Good paper can make a huge difference in your quality of life as watercolorist. Paper designed for other media just can’t take the amount of water that watercolor requires. Think about it: water is terrible for paper! Water makes most paper melt, tear, and break down, so you get little fuzzy bits of paper mixed in with your paint. Getting high quality paper can be the simplest path to getting great results from the paints you picked out so carefully.
When I first started shopping for watercolor paper, I was bewildered by all the specs. I’ll break it down so you can figure out what you’re buying and how it will work with your watercolor style.
There are 5 major considerations when it comes to buying paper:
- Texture: hot press, cold press, or rough press.
- Material: What the paper is made of: cellulose (wood pulp), cotton, a blend, or an alternative material.
- Weight: The thickness of the paper.
- Size: The dimensions of the page; how big do you like to paint?
- Format: How the paper comes to you: as loose sheets, a sketchbook, a pad, a block.
- Hot Press is the smoothest; you get the most vibrant colors and crispest details wet-on-dry, but wet-on-wet work can result in harsh dried paint lines and blooms – it’s difficult to get a smooth gradient. Good for illustration, pen-and-ink, and anything requiring fine detail. Difficult to use for wet-on-wet washes, unless you want the blooms and water lines for effect.
- Cold Press, sometimes called “not” (as in “hot or not”), is medium tooth. Because it has a more texture to it, the water has more places to settle, making it easier to create wet-on-wet effects like smooth gradients and color changes. You can also paint fine details wet-on-dry.
- Rough press is even more textured. Wet-on-wet washes are even smoother and softer, but detail may be more difficult, and vibrant color may take several layers.
None of the presses are better or worse, they’re all just tools for different jobs. Some artists keep a variety of paper textures around, while others choose their favorite, or the best match to their general style. If you’re not sure, cold press is a good starting place, a “best of both worlds” that balances detail and softness. For landscapes, I find it the easiest to work with.
Typical paper, from watercolor paper to printer paper, is made of cellulose (wood pulp). If the package doesn’t specify, this is probably what the paper is made of.
Fancy watercolor paper is usually made of 100% cotton. It’s a lot more absorbent than cellulose, so it can take a lot more water/layers; usually you can paint on both sides, whereas it may only be practical to paint on one side of cellulose paper. Cotton paper takes longer to dry, so you have more working time. It is more durable and lasts longer. It’s also more expensive.
A small number of papers use alternative materials, like Legion Yupo (polypropylene) and Hahnemühle Agave (cactus). These each have their own special feels and considerations.
Papers are measured in weight (lbs) and grams per meter (gsm), both of which refer to the weight of a ream of paper. The higher the numbers, the thicker the paper, and thicker is better for watercolor because it means it can take more water. Thicker also means more expensive.
Here are the most common weights available for watercolor paper:
- 90 lb/190 gsm – I would consider this too flimsy for wet-on-wet.
- 140 lb/300 gsm – Very common, a good balance of budget and quality. It will still buckle with enough water, but you’re not going to be losing your mind fighting the paper like with 90lb.
- 300 lb/640 gsm – Dreamy, super thick (almost like cardstock), takes a ton of water… and expensive!
So far, we’ve focused on aspects of the paper itself. Once you’ve decided what type of paper you want, you can start thinking about how big you want it and in what format.
What size paper do you like to paint on? This a personal preference question. If you’re a beginner, you might not be sure. You might want to try a few different sizes.
Personally, I found it easiest to start on smaller paper. Small paper allows me to make finished pieces quickly, without too many moving parts to keep in mind. It can be extra challenging to do a large piece because parts of it dry while you’re working on the other parts.
By “small”, I mean something like the dimensions of half a sheet of printer paper (5.5″ x 8.5″), A5 paper (148mm x 210mm, or 5.875″ x 8.25″), or any related size (e.g. 6″x9″, 5″x8″). To me this feels like good balance between “small enough to finish quickly” and “large enough to be something.” Extremely small paper, like under 4″ on each side, is too small for me – it feels like not enough space to put anything unless you use really tiny brushes.
