Watercolor sketchbook buyer’s guide: Watercolor journals, pads and more

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Watercolors can be a lot of fun to learn and use. Like with all art skills, developing them beyond a fun pastime requires hard work and repetition. That’s where a watercolor sketchbook comes in handy.

They let you practice your watercolors on the go, and create lasting works of art. That said, finding the right watercolor sketchbook can be tricky.

There are lots of products on the market, but once you clearly understand all the different styles and choices you can pick the pad that works the best for you and your art. 

That’s why I put together this handy buyer’s guide! Here you’ll learn all the features to look for in the best watercolor sketchbooks and I’ll point out a few of my favorite journals. I’ll also highlight some sketchbook alternatives that may work better for you.

In a hurry? You can’t go wrong with any of the quick picks listed below!

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Best watercolor sketchbooks: Quick picks

Strathmore 400 series Watercolor sketchbook journal

Strathmore 400 series Watercolor Journal

  • 48 thick 300gsm cold-press pages
  • High-quality hardback cover and binding enable two-page panoramics
  • Good value

Khadi rough cotton watercolor sketchbook

Khadi Handmade Hardback Sketchbook

  • 32 rough 100% cotton 210gsm landscape pages
  • Made by hand from recycled rags
  • Unique, socially-conscious option

Moleskine watercolor notebook

Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks

  • 25% cotton 200gsm pages
  • Iconic and luxurious Moleskine cover
  • Stylish, but still affordable

Canson artist series watercolor sketchbook

Canson Artist Series Watercolor Books

  • 20 thick 300gsm cold-press pages
  • Perfect for beginners and intermediate artists
  • Very affordable, but slightly less travel-friendly

How to choose the best watercolor sketchbook for you

Watercolor sketchbook and paints

For picky artists out there, it can be a little overwhelming to find the best watercolor sketchbook. There are many different factors you have to consider before you get one.

And for beginners, it’s even more critical that you work with a good paper. Choosing the wrong paper will have you fighting the page and is sure to end in frustration.

It also helps to be durable, so you don’t get worried about bringing it with you when you go out. You’ll also probably want it to protect and show off your art well. 

Another key consideration is paper composition. For the best possible results, you’ll want 100% cotton paper. Paper pulp can be handy to save some money (which is also important in a sketchbook), but nothing beats cotton for quality. 

Read also: 100+ creative hobbies to try and how to get started

Each book will also have a paperweight. The heavier (and thicker) the paperweight, the less likely it is to warp. You will typically find 140lb (~300gsm) or higher paper in good watercolor sketchbooks. If you go lighter than 140gsm, expect some warping once the page dries, especially with washes.

Note that you can absolutely get away with 90lb paper, and save some money in the process. Just be aware that it won’t resist as much water or abrasion.

Finally, you have to decide on a paper texture. Hot-press is very smooth and ideal for precise brushwork and single layers. If you want to place multiple layers and get into finer detail, you will need the roughness of cold-press paper to grab and hold the paint.

Rough paper is even more textured than cold-press, and it adds a really interesting effect to the finished piece.

Thankfully, you can find watercolor sketchbooks that have each of these qualities in different configurations, so you can combine the features you want most. Plus, once you find a brand you like you can stick with it for years to come!

Best watercolor sketchbooks and journals

There are tons of watercolor sketchbooks on the market, so it’s important to do a little research into which one meets your needs. But no matter what, you want a quality book that allows you to work on your art comfortably, whether you’re just starting classes or a seasoned artist.

With that in mind, here are my picks for the best watercolor sketchbooks and journals!

Best overall: Strathmore Hardbound 400 Series Watercolor Art Journal

Strathmore 400 series Watercolor sketchbook journal

For beginners and intermediate artists, it’s hard to beat the value of Strathmore papers. The Strathmore Hardbound 400 series uses 140lb (300gsm) weight paper that’s specifically designed for watercolors.

If you want a hardbound book that lays flat due to its Smyth-sewn binding, this book is the way to go. It allows you to work efficiently and still store your work safely in a beautiful, long-lasting journal. 

The sketchbooks come in three different sizes, and they vary in pages from 32 to 48, depending on the size. The cold-press paper allows you to get really fine detail on each page. 

