Exploring The Best Watercolor Paper

Best-Watercolor-Paper-Feature

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Today we’ll be taking a look at the best watercolor paper out there. Watercolor is a wonderful medium  of art. But with the wrong paper as your painting surface, things can go terribly wrong. Worry not, we’ll not only show you all of our favorite types of paper, but also talk you through some of the details of what makes watercolor paper so great at its job. That means, either way you’ll leave here able to make the best possible purchase decision when getting yourself some paper for watercolor.

In a hurry? Here are our favorites

Why Do We Need Watercolor Specific Paper? 

Right off the bat you may be wondering why you even need watercolor paper? In short , not all paper was made equally, and there are some particular challenges that wet media, such as watercolor, introduce into the equation. Wet media can cause normal paper to buckle, curl and even rip. These are not things that we want to happen to our precious artwork, so it’s best to go with paper that has been made specifically for the job.

The main difference that you will notice is the thickness of the page, but don’t worry we’ll get into the details later. We should note that, for the most part, this article will focus on paper that will ultimately end up as a single sheet, in a frame or on display somewhere. But that is not the only way you can get paper that will work great for a budding watercolorist.

If you are more interested in finding a sketchbook of some sort for your watercolor we also have a rundown of watercolor sketchbooks. While you’re at it you may also want to check out some mixed media sketchbooks as well. As they are great way to get creative with different media.

Best Watercolor Paper

As you may know there are a few different forms in which you can buy watercolor paper. Oftentimes choosing simply comes down to preference, but if you want more details we get into it in our buying guide (below). Either way, we’ve made sure to only include the papers of the highest quality regardless of the category. This will make sure that you end up buying the best watercolor paper for you.

Best Watercolor Paper (for real this time)

Arches Bright White Watercolor Paper

Arches Watercolor Paper - 16'' x 20'', Bright White, Cold Press, Single Sheet

First up is the bright white watercolor paper from Arches. This may not be a brand that you have heard of before, but they are a real juggernaut in the art paper world, so you’ll be seeing them a few times. 

The paper is mould-made without any optical brighteners or bleach. Owing it’s bright white color to the high quality cotton fiber that is used to make the sheets. Bright white is a great choice for many as it really contrasts well with the colors on the page. Making them appear more vibrant. The paper itself is also very durable and will stand the test of time, without conservation.

This paper provides a wealth of choices; with different sizes (16” × 20”, 22” × 30′), different surface textures  (cold press, hot press and rough), and different weights (140 lb (300 gsm) and 300 lb (640 gsm)) to choose from. You will no doubt find something that fits your needs. 

Simply put, it is well known that Arches makes the best watercolor paper out there. With the array of choice, the only real downside to the Arches Bright White Watercolor Paper is the price. Their paper is the very best after all.

Arches Natural White Watercolor Paper

Arches Natural White Watercolor Paper - Cold Press, 16

In some ways I could cheat and do a copy and paste job for the Arches Natural White Watercolor Paper. It shares a lot with the paper above. However, due to its being in the more natural white color there are some more options that are available with the paper. This variety of options and the more conventional sheet color make this paper the go to recommendation when someone is looking for watercolor paper. 

We won’t bore you with all the details, but here are some of the things that are available to you if you go with this paper (beyond what was available for the bright white). It almost goes without saying that all their papers are manufactured  from 100% cotton. There is the same choice of cold-press, hot-press and rough paper. The same weight options as previous with the addition of 90 lb, 156 lb and 400 lb. Also the variety of choices in terms of size is huge. Going from a reasonable 16” x 20” sheet to a massive 51” x 10 yard roll

If you are truly looking for the best watercolor paper out then, then you likely don’t need to look any further. The Arches natural white, is the most popular offering from the best regarded paper manufacturer out there. What more could you want.

Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Paper

Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Paper - 15'' x 22'', Single Sheet

As great as they are, Arches are not the only paper makers in town. Here we have the 400 series watercolor paper from another arts manufacturer of great renowned, Strathmore.

Aimed at both intermediate and professional watercolorists, this paper is of great value.  The reasonable price comes at the cost of variety, with a single type of paper available in various sizes. Luckily, this variety is the cold-pressed texture that is the favourite of most watercolorists. So the lack of variety shouldn’t actually be an issue.

Overall the 400 series watercolor paper is of a high quality. With the surface having a lovely white color. The sheets have deckled edges (though not on all edges  for some reason). This is great value pick up for those that are on a bit of a tighter budget. Well worth a go.  

Best Watercolor Blocks

Now on to a different form-factor of watercolor paper. Watercolor blocks are a great way of painting smaller pieces in particular, as the glued edges hold your paper as you paint. This greatly reduces the risk of the paper buckling during use. Here are some of the watercolor blocks that we think are best to consider.