That said, you can always buy larger paper and cut it down. That gives you more options. It can also be economical to buy paper large and cut it. I’ll explain more in the “format” section below.
Aspect Ratio: I find it easiest to follow landscape tutorials with rectangular paper. But if you like your work to be Instagram-friendly without cropping or incorporating it into a flatlay, you might want to consider a square.
Once you have an idea of how big you want to work, you can think about what format you’d like it in. You can buy watercolor paper in sheets, pads, blocks, and sketchbooks.
As with many personal preference things, it can be hard to know what your preferences are before you’ve tried them all (which can be expensive). Here are some considerations to help guide you to the best choice for you to start with.
Traditionally, nice watercolor paper comes in loose full sheets (22″x30″). This is still the most common format you’ll find at an in-person art store. There are some brands and types of paper you can only get in full sheets.
How to use it: Cut the paper down to your desired dimensions. When it comes time to paint on a mini-sheet, tape it down on all four sides to a hard surface, such as a clipboard or art board (or even your desk). You can easily work on multiple paintings at once by preparing multiple mini-sheets in this way. When the painting is fully dry, untape it.
How to cut it: You can cut the paper with ordinary scissors or with a paper cutter. I have this hand-held Cheap Joe’s paper cutter. You fold the paper and run the cutter down the fold, like a letter opener. The edges get a bit curly, but it’s a much straighter cut than I can get with scissors. I find this cutter is the best for me because it doesn’t take up a large amount of space. But larger paper cutters designed for crafting may give you neater cuts.
Full Sheet Math: 22″x30″ is so large. Here are some ways you can cut it:
- 2 half-sheets, which are still extremely big (15″x22″)
- 4 quarter-sheets, which are nearly A3 or tabloid size (11″x15″)
- 8 sheets that are nearly A4 or letter size (7.5″x11″)
- 9 sheets in a glossy-headshot-ish size (7.3″x10″)
- 12 nearly square sheets (7.3″x7.5″)
- 16 small sheets near A5 size (5.5″x7.5″)
- Mix and match! (e.g. 1 quarter sheet, 2x 7.5″x11, 8x 5.5″x7.5″)
Pro: Quality/Selection. The nicest watercolor paper comes in this format, and sometimes this is the only way it comes.
Pro: Flexibility. You can cut your paper down to any size and shape, or a variety of different sizes – you’re not locked into a particular size because it’s “how the paper came”.
Pro: Cost effectiveness. Each sheet is several dollars (~$6-$18 where I am depending on quality). You may still think that’s a lot for one big piece of paper, but recall that you can cut it into no fewer than 16 A5-size sheets. Your money usually goes further buying two full sheets compared to a comparable-quality A5 sketchbook with 32 sheets/64 pages. (And – as noted in ‘selection’ – lots of paper companies don’t make comparable-quality sketchbooks.)
Con: Surcharges. If you shop online, one thing to factor into the cost effectiveness is that shipping large format paper sometimes incurs a shipping surcharge.
Con: Effort. There’s the extra step of cutting the paper and taping it down. With a block, there’s none of that – you just start painting.
Con: Not as portable. If you want to sketch on the go, you have to have the foresight to cut your paper ahead of time, bring tape and something to lean on, and waste precious daylight taping things down in the field. Sketchbooks may be more “grab and go.”
What can I say, it’s a pad: a stack of paper that’s glued on one side to keep it together.
How to use it: Generally, I would probably remove one piece of paper from the pad in order to work on it. There is no real advantage to working on the pad. Take a sheet off the pad and tape it down as you would loose paper.
Pro: Easy to find. Even non-art stores sometimes carry watercolor pads.
Pro: Comes in various sizes. You can probably find a pad that’s in the size you like to work, so you don’t have to cut it (but you can if you want to; sometimes I’d rather work 6×9 instead of 9×12, e.g.)