Read also: Watercolor pencils buyer’s guide

Strathmore is a well-known brand for artists. The American company started providing quality art supplies way back in 1890, and it continues to produce for professional artists and hobbyists to this day. 

The only downside is that the pages are cellulose and not cotton, but that also means that they are a little less expensive than other watercolor sketchbooks.

If you want to save even more money, you can get the softcover versions, although I wouldn’t recommend the wire-bound pads if you’re going to take your watercolor journal on the go.

Best for beginners: Canson Artist Series Watercolor Books

Canson artist series watercolor sketchbook

Canson is a well-known brand for beginner artists and up, and it makes a pair of great watercolor sketchbooks that won’t break the bank.

Canson’s Artist Series allows you to pick two different sizes to help you create the type of images you want. The pages in both sizes give you 20 sheets of 140lb (300gsm) paper that can withstand multiple washes on each page. 

Once you finish a piece, the pre-perforated sheets come out nicely so you can put your pictures wherever you want. However, if you choose to keep them in the book, be aware that the wire binding isn’t the most travel-friendly choice for a watercolor sketchbook.

The book also comes with a removable bookmark that offers many helpful suggestions and tips that you can reference easily. The artist series is inexpensive, but it doesn’t contain cotton. Instead, it uses pulp paper. 

It is a great option for new artists who are just trying out watercolors. It’s extremely affordable, but you’ll still get the Canson experience with every book.

The company started producing art supplies in 1557 and continues to make art supplies today, which should say something about the quality of its products.

Best budget-friendly: Arteza Watercolor Sketchbooks

Arteza watercolor sketchbooks

Next up are these affordable watercolor sketchbooks by Arteza, a practical option that artists at any point in their careers can afford.

Each watercolor sketchbook has 32 sheets of heavy, 140lb (300gsm) paper with a rough enough surface to work with large washes or fine brushwork. 

Read also: Best watercolor sets

The books feature textured grey hardcovers to protect the interior pages. These are perforated and the wire binding is strong, but don’t mistreat them too badly or they will get damaged!

Arteza wants to make sure that every artist can use tools to show off their creative side, and they believe that everyone can be an artist. To meet that goal, they make high-end art supplies at affordable prices, so you can afford and enjoy them even if you aren’t a professional artist.

Best multi-purpose sketchbook: Fabriano Hardcover Watercolor Journals

Fabriano hardcover watercolor journal

Sometimes you’re looking for a general art book that is capable of handling the occasional watercolor sketching. In that case, you can get by with something slightly lighter-weight that can still hold up to watercolors when you need them. 

To that end, I’d recommend the Fabriano Hardcover Watercolor Journal. Each book gives you 30 pages of acid-free 25% cotton paper. The paper weighs 90lbs (200gsm), so it will hold up to watercolor work but is still smooth and light enough to work with almost every art technique. 

Fabriano has been creating paper since the 13th century. Currently, they are one of the most prominent paper manufacturers in Europe and develop banknotes and security paper for countries worldwide. How’s that for pedigree?

This watercolor sketchbook works great as a multi-use pad for artists that like to try a little bit of everything on the go. It comes in two sizes (both landscape), with a hard cover and pages that lay flat to enable panoramic paintings.

Best money for value: Hahnemuhle Watercolor Book

Hahnemuhle watercolor journals

If you want a more standard-sized watercolor sketchbook, this Hahnemuhle Watercolor Book offers artists 30 sheets of 140lb (200gsm) paper that work well with watercolors.

The paper is made with cellulose instead of cotton, but each page is finished on both sizes. This means you can open the book and paint full landscape images across two pages. The texture of each page is rough enough to allow fine detail with the watercolor paint.  

Read also: Best watercolor classes online

You can secure the book closed with a rubber band that wraps around the attractive black hardcover. No need to worry about damaging your work in your bag!

This watercolor sketchbook is sold in three sizes, but I’d recommend the A5 book (linked below) for the best mix of portability and page real estate. The smaller A4 size and larger A6 size are also great options.

Best for travel: Khadi Handmade Hardback Sketchbook

Khadi rough cotton watercolor sketchbook

The Khadi Handmade Sketchbook offers 210gsm 100% cotton paper that’s perfect for socially-conscious artists who want nothing but the best.

