I’ll cut to the chase: the quality of your watercolor paper will make or break your projects. That’s why you always want to stick to the best watercolor paper you can get your hands on.
I understand the appeal of regular shmegular watercolor paper. It’s cheap and readily available in most craft stores and online art suppliers. Convenient, I know. The thing is that it isn’t a great solution.
With that in mind, I highly encourage you to invest in the best watercolor paper, no matter your skill level. I’ve outlined a few guidelines to help you find the right fit to ensure pristine results and frustration-free watercoloring!
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Do I really need quality watercolor paper?
Watercolor is a delicate art form that benefits from using quality materials and tools. That’s why it’s so important that you work with the best watercolor paper.
Unlike other types of paints like gouache or acrylic, watercolor paint only adheres to super absorbent surfaces. So unless you’re experimenting with mixed-medium projects, watercolor paper is basically all you’re left to work with!
There are various characteristics and variations to consider when selecting the best watercolor paper; I’ll go over these next.
What to look for in the best watercolor paper
Before getting into the specific types of watercolor paper and suggestions, there are general characteristics that require consideration: quality, texture, paper color, and format.
Here’s a brief breakdown of what to know and why these features matter.
Aiming for quality is a standard you should have for all of your watercolor materials, but this is particularly crucial for paper.
There are two main categories of watercolor paper: student-grade and pro-grade (or artist) paper.
Student-grade watercolor paper is usually cheaper and less high in quality than artist-grade options and is mainly for beginners and hobbyists.
However, this doesn’t mean this paper is terrible! It’s simply more basic, which, in return, makes it perfect for anyone starting out or those who craft sporadically for pleasure.
This isn’t the best pick if you’re looking for 100% cotton paper every time or archival surfaces for large, long-lasting works of art.
In fact, it’s common to come across student-grade paper pulp or cellulose watercolor paper instead. These are great starting points for newbies, but not if your goal is a seamless painting experience or for work to hold up impeccably over time.
On the other hand, pro-grade watercolor paper is way more superior in quality and destined for avid watercolorists looking to take their work to the next level.
This type of watercolor paper usually contains acid-free, archival properties to ensure your work lasts over time and is more resistant and effective in color retention.
It’s also more varied when it comes to different textures (more on this below). The downside? It’s typically more expensive than student-grade options, although you can find lots of great, cost-effective options.
When it comes to watercolor paper, there are three main textures to choose from — hot press, cold press, and rough.
The choice in texture is a matter of personal preference; it all boils down to selecting the surface type that best suits the techniques you want to use and the desired outcomes.
I’ll get into more in-depth explanations of each texture type further below and provide suggestions for each, but I’ll leave you with a brief overview of each texture type:
- Hot press watercolor paper: Very smooth and soft
- Cold press watercolor paper: A mix of smooth and slightly textured
- Rough watercolor paper: Very textured, “grainy”
Paper color and tint
If you’ve never thought about the color of your watercolor paper, you aren’t alone. Unless you’re an experienced painter, this isn’t usually something that comes to mind.
The best watercolor paper primarily comes in varieties of very bright white to cream/off-white tints.
Bright white watercolor paper is a great pick to create contrast with vibrant hues and showcase the transparency and luminosity of pigments. It’s also more effective when using darker or more neutral colors.
Cream or off-white watercolor paper is particularly effective if you’re aiming for a more natural, organic aesthetic. For example, it’s perfect for landscape and nature subjects. It softens the overall appearance of your art and looks particularly beautiful with earthy tones.
Also, did you know that there’s black watercolor paper? This type of paper allows for extremely unique artwork and helps create intense, moody paintings — it’s also great if you’re into gouache!
Note that black watercolor paper is much more challenging to work with and requires mastering a high level of technique, so I wouldn’t recommend it as the best watercolor paper for newbies!
Watercolor paper size and format
The beauty of watercolor paper is that you can find all kinds of paper sizes and formats in all textures and grades.
Determining which is the best for you, once again, comes down to personal preference or project needs.
Personally, I’m a big fan of watercolor blocks. Since they’re sealed on all sides, pages don’t warp when/as pigment dries. It also provides a sturdy work surface I particularly enjoy.
On the other hand, watercolor sketchbooks are great if you’re all about keeping your artwork in the same place. You can also flip through pages freely and don’t need to tear them out to start something new.
Watercolor pads are ideal if you’re working on larger-scale paintings and want to work on loose sheets. These rip out easily without leaving vestiges of where spirals once were! They’re also very affordable, so they’re ideal for beginners.
Best watercolor paper
Next up is a more in-depth explanation of the best watercolor paper types and textures, as well as suggestions for each to support your search!
Cold press watercolor paper
Cold press watercolor paper provides a mix of smooth and slightly textured surfaces and has a moderate absorbency, allowing for more control over the paint.
This feature also helps prevent bleeding and buckling. Cold press paper is a fantastic pick for beginners since it’s compatible with a wide range of basic techniques, such as glazing, dry-on-dry, layering, and wet-on-wet.
Note that this paper tends to dull hue vibrancy, so expect this when watercoloring!
Hot press watercolor paper
Our pick: Arches Hot Pressed Watercolor Pad
Runner up: Sennelier Watercolor Block
Hot press watercolor paper has a very smooth surface with just a tad of texture, which makes it a fantastic match for fine lines and detailed artwork.
It’s a great option for botanical illustration and realistic portrait painting since pigments flow easily on this type of paper, and colors remain vibrant once dry.
However, this paper is the least absorbent, so it will take longer for the paint to fully dry. This can make it more difficult to experiment with techniques such as glazing and layering.
The upside is that a slow dry gives you more room to edit and move paint around until you’re happy with the result!
Rough watercolor paper
Our pick: Arches Rough Watercolor Paper Pad
Runner up: Khadi Rough Handmade Watercolour Paper Pad
Rough watercolor paper is all about texture and is the polar opposite of the smooth surfaces found in hot-pressed paper.
This is some of the best watercolor paper for bold, expressive paintings. I particularly love how the paper texture itself adds unique character to your artwork, especially for nature scenes.
In addition, this is the best watercolor paper if you’re after something highly absorbent. I just wouldn’t recommend it for first-time watercolorists since this makes it more difficult to work around.
Our pick: Canson Mixed Media paper
Runner up: Bachmore Mixed Media Drawing Pad
If you’re looking for an alternative to traditional watercolor paper, mixed-media paper is worth considering. It offers reasonable quality without compromising your artwork.
Mixed-media paper generally has a particularly sturdy surface since its purpose is to sustain various consistencies of paint and ink. In addition, it also tends to be less expensive than standard watercolor paper and comes in various textures and finishes.
So what are the cons? Mixed media paper isn’t always acid-free or archival. It also doesn’t provide the same level of absorbency as specialized watercolor paper.
Note that you may notice a significant difference between brands with this type of paper, so you might need to try a few before finding one you like. We’ve listed some suggestions above!
That’s it for this guide to the best watercolor paper! Have any tips or tricks to share with other budding crafters? Share them in the comments below!