When you’re ready to choose the right paper for your next watercolor project, the list of considerations can go on and on –cold-pressed, hot-pressed, smooth, textured, small, large, heavy, light – but how do you decide? A good paper works well with the tools you already have and produces a style you hope to achieve. Here are the best watercolor papers to use to produce the artwork of your dreams.
Overall Best: Arches Watercolor Paper Block, 140 lb
The supreme choice for beginners and experienced artists alike, Arches Watercolor Paper Block 140lb is touted as the best of the best when it comes to watercolor paper – and for good reason. Made from 100% cotton and finished with a natural gelatin bath, it’s strong and durable – it won’t tear or pill even if it’s exceptionally wet.
This cold-pressed paper comes standard in a block, which leaves it nicely pre-stretched for your convenience. The surface is lightly textured, which nicely holds the paint in place and produces a beautiful finish.
The best feature of this paper is its consistent performance – your paint applies evenly, smoothly, and colors will dry vibrantly without bleeding or splotching. Beginners will appreciate how easy it is to use and master, and professionals will quickly see the consistent, beautiful results in their paintings.
For Beginners: Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper
Even a brand-new watercolorist should use quality materials while they’re learning, and the Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper is a great option. An economical choice for a new painter who needs extra practice, this student-grade paper is durable and easy to use.
The Canson XL Series is medium-weight cellulose (wood pulp) paper, cold-pressed with a light texture. It comes in a variety of sizes, and is secured with fold-over or spiral binding. Paint applies evenly, and colors dry nice and vibrant.
It’s a great choice for minimalistic painters who don’t add a lot of layers in their work. If you take a “one-and-done” approach to your paintings, or you’re a newbie who likes to experiment, it can be a nice cost-effective choice.
Fabriano Artistico Extra White
If a bright white paper is what you’re after, the Fabriano Artistico Extra White paper can make your paintings pop. Handy for travel, this 100% cotton paper comes in a secure block that won’t wrinkle or tear as you use it.
This cold-pressed paper is lightly textured, but it’s a bit smoother than brands. It’s acid and chlorine-free, and the 5×7” size is perfect for taking on the go. If you prefer a whiter look to your paper (versus the creamy off-white of traditional cotton paper), this can be a great choice.
Paint applies nicely, and it can handle plenty of wet on wet work or extra layering. Overall, it’s a great high-quality paper that will make your paintings sparkle like the pros.
For Professionals: Arches Water Colour Block, 300 lb
For the professional artist, the heavyweight Arches Water Colour Block 300lb paper is a beast that gets the job done right. You can save time and frustration if you invest in high-quality materials, and Arches consistently produces some of the best watercolor paper out there.
This heavyweight gelatin-sized paper can take a beating. You can add layers upon layers of color, work with thick wet washes, or scrub away mistakes. It’s durable, resilient, and can handle anything you throw at it without pilling or tearing. Paint applies smoothly and evenly onto its lightly textured surface, and colors dry as vividly as they apply.
For the professional artist who adds a ton of layers, paints a lot of wide washes, or works with a lot of wet-on-wet techniques – this paper is the choice for you.
Budget: Strathmore Vision
For the artist on a budget, consider Strathmore Vision watercolor paper. It comes in a variety of sizes (6”x9” to 18”x24”) in convenient tape-bound pads.
Acid-free and cold-pressed, this is a great watercolor paper for doodling or extra practice. No need to break the bank with fancy paper when you’re practicing your brush strokes or sketching on the go. As a medium-weight cellulose paper, it works well for single-layer application techniques.
If you want to add more color and dimension, take care to let it dry first – it’s perfectly durable for casual use, but it won’t handle a ton of scrubbing. For the casual artist who wants a lot of paper to practice on – without breaking the bank – Strathmore Vision fits the bill nicely.
Hot-pressed: Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Paper Block
If you still want a great paper but you’re looking for a flat, smooth surface, try the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Paper Block, Hot Pressed. Ideal for photorealistic portraits or graphic design illustrations, this high-quality 100% cotton paper gives you a nice flat surface with little texture – but without sacrificing performance.
Colors apply evenly over the smooth hot-pressed surface, and look especially vibrant once dry. While it can be easy to overwork this paper if you’re not careful, it still holds up well for fine detailing. And, because the paper isn’t absorbing all your paint – it’s perfect for artists who don’t want to add layer after layer to their work. For the artist who likes to experiment with various wet effects like splatters, drips, or paint blossoms, this paper is an excellent choice.
For Wet on Wet: Fluid 100m, 300LB 100% Cotton Cold Press
If you really like to emphasize water in your watercolor work, you need the Fluid 100m 300lb 100% Cotton Cold Press paper. Specifically designed to handle the rigors of wet on wet painting, this durable 100% cotton paper is gelatin-sized for extra strength. It comes in a variety of sizes to suit any painting project, including 16×20 for those oversized projects.
