Seasoned watercolorists know just how important selecting the right watercolor paper can be.
Not only will a good watercolor paper resist warping, but it will also help to showcase the pigments within the paint in a much more vivid manner – ultimately resulting in a better watercolor painting.
In this review and guide, we will be reviewing a selection of watercolor papers – including the highly touted Arches watercolor paper.
In addition to our detailed reviews, we will also share with you some tips to keep in mind when making your selection.
Table of Contents
Comparison Top Watercolor Papers We Reviewed
When reviewing all the watercolor papers, here are the important features so you can easily compare them in a tabular format:
- Paper Type: Whether the paper is hot pressed, cold pressed, or rough.
- GSM: The weight of the watercolor paper.
- Scale: The number of different sizes available.
- Rating: Our rating of the paper.
|Name||Best For||Paper Type||g/m2||Scale||Rating|
|Arches Watercolor Paper||Overall||Cold, Hot, Rough||300||13 Sizes||5.0|
|Canson Montval Watercolor Block||Field, Plein Air||Cold||300||5 Sizes||4.8|
|Strathmore 300 Series||Beginners, Students||Cold||300||1 Size||4.7|
|Arches Hot Press||Hot Press||Hot||300||13 Sizes||4.9|
|Canson XL Series||Cheap, Affordable||Cold||300||4 Sizes||4.5|
|Bee Paper Company||Paper Roll||Cold||300||1 Size||4.5|
8 Considerations When Buying Watercolor Paper
When purchasing watercolor paper, you will want to keep the following in mind when making your decision:
1. Paper Type
As you may have noticed in some of the reviews, watercolor papers can come in primarily three different varieties:
- Hot Press
- Cold Press
- Rough Paper
Here’s a diagram that demonstrates the differences:
- Hot Pressed Watercolor Paper: As the name suggests, hot press watercolor paper has been flattened through the use of heat (similar to ironing). This paper is much smoother to the touch making it suitable for detail work. However, it cannot hold as much water making it susceptible to warping.
- Cold Pressed Watercolor Paper: This watercolor paper type often features a thicker texture that provides more versatility for the artist. Sometimes labeled as ‘NOT’ (i.e. NOT hot pressed), cold pressed watercolor paper is the most widely used paper by artists. When using cold pressed watercolor paper, it is suggested that you stretch it prior to use in order to prevent warping in your finished artwork.
- Rough Paper: This paper type is typically much thicker and preferred by artists for its textured surface. Rough watercolor paper never went through the pressing process and may have irregular features throughout. Many companies sell this paper with a deckled edge (torn edge).
From postcards to large scale paintings, watercolor papers come in many different sizes. Our recommendation is to always err on the side of caution and choose a larger size as it can be cut down to size. Secondly, if you plan on using your new watercolor paper for field sketches, then a smaller size will be helpful when transporting.
3. Weight (GSM)
Like traditional paper, watercolor paper varies in weight. However, unlike traditional paper, many brands refer to their weight in GSM (Grams Per Square Meter / g/m2) as they are often located in Europe.
The traditional sweet spot that watercolorists prefer is 300 g/m2. Anything less than 300 g/m2 will require taping down the paper to prevent warping. However, heavier weighted papers greater than 300 g/m2 tend to have increased price points.
Watercolor paper can be made from a variety of sources; however, two of the most popular are cellulose fibers (wood) and cotton. Here’s how they differ:
- Wood Pulp: Watercolor paper made from wood pulp is considered to be of poorer quality. Wood pulp is unable to absorb water nearly as well as some other plant-derived fibers (i.e. linen and cotton fibers). Poorly made wood pulp papers also contain acid.
- Cellulose Fibers: Cellulose fibers are derived from plant-based materials and their performance can vary greatly. Good for students and intermediates, cellulose fibers tend to be more affordable.
- Cotton Paper: Watercolor paper made from cotton is the standard among professional watercolorists. Cotton is less susceptible to warping while also providing a much more consistent texture to the surface. Cotton paper can be mold made (machine made) or handmade. When buying watercolor paper, make sure that it’s 100% cotton paper and not a blend of cheaper filler material. Lastly, cotton paper is naturally acid free.
