Which watercolor paper is best?

Watercolor paints are a beautiful medium that fills any composition with light. They’re easy to clean and require no additional toxic chemicals to use. This makes them popular among beginner and master painters alike. But to paint with these water-based paints, you will need the right paper. You can’t just use any paper with these special paints. 

Whether you’re planning a fun weekend of arts and crafts or capturing scenic vistas as a fine artist, you’ll need a heavy-pressed paper that can absorb the paints without coming apart. No matter your goals, one of the best watercolor paper picks is Fabriano Studio Cold Press Watercolor Pad.

What to know before you buy watercolor paper

What is watercolor paper?

Watercolor paper is a special kind of paper made to absorb water and pigment without buckling or tearing apart. This is due to its material composition and thickness. Unlike fine printer papers, watercolor paper is made from cotton and cellulose pulp. During production, watercolor paper is pressed together through metal rollers, which gives the paper its classic, toothy texture and super-absorbent quality.

How to use watercolor paper

Watercolor paper can be used loosely or right off the pad or block without special preparation. The thicker the paper, the easier it is to paint on directly. Work methodically, however, as watercolor paper can still bend and buckle if you use too much water. If you want a perfectly flat painting, you’ll need to stretch your watercolor paper. 

To do this, lay your paper down on a masonite clipboard or wooden surface. Dab it with a soaked sponge until it’s completely saturated and clinging to the surface.

paper tape

Then, using paper tape, seal the sides all the way around and let the paper dry before painting. The tape will hold it taught and flat while you paint, no matter how much water you use. 

What you need to paint

Painting with watercolors is great because you don’t need much to get started. This makes it the perfect medium for making art outdoors.

palette

You’ll need a palette and brushes to start, as well as a cup for your water. For paints, you can either use hard watercolors or tubes of paint. And a box or pochade box for all your supplies will help keep you organized. 

masking fluid

If you want to play around a bit, try salt for cool effects, masking fluid to prevent certain page areas from taking color and a miniature sponge or paper towels for blotting.

What to look for in a quality watercolor paper

Press

Watercolor paper is pressed in three ways. This determines its texture and how the paper interacts with the paint: 

  • Cold: Super absorbent, cold-pressed paper has a toothy texture. Artists love this paper for its heft and how the visible pulp scatters light in their paintings. With cold-press paper, make sure you let it fully dry between washes as you can start to pull away the pulp, especially if you’re lifting using a sponge or paper towel. 
  • Hot: Unlike other watercolor presses, hot-press paper is completely smooth. This means the colors are much brighter on the page. It’s less porous, so you have more time to work with the wet paint before it dries. You can also lift more without pulling away pulp. 
  • Rough: Taking tooth to the max, rough paper is pressed through felt, which creates its super pulpy texture. This paper is great for impressionistic painting. Because the surface is so uneven, pigment doesn’t stain evenly, leading to interesting pockets of color. 

Weight

Watercolor paper is labeled with a weight rating. This is how much that paper weighs per 500 sheets. The heavier the paper, the better it will hold up to repeated soaking. GSM is a similar rating that describes how many grams of fiber and pulp per square meter. The higher this number, the thicker and more durable your paper is. 

  • 90 pounds: This is the baseline weight of watercolor paper. It can’t stand up to too much water, but it’s the cheapest, making it great for arts-and-crafts activities and less-precious watercolor sketches.
  • 140 pounds: The most common weight found in popular watercolor-paper brands, this paper can handle most watercolor techniques and painting styles without coming apart.
  • 300 pounds: The heaviest of them all, 300-pound paper often doesn’t even need stretching because it’s so heavy. You can really soak it and beat on it with all kinds of techniques without worry. 

Loose vs. pad vs. block

Watercolor paper is commonly sold in three forms. Which you choose should be determined by your ability, how and where you intend to paint and your budget.

  • Loose: Loose paper is often the most expensive option. This kind is popular among artists who want special brands, weights and sizes. With loose sheets, unless the paper is heavy enough, you have to stretch it. That said, many affordable brands also offer loose paper if you want to try your hand at stretching. 
  • Pad: Perfect for beginners and artists who like to paint plein-air, pads of watercolor paper are convenient on a budget. They come in a variety of sizes and weights and don’t require stretching.
  • Block: Watercolor blocks are a great way to ensure your paper stays flat without having to stretch it. These pre-stretched paper pads have glue on the side so that the sheets of paper form a rigid block. When you finish your painting, you pull the sheet up by inserting a letter-opener or palette knife into a small area of unglued, exposed edge. Blocks are great for pristine compositions on the go. 

How much you can expect to spend on watercolor paper

Watercolor paper prices depend on the size and quality of the paper. A budget option of 90-pound paper will range between $10-$30. Nicer pads and blocks can be anywhere from $30-$90. And loose leaves of 300-pound, high-quality paper can be up to $4-$10 per sheet.

Watercolor paper FAQ

What size should I use?

A. Nine by 12 inches is a common starting point for watercolor artists and hobbyists. This size is also easy to transport. If you want to go bigger, you’ll have to pay more. As the watercolor paper gets larger, it becomes more difficult to stretch and carry around. You’ll also need more paint to create your composition.

What’s the trick to watercolor painting?

A. Watercolor art is all about light. Because the paint is so transparent, the white of the paper behind shines through the pigment. For this reason, you always want to paint from light to dark. You can also use this to your advantage by leaving the raw, unpainted paper for the brightest highlights in your composition to really get your subject to pop.

What’s the best watercolor paper to buy?

Top watercolor paper

Fabriano Studio Cold Press Watercolor Pad

Fabriano Studio Cold Press Watercolor Pad

What you need to know: Fabriano makes excellent papers for experienced and beginner artists alike.

What you’ll love: Also available in a hot press pad, the Fabriano cold press pad comes with 50 sheets. That gives you a lot of room to learn or fire off quick compositions on the go. The 11- by 14-inch scale gives you a little more room to work than standard sizes without sacrificing portability. And at 140 pounds, this paper can stand up to most techniques, especially if you remove it and stretch it individually.

What you should consider: The cotton content of this paper isn’t as high as others, so it doesn’t hold up as well with heavy wet-on-wet painting techniques

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Top watercolor paper for the money

Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper Pad for Paint 

Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper Pad for Paint 

What you need to know: Canson paper is best suited for beginners, hobbyists and artists rifling off sketches. 

What you’ll love: Known for producing multi-media paper of all sizes, Canson doesn’t break the bank so you can go big and experiment. Their XL series is great because you get the weight and quality of 140-pound paper at an affordable rate, even with their largest pads. This 11- by 15-inch pad comes with 30 sheets and has a cold-press texture. 

What you should consider: If you’re hoping to paint pristine compositions, Canson paper won’t hold up to lots of water or vigorous techniques.

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

Worth checking out

Arches Watercolor Paper Block

Arches Watercolor Paper Block

What you need to know: One of the most reputable brands in watercolor paper, Arches is loved by fine artists for their superior-quality watercolor paper.

What you’ll love: Available in hot, cold and rough presses, these gorgeous and iconic blocks will yield you a perfectly flat composition every time. They’re pressed at 140 pounds, but unlike other papers, the high cotton content means you don’t have to worry about disintegration under intense soaking. 

What you should consider: Premium paper comes at a cost, and Arches paper gets expensive quickly, especially as you go bigger. 

Where to buy: Sold by Amazon

 

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Karl Daum writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.

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