Bound on two edges, this heavyweight paper can handle the scrubbing and rubbing and most importantly – a ton of water. However, this paper is pretty thirsty – it’ll absorb your paint quickly after application, so you’ll need to move fast to achieve nicely blended results.
For a nice good-performing heavyweight paper that won’t ripple or warp with plenty of water, this Fluid paper gets the job done.
For Watercolor Pencils: Strathmore 440-1 Strath
If your preferred artists’ tools include watercolor pencils, the Strathmore 440-1 Strath paper is a great economical choice. While it’s not the most high-quality paper you can buy, it’s perfect for practicing and sketching, especially when you’re away from your home studio.
For the artist who loves to practice with watercolor pencils, using an inexpensive cellulose paper like this one can be a great compromise between economics and performance. You don’t break the bank with fancy paper, but you’re also not asking it to work as hard either. This cold-pressed paper has a nice texture, and it’s great for sketching scenes or practicing doodles. Adding water will smoothly activate your colors and make them come alive.
For the artist who loves watercolor pencils and wants an economical way to work on their technique, the Strathmore 440-1 is a fine choice.
Black: Stonehenge Legion Aqua Cold Press
For something fun and different, the Stonehenge Legion Aqua Cold Press paper can provide a unique watercoloring experience. First of all – it’s black! The paper is made with pigment mixed into the actual pulp for a rich black color all the way through.
Unlike other black craft papers, this paper can handle layers of color without tearing or pilling. Paint blends and layers nicely without wrecking the paper or picking up any extra pigment. Bright metallic or iridescent paints can really add some unique flair to your paintings, and if you’re dying to use some white watercolor paint, give this paper a try.
Made from 100% cotton, this high-quality paper is acid-free, ph balanced, and provides striking contrast to bring your paintings to life.
Plenty of new artists spend a lot of time debating about their paint and brush choices, but not as much effort choosing appropriate paper. Having the best watercolor paper for your project is crucial for producing good results, and you can save time and money if you’re familiar with basic paper properties. Here’s how to figure out what kind of watercolor paper you need, and why it matters:
For thousands of years, humans have made paper by hand – flattening, screening, and drying wet wood pulp and cotton to produce thin sheets of paper for writing and making art. Today, most high-quality popular watercolor paper is made with a steel cylinder mold. Most artist-grade papers are made mostly of cotton, whereas more inexpensive brands are made from wood pulp.
The specific techniques used during the pressing process will determine the texture of your paper, which will therefore determine how it will behave once you apply paint. There are three basic surface texture types:
Cold-pressed paper is made by pressing sheets of cellulose pulp between felt-covered metal rollers. These rollers are kept at a cool temperature (hence the name “cold-pressed), and the rough felt creates the characteristic grooves of this textured watercolor paper. Some paper is labelled as “cold-pressed” (CP), but others may be labelled as “NOT” (but this just means it’s not hot-pressed).
This textured paper has a good “tooth” to it – it has a fair amount of small grooves on its surface that will hang on to your paint, preventing water from blossoming or smearing around. It also absorbs paint and water more easily, and they can be difficult to remove if you make a mistake.
This texture works well for watercolors because you don’t end up with large blobs where you don’t want them. However, it’s also pretty absorbent – you’ll need to work quickly if you want your colors to blend properly. If you want to work with a lot of wet layers, the Fluid Cotton Cold Press Paper is perfect for those applications. If you’re just starting out, a good cold-pressed paper will make your paint behave consistently and give you a nice introduction to watercolor painting.
If you want a little more flow to your work (or for the colors to really pop), then hot-pressed paper may be a better choice. It’s made by pressing the pulp between two smooth, heated rollers. This gives it a very smooth texture with little teeth – perfect for showing off all your details (or – mistakes).
Paint will slide around on the page and make interesting effects, which you can use to your advantage. Because it’s less absorbent than cold-pressed paper, you have more time to play with the paint and blot errors from becoming permanent. It also works nicely with markers in mixed-media applications, or water-based paint markers as well.
However, this paper doesn’t handle blending and layers quite as well as a good cold-press, and it may fall apart if you push it too much. An excellent hot-pressed paper is the Winsor & Newton Professional Watercolor Paper, which is great for showing off your exceptionally vibrant paint colors.
Rough paper is just what it sounds like – it has a rough texture that is achieved by pressing the paper between heavily textured felt. It’s very toothy, it’ll hang on to your paint, and it’s not the best for detail work. But, if you want to make a bold splash with your artwork, then a rough surface may be the way to go.
You may also find yourself using up your paint more quickly as it is very absorbent, but this is handy if you want to add a ton of layers without worrying that it’ll disintegrate in the middle of your project.