Pro: Often cost effective. I usually find that pads are cheaper than blocks and sketchbooks, which makes sense; it’s lower-effort and takes fewer materials to make.
Con: Quality/Selection. Typically I find that the nicer paper doesn’t come in pad format. It’s usually my “practice” quality paper, e.g. Canson XL, that I can find as a pad.
A watercolor block is a pad that’s glued down on all four sides.
How to use it: Paint on the top sheet of the block (while it’s attached). The glue on the pad will hold the page taut so you don’t need to tape it down or anything. When the painting is fully dry, you can slide a knife, credit card. or another flat object underneath it to free it from the block. The sheet underneath will now be available for your next painting.
Pro: No need for tape. Because the block holds the paper taut, you don’t need to tape it down. You don’t even need to own tape (unless you use it for masking).
Pro: Paint right to the edge. No tape means no white border around your painting. (You might consider that a con if you like the white border, but personally I like being able to do a “full bleed”.)
Con: Get paint stuck in the glue. This is a lesser-reported-on pitfall of blocks that I have run into. When I paint right to the edge, I sometimes get paint on the glue that reactivates and smears when I try to paint to the edge on my next painting. Wiping down the sides or picking off the edges of the glue can help. However, using single sheets reduces the possibility for that cross-contamination.
Con: You’re locked into a size. You can’t cut the paper – well, you can if you take it off the block first, but that removes the advantage of it being a block.
Con: One painting at once. If you want to work on multiple paintings at once, you need to either have two blocks, or remove one of the sheets from the block and tape it down (negating the pro’s of a block).
Con: Expensive. Compared to loose sheets, blocks tend to be more expensive per square inch of paper.
A bound book, often with hard covers, containing blank watercolor paper for you to paint on.
How to use it: There are a few options here. The most common is probably to use a sketchbook “on the go” for quick watercolor sketches outdoors. For that, you’d just flip open to the next blank page, quickly do a painting, wait a few minutes for it to dry, and move on. You can also use sketchbooks for full-on multi-layered paintings as you might do on any other paper, depending on the quality/weight/material of the paper. You might choose to tape down the edges or use binder clips to make the paper lie flatter.
Pro: Portable. Sketchbooks are favored by plein air and urban artists because you can carry it around and the hard covers provide a portable surface to lean against. All the paper is bound together so there’s minimal messing about with slips of paper and potentially losing them.
Pro OR con: Usually lightweight paper. You never see really heavy paper (like 600gsm) in a sketchbook, which makes sense. It wouldn’t lie flat, it would be heavy, there would be a ludicrously small number of pages. The most common sketchbook paper weight seems to be 200gsm, which I often find too flimsy for the kinds of heavy washes I want to put down, though it may be fine for a quick-working urban sketcher who just wants to dot their pen sketches with a bit of color. In fact, lighter-weight paper is preferable for quick sketches because it dries faster, meaning less waiting around before you close the sketchbook and move on.
Con: You can’t usually paint on both sides of the page. 200gsm paper is often advertised as paintable on both sides, which I find ludicrous. For me, 300gsm is even pushing it. Again, I use a lot of water, so maybe I’m the weird one. Depending on the thickness of the paper, I may paint on the back of a previous painting, or I may leave the back blank (or just use it for notes).
Con: Paint may seep onto the following pages. If you don’t take care to keep well away from the page margins, or you paint across the seam in the middle of the book, paint can spill or seep onto other pages. To limit this, you can will tape down the edges to the edge of the book, as well as laying tape across the binding. This also gives it extra tautness and prevents curling when drying. (This is how Kolbie Blume does it in their 10 Day Challenge, for which they use a Wonder Forest sketchbook.) Still, if you’re going to go to that much trouble, you might as well use loose sheets.
