Watercolor paper is the most crucial supply, right? When you’re just starting with watercolors, almost everyone will tell you that choosing the right paper can make the biggest difference in your painting experience.
However, there are so many brands and types out there, that choosing can get extremely overwhelming. I mean how do you know what paper is the right one to buy?
In this post, I go over the different features of watercolor paper including the benefits and reasoning behind each. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you’ll have an idea of which paper may be best suited to your painting preferences or an idea of which watercolor paper to buy.
Please note: This article may contain affiliate links. If you choose to purchase something I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you! You can learn more by reading the full disclosure here.
Watercolor paper features
Choosing watercolor paper can depend on the following factors: Quality, Surface types, Weight, Materials used, production methods, acidity, form, and color. If it sounds overwhelming, just stick with me as I will explain what each one is and what you should worry about as a beginner.
Watercolor paper comes in artists/professional quality or student quality paper.
Artists’ quality paper tends to be more expensive, higher in quality, and usually made with cotton fibers (more on this later…)
Student quality paper tends to be more affordable, and much lower in quality. There are different levels of quality and it depends on certain factors such as manufacturing methods, and ingredients. If you keep reading I explain these further.
You can start by buying watercolor paper that is student quality, as you become more experienced you can upgrade to professional watercolor paper.
Watercolor paper is made with a certain bumpy texture (image below). There are different levels of this. Hot pressed, Cold pressed, and rough.
- Hot pressed- Hot pressed paper is the smoothest of all three
- Cold pressed (also called “Not” paper)- In between rough and hot-pressed, ideal for beginners
- Rough- Bumpiest texture
The table below compares the different surface types and their ideal usage:
|Hot press paper||Rough paper||Cold pressed paper|
|Texture||Smooth surface||Bumpy rough surface||Medium texture (in between rough and hot press paper)|
|Ideal usage||Used for carefully detailed work, watercolor work combining ink and watercolor.|
Used to create botanicals, and delicate illustrations.
|Used for bold expressive work that includes dry brush technique and washes.|
Mostly used to create landscape paintings.
|Ideal for paintings with both large washes and delicate detail.|
Can be used for landscape painting as well as ink and watercolor
|Absorbency||Least absorbent- this means the wash will take more time to dry giving you more control.||Most absorbent- This means you have less time to adjust the paint before it dries.||Slightly less absorbent than hot press- enough time to adjust the wash.|
*Beginner’s TIP: I would recommend starting with cold-pressed paper, this way you can practice various techniques as well as semi-detailed work. As you become more experienced you can always move to rough or hot pressed.
Watercolor paper comes in different levels of thickness, the thicker the paper the more expensive and better quality it will be. The thickness is usually determined by the weight of the paper (you can usually read this on the packaging).
The weight of the paper is measured by either lb (pounds per ream) or gsm (grams per square meter).
*Note-the heavier the paper, the more washes it can handle. If you’re planning on creating pieces with big washes and using wet-in-wet techniques you may want to opt for 300gsm paper or higher.
Some weights you may come accross are:
- 90lb /185gsm
- 140lb /300gsm
- 156lb /356gsm
- 260lb /356gsm
- 300lb /640gsm
You’ll probably want to stretch any paper lighter than 260lbs (356gsm). If you are a beginner I would recommend starting with 140lb (300gsm) watercolor paper. You can however use 90lb paper to try out rough ideas and sketches rather than using it for actual practice.
Remember, the quality of the paper makes a huge difference in the experience of your learning process. If you use paper that is very cheap in quality, then you’re likely to struggle a lot more.
Generally, paper is made from a mixture of water and cellulose fibers. Cellulose is a substance found in cell walls, that make up the leaves and stems of plants. To make watercolor paper, cellulose is extracted from cotton, linen, or wood pulp.
Cellulose (Wood pulp)
Paper made from wood pulp tends to be less absorbent and lower in quality than cotton paper. It makes up most of the machine-made student paper and is ideal for basic sketching and beginners.
The highest quality paper is usually made from 100% cotton, this is the paper that professional artists opt for. Naturally, this makes Cotton paper the most expensive out of all three.
