It’s really hard to compare watercolor paper on price vs quality. For one thing, the quality is highly subjective. While some factors make watercolor paper more likely to work well with water and to be pleasurable to use (weight, cotton content, sizing), you can’t guarantee that you’ll like a paper or that it will work with your style until you try it out.
It’s even difficult to compare on the basics of how much is costs, since every paper comes in a variety of different sizes and price points. How does $30 for 20 sheets of 9×12 really compare to $20 for 12 sheets of 8×10? It’s a math problem and also a pragmatic problem (which size do I prefer to paint on, or can I more easily cut to a size I prefer to paint on?)
Well: I’ve at least attempted to solve the math part by making a spreadsheet.
My spreadsheet looks, basically, like this:
|Brand||Format||Sheets||Width (in.)||Length (in.)||Price ($)|
I limited my findings to cold press, 140 lb, natural white paper, but if you want to compare those options, you could add fields for texture and weight and color as well. (I have generally found that all textures cost the same.)
Once I filled it in with my favorite paper brands (as well as some I didn’t know or didn’t like for comparison), it was time to add the calculated field for price per square foot. This is what allows me to compare prices across different sizes and formats. I used price per square foot instead of per square inch because it would otherwise be such small fractions of a cent that I would find it hard to get my mind around.
The formula is:
(Price * 12) / (Sheets * Length * Width)
To calculate price per square inch, omit the “* 12”. If your length and width are in centimeters, and you want to calculate price per square meter, you would substitute 100 for 12.
Once you have a price per square foot (or meter), you have a field you can directly compare and you can sort on it to find the cheapest and most expensive paper.
Note that area is a bit of a blunt measure since it doesn’t take into account useful size. 10×14 and 2×70 have the same area, but one aspect ratio is much more convenient to paint on than the other. If one brand offers 10×14 paper and another that offers 11×15 paper for the same price, this method would favor the second brand, even though you personally might not notice the difference and would not necessarily get more paintings out of the second one. Still, I had to start somewhere.
Prices vary a lot! The lowest price per square foot that I found for standard 140 lb watercolor paper was 2.7 cents, and the highest was over ten times more expensive, at 30.1 cents.
Prices vary regionally. This was not a finding of my spreadsheet per se, but I’ve noticed that a lot of the brands that online bloggers and influencers tout as cheap or expensive were not really borne out by my research. I think it just depends. You have to do your own math.
Big box stores generally had the same prices as each other. Often the price for Blick, Jerry’s, and Cheap Joe’s was the exact same to the cent, but occasionally something would randomly have a wildly different price at one of the stores. Since price depended on the store, I put the cheapest price in my spreadsheet and included a column to note which store I found it at. I considered making a different column for each store, but so many of them were exactly the same that it didn’t seem worth it – besides, having just one column for price made it easier to do the sorting.
Bulk pricing for larger paper formats was not as advantageous as I’d thought. A common piece of money-saving advice is to buy watercolor paper in sheets (22 inches by 30 inches is the standard size, which is freaking huge), and cut them down to the size you actually want to paint at. If you like to paint at roughly A5 size (5.5 x 7.5), for example, you can get 16 of those from one watercolor sheet, and it’s (probably) cheaper to buy a full sheet than to buy a 16-sheet pad of A5 paper in the same quality.
Is it though?? I think it depends. I was surprised to find that larger-format gluebound pads and blocks were about as cheap per unit area as full sheets. Within a single category (e.g. just looking at a single brand’s pads), the larger ones were cheaper per area than the smaller ones, but it was not necessarily true that pads or blocks were more expensive than sheets. This is kind of a relief to me, tbh, since I hate cutting down sheets.
It is probably worth it to feel comfortable cutting down a largeish piece of pad paper into halves or quarters, especially since 9×12 or 11×15 are much more commonly available pad sizes than very small ones, and again, within pads, the larger are more cost-effective than the smaller. But I find cutting 11×15 into quarters to be a much more do-able prospect than cutting 22×30 into sixteenths.
It still may be worth it to shop full sheets for the selection. Art stores often carry specific brands, weights, finishes, etc. in sheets that they don’t in pads or blocks. However, be wary of hidden costs of sheets, since they sometimes incur an extra shipping and handling fee due to being so large.
I did not include sketchbooks in this dataset; these do seem to generally be more expensive than pads/blocks/sheets, probably because of the additional materials & labor of the binding.
Unfortunately, because prices for paper vary so wildly depending on what stores you have access to and where you live, and prices are always changing, this isn’t very generalizable. However, these were my general findings for the present moment in time, in the Boston area of the U.S.
Paper for me generally fell into two categories: student-grade/cellulose and artist-grade/cotton.
Student Grade: Fabriano 1264 and Canson XL are the ones to beat
The cheapest paper per square foot that I could find was Fabriano 1264 pad in 11×15 size, at 2.7 cents per square foot, followed closely by Canson XL, in a 12×18 pad or bulk 9×12 sheets intended for classroom use, both of which were 3.1 cents per square foot. Both of these brands are available only as pads, not sheets or blocks. They are close enough in price that changing size/format affects the price more than changing brand.
