Sheets – 140 lb. Cold Press (300 gsm)

Description: Professionals worldwide love this paper for its superb performance and resistance to distortion. It’s mouldmade of 100% cotton, Saunders Waterford is gelatin sized, and neutral pH. Each sheet has two natural deckles and two tear deckles. Saunders Waterford is endorsed by the prestigious Royal Watercolor Society of England.

Price: $8.40 each (bulk rate for 10+ $6.99 each)

Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Blocks, 9 x 12″ 140 lb. cold press, 20 sheets

Description: Manufactured to the highest standards of quality, this 100% cotton watercolor paper is externally and internally sized for balanced absorbency and superior resilience. Mouldmade, yet looks and feels handmade. Strong and stable, with a natural bright whiteness. 20-sheet blocks. 140 lb (300 gsm).

Price: $23.05 (US)

Best places to purchase watercolor paper online?

Hands down Blick Art! I’ve used them for over 12 years and they have never disappointed. They offer a wide range of products and the best prices available. Their customer support is not notch and quick to respond.

Many of my students outside the USA use Jackson’s art supply but I can’t personally vouch for them.

How to protect and store watercolor art on paper?

For finished art I would recommend shrink-wrapping using a study, and archival, foam-core backing. It’s the best solution to protect your art until you, or a collector, decides to frame it. It involves purchasing a shrink-wrapper, plastic film and foam0core but it’s well worth the investment should you decide to produce a lot of art.

Conclusion

Choosing the best watercolor paper depends a lot on your experience and overall goals. If you are new be sure to think long and hard about overspending. The best paper in the world isn’t going to fix the common issues beginners have so I highly recommend you don’t throw your money away until you become familiar with the techniques.

Experienced watercolorists have the luxury of knowing what to expect from the medium. Even still it’s common to make mistakes so you need a paper that will stand up to lifting and multiple washes. I’ve found that 140 lb. cold press works perfectly fine and I recommend avoiding heavier, and more expensive, paper unless you are doing four, or more washes.

My theory with buying watercolor supplies is to always get the best materials I can afford and avoid overspending on expensive name brands. There are so many fantastic quality materials out there and I see no need in having the most popular and trendy supplies.

I’m also a fan of being consistent with materials. It takes a long time to really understand brushes, paints and paper. So, I stick with what works and become more familiar with them over time.

I hope this article answered any questions you may have had about watercolor paper.

If I missed something please feel free to use the comments section below.

Best wishes on your watercolor journey and happy painting to you!

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