After hours of investment and hard work, is there anything more frustrating for a watercolor artist than your creation drying unevenly or your page buckling?
There’s no denying that watercolor art is a delicate and impressive skill to master, and therefore requires impressive levels of patience and a high degree of trust in the process.
If there’s one watercolor supply you shouldn’t overlook, it’s the importance of good watercolor paper. Too many sheets are inconsistent in weight, texture, and quality, which - when trying to create a watercolor masterpiece - is just no good!
So, what’s the solution? You need your watercolor paper to possess certain qualities that will enhance your artwork. To put it simply, a watercolor paper that can withstand multiple washes, be durable & non-yellowing, sufficiently weighted, and consistent in texture.
However, with so many different types of paper to choose from, picking the right one can become a little overwhelming, especially for beginners. So, to make things easier for you, we’ve done some of the hard work.
Below you’ll find a selection of five of the best watercolor paper products on the market. We’ve also put together a handy buyer’s guide to further remove any confusion when selecting the best product for you.
OUR TOP PICK
The XL Series Watercolor Pad from Canson is a fantastic option for all levels of watercolor artists.
The product features a cold press textured paper that works brilliantly for a variety of techniques: watercolor, acrylic, pen & ink, colored pencil, and pastel to name a few.
The pad features 30 sheets of 140lb student-quality paper, with the cold press surface able to withstand repeated washes.
While the heavyweight sheets make the Canson XL Watercolor Pad an attractive option to beginners and intermediate artists, the product is equally ideal for art students due to the number of watercolor and mixed-media techniques attainable on this paper.
The sheets are also acid-free meaning the likelihood of colors fading is reduced significantly so vibrant colors can retain their striking appeal.
It’s also a fairly inexpensive option too, so it’s ideal if you’d like to try it before committing to the brand, and it comes in a variety of sizes that make it perfect for painting a variety of scenes or portraits.
- Cold press textured paper - facilitates the use of a variety of techniques, not just watercolor (i.e. acrylic, pen & ink, marker, pencil, charcoal)
- Heavyweight sheets - ideal for beginning and intermediate watercolor artists
- Durable surface - can withstand repeated washes, therefore suitable for a variety of wet and dry techniques
- Acid-free - reduces the likelihood of colors fading
- Inexpensive - relatively cheap compared to other watercolor paper so a good option for those on a tight budget
- Poor absorption - pages have a tendency to bend and/or warp from water droplets leading to uneven drying patterns
If you’re looking for a high-end, slightly more expensive option then the Arches Watercolor Paper Pad is the perfect choice for you.
Simply, this product has the best quality control, with each sheet of paper subject to sophisticated testing and monitoring to assure the finest quality.
If that isn’t enough to impress you, each individual sheet is also tub-sized in a bath of pure natural gelatin and then air dried to add extra strength and durability.
In terms of production, the acid-free paper is crafted from one hundred percent cotton fibers, so it doesn’t bleed or warp during use.
Each pad contains 12 sheets, each weighing 140lbs and sized 9inch by 12-inch. There are also other sizes available if you’re painting something that requires a larger canvas.
The cold press finish has a light texture, therefore reflecting light well, as well as retaining the transparent quality of watercolors. A light grain also makes it easier to achieve certain, more intricate details.
- Light texture - reflects light well, retaining the transparent quality of watercolors
- Durability - each sheet is tub-sized in a bath of natural gelatin and then air dried to add additional strength and durability
- Production - crafted from one hundred percent cotton fibers, so it doesn’t bleed or warp
- Quality - the paper is closely monitored and tested, with every sheet individually inspected to ensure the finest quality
- Available in three sizes - perfect for capturing a variety of scenes
- Expensive - costs a little more than some other watercolor paper, so not the best choice for anyone working to a tight budget
This option is best suited for artists working at beginner to intermediate levels, with the easy to use thick heavyweight 140lb sheets ideal for large groups or classroom activities.
The pad is 9-inch by 12-inch and includes 50 sheets of sturdy paper, which is a lot more sheets than most other watercolor pads offer.