Arches Watercolor Block

Arches Watercolor Block - 16

You are probably getting bored of hearing about Arches, but being the best we had to mention them. We’ll keep it short this time.

As you would expect, the watercolor blocks from Arches come with high quality paper all round, with a wide range of options to fit your needs. We really think that the 16″ x 20″ Cold Press block is the sweet spot in terms of price and sheet size. You get 20 sheets of high quality 100% cotton paper, at a reasonable price. 

That’s enough Arches for a bit. What’s next?

Blick Premier Watercolor Blocks

Blick Premier Watercolor Block - 10'' x 14'', Cold Press, 140 lb, 20 Sheets

Blick is actually our favorite art retailer, and their own brand watercolors are well worth considering. Don’t be put off by the fact that this is not a name brand product, we proved previously that Bick really knows what they are doing by taking a look at their excellent watercolor brushes. Their watercolor blocks are no different, competing valiantly against the best watercolor paper out there.

All things considered the range of different papers is fantastic. With a whole lot of different sizes of hot and cold press paper to choose from. Our favorite for watercolor is of course the cold-press variant, and with the 10”x14” block being in the sweet spot in terms of size.

The paper is almost surprisingly good quality. Having all the hallmarks we would expect at the top of the range. With 100% cotton material that is acid free, and the tell-tale glue sides that make watercolor blocks so tempting. Removing the need to soak the paper, and ensuring that the paper doesn’t wrinkle or curl when drying. 

All in all we can happily recommend the Blick watercolor blocks. High quality, at low prices. What more could you ask for in life?

Fabriano Artistico Traditional White Watercolor Blocks

Fabriano Artistico Traditional White Watercolor Block - 9'' x 12'', Cold Press, 20 Sheets

Last but not least when it comes to watercolor blocks is the offering from Fabriano Artistico, there traditional white watercolor blocks. This is a paper that comes in a wonderful warm white tone. It’s the standard affair when it comes to top quality paper, with the paper being made of 100% cotton and being acid free. 

The paper comes from a company with a long and storied history. Being the paper of choice for many masters of the past. That same regard is held to this day, meaning that many still flock to it. If you are looking for the best, then you should definitely give the Fabriano Artistico Traditional White Watercolor Blocks a try.

Best Watercolor Pads

Watercolor pads sort of fill the gap between loose sheets and blocks. With a single glued edge you don’t quite get the benefits of a block in terms of holding the paper. But this glued edge does make a pad far more convenient to take with you on the go. This way you can create pieces that are stored safely on the road, to be removed and displayed when you get home.

Legion Yupo Watercolor Paper Pads

Legion Yupo Heavyweight Watercolor Paper Pad - 11'' x 14'', 10 Sheets

Just the one recommendation here, though we could easily mention a few products from the usual suspects of Arches and Frabriano Artistico. We picked the Legion Yupo watercolor paper pads mainly because they are a unique take on what makes the best watercolor paper. And they have been hugely successful in their ingenuity.

While all the other papers that we have talked about have gone the traditional route, in using 100% cotton to make their paper, Legion have chosen a different path. Using 100% polypropylene to create a synthetic paper. This gives them a paper that is non-absorbent, leaving it resistant to things that normally cause issues (ripping, buckling).

This unique strategy does come with a couple quirks. First off, this paper is perfectly smooth. Unlike the cold-pressed paper that is traditionally used in watercolor. Also with the paper being waterproof the way you paint will also have to change a little. With the paint not being absorbed into the paper, but remaining on the surface where the water will evaporate. This means that there will likely be a longer dry time for your artwork. Remaining on the surface does however come with some benefits. It means that all the pigment (the bit that gives your paint color) will also stay on the surface. So when your piece does dry, you will be left with colors that are extra vibrant and really pop. 

We admit that this paper probably isn’t for everyone, but thought we would give it a mention. That said, if you fancy trying a new and high tech way of doing watercolor then you should definitely give the Legion Yupo watercolor paper pads a try.

All About Watercolor Paper -A Buying Guide for Beginners

What Is Watercolor Paper?

This may seem a bit of a silly question but it’s well worth asking. Watercolor paper is paper that has been manufactured specifically to be used along with watercolor. This means that the paper has some traits that make it particularly good for use with the medium. We are going to talk you through some of the areas that make watercolor paper, watercolor paper. As well as pointing out some of the things to look for to make sure you get the best stuff possible. 

Manufacturing process

An area that can of course have a real impact on the quality of a paper and how it behaves in use, is how it was made. In this section we will take a look at some of the key manufacturing processes and how they impact the paper that is produced.

