hoosing the watercolor paper that best suits your artistic style can be difficult as there is a wide variety available on the market. Watercolor paper can differ in terms of quality, surface, and packaging. Your artistic requirements are unique, and to choose the best watercolor paper to meet these needs, you need to know what you are looking for. In this article, we break down the different kinds of watercolor paper available to help you choose the right one for you.
Table of Content
- 1 What is Watercolor Paper?
- 2 Buying Watercolor Paper: What to Look for
- 3 Best Watercolor Paper Recommendations
- 3.1 Best Student-Grade Watercolor Paper: CANSON XL Series
- 3.2 A Good All-Round Paper: CANSON Montval Watercolor Paper Pad
- 3.3 Best Value-for-Money: ARTEZA Expert Watercolor Pad
- 3.4 The Best Watercolor Paper for Beginners: BEE Watercolor Paper Pad
- 3.5 Top-Quality Watercolor Paper: STRATHMORE 400 Series Watercolor
- 4 Tips for Buying Watercolor Paper
- 5 Frequently Asked Questions
What is Watercolor Paper?
Watercolor is a medium that, as the name suggests, involves a significant amount of water. Because watercolor paints are diluted in a lot of water, they require a special paper that can hold up to this. This is why the best watercolor paper is needed for this art style. Watercolor paper is thicker and more durable than regular paper. It should also be acid-free. You get various different watercolor paper textures and thickness options.
Buying Watercolor Paper: What to Look for
Different watercolor papers vary in their quality, price, thickness, weight, texture, and packaging. The details of your art project will determine which qualities you want from your paper.
As with all things in life, you tend to get what you pay for with watercolor paper. Like many other art supplies, you can get a high-grade, professional quality watercolor paper and more affordable but lower quality paper. The quality of your paper influences the application of the paint. Broadly, there are two levels of watercolor paper quality; student grade and professional (or artist) grade. Artist-grade watercolor paper is more painstaking to produce, and this accounts for the price and quality.
Student-grade watercolor paper, on the other hand, is much more affordable to produce and purchase. If you are new to watercolor painting, we recommend starting with a student-grade watercolor paper. The quality is still acceptable, but you will be able to practice and experiment with new techniques without feeling like you are throwing money down the drain.
The Manufacturing Process: Who, or What is Making the Paper
There are three distinct ways to manufacture watercolor paper; hand-made, mold-made, or machine-made. Unsurprisingly, the manufacturing process also affects the watercolor paper texture, so it is an important consideration.
Hand-made paper is incredibly strong, thanks to the random dispersal of fibers. You can usually identify hand-made watercolor paper by the naturally deckled edges. The mold-made watercolor paper shares two naturally deckled edges with hand-made paper, but the other two sides are straight-edged. The fibers in mold-made watercolor paper are also randomly dispersed, but the paper does not have the same strength as hand-made varieties.
Finally, the machine-made watercolor paper has cut edges and fibers that lie in the same direction. For this reason, machine-made watercolor papers are not as strong as either hand or mold-made paper. Occasionally a machine-made watercolor paper will have artificial deckled edges to give it a more authentic appeal. Often machine-manufactured watercolor paper is more affordable because it is less labor-intensive and faster.
Formulation: What the Watercolor Paper is Made of
Typically, wood pulp is the basis of student-grade watercolor paper. This material can deteriorate over time. In contrast, artist-grade watercolor paper, typically mold-made, is 100% cotton-based, pH neutral, and acid-free. These top-quality papers do not degrade or yellow over time.
When choosing which quality of paper to use, it is always in your best interest to buy the best you can afford. Budget-friendly options are great for experimentation and practice, but if you want to create a true masterpiece, it is in your best interest to splurge a little and use a medium that lets you admire your masterpiece well into the future.
Best Watercolor Paper Recommendations
After much trial and error and experimentation, we have compiled a shortlist of our favorite watercolor papers. This list contains different types of watercolor paper suited to different skillsets and artistic requirements.