The terms “hot-press” and “cold-press” refer to the manufacturing process, which in turn will give you an idea as to what the texture of the paper will be like even before you open the package. However, there is still a great deal of variation between individual papers, and you need to figure out which one works best for your needs. Here are some of the benefits to the various textures when it comes to watercolor painting:
Smooth-textured paper allows the true vibrancy of the paint to shine through. It’s a good choice for botanical artists that use a lot of detail in their work, as it can be harder to see intricate marks when a toothier paper has sucked them all into the grooves. With smooth paper, you’ll be able to see all the tiny little brush strokes of a photorealistic piece, but also the bold strokes of a graphic designer’s advertisement.
Because it’s usually less absorbent, you can lift your mistakes easily before they dry. Play with splatters, bold designs, or blotting techniques with a nice, smooth surface that’ll show them off.
Smooth paper can be a bit slippery and difficult to work with at first, so if you’re new – you might want to try something a little rougher until you understand how your specific paint will behave.
The light texture of cold-pressed paper is a good middle ground for both beginner watercolorists and professional artists. Its toothiness will hold your water and paint in place, and it’s durable enough to handle lots of layering and experimentation.
Paper with light texture won’t be so rough that it will hold all your paint, nor is it too smooth to hide the imperfections. It offers a great balance for the watercolor medium, which is why a high-quality cold-pressed paper with light texture is such a popular choice.
A paper with heavy texture isn’t for everyone, but if you’re well-versed in watercolor techniques and want to branch out to something more heavy-duty – a rough paper with lots of heavy texture will do the trick.
Once your paint is dry, it will highlight all the lines and interesting textures that would be hidden on smoother paper. This can make for some really interesting effects, especially if you want to show large washes of bold color. If you want your work to make a bold statement, a paper with a rough texture (almost always a cold-pressed variety) will give your watercolor work a unique flair.
Weight and Thickness
Paperweight is measured either in “pounds per ream” or “grams per square meter”, which is why you’ll see a “lbs” or “gsm” designation on most packages. For example, a ream of lightweight 20lb copy paper weighs 20 pounds.
In general, the heavier the paper, the thicker and more durable it is. Lighter paper is thin and can be flimsy, but is also economical and still good enough for practice work. Handmade papers with a ton of texture often weigh the most. A good, sturdy, cold-pressed paper usually weighs in at around 140 – 300 pounds. It doesn’t have to be stretched flat, and it won’t buckle easily when water is applied.
Paper on the lighter side of that range can be extra durable if it’s been gelatin-sized (like the Arches Watercolor Paper Block 140 lb). Anything less may need to be stretched if you want the best results.
If you’re just fooling around for practice, look for a paper that’s heavy enough to handle your techniques but also won’t break the bank either. Strathmore Vision paper is a decent middle-weight paper that’s great for practicing single-layer techniques.
Watercolor paper is usually white or off-white so that light can properly reflect off of it and give it that bright, luminous look. Instead of adding white paint to your work, you can leave free space while painting or block off areas with tape or masking fluid.
Some paper will come in different colors because it has been dyed during the paper-making process. Extra white and high white paper has been tinted with bleach and titanium dioxide pigment for that extra-bright effect, and it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the paper. However, they aren’t actually white, but still cast a creamy white appearance.
If you want to try something completely new, Stonehenge Legion Aqua Cold Press paper comes in a beautiful unique black color – perfect for breaking out those iridescent or metallic shades. If you can’t find the specific tinted paper of your dreams, you can just add a thin wash of your desired color as a base – just be sure to let it completely dry.
Of course you can buy paper in a variety of different sizes, but it also comes in several different forms to choose from as well. It might not seem like it matters, but having your paper packaged in a specific way can make painting a whole lot easier and hassle-free.
You can buy watercolor in individual loose sheets of various sizes. Lightweight loose-leaf paper may need to be stretched for best results.
If you don’t feel like going through the hassle of stretching, you can also just tape down your edges – but it may still buckle and warp if it’s not sturdy enough to handle the kind of painting you’re doing (wet on wet techniques or adding lots of layers).
A stack of watercolor paper that has been bound on all four sides is called a block. They’re practical to use because you don’t have to bother with stretching, and they’re convenient to take to class or for traveling.
There are blocks designed for beginners or professionals, depending on what your budget and preferences dictate. You can work directly on the block while it’s wet without having to stretch anything, and it won’t transfer to the paper underneath.
Depending on the glue used to hold the block together, the pages can be a bit tricky to separate without a little practice. A high-quality paper like the Arches Water Color block 300lb will suit any serious (or beginner) artist.
If you’re not into blocks, a watercolor board can be the next best thing. They offer a rigid surface to work on, so your paper doesn’t warp or wrinkle when it gets wet. They come in a variety of different sizes, or you can even make your own. Think of a watercolor board like a super-stiff paper that holds itself up like a canvas, but without being stretched over a wooden frame. There’s a lot of variation with watercolor boards (some are 100% cotton rag, others are more akin to cardboard, etc.), so you’ll have to examine different options to choose which one works best for you.