The paper is also uniform in texture and whiteness, which means it is suitable for wet and mixed media techniques. It's ideal for crafting, too.
This UCreate Watercolor Paper is also acid-free and recyclable, so if there are any mistakes made that you can’t recover from, you can add the paper to your recycling bin and reduce your carbon footprint.
An added, feel-good bonus with this watercolor paper is that it is used in Fresh Artists programs which benefit children in under resourced schools.
- Sturdy loose pages - uniform texture and whiteness making them ideal for wet and mixed media techniques
- Easy to use - heavyweight 140lb sheets great for large groups or classrooms working at beginner to intermediate levels
- Acid-free and recyclable - paper is used in Fresh Artists programs which benefit children in under resourced schools
- Basic quality - not the best option for those looking to use any advanced techniques with the paper liable to break apart
For those of you after versatile watercolor paper, the Arteza Expert Watercolor Pad could well be the answer to your wishes.
This paper is specifically optimized for both wet and dry media, meaning you can create with any medium of your choice.
The cold pressed sheets are dual-sided, with each thick and durable sheet having a smooth side as well as a textured side, enabling flexibility in your watercolor creations.
Another strong point for this product is the fact that each sheet of paper is glue-bound in the pad.
Too often masterpieces are ruined when removing them from a pad, but these sheets can be successfully removed without damage - even creating a smooth edge!
The Arteza Watercolor Pad is available with a range of sheet numbers (14, 32, 60, and 64), so it’s ideal for everyone from the occasional sketcher to the avid artists.
Regardless of how many sheets you choose, each of them is sized 9-inch by 12-inch and weighs 140lbs. The paper is also acid-free; quickly absorbing water and keeping your colors as vibrant as ever with no significant fading.
- Versatile - designed and optimized for both wet and dry media
- Dual-sided - each durable sheet of paper comes with a smooth side as well as a textured side, enabling flexibility in your watercolor creations
- Smooth edged - each sheet is glue-bound in the pad, creating a smooth edge when removed
- Acid-free - quick absorption of water keeps your paint looking vibrant
- Blending - paper has a tendency to bleed making it difficult to create precise details and achieve a clear wash
This option is particularly popular with watercolorists of all levels and experience due to the fine and consistently even washes that can be achieved on the Strathmore Watercolor paper.
The natural white color and traditional cold press surface of the sheets present a great opportunity for mastering a variety of watercolor techniques. The strong surface also allows lifting and scraping applications.
The pad contains 12 heavyweight 140lb sheets ideal for the creation of final art pieces by advanced artists and is sized 9-inch by 12-inch.
There are also various other paper sizes available from Strathmore that give you the versatility to create small and large works of art.
- Surface - strong surface that allows lifting and scraping applications
- Reliability - popular with watercolorists of all levels & experience because of the fine and consistently even washes that can be achieved
- Color - natural white color of sheets make them ideal for practicing and mastering watercolor techniques
- Texture - thick pages often give a gritty, odd texture to paintings
Best Watercolor Paper Buying Guide
When it comes to finding the best watercolor paper, there is a bit more to keep in mind than you might expect. This is especially true if you’re a professional artist who’s looking to create the best possible watercolors, or if your materials need to match your individual artistic needs.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the most important areas to focus on when choosing your ideal watercolor paper. Giving a little extra thought to these will help steer you towards the perfect option and save you both time and effort in the long run.
Cold Press Paper vs. Hot Press Paper
One of the most important considerations is whether to opt for cold press or hot press watercolor paper. To figure this out, it’s worth weighing up the pros and cons for each.
Cold-pressed paper is more textured, with small indentations and divots on the surface. The majority of watercolor artists use cold press paper because it is ideal for not only large areas of wash but also fine detail. It also absorbs water at a quicker rate than hot press paper, allowing you to blend and play with your colors.
On the other hand, hot-pressed watercolor paper has a fine-grained, smooth surface with almost no texture. Paint dries very quickly on it, making it ideal for large, even washes of one or two colors.