5. Pad, Loose, & Block Types
When researching watercolor paper, you will find that it comes in many different forms which include the following:
- Watercolor Pad: Like a traditional sketch pad, a paper pad will be either glued or wire bound on only one side. When buying a watercolor pad of paper, it is recommended to go with a wire bound over glue as the glue can contain chemicals that may deteriorate the paper over a prolonged period.
- Loose Leaf: Single sheets of paper are preferred by artists for studio work. Able to be mounted, stretched or cut, a loose leaf sheet of paper provides a lot of versatility. However, storage can be tricky for this paper type.
- Watercolor Block: A block is considered to be the most versatile paper type. Blocks are glued on three of the four edges and prevent warping. Once done with your artwork, you can cut away the paper from the block.
6. Number of Sheets
The number of sheets available in a pad or block varies from one brand to another. Typically the greater the number of sheets, the lower the price per sheet will be. This consideration is of personal preference and one that you should think about before making your purchase. Common sizes include 30 sheets, 15 sheets, and 12 sheets.
The number of brands that make quality watercolor papers is relatively sparse, here the ones most commonly relied upon by artists to provide consistently good results:
- Bee Paper
- Legion Stonehenge
- Saunders Waterford
- Winsor & Newton
The price of watercolor paper will vary depending on whether it is made for student or professional level artists. An inexpensive pad of watercolor paper will cost under $10 whereas a professional block of watercolor paper will cost upwards of $50. Lastly, the size of the sheet will impact the price.
7 Best Watercolor Papers Reviewed
1. Overall Best Watercolor Paper: Arches Watercolor Paper
- Acid free and 100% cotton
- Available in several different sizes, weights, and paper types
- The fine textured surface allows for great control
Professional watercolorists that are looking for a 100% cotton cold pressed paper that performs incredibly well.
You don’t have to look far before you see in forums, galleries, and even museums that one of the most beloved papers from artists at all levels will be those made by Arches.
- A rich, proven history in making paper for professional artists
Imported from France, watercolorists have loved Arches paper for centuries.
Founded in 1492, Arches has withstood the test of time and features one of the richest histories of any brand featured on our list.
But what makes their paper beloved by artists? Arches strike the perfect balance between texture and absorbency.
Thanks to its cylinder mold made design, each sheet provides a consistent experience which allows for predictable results.
- Archival qualities make it preferred for commission pieces
For those of you who plan on doing commissioned pieces, the paper provided by Arches is both acid-free and pH-neutral.
The paper itself should be able to withstand a couple of hundred years’ worth of display time before a conservationist will even have to perform any work.
- Several sizes, weight, and paper types are available
One of Arches’ strongest offerings will be the variety of size, weight, and paper options available.
From a small 3.9” x 9.8” to 18” x 24”, you should have no problem finding the right size to suit your preference. Furthermore, Arches makes their papers available in pad, block, and loose leaf forms.
As for the weight, Arches makes their watercolor papers in five different weights including 185, 300, 356, 640, and 850 g/m2 (available when purchasing through a specialty retailer such as Dick Blick).
Lastly, Arches also allows you to choose between hot pressed, rough, and cold pressed paper varieties.
Paper Type: Cold Pressed Paper, Hot Pressed Paper, Rough Paper
- Find the perfect paper to meet your requirements
- Mold made manufacturing process provides consistent results
- Acid free body makes it suitable for commissioned works
- Larger sizes can get quite expensive
Bottom Line: Overall, if you are taking your water coloring seriously and want to see better results, instead of investing in expensive brushes or paints, watercolor papers provided by Arches are simply the best option that is currently available on the market.
2. Best Watercolor Paper For Plein Air: Canson Montval Watercolor Block
- Small sizes make it perfect for field sketches
- Made from cellulose fibers and is acid free
- Block form allows for easy and safe transport
Artists who want to capture their work en plein air. The smaller block sizes form allows for hassle-free travel outside the studio.
