Using the best watercolor paper for the kind of art you wish to create is very important, especially for beginners. It is the first choice you make before you begin painting and it will affect the way you lay down color, do blending and glazing. It is probably the most important decision you can make! The wrong paper for your project will spell disappointment and frustration.
The short answer is to start right off with the best watercolor paper you can afford because it will accelerate your learning and give you the best control as you are getting more proficient. That being said though, if you are like me, you HAVE to consider your budget! I like to try out new techniques or sample colors of pigment on cheaper paper as sample sheets and use the good stuff when I want to start and finish a watercolor painting.
I never use the cheapest, worst papers though, because they will tear, buckle, shred and pill up as you paint. I call that fighting with your support! (the art world term for the surface you are painting on). It is misleading too, because you may decide that you are lousy at art, when in fact, your PAPER is lousy.
It is tempting to buy a sketchbook for watercolor painting, but be forewarned, the paper quality is often problematic. My best advice is to purchase paper in individual sheets, find your favorite by experimenting then look for a bound sketchbook made of quality paper (see my review article of the best watercolor sketchbooks here) or sew them together to make your own.
In this guide I hope to save you some money, help make your exploration into watercolor rewarding and ultimately help your progress by avoiding being handicapped by the wrong paper choices. I’ll try and spell it all out for you so that you can make your own decisions based on your level of experience, your budget, the style of art you wish to create and how durable you wish your finished art to be.
Watercolor paper is either made from wood pulp or from cotton fibers. I could give you the history of paper construction, modern paper making techniques and manufacturing processes, but I’ll leave that to other sites! What you need to know is that the best, most wonderfully cooperative paper you can buy is going to be 100% cotton.
Student grade paper, or cheaper paper, is going to have wood pulp as the base. I can tell you that while I was in college and for decades after, by necessity budget was the prime mover in my life and I used the cheapest materials I could find.
Here is a photo of a field sketch I did decades ago and you can see for yourself the issues with using student grade materials.
Just look how the paper yellowed with the years!! I’m showing the yellowed watercolor paper laying on top of a pristine new sheet of watercolor paper. Yikes. And this sample has been sitting in a portfolio in storage, so exposure to UV rays has not been the issue. Student grade or super cheap watercolor paper is generally not acid free and is going to be unstable.
Student grade paper can also have a machine-made uniform texture to it, which I really dislike. I know some artists enjoy having that background texture as a feature in their art, but not so much with me. It can have a very industrial feel to it. In some conditions, it would really make a great statement though, so it is up to your personal taste.
Step One: Decide your price point
You will get what you pay for! If you are just trying out watercolor for the first time and budget is a big factor, then consider buying Student Grade Materials….BUT, be forewarned that you will not necessarily be happy with the finished work and you will find limitations while you are painting that you won’t find at a higher price point. If you are just going to try out brushes or sample colors, then sure, use the student grade paper!
Here is a great video of a professional illustrator sampling three cheaper papers along side the ‘Top Drawer” spendy version:
In the samples below, I’ll list a few options for low, mid and high price point ranges with each style of painting.
Step Two: Predetermine your style
First, take a look at these different styles of watercolor and narrow down the method of art that you want to do:
If your personality type is patient, detail-oriented and you don’t want a very wet, watery final product, you might enjoy a smooth paper.
This sweet little illustration is delicate, with minimal water added to the not so soupy paints. There is very little blending and the white of the paper is predominant. It has a clean, fresh look and would be appropriate for greeting cards, illustrations for cookbooks, calendars, children’s books and on invitations. Also good for botanical illustration, inked line work with watercolor and a realistic look.
It is very neat and tidy and controlled. No messy flinging about here!
The paper needed for this art style is Hot Press artist paper or multimedia paper. Think of Hot Press paper as having its wrinkles ironed out. No texture to add shadows or interfere with the clean fresh look. No mechanical grid if you are using 100% cotton.
2. Some texture and lots of techniques
If you plan on doing some specialized techniques like dry brush, scrubbing or embossing, you’ll need a paper with some ‘tooth’. The paper suitable for these looks is Cold Press paper. Here is a sample of a painting I teach in lesson one of a beginning watercolor class. It takes about 15 minutes to paint! The paper does a lot of the work for you!
3. Heavy duty and lots of texture
Heavy paper (300 lb weight) by arches can take a lot of abuse and manhandling. Here, I’ve embossed some grass stalks into this scrap piece of paper. I’ve also painted the dark green over the yellow-green then quickly scraped it off with the corner of an old credit card. It is a reductive method of painting, and has interesting possibilities of application!
Step Three: Shop Your Budget and Preference
Watercolor paper is graded for student use and professional use. Budget paper is for casual or student use. Other papers are labelled ‘professional’ but, watch out! If they are made of wood pulp they won’t perform as well as 100% cotton watercolor paper. Most artists like to experiment with different brands of paper, but here are my recommendations for reliable value for your money, based on my own experience:
1. Strathmore Vision Watercolor Pad, 11″x15″, 30 Sheets
- Uniform texture, on the milder side
- Will buckle easily when wet
- Good for drawing in ink and pencil
2. Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper Pad
- Machine pattern texture
- Economy price
- Fairly strong
Mid price range paper:
Strathmore 300 Series is smooth on one side and has more texture on the other side, so you can paint on both or either side! Use the smoother side for this style of painting. It is a heavier weight, so it won’t buckle if you decide to use a heavier application of water.
3. Strathmore 300 Series Watercolor Pad, 11″x15″, 12 Sheets
- Good value for the price
- Can do dry brush
- Gradated washes possible, but not easily (see sample below)
- Won’t buckle if less than 11 x 15 wet
- Somewhat uniform texture pattern
- A bit cheaper than the Strathmore 400 weight
Notice that the graduated wash didn’t perform very well. Getting a good smooth gradation on anything but quality Arches paper is going to be more of a challenge.
4. Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Pad, 9″x12″ Wire Bound, 12 Sheets
When I teach beginners their first couple of lessons this is the paper that I use. It will handle very wet applications and won’t shrink or buckle unless you are painting a size bigger than 12 x 18. It won’t break the bank yet students get a nearly professional feel:
The paper accepts dry brush because of the heavier texture, the pigments blot up easily because the paints will sit on top of the paper without sinking in too fast, which means I can sprinkle table salt on the wet greenish waves and it will result in a snowflake sparkle pattern.
- Medium heavy weight, no stretching needed on smaller sizes
- Non acidic
- Fairly tough paper to handle scrubbing and embossing
- Textured for dry brush applications
- Smooth enough for drawing a thin line with watercolor
Premium quality and high price range:
Arches is the only paper that I use. It never lets me down, it is readily available to be delivered to my home and it is professional quality. I DO keep a few sheets of 400 Strathmore on hand for experimenting though.
5. Arches Watercolor Paper Pad, 140 pound, Hot Press, 9″x12″
- Beautifully performing paper
- Excellent quality
- Watercolors ride on top of paper and can be lifted easily if non-staining
- Superior blending washes
- Handmade look without machine texturing
- Will take many layers of glazing
6. Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Cold Press, 12″ x 16″, 300 pound
Here is a video from the Arches company telling about their product:
Check out my article on the differences between Hot Press vs. Cold press watercolor paper before you decide!
One thing is certain, the more you paint, the better you will get and the more finicky you will be about your paper. When you are just starting out, once you pick your method of application choice, it really comes down to budget and if you want to skip stretching the paper stage.
As you explore and experiment you will find your voice and settle into a favorite paper. Most of all, have fun!