Despite this, hot press paper isn’t well suited for multiple layers or washes so therefore not a favorable option with most watercolor artists. Instead, hot-pressed paper lends itself better to drawing and for pen and ink wash.
Your watercolor paper will need to be sufficiently weighted in order to provide strength and durability. If the paper is too thin, it could be liable to break apart and buckle under different techniques. It also needs to be strong enough to stay in one piece when wet.
Paper weight is determined by two different methods. Firstly, by measuring a ream of 500 sheets (22 inches by 30 inches) in pounds, or secondly by measuring a single sheet in grams per square meter (gsm). Watercolor paper is considered light if it is anything less than 140 lb/300 gsm and heavy if it is 300-400 lb/600-850 gsm.
The standard machine weights are 90lb, 140lb, 260lb, and 300lb, with the amount of paint and water you’re planning to use influencing what weight you’ll need.
For instance, watercolor paper that’s 90lb is likely too thin for anything beyond practicing. Conversely, 300lb will be able to withstand a good few washes without falling apart or buckling out of shape.
The paper most commonly used by watercolor artists weighs 140lb. This is because it is reasonably thick, more durable, and can handle a decent amount of water and scrubbing.
As a general rule, thicker paper tends to absorb quicker too, so you don’t have to wait as long for your paints to dry before you add more detail to your piece.
If you intend to use a significant amount of water in your watercolor art, then it’s important to stretch your paper before starting. This helps to prevent the paper from warping.
If however, you are working on heavyweight and thicker paper, and do not intend to use large washes, then there is no requirement to stretch the paper beforehand. It’s worth noting though that the benefit of stretching your paper is the freedom to use as much water as you want with your watercolor art.
The stretching process involves soaking your chosen paper to expand its fibers, attaching it to a rigid board, and then allowing it to dry flat to become taut.
Again, weight is the thing to pay attention to here. Too light, and it will be more likely to tear when you’re stretching it. 140lbs is the magic number for stretching, but there’s no harm in going up to 300lbs.
When choosing your product it is useful to find out how it was made. Watercolor paper is usually made by one of three processes: handmade, mold-made, or machine-made.
Handmade and mold-made paper are both very durable, stable, and shouldn’t distort under heavy washes. They both also feature irregular surface textures which are easier and often more pleasing to paint on. If you wish to buy artists’ quality watercolor paper it is usually either manmade or mold made.
For student quality paper, it is typically machine-made. This paper is cheaper but can be prone to distortion and deterioration when wet. So, while machine-made paper is fine for practicing your watercolors on, it’s not the best choice if you’re a professional artist.
Even some of the very best watercolor paper manufacturers struggle to make a consistently flawless product. It’s worth keeping in mind that if a paper you’ve used and loved for years all of a sudden starts behaving differently, it’s likely that the paper is at fault, not you.
Watercolor paper can vary from batch to batch - even sometimes within a batch. It could be that something has gone wrong during the manufacturing or delivery process, or sometimes ingredients are changed without public notice. Any of these factors can result in variations to the final product, even from sheet to sheet.
Noticing these changes is easier for those who are accustomed to a particular paper. It’s worth noting, however, that if your go-to paper suddenly loses its touch, most manufacturers and retail establishments will happily work with you on an exchange or refund.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long should I soak my watercolor paper for when stretching?
For this one, the length of time you should soak your watercolor paper will ultimately depend on the weight of the paper.
It is recommended that 90lb paper should be left for 3 minutes, 140lb should be left for 8 minutes, and really heavyweight papers like 300lb should be left for around 20 minutes.
Which side of my watercolor paper should I paint on?
It’s widely accepted that the correct side of the watercolor paper to paint on is the side where the watermark is eligible. This side will be the ‘felt side’ and should have significantly more texture in contrast to the reverse side.
However, many people challenge this notion and use whichever side they prefer. It’s a divisive one!
What is the difference between a watercolor paper pad and a block?
The main difference is that a pad will only be bound at one edge. A block, on the other hand, is glued at all four edges, removing the need for stretching your paper.
It must be noted that using a block shouldn’t be considered a substitute for stretching, as the paper could still cockle if particularly wet washes are being applied.