When going beyond the four walls of your studio (plein air), you will want to bring a different watercolor paper with you – specifically one that is small, compact, and won’t move when it’s windy.
Here’s what we specifically liked about this watercolor block from Canson:
- Sizes perfect for outdoor painting and the studio
From 4” x 6” to 12” x 16”, Canson offers up small blocks that can easily fit into your favorite purse or messenger bag. With 15 sheets apiece and carrying a weight of 300 g/m2, the paper won’t warp or deteriorate.
- Quality paper at an affordable price
Relying on cellulose fibers, this cold pressed paper from Canson can withstand a few layers from the wet media – allowing you to make dynamic and deep paintings. Thanks to the machine made design, like Arches, the paper provides a consistent and slightly textured surface with each sheet.
- Rich history that supports artists at all levels
Founded in 1557 (source), Canson has provided quality watercolor paper for artists across several generations. Beyond being a favorite with professionals, Canson is also a major sponsor of the Louvre and has supported several initiatives as a result (source).
Paper Type: Cold Pressed Paper
- Several sizes
- Compact design great for field paintings
- Limited paper types
Bottom Line: For the artist who wants to go beyond the four walls of their studio, this watercolor block not only will perform well, but is also an affordable option. Just don’t forget to pack the water when you go outside!
3. Best Watercolor Paper For Beginners: Strathmore 300 Series
- Widely available
- Low price ensures you focus on technique
- Cold pressed paper and ample weight
Student artists that are still in the learning process and want to practice and experiment with new techniques.
When evaluating watercolor papers for beginners, the importance of archival quality, acidity, and absorbency start to diminish
When reviewing papers for beginners, we found that the Strathmore 300 Series will be your best choice for a few reasons:
- Available both online and at your local art store
Whether you have a sudden urge to paint or you like having products delivered to your doorstep, one really nice feature of the Strathmore 300 Series paper is that it is available everywhere. From the corner supermarket to your local arts and crafts store, it is incredibly easy to find.
- Student grade paper at a rock-bottom price
One of the problems that many beginner artists have is they are afraid to use their supplies because they cost so much. When using nicer papers, many cannot help but tally up the price in their head and know that a practice piece may cost them a couple of dollars in supplies each time.
With this paper from Strathmore, the price range per sheet averages under $0.50, which is significant given that artist grade papers cost on average about $4.15 per sheet.
- Perfect blend of weight and texture to practice watercolors on paper
While not as high quality as some of the other watercolor paper pads that we reviewed, the Strathmore 300 provides a nice heavy weight (300 g/m2) and consistent texture so you can practice painting techniques without having to worry about the paper warping. The texture allows your watercolor pigments to latch on easily, which in turn allows for dynamic color combinations you can get with traditional paper.
Paper Type: Cold Pressed Paper
- Perfect surface texture for beginners to explore their watercolor paints
- Paper quality is good considering the price
- Made for artists of all ages
- Susceptible to pilling when layering heavily
Bottom Line: This paper is perfect for beginners. Its terrific performance coupled by a rock-bottom price per sheet not normally exhibited in this category makes for a sound choice.
4. Best Hot Press Watercolor Paper: Arches Hot Press
- Smooth finish is ideal for portrait and detail work
- Cotton composition won’t pill or warp
- Available in 140 lb / 300 gsm weight
Advanced watercolorists looking for a hot press paper that allows them to showcase their detailed watercolor techniques.
When looking for the hot press paper, then most watercolorists agree that Arches makes the best paper surface out there.
- Consistent gelatin sizing for professional results
During the production process, quality watercolor paper companies will submerge the paper into a bath of a sizing agent. This allows the paper to resist absorbing both the pigment and water when you are painting. For this hot press paper by Arches, this paper, which is made from 100% cotton, has undergone natural gelatin sizing. This not only adds strength to the paper so you don’t have to stretch it prior to painting but will also allow for crisp and more controlled results.
Secondly, the paper is made from long staple cotton which shouldn’t pill or warp when adding several layers or brush strokes to a particular area.