Cotton Linters: These are long silky fibers that are extracted during the process of separating the cotton from the seeds.
Cotton Rag: Paper made from cotton that comes from recycled textiles. The fibers are much longer, which makes the paper more durable than paper made from cotton linters.
Linen Rag: Made from the flax plant, linen rag fibers are longer than wood and cotton, making them much harder to tear. Linen rag paper is especially ideal for professional watercolorists.
Watercolor paper is also made with a mixture of different materials, for example:
Wood pulp + Cotton Linters: The cotton linters make the paper more durable and absorbent while still being affordable.
Cotton + linen rag: The addition of linen rag makes the paper more durable and flexible because of its long fibers.
You can normally find this information on the company’s website or on the package itself.
There are three main manufacturing methods to make watercolor paper: Hand made paper, Mould made paper, and machine-made.
Hand made paper:
Hand-made paper is rare to come across. Most handmade paper is made using 100% cotton and therefore tends to be of very high quality. In fact, hand-made paper tends to carry a certain texture that cannot be replicated using mould-made or machine-made paper.
Artists desire this paper because it is very durable and can withstand lots of washes and techniques such as scrubbing and lifting wearing the paper. Hand-made paper tends to be very expensive compared to mould-made and machine-made paper.
Mould-made paper is made using a cylinder mould that compresses the pulp mixture resulting in textured watercolor paper. In terms of quality, mould made paper is probably the closest to hand-made paper. Some artists argue that they prefer mould-made paper because the paper’s texture is replicated to be the same with each batch.
Mould-made paper is usually preferred over machine-made paper, mostly because of its higher quality and better outcome in final pieces.
Machine made paper is of lower quality than mould made and hand made paper. This paper has a tendency to buckle and warp more than mould and hand made paper. It also tends to deteriorate a lot more easily over time. Machine made paper is used in creating student quality paper and can be suited to rough sketches.
*Beginner tip: as a beginner, I would opt for mould-made paper to practice watercolor techniques and learn how paint acts on the paper…etc However you can also purchase some machine-made paper to create rough sketches and ideas you’ll want to further develop on another paper.
During paper production, the wood pulp mixture goes through a process called bleaching, this is where the paper becomes white. For normal paper, the bleaching process includes certain acidic ingredients. Because of this, the paper will begin to yellow over time and break down due to chemical changes and reactions. A good example of this would be looking at some old newspapers that have turned yellow.
However, watercolor paper is made “acid-free” and because of this, finished original paintings last much longer. Not to mention, some pigments have been known to react with acidic papers changing the color over a certain amount of time.
So ALWAYS go for acid free paper when buying watercolor paper.
You can buy watercolor paper in different forms: sheets, pads, blocks, rolls…etc
Watercolor sheets and rolls-You can buy watercolor paper in the form of single sheets which come in one pack or you can purchase a roll of watercolor paper that you can then cut into smaller pages to paint on.
Blocks– Watercolor blocks come with all four sides of the paper glued to the paper underneath. This is handy if you prefer not to stretch the paper. You can paint on the top page then use a palette knife to separate it and paint on the next page.
Pads– Watercolor pads come with the top side of the pages glued, you can then pull out single pages. Most watercolor pads consist of student-grade paper, so it is best to keep an eye out on whether or not it is acid-free or 100% cotton if that’s what you’re looking for.
Watercolor journals/sketchbooks– Most artists use journals and sketchbooks when they want something they can carry with them on the go. Another reason is also to track their progress and develop ideas for a new painting.
Check out this post which lists 10 different sketchbook recomendations and what to look for when buying one.
*Note-All in all it depends on the artist’s preferences, If you’re not sure which one to go with you can always start with watercolor pads and then explore different options later on.
Watercolor paper comes in different tints of white, they are Natural white, extra white, bright white, and absolute white. You may notice a slight creaminess or a cool blue tint on the paper. Experienced artists often keep an eye on this because the tint of the paper can make a slight difference in the overall tone of the painting.
*NOTE- As a beginner, I wouldn’t worry too much about this for now. It does not make much of a difference when you’re just starting out.