Each book comes with 32 landscape-oriented (13x32cm) rough-finish pages. One side of the book offers an interesting deckle design that can give all your work a fun border.

The book folds out fully and the paper is bound in sections so you can paint across the whole surface of the page if you have a large landscape image. The watercolor travel sketchbook is bound in a unique hardback design that helps protect the rest of your pages while in use. 

Khadi Papers was formed in the 1980s to produce quality and handcrafted paper for everyone. It comes from a small factory in India that hires locals. The company has its own organic farm to help the local economy even more. 

When you’re looking for something with individual flair and want to make the world a slightly better place, you may want to take a look at these beautiful handmade sketchbooks.

Best black paper sketchbook: Shizen Design Black Watercolor Journals

Shizen design black watercolor sketchbook handmade

Looking for something a bit more unique? This next watercolor sketchbook features black paper to try new techniques and styles while on the go.

Shizen uses 100% recycled paper from cotton cloths to make high-quality art paper that everyone can enjoy. The process starts in India and gets shipped all across the globe to put excellent paper into everyone’s hands. 

The books come in 140lb (300gsm) paper that dries well with watercolors, so you don’t have to worry about distortion. You can pick between rough and smooth texture paper depending on what you plan on doing with the book. 

The main downsides are size (they come in 6x6in and 8x8in) and the wire binding which isn’t the most resistant to wear and tear inside your bag.

The Shizen may not become your everyday watercolor sketchbook, but it can be an incredible change of pace for experienced watercolorists, and you may find that you prefer darker paper for specific images. 

Best heavyweight watercolor paper: Stillman & Birn Zeta Softcover Sketchbook

Stillman and Birn Zeta heavyweight watercolor sketchbook

If you’re looking for heavier, warp-free paper, the Stillman & Birn Zeta can help you capture the beauty of any landscape image you see.

This watercolor sketchbook has a heavyweight 180lb (270gsm) paper that can take repeated large washes with little chance of distortion. You get 28 sheets of smooth finish, acid-free paper that is easy to pick up and take with you on every trip.

Read also: Find the best mini canvas for acrylics, watercolors, and more

The softcover doesn’t offer as much protection as other options on the list, but the acid-free and chloride-free paper helps each work of art last a long time. 

Stillman & Birn learned the finest Viennese binding techniques and brought them to New York in the 1950s. Today the company still produces an American-made product with the main factory in Hamburg, New York.

Best for gifts: Moleskine Watercolor Notebooks

Moleskine watercolor notebook

Next up is a series of watercolor notebooks from a brand even most non-artists have heard of: Moleskine.

The Moleskine Watercolor Notebook uses 25% cotton sheets to give artists the feel of more plush products at a substantially lower price point. The cold-press 135lb (200gsm) paper is perfect for almost every watercolor project, and they come in a multitude of sizes to help you find the right one. 

Each book comes with an elastic band to help keep the book closed when you are carrying it. The cover is a Moleskine textured wrap that (like all of the company’s products) feels luxurious when you hold it in your hand and still protects the notebook’s contents. 

Moleskine is a newer company than some. It began producing notebooks in 1997, but the inspiration for these legendary pads goes back much further. When you try one of their notebooks for the first time, you’ll understand why so many people choose this brand.

Best for mixed-media sketchbookers: Strathmore Watercolor Visual Journal

Last up is one of the most original options on our guide and the perfect pick for mixed media artists, sketchbook-ers, and hobbyists looking for ways to register thoughts and moments through art journaling.

The Strathmore Watercolor Visual Journal features high-quality 140lb (300gsm) cold-press paper to accommodate an array of materials besides watercolors, such as acrylics, pen/ink, pencils, and markers.

In addition, the heavyweight paper is ideal for combining watercolors and collage work, so you’ll have a lot of approaches you can experiment with here! While a spiral pad, rest assured, as this watercolor journal is held together by a heavy-duty spiral wire binding and protected by a textured, durable cover.

It also provides the convenience of opening to a flat, 360° angle and easy tearing of pages if preferred. This is a great option if you’re an artist looking for quality and practicality — not to mention it makes a super creative gift for art journalers.