- Great for intermediate and professional artist use
From an archival standpoint, this hot press paper from Arches is great for a professional-level painting. It is acid free and won’t yellow.
Secondly, Arches also makes this paper in several different sizes so you can get the right scale to fit your artistic needs.
When considering the price, it is expensive and, therefore, may be a bit too expensive for novice artists. Averaging $2.50 per sheet, it will likely be best used for planned pieces rather than simply doodling.
Paper Type: Hot Pressed Paper
- Great for layering and won’t pill thanks to 100% cotton composition
- Gelatin sizing allows for greater control and prevents warping
- Moderately priced given quality
- Intended for specific painting styles
Bottom Line: If you are planning to paint portraits or detailed pieces, then you will love the control and ultimately the results when working with this hot press paper by Arches. Artists find that their artwork simply displays better on this paper.
5. Best Cheap Watercolor Paper: Canson XL Series
- Incredible low price cost per sheet
- Well-made and perfect for testing techniques
- Ample weight
Student artists looking to test techniques and want a paper that is from a trusted brand.
If you are just starting out as an artist and are looking for a paper to go with that isn’t too expensive, then there is no better choice than the Canson XL Series paper. Here’s what we liked about it:
- Rock-bottom price allows you to focus on your artwork rather than cost
When using expensive art supplies, it’s hard to ignore the price every time you go to sit down and paint. Rather than running a tally in your head, the Cason XL’s incredibly low price per pad (typically retails for under $6) will remove this mental block completely. So whether you are trying to do a quick field sketch or a simple doodle, you can have fun experimenting with this complex medium and not worry about how much it will cost you.
- Ample weight not typically found in comparable papers
When browsing online stores for other inexpensive watercolor papers, we found that many off-brands compromised on weight. This is a problem in that if you paint with these papers, they will quickly pill and warp when adding the tiniest bit of water. This can kill your confidence as an artist because many will interpret this as their fault and not that of the papers. At 300 g/m2, this paper won’t buckle or warp easily – allowing you to truly showcase your talents.
Paper Type: Cold Pressed Paper
- Inexpensive price makes it a good paper for all skill levels and ages
- 30 sheets per pad allow for plenty of practice
- Trusted brand
- Works well with other media including color pencils, acrylics, markers, gouache, etc.
- Limited paper weight and types available for experimentation
Bottom Line: Whether you are a college student or a thrifty shopper, this budget paper allows you to still have fun painting without having to worry about the cost. It is well-made and will showcase your talents beautifully.
6. Best Watercolor Paper Roll: Bee Paper Company
- Roll and cut to size
- Made from 100% cotton
- Affordable when compared to a pad
Artists who want complete control over all aspects in the size of their planned painting.
Watercolor paper rolls not only allow for greater control on the size of the surface that you plan to paint on but also equally provide tremendous value. This watercolor paper roll expertly strikes the perfect balance between both value and quality.
- Paper quality allows for several different methods and techniques
Whether you like to put down a wash or are more into masking, scraping, scrubbing, using salt, or simply plan on using mixing media, this Bee Paper can withstand the abuse thanks to its durability and thickness. Made from 100% cotton and at a weight of 300 g/m2, you won’t find this paper to be a barrier to your artistic ideas.
- Best for very specific designs
While the roll allows you to experiment with non-traditional paper sizes, it isn’t without some notable limitations. Most notably, if you sketch a plein air painting, there is no solid surface to paint against like a traditional sketchbook or block. Therefore, you will need to bring a board with you. Secondly, sizes must be planned carefully before they are cut. This could lead to accidental mistakes and ultimately waste.
- With each sheet, mounting is a requirement
When using a watercolor paper roll, mounting is a requirement. Therefore, you will also need to have a drawing board on hand along with some good mounting tape (covered later in this guide).
- 100% Cotton Paper won’t pill or warp
- High-quality paper at an affordable price
- Cold pressed surface provides moderate texture for control
- Every sheet must be mounted
Bottom Line: This heavyweight paper from Bee Paper is a great alternative to traditional sketchbooks and pads. From beginners to professionals, this paper works well for all. Just make sure that you are careful when cutting in order to prevent waste.