Stack of paper
Photo by ron dyar 

Mould Made paper

Mould made paper is the higher end manufacturing process. With paper being manufactured in a cylindrical mould machine, this paper is desired by artists primarily for its surface stability. This manufacturing process also comes with some other benefits such as being somewhat more tear resistant than machine made paper, due to the random alignment of fibres in the sheet. This type of paper also has the intangible benefit of  having the ‘character’ hand made paper. With every sheet showing slight variations, they are each unique.

Machine Made papers

As you would expect, machine made paper is the more mass produced product. With machines known as fourdrinier machines making large continuous sheets of paper along a conveyor belt. Being an industrial process everything is much more uniform and lacking the character of the more hands on processes. The main benefit of this manufacturing process is the huge reduction that is possible in terms of cost.

Material

Another key variable in the behaviour of paper, is the materials that are used to produce it. Thankfully this is a little simpler than the manufacturing. Here are the things to look for to make sure that you end up with the best watercolor paper possible.

Art paper is generally made with one of two materials. Cotton and/or wood pulp (cellulose). When it comes to the best watercolor paper, you want to make sure that anything you buy is 100% cotton.  This is the material of choice when it comes to professional products. This is because of its fantastic surface stability and its archival qualities. This means that the paper will allow your artwork to look their best – not only on day one, but for the years to come.

Weight

You will see that watercolor paper much like our types of paper will have a weight value. Usually given in lb (or gsm), this essentially tells you the thickness of the page. You will see values that are a little higher for watercolor paper than other art paper. Being a wet medium, we paint on thicker paper to decrease the chances of the paper buckling, crinkling, or turning up at the edges as it dries. All of these things can ruin a piece and should be avoided at all cost.

The most common weight for watercolor paper is 140 lb (300 gsm). This is paper that can stand up to all but the heaviest washes and scrubbing without issue. You’ll see this paper everywhere, often at a reasonable price as well. Another weight that is also quite common in 300 lb (640 gsm), this is probably the heaviest paper you will ever need. This type of paper can take a lot of watery abuse without issue. This usually comes with a price to match.

Texture

The surface texture is one of the key areas to think about when purchasing watercolor paper. The texture of a surface can make a huge difference to your painting experience and with a couple of different options to choose from, there is a choice to be made. 

What is Cold Press Watercolor Paper?

Cold pressed paper is paper with a slightly texture surface. This texture is the go to choice for many, as the surface allows for great control of the paint on the page as you work. The name comes from the manufacturing process by which the paper is given this surface texture. During its manufacture, the raw materials are pressed between felt covers metal rollers at a cold temperature. This imparts the slight texture onto the surface.

What is Hot Press Watercolor Paper?

Hot pressed paper has some very different characteristics, with the main difference being it’s completely smooth surface. This surface texture (or lack thereof) is produced by pressing the paper between two heated metal rollers during the manufacturing process. Hence “hot pressed”.

While hot-press paper isn’t used as commonly when watercoloring, it does have its uses when using this medium. You will want to use hot press paper if the piece you are painting has a lot of fine detail, at the level that could be disrupted or distorted by surface texture.

What is Rough Watercolor Paper?

The third type of paper that you may come across is known as rough. This takes the texture of cold press paper to the next level. With accentuated grooves. Rough paper is again not commonly used for watercolor as the deeper grooves can disrupt the brushstrokes.

Hot-press  vs. Cold-press vs. Rough Watercolor Papers

There is of course something to be said about personal preference when choosing a surface to paint on. But when talking in general terms, cold press is usually the go-to surface texture when doing watercolor. It gives the perfect texture to allow the artist to properly control the paint on the page, without getting prohibitive.

Pads and Blocks – Paper Form Factors.

As you would expect there are a few different form factors in which watercolor paper is sold. We’ve already covered a form that everyone will be familiar with, the sketchbook. But in this section we will take a look at a couple of forms that you may not be as familiar with. 

Pads and blocks add a slight twist to the normal sheets. Pads are pretty similar to a normal legal pad. Just filled with watercolor paper instead. They work great for taking paper on the go, when you would normally take single sheets.

Blocks are a little more interesting. With the paper glue on all four sides in a block. This form factor greatly reduces the chances of any paper buckling during the painting process. There is also no need to prepare the paper with stretching or soaking.

Some beginners have a hard time figuring out how to get their artwork off of the block. It’s actually really simple. All you need to do is to slip something sharp, like a palette knife, into the little slot at the front of the block. Then move the knife around the block to free your page. If you’re still unsure here is a handy tutorial to show you how it’s done.

Frequently Asked Questions

Hopefully we haven’t left you with too many questions, but just in case we have gone ahead and answered some of the most commonly asked questions that people ask around watercolor paper.

Question mark light fixture
Photo by Jon Tyson 

Conclusion

We hope you’ve enjoyed our comprehensive review of the best watercolor paper. We’ve said it time and time again. We think watercolor is a wonderful medium of art to get into, and now you should be armed with the tools you need to make the most of the art that you create. 

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