Watercolor paper recommendations
Student grade paper
Below I have listed a few recommendations of student-grade watercolor paper:
Canson Artist series watercolor book:
According to their website, Canson was founded in 1557 in Annonay, France. This watercolor journal comes with 20 cold-pressed, acid-free pages. At 12 x 9 inches (22.9 x 30.5cm) with paper that is 140lb/ 300gsm in weight, it is perfect for beginners to develop their skills.
Strathmore 300 Series Student Watercolor Pads
The Strathmore 300 series watercolor pads are specially designed for beginners. Each watercolor pad comes with 12 Acid-free cold-pressed sheets, and 140 lb/ 300gsm weighted paper. This makes the Strathmore 300 series watercolor pads an ideal choice for beginners. Depending on your personal preferences, you can choose from three different sizes (9 x 12inches, 11 x 15inches, and 18 x 24inches).
Canson Montval Watercolor pads:
Each Montval watercolor pad comes with 12 acid-free sheets weighed at 140lb/300gsm. There are 5 available sizes ranging from 5.5×8.5 inches- 18 x24 inches. Better performance than Canson XL paper, this paper is more durable yet still affordable.
Canson XL watercolor pads:
If you’re looking for cheaper options for sketching rough ideas then Canson XL watercolor pads are the way to go!
Each pad comes with 30 cold-pressed, acid-free sheets of paper weighed at 140 lb/ 300gsm. Canson XL paper is less durable than Canson Montval but it provides you with more size options and sheets per pad. There are 6 available sizes ranging from 7×10 inches to 18×24 inches.
Professional grade paper
I have recomended good quality professional grade paper that is 100% cotton in form of pads. blocks, sheets and rolls:
Arches watercolor Pads
It is no surprise that Arches is the first option on this list. Arches have been making paper since 1492 in the Vosges region of France. Arches paper is known for its durability, heavy water absorption capacity, and overall high quality. Their paper is ideal for professional artists.
Their watercolor Pads come with 12 sheets made from 100% pure cotton (cotton linters) at 140 lb/ 300 gsm in weight. You can get hot-pressed, cold-pressed, or rough paper and each comes in three different sizes to choose from 9×12 inches; 10×14 inches; and 11.7×16.5 inches.
Arches watercolor blocks:
Arches watercolor blocks feature 20 natural-white sheets for every 140lb/300gsm block and 10 sheets for the 300lb/640gsm block. Each paper is also made with 100% cotton, acid-free paper. Arches also provides a huge selection of sizes, and surfaces compared to other brands.
Arches watercolor sheets
A great alternative to blocks and pads is watercolor Arches sheets for a more flexible option. The sheets are 100% pure cotton, acid-free, mold-made, and available in cold-pressed, hot-pressed, and rough surfaces. You can opt for 140lb/300gsm weighted paper or 300lb/640gsm with sizes ranging between 16×20 inches- 22×30 inches.
Strathmore 400 series Watercolor paper pads
Strathmore has been producing paper since 1892, their stathmore 400 series watercolor pads known for being able to handle lifting and scraping techniques. Each pad includes 12, Acid free, heavyweight 140lb/ 300gsm sheets. The cellulose makes this paper a more affordable option. There are also plenty of sizes and shapes to choose from depending on your personal tastes!
Saunders Waterford Watercolor Blocks
Each block has 20 acid-free, 100% cotton sheets weighed at 140lb/300gsm so it can handle many washes. These watercolor blocks also come in 4 different sizes ranging between 7 x 10 and 12 x 16. Many reviews say the Saunders Waterford paper comes close in quality when compared to Arches paper.
Fabriano sheets and rolls
Fabriano sheets and rolls are Acid-free and 100% cotton. You have the option of purchasing hot-pressed, cold-pressed, or rough. They are also available in three different weights 90lb/200gsm, 140lb/300gsm, and 300lb/640gsm.
We have come to the end of this post! I hope you found this information helpful and if so, be sure to sign up for my newsletter to receive free watercolor painting resources!
Remember… don’t stress too much about which paper to buy as a beginner. With time and practice, you’ll gain more experience and learn what your personal preferences are!