7. Legion Stonehenge Aqua Coldpress
- Hand-crafted and high-quality
- Perfect for painting many different techniques
- Made in USA
Beginner to intermediate level watercolorists that are looking for an upgrade in their paper quality.
The Legion Stonehenge Aqua Coldpress paper is a terrific intermediate level paper. It is made from 100% cotton, has a neutral pH-level and is acid-free. Furthermore, Legion doesn’t add any optical brightening agents or chlorine, which lessens its impact on the environment when made.
- Cold & hot pressed options are available
Whether you are buying through a retailer such as Amazon, Dick Blick, or Jerry’s Artarama, you will find that Legion makes their paper in several sizes along with both hot and cold pressed options. The differing texture between the paper types allow you to find the right texture for your next painting (remember: hot pressed for detail, cold press for deeper texture and layering).
- The thick surface provides plenty of resilience
Whether you are painting with purely watercolors or are planning on working in some other media, the surface of the Legion Stonehenge should be able to withstand the toughest of your demands.
- Several sizes available to meet your needs
- Available in both hot and cold press
- Made from 100% cotton
- Not as bright as traditional white paper (i.e. copy paper)
- Not intended for commissioned pieces
Bottom Line: If you are looking for a step up from some of the beginner brands, then Legion Stonehenge will make sense for you. Made from cotton and developed in a safe and environmental-friendly way, it remains an extraordinary watercolor paper.
4 Essential Watercolor Supplies You Should Have On Hand
Aside from watercolor paper, here are a few other supplies you will want to have on hand when watercoloring:
1. Paint and Brushes
What use is paper if you don’t have anything to paint it with?! If you are starting watercolor painting for the very first time, then you should check out our detailed guides on watercolor paints and watercolor brushes. In those guides, we review materials for every skill level.
2. Watercolor Palette
Whether you intend to use watercolor paint from tubes or pans, a palette provides you with a clean mixing surface in order to provide sharp and crisp results. Secondly, palettes can help you mix subtle gradients that bring your painting to the next level.
3. Watercolor Ground
Like gesso used for oil and acrylic paints, a watercolor ground can transform just about any material into a suitable surface for watercolor painting. Brands such as Daniel Smith manufacture a variety of grounds that are worth considering.
4. Mounting Tape
Mounting tape comes in two main varieties – gummed tape and artist tape. Here’s a quick look at each:
This tape has tremendous strength and will ensure that the surface doesn’t wrinkle when stretched properly. However, gummed tape is susceptible to peeling and it is recommended that your artwork is cut free with an X-ACTO knife once dried and completed.
Artist Tape / Drafting Tape
Similar to masking tape, artist tape is acid free and does a great job at keeping the watercolor paper mounted to a board. While not as strong as gummed tape, artist tape is easier to remove and will be less likely to ruin artwork.
Watercolor Paper FAQs
Here are a few common questions artists had about watercolor paper:
Can I watercolor on regular paper?
Most artists agree that using watercolors on regular paper is a bad idea. The reason is that regular paper is too light and is unable to absorb water well. This will result in warping and wrinkling of the paper. Furthermore, regular paper often contains acid which will yellow over time.
What can I use if I don’t have watercolor paper available?
For those artists unable to use watercolor paper, there are plenty of other options which include the following: linen canvas, cotton canvas, parchment paper, rice paper, and wood. If possible, you should prime these surfaces with an absorbent ground prior to painting.
Does watercolor paper need to be wet prior to painting?
Some artists will wet their surface with a brush prior to painting. This process is called stretching and ensures that the paper won’t crinkle or warp when your artwork is finished. You will want to make sure that you secure the wet surface to a board with mounting tape for best results.
Can you watercolor on cardstock?
While you can watercolor on cardstock, you will want to make sure your paper is mounted to a board as card stock may warp as it dries.
How do you flatten watercolor paper that has been warped or wrinkled?