Best Student-Grade Watercolor Paper: CANSON XL Series
The Canson XL Series is a pad containing 30 sheets of high-quality, cold-pressed, and affordable watercolor paper. The paper has a thickness grade of 140lb (300 gsm), with dimensions of 11 by 15 inches. If you are on a tight budget, you can easily divide these large sheets, although they will likely require some stretching.
The Canson watercolor paper millers company has been in business since the 16th Century and is renowned for its excellent products. This experience translates into a watercolor paper that is excellent for hobbyists or students. Canson watercolor paper is designed by professors of art who test the paper sheets with various mediums. This is arguably the best watercolor paper for beginners.
Although this Canson watercolor paper is labeled cold press, the texture lies somewhere between a cold and hot press in terms of its finished surface. The surface of Canson watercolor paper is smoother than what you might expect from a cold press. The smooth texture offers an advantage in that it supports both fine lines and paint well. The range is also acid-free, meaning that it extends the life of your artwork for many years by receiving colors well and showing little signs of fading.
A Good All-Round Paper: CANSON Montval Watercolor Paper Pad
If you are looking for an affordable and slightly smaller sheet of watercolor paper, we recommend trying the artist series Canson watercolor paper. This student-grade watercolor paper comes in a pad of 20 sheets. The weight of this Canson watercolor paper is 140 lb (300 gsm). At nine by twelve inches, the artist series is slightly smaller than the XL series, ideal for small or medium-scale works.
The paper is acid-free and contains mostly cotton and some wood pulp. Watercolor paintings on this paper should show no discoloration or degradation a few years down the line. This watercolor paper is mold-made and cold-pressed with an even grain. If you buy this watercolor paper, you can expect a high-quality product with some surface texture. A useful feature of this paper is that it is also microperforated. As a result, the watercolor paper will resist pilling or bleeding and will absorb water very efficiently.
The Canson watercolor paper is robust and can withstand multiple washes, scraping, and erasing. As such, it is perfect for artists getting to grips with watercolor painting. Additionally, it responds excellently to wet media. In summary, this watercolor is an excellent choice for painters looking for an affordable yet well designed and tested medium. The Canson Artist Series is one of the best premium-quality ranges of practice paper available on the market. This watercolor paper is ideal for those with a tight budget looking for a quality product.
Best Value-for-Money: ARTEZA Expert Watercolor Pad
This range of watercolor paper offers a high-quality product that is easy on the pocket. There are 32 sheets of 140 lb (300 gsm) grade paper in both unbound packs, meaning that you get a total of 64 sheets for a very reasonable price.
One major advantage of this range of watercolor paper is its 100% cotton make-up. The watercolor paper is free from wood pulp and acid and will not degrade, discolor, or cause your beautiful artworks to fade over time. This premium feature comes as a surprise given the low price of the product. This range of watercolor paper makes good quality watercolor paper accessible to a wide range of people.
The paper is cold-pressed with a uniform grain, giving it a slightly smooth yet textured finish. Paint application is easy, and the absorption rate is moderate. As a result, this watercolor paper is forgiving to swift corrections of small errors. The ARTZERA range is at the top of the budget-friendly list of watercolor papers yet still manages to offer a premium quality product.
The Best Watercolor Paper for Beginners: BEE Watercolor Paper Pad
This range of watercolor paper measures in at a smaller six by nine inches, making it best suited to smaller pieces of work perhaps intended for sketchbooks. This watercolor paper comes in a pack of 50 unbound sheets graded at 140 lb (300 gsm), so it falls well within the watercolor grade paper while being easy on your bank account.
Artists have compared this paper to that of popular brands such as Arches. This comparison is likely due to its 100% cotton make-up. This watercolor paper is affordable and acid-free. Paintings on this paper will showcase colors vividly for years without discoloring. As a result of the cotton-construction, this watercolor paper is resistant to buckling and deterioration. If a smaller sized watercolor paper that is budget-friendly, yet high quality, is what you are looking for, Bee Paper should be your first choice.