Pro: Use two pages at once (maybe). Unlike a block, where you have only one page available to you at once, with a sketchbook you can have up to two – as long as the paper is thick enough to paint on both sides (which, again, I believe sketchbook paper rarely is, despite the advertising.) If it works out, though, this gives you a few interesting sketchbook-specific options:
- Paint two paintings at once: I like this method of working because it gives me something to do while I wait for a wash to be dry. When I’m trying something experimental, I often simultaneously work on a “burner” and the “real” one, so I can try out every step and correct my mistakes the second time.
- Painting across the spread: Some people favor sketchbooks because you have the option of making two paintings on each side of the page, or opening up a spread and making one giant long painting across the binding. Personally I have never managed that without making a mess.
Alternately, if the paper isn’t quite thick enough for a full second painting, you can use the facing side for written notes. I like to write down my loved & learned, as well as a reminder of the color palette I used, and it’s handy to be able to take those notes in a place where I know it’ll stay with the painting, and I can work on it while the painting is drying (unlike writing on the back).
Pro: Automatic organization for a group or sequence. I used sketchbooks for the aforementioned 10 Day Challenge, and it’s been nice to have that group of paintings in a sequence in book form. Sometimes I flip through it and see my skills improve! It’s also been nice to use a sketchbook to make a little booklet of color swatches, which I still use for reference. Some people use sketchbooks as a sort of diary. If you find it messy to produce an ever-larger stack of loose paintings, and you want to look back on your work in order, filling sketchbooks may be the neater solution you’re looking for.
Con: Hard to separate out paintings. The flipside of having everything organized is that it can be more difficult if you want to remove a painting from the sequence. There have been times when I painted a real dud in my sketchbook and wished it was on a loose sheet so I could just throw it away and pretend it never happened. There have been other times when I painted something I loved in my sketchbook and wished I could frame it! You can tear or cut out a page, but at a cost to the integrity of the sketchbook.
I use a travel sketchbook for plein air, and cut loose sheets at home. I find the 22×30 format too large to comfortably buy and store, so I tend to get quarter-sheets and cut them down into twos or fours, but these are harder to find.
Here are some paper brands that I’ve tried.
- Canson XL Watercolor Pad is my budget pick. It really handles nicely and it’s relatively inexpensive. It only comes in cold press, and it’s 300gsm cellulose, but I can paint on both sides if I don’t use a ton of wash. This is my choice for swatches, practice, and experiments.
- Wonder Forest makes a 100% cotton 140lb/300gsm cold press pad that may be economical if you live in Canada.
- Bockingford is the St Cuthbert Paper Mill budget brand that comes in spiral pads. [St Cuthbert Sampler Review]
- Arches is all 100% cotton, and they offer all three presses in either 300gsm or 640gsm. I’ve used their 300gsm 7.9” square block (the cheapest one they offer, at 20 sheets for ~$40). This is really great paper, and it’s also pretty easy for me to source (it’s usually the fancy paper I see in person at art stores.)
- Saunders Waterford, by St Cuthbert Paper Mill, is very similar to Arches, and another of my top picks. [St Cuthbert Sampler Review]
- Milford is another St Cuthbert imprint that I enjoyed in brief samples. [St Cuthbert Sampler Review]
- Canson, in addition to making the best budget paper, also makes the Héritage line of 100% cotton paper. I’ve sampled this a little, and I liked what I tried.
- Fabriano Artistico is also highly regarded 100% cotton paper, though I found it sort of “meh” my (admittedly brief) personal tests.
- Hahnemühle offers a variety of options, including 100% cotton, cellulose, and renewable agave. Their Cezanne paper is the slowest-drying I have ever tried, which might be good if you work slow and/or large. [Hahnemühle Paper Sampler Review]
- Legion Stonehenge has a variety of special papers, including black and polypropylene options. [Stonehenge Paper Sampler Review]
Here, I reviewed a bunch of sketchbooks.
Am I shooting myself in the foot if I don’t use 100% cotton, high-gsm paper?