You can find more paper types/weights under the brand’s Visual Journal series; however, if your goal is to work with watercolors, this is our top recommendation for this line. Although best suited for more intermediate crafters, beginners will benefit from these pads if looking for a reliable, long-lasting option.

Best watercolor sketchbook alternative: Watercolor blocks

If you want to try an alternative to watercolor sketchbooks, I’d recommend checking out watercolor blocks. These are also sometimes called gummed pads because they glue all the paper around the edges. 

These blocks are essentially stacks of pre-stretched watercolor paper on top of each other. The glued edges keep the paper stretched and warp-free while you work, and prevent the pages underneath from getting damaged. Plus, they’re super convenient and easy to work with!

Read also: Best watercolor blocks (and why you need one)

Although the pages always hold their form, paper weight is still important for watercolor blocks. Thinner, 140lb (300gsm) paper will require drying before you remove the page from the glued edges. More premium 300lb (640gsm) paper will hold their shape no matter what you do, and can be removed from the pad before completely dry.

Most watercolor blocks don’t offer as much paper per set, so you have to replace them more often. These blocks are also bulkier and heavier, so you can’t carry them around as easily.

They’re more expensive than your average watercolor journal as well. Without a doubt, these are top-notch products designed for professional artists first and foremost.

Here are a few of my favorite options when it comes to watercolor blocks.

Arches Watercolor Blocks

Arches watercolor blocks

Arches Watercolor Blocks are truly the gold standard. Made from 100% cotton paper in France under rigid standards for quality, it’s a very popular choice for professional artists.

There are also a lot of options to choose from in the lineup. There are cold, hot, and rough press options in both 140lb (300gsm) and 300lb (640gsm) weights, several sizes, and blocks of 10 or 20 sheets depending on the model.

If you want the absolute best, you can’t go wrong with Arches. Just be aware that each sheet can cost $2 or more, so save it for your finest work!

Sennelier Watercolor Blocks

Sennelier watercolor blocks

Another great option comes from Sennelier, with watercolor blocks that come in both hot and cold-press finishes. Each block has 20 sheets of 140lb (300gsm) paper, so you must let them dry while glued down. 

The durable paper and glue let you work as much as you need to on a single page before switching it out. There aren’t as many size options to choose from, but you still get an excellent acid-free 100% cotton paper that’s a dream to work with.

Other FAQs

Where can I buy watercolor sketchbooks?

There are many helpful places to buy Watercolor Sketchbooks. Some of the best places online are Dick Blick, Jackson’s Art, and in a pinch, Amazon. You can also get watercolor journals and books from specialty art stores near you.   

How should I store my watercolor sketchbook?

You want to store your watercolor sketchbook somewhere it can stay flat and dry. It’s also best to keep it in a place that is temperature and humidity-controlled. When possible, keep the book closed and out of direct light, so the color doesn’t degrade. 

Which is better: Cold-pressed or hot-pressed watercolor paper?

Both cold- and hot-press papers have advantages and disadvantages. The extra roughness of cold-press makes it more absorbent and great for any watercolor technique. However, it gives you less time to work with the paint before it dries, and colors are somewhat dull.

Hot-press is a smoother paper. This means that paint takes longer to dry, and once it does, the colors will be more vivid. The downside is that the surface can get overloaded with too many layers quickly, as pigments aren’t held in place as well. It’s ideal for high-detail, precision brushwork.

Can I make my own watercolor sketchbook?

It will take some time and skill, but you can absolutely make your own watercolor sketchbook. If you find loose paper that you want to turn into a sketchbook, you will have to bind the pages together and add a cover. Here’s a YouTube tutorial to give you an idea of what’s in store.

Read also: Best book binding glues

How do I prevent my watercolor sketchbook paper from buckling or warping?

Warping can be a problem with watercolor sketchbooks, especially when you over-saturate the paper. The best way to prevent buckling is to use thicker paper. The extra thickness will limit the warping. There is also a stretching method, but that works better on single pieces of paper.

If bucking is a recurring problem I’d recommend trying a pre-stretched watercolor block instead of a watercolor sketchbook.

That’s it for this extensive guide to watercolor sketchbooks! Hopefully you’re now equipped with the knowledge you need to pick up a watercolor journal of your very own!

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