Top-Quality Watercolor Paper: STRATHMORE 400 Series Watercolor
The Strathmore 400 watercolor series offers high-quality watercolor paper for advanced artists. With a weight of 140 lb (300 gsm) and dimensions of nine by twelve inches, this pad of 12 sheets of cold-pressed watercolor paper is an excellent choice for beginners and advanced artists alike. The Strathmore sketchbook protects the watercolor paper and artwork inside with a durable brown cover.
Many artists love this range of paper because it is so robust. The watercolor paper can handle very heavy washes of paint and water. If you struggle with buckling your watercolor paper as you apply a lot of moisture in your creative process, then this series of watercolor paper is well suited to you. A bonus is the paper’s compatibility with many paints and brushes, making it versatile and easy to use.
The durable surface allows for lifting and scraping. The Strathmore 400 series of watercolor paper is acid-free and brilliant white color. We recommend this watercolor paper to any artist, whether you are mastering watercolor techniques or producing pieces of fine art.
Tips for Buying Watercolor Paper
Of course, it is unlikely that most beginners can afford to buy the highest quality paper when they start. In these cases, we recommend using a cheaper, cellulose-based student grade paper. Although the watercolor paper may yellow with time, these will likely not be your finest works.
We do, however, recommend that you do not buy the cheapest paper on the market. Try starting with a higher quality student paper with a similar texture to the more professional watercolor papers. This way, you will become accustomed to how the paint applies to this paper, and you will not have to relearn your techniques at a later stage.
If you are on a tight budget, there are several habits you can get into to save yourself some money. Try using the backside of pre-loved pieces, or you can wash away practice paints. Although tricky, you can remove most of the watercolor paint by running it under a tap or soaking it in water and then drying it on a flat surface. It is easiest to wash away paint from higher quality papers. Alternatively, you can make a roll of artist-grade paper last for longer by using it sparingly. Cut off smaller pieces to practice your skills, rather than a whole page.
Weight and Thickness of Watercolor Paper
We measure the thickness of watercolor paper by weight. Watercolor paperweight is typically measured in pound per ream (lb). Depending on where you live, the thickness may also be measured by grams per square meter (gsm). Standardized watercolor paperweights are 300 lb (638 gsm), 260 lb (356 gsm), 140 lb (300 gsm), and 90 lb (190 gsm).
The thickness you need depends on your style of painting. The wetter you make the paper, the more likely it is to buckle when you paint. Thicker watercolor paper tends to be more robust when applying lots of moisture and can withstand more abuse, layers of glaze, and washes.
You will need to stretch the thinner paper to prevent warping or buckling in response to the water. It is good to experiment with different thicknesses and find one that suits your style and budget, but we have found that paper less than 260 lb requires stretching.
The Packaging of Watercolor Paper
You can buy the machine and mold-made watercolor paper in pads, packs, blocks, rolls, or single sheets. Hand-made watercolor paper is more exclusive, and you generally buy it in single sheets. Pads are stacks of watercolor paper bound together using glue on only one side. If you purchase your watercolor paper in a pad, you will need to remove each sheet from the stack and tape it to your work surface before painting. This technique will prevent your watercolor paper from buckling. Pads have the added benefit of being cheaper as they require more work and are therefore best suited for practice pieces and beginners.
When the watercolor sheets are bound with glue on all four sides, this is a block. Watercolor paper in this form has been pre-stretched for convenience. When you purchase a block, you can paint on it and remove the top sheet of watercolor paper using a mail opener or palette knife. Blocks of watercolor paper offer stability and security, which you can only achieve by taping down the paper purchased in other forms. Blocks of watercolor paper are best suited for larger paintings as the accompanying stability prevents unwanted buckling.
The Different Textures of Watercolor Paper
The texture of your watercolor paper will directly impact the quality of your painting. Each type of paper texture offers benefits and disadvantages, so you need to consider what you require for your unique project. Broadly, watercolor paper made using molds or machines is available in three surface textures: hot-pressed, rough, and cold-pressed.