If your paper is so flimsy that you’re fighting it and having a bad time, you might want to go up in thickness. If you find it’s rubbing raw, melting under the weight of the water, or drying too quickly, consider increasing the cotton composition.
Some artists will tell you to only use 100% cotton paper. I think it depends on a lot of factors, including your budget; how much water you use; and how fast you want it to dry (cotton = slower, so avoid for plein air sketchbooks).
What is paper stretching?
This is a method of prepping paper that supposedly makes it less prone to warping and buckling, although I personally have always been too lazy to try it. The basic idea is that you tape the paper down, get it evenly wet, and let it dry flat. Then untape it, turn it over, tape it BACK down, and get it evenly wet again. At this point, if you’re starting with a wet-on-wet wash, you can start painting. Otherwise, let it dry completely again before painting wet-on-dry. The idea is that by pre-wetting the paper and letting it dry flat, you can stretch it to its full capacity and then it won’t warp again when you add additional water.
Generally, this is not considered to be necessary for papers that are higher-weight. It’s also not possible to do on a block, at least, not without taking the paper off and invalidating the advantages of a block. So, another reason to use a block is to allow yourself perfect freedom from worrying about paper stretching.
How do I prevent my paper from warping and buckling when I add water?
There are several strategies:
- Tape down the paper while working (or use a block). Keep the paper taped down until it is completely dry.
- Use less water. (A wet-on-wet wash doesn’t actually require much – just enough so the paper has a light sheen. Puddles are counterproductive. On cotton paper, your paper will stay wet longer, so you may not need to use as much water to buy yourself working time.)
- Stretch the paper (if using lower-weight paper and not using a block).
- Improve paper quality, e.g. move from cellulose to cotton and/or to a higher weight.
After all of that, you may find the paper still curls somewhat. Paper’s gonna do that. The goal of completely flat paper may be unrealistic. But as long as the level or curling doesn’t severely interfere with your ability to paint, you may just need to accept it. If you frame your painting, the frame will hold it down flat.
Should I pick one type of paper and stick to it or can I hop around?
Some artists insist you should choose one paper and stick to it, since the different papers behave differently in terms of absorption, drying time, buckling propensity, etc. The more familiar you get with one type, the more you can predict what your watercolor is going to do.
Obviously, this is not my M.O., since I’m a beginner who already has so many opinions on paper! Personally, I think that as a beginner, it is very hard to commit to materials when you are still in the stage of trying things out and seeing what you like.
I also think that there’s something to be said for having cheaper “experiment” paper vs. nicer “make a painting” paper, although if that stresses you out (and nothing seems to rise to the level of being a “real painting”), I give you permission to only have the nice kind in the house so you’re forced to use it.
Should I wait until I’m better at painting to invest in nice paper?
To some extent this is between you and your budget, but if money is not a serious make-or-break issue between the nice choice and the budget choice, I would say to go for nice choice from the beginning. Good paper will make it easier to work and to learn – yes, even as a beginner! You don’t want to hobble yourself from the gate by forcing yourself to use substandard supplies that even a professional artist would struggle with, because they’re just not up to the task you’re asking of them.
To me, watercolor is a sensory and mindful experience, more so than a method for producing quality art pieces. Even if you “ruin” good paper by making a piece you don’t like, you will have a nicer time in the moment if you’re using nice supplies vs. frustrating ones. I have a better outlook about using supplies if I think of them as a means to an experience, e.g. a chocolate bar or a movie ticket, rather than straw I’m supposed to spin into gold.
This is true of art supplies in general, but I would say even more so than usual when it comes to watercolor paper, which can really make a huge difference to your quality of life when painting. Bad paper will cause you no end of problems and distract you from other aspects of your painting by disintegrating, curling, and tearing at the exact wrong times. Good paper won’t magically turn you into an experienced and skilled artist, but what it will do is get out of your way and quietly just do its job right so you can focus on learning to paint.
Go forth and use the nice paper!