If you have watercolor paper that buckled after it dried, then you will want to follow these steps:
- Spray a mist of water to the back of the paper (non-artwork side)
- Place the paper (artwork side down) on a clean surface
- Place another clean surface on the non-artwork side
- Place a heavy flat item (i.e. books) on the painting overnight
Why does watercolor paper cost so much?
Watercolor paper is expensive due to the extensive manufacturing process. Unlike regular paper, watercolor paper is much thicker and relies on natural materials such as cotton. Additionally, watercolor paper also has a much longer drying process which can have an impact on costs.
Should You Get Watercolor Paper With A Deckle Edge?
When reviewing watercolor papers, especially those that are rough or have been handmade, you may notice a natural tearing along the edges.
This is referred to by watercolorists as having a deckled edge.
While there are machines that can reproduce this design flare, it largely harkens back to the day when watercolor papers were handmade. This is mostly a decision that is left to the artist and the type of feeling you are trying to evoke in your painting.
6 Alternatives to Watercolor Paper
When creating artwork, it’s important to be aware of the related supplies as they could be used for certain pieces. Here are some common alternatives to watercolor paper:
1. Drawing Paper
Hot pressed and with substantially less weight, drawing paper is intended for use with graphite or charcoal. The much finer texture of this paper won’t absorb watercolors nearly as well and will be susceptible to warping as the weight is typically around 130 g/m2.
2. Copy Paper
At 20lbs and intended just for inkjet or laser printers, copy paper is at best used for very light use. With poor absorption properties and a flimsy body, copy paper should never be used as a trusted surface. Additionally, copy paper may contain acid and is full of whiteners which may cause deterioration at a quicker rate.
3. Card Stock
At roughly 200 g/m2,card stock can work in a pinch when it comes to light watercolor sketches. While unable to absorb water nearly as well as traditional watercolor paper, many watercolorists like the smooth texture, particularly for detailed pieces or watercolors that are used on formal drawings. Card stock must be mounted in order to prevent warping.
4. Mixed Media Paper
Mixed media is a great intermediary between traditional watercolor paper and other common paper types such as card stock. With a slightly textured surface and heavy body typically around 300 g/m2, it can withstand not only watercolors, but also acrylic, gouache, pencil, ink, charcoal, pastel, and other media.
Traditional canvas that is left untreated (raw) or primed with gesso is incompatible with watercolors. However, a canvas that has been treated with an absorbent ground such as those by Golden or Daniel Smith can be used as a painting surface with your watercolors.
6. Construction Paper
Like copy paper, construction paper is rather thin and not the best surface for painting. However, if you are looking for watercolor supplies for kids (under 8), construction paper can work in a pinch.
Difference Between Student and Professional (Artist) Watercolor Paper
Like watercolor paints, papers come in both student and professional grades. Here, we wanted to highlight a few of the key differences between both of these grades and what they will mean for your artwork:
Student Watercolor Paper
Student grade papers tend to be sold in bulk quantities, and are largely reserved for artists who are still learning basic skills such as blending or washing.
The archival properties of this paper type are poor and not intended for long term display as they often have a neutral pH balance and contain artificial whiteners. However, we found that most modern student grade papers are acid-free.
A student paper is often made from wood pulp or cellulose fiber and may pill after a few layers of paint.
This paper type is significantly cheaper.
Professional (Artist) Watercolor Paper
Professional grade paper is often made from a long-staple cotton fiber. This allows the artist to do complex blending, washings, and more to really demonstrate their talents.
The archival qualities of this paper type are strong. You can expect your artwork to keep to its true state throughout the time it’s on display.
The prices of this paper are significantly higher and typically range upwards to $4 for a single sheet.
Where To Buy Watercolor Paper
Watercolor papers are widely available. Here are a few notable online retailers where you can purchase watercolor paper from:
- DickBlick.com / UtrechtArt.com
- Jerry’s Artarama
- Cheap Joe’s
Selecting the best watercolor paper of 2020 proved to be a challenge. Not only do the variety of surface types vary significantly from one brand to the next, but so do the forms, weight, prices, etc.
We hope that this guide proved helpful in your artistic endeavors in finding the perfect quality paper to meet your needs.