Hot-Pressed Watercolor Paper
The hot-pressed paper has the smoothest texture that is like drawing paper. The surface barely has any tooth and has a fine grain. Paint tends to dry more slowly on hot-pressed watercolor paper, making it easier to fix errors or adjust your design and colors.
The color of your paint tends to be more vivid on hot-pressed paper as it sits on the surface, rather than being drawn deeper into the substance of the watercolor paper. The lack of absorption deep into the fabric does have some disadvantages. Your artwork is unlikely to last as long on hot-pressed watercolor paper, and it may fade over time.
Hot-pressed watercolor paper is best suited for drawing, inking, detailed line work, and washes of a couple of colors. Be careful with using too many layers of wash on hot-pressed watercolor paper, however, as too much paint on the surface can become muddy very quickly. The hot-pressed watercolor paper also displays little texture, which may be undesirable depending on what you are trying to achieve with your piece of work.
Rough-Textured Watercolor Paper
The texture of the rough watercolor paper is exactly as the name describes. The surface of the rough watercolor paper is rough and soft textured with large grooves and bumps. Due to the bumpy surface, water can pool in the indentations creating a speckled and grainy effect. Watercolor paintings on rough textured paper have a highly textured finish. This finish is not always desirable, so it is best to consider whether this is what you want before buying rough-textured watercolor paper.
It can be challenging to control brush marks on rough-textured paper, and the soft surface means that it absorbs water quickly. As a result, your paint will dry quickly and penetrate deeply into the substance of the paper. As such, this type of watercolor paper is unforgiving when attempting to correct mistakes and is best suited to more advanced artists.
Cold-Pressed Watercolor Paper
In contrast to the above two, the cold-pressed paper offers a happy medium in terms of texture and tooth. The surface of cold-pressed watercolor paper is soft and spongy, with little bumps and grooves of texture. Paint quickly gets absorbed deep into the substance of the watercolor paper. As a result, cold-pressed watercolor paper tends to retain pigment longer. The colors will not be as vivid on cold-pressed paper because of this increased absorption. While cold-pressed paper offers more time to make adjustments than rough-textured watercolor paper, you do still need to work swiftly.
The more refined surface of cold-pressed watercolor paper allows you to create fine details and large washes with the benefit of substantial texture. These qualities make it a popular choice for beginner and professional artists using watercolor.
We recommend that you always keep your project in mind when choosing the texture of your watercolor paper. Each type of paper texture is better suited to different desired effects, artistic styles, longevity, and individual skillsets.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Watercolor Paper Made of?
The ingredients in watercolor paper depend on the quality. Top-quality brands of watercolor paper are typically made of 100% cotton. The watercolor paper of lower quality often uses wood pulp. Most middle-range brands of watercolor paper use a combination of cotton and wood pulp.
What Makes Watercolor Paper so Expensive?
The expense related to high-quality watercolor paper is due to the ingredients and the time taken to produce it. Many of the best brands of watercolor paper are made by hand using cotton. You can buy cheaper watercolor paper, but, if you are serious about watercolor painting it is always best to buy quality.
Must You Wet Watercolor Paper Before Painting?
Whether you wet your paper before painting depends on the techniques you are using. Wet on wet painting can produce some stunning effects. We always suggest wetting and stretching your paper before painting to prevent buckling and tearing.
Which Side of Watercolor Paper Should you use?
Depending on the brand of watercolor paper you use, one side may be slightly smoother than the other. If you want to include a lot of detail in your painting, we suggest using the smoother side. If you want to build up a lot of washes, it is best to use the rougher side.
How Do You Flatten Buckled Watercolor paper?
Do not panic if your painting has buckled. You can place your painting on a larger piece of sketch paper on a clean surface and gently mist the back of the paper. Be careful not to make the paper too wet.
To become a great watercolor artists, you will need to have the right paper. Having the best watercolor paper makes a huge difference in the painting process and outcome of the results. We hope you now know what to look for and are ready to start painting!