My observation of these papers is that I find them all frustrating for “serious work” e.g. paintings with a lot of layers or wet-on-wet, because they tend to dry quickly, create hard lines, pill, buckle, tear from tape, etc. But they are all fine for experiments, swatches, and gouache. I feel justified in my choice of Canson XL for these purposes.
Artist Grade: Arches is the one to beat
Arches is the pro grade brand with the most dominance in the marketplace here, and it has everything going for it: 100% cotton, good sizing, reputable, etc. So my biggest question going in was “What is the cheapest way to buy Arches?” and “Are any artist-grade brands cheaper?”
The surprising answer to #1 is that the cheapest per-square-foot way I found to buy Arches was as a large-format block. The 20-sheet 16×20 block was 14 cents even; the 12-sheet gluebound pad in 11.7×16.5 was 14.8 cents; and a full sheet was 14.9 cents. Sheets are the only way to get more unusual formats like heavier weights or Bright White, but if you like Natural White at 140lb, it’s often about the same price or cheaper to get a large-format pad or block than a full sheet.
I don’t really like large-format blocks because they’re really designed to be painted at that size, but getting a gluebound pad is just as good as getting several sheets of paper, and 11.7×16.5 size is easier to cut down than a full sheet. What you don’t want to do is get a 16×20 sheet, since it’s a lot more expensive than a full sheet, at 29.1 cents per SF. This is actually the most expensive way to buy 140lb arches. If you want smaller than full sheet, just go down to a pad. The next-most cost-ineffective ways to buy Arches are the ways that I usually do, as smaller-size blocks. D’oh!
The answer to question #2 – are any artist-grade brands cheaper than Arches? – is generally “not really.” At least, not in my area at this time. 14 cents per SF is actually a very competitive price for artist-grade paper.
Here are some options for less than 15 cents per sf:
- Legion Stonehenge is 9.2 cents per sf for a sheet, too bad I hate it.
- Winsor & Newton is currently retailing at 10 cents per sf for 11×14 pads. I haven’t tried this, might be worth a shot.
- Cheap Joe’s Kilimanjaro is 13.1 cents per sf at cheapest. I thought this paper was fine.
- Fabriano Artistico slightly undercuts Arches at 13.5 cents per sf for 10×14 block. Unfortunately, I disliked Fabriano Artistico 140 lb when I briefly tried it in a sampler.
- Hahnemuhle The Collection has a 9×12 pad that is 14.3 cents per sf. Never tried, though I don’t tend to love Hahnemuhle.
- Strathmore 500 Imperial full sheets are presently 14.4 cents per sf. Never tried… but I didn’t like the texture of the 400 and we’re getting awfully close to Arches price at this point.
Unfortunately, the brands I really like were noticeably more expensive:
- The cheapest way to get Saunders Waterford, which I quite like, is again as a large-format block for 15.6 cents per sf; the cheapest format I’d actually like, a 12×16 pad, is 22.4 cents per sf.
- Canson Héritage, which I really enjoyed sampling, offers a 14×20 pad for 20 cents per sf, slightly cheaper than its full sheet price of 21.9 cents per sf.
- Lanaquarelle, another brand I quite like, was the most expensive brand I checked, ranging from 22.6 cents for a large-format block to 30.1 cents for a sheet. (Even the convenient 7×10 block, at 23 cents per sf, was oddly much cheaper per unit area than the sheet, go figure.)
Too bad I didn’t do this calculation before falling in love with them! Though buying expensive paper once, “just to see”, or trying it in a sampler, certainly feels like a different value proposition than deciding what will be your go-to paper.
The messy middle: Check your local market
A large number of cellulose papers are significantly more expensive than Canson XL or Fabriano 1264, but not nearly as good as Arches. Here are some examples, along with the cheapest price-per-square-foot I could find:
- Fluid Easy Block – 6.9
- Canson Montval – 7.2
- Bee Paper Aquabee – 7.2
- Strathmore 300 – 7.6
- Strathmore 400 – 7.8
- Bockingford – 11.1
- Daler Rowney Aquafine – 18.5
To my mind, I’m not sure these are worth exploring (for me), since I generally either want my paper to be maximized for quality or cost. In your local area, one of these might be the cost or bang-for-buck winner! For example, Bockingford is quite a high-quality student grade that I enjoyed when I experimented with it in a sampler. It’s one I’d be happy to use in place of Canson XL if it were priced more like local student grade papers, and were not competing with artist-grade on price due to being imported.
I urge you not to take my math as etched-in-stone and to do your own local calculations. With that said, I do think there are some lessons that anyone can draw from this experiment:
- Don’t take a blogger’s word for which paper is the most cost-effective. Do the math yourself based on your local availability.
- Don’t forget to account for non-math factors such as brand and format preferences. Pleasure and convenience may be worth it even if it costs a little extra.
- Consider glue-bound pads, I found them usually as cheap as sheets or even cheaper!
- Get out of the mindset of thinking “high-quality artist-grade paper is too expensive,” actually find out how expensive and compare. I was surprised by how much competitively-priced Arches actually was, especially at larger pad sizes, compared to how expensive student-grade brands could be. It’s easy easy to think “I can’t afford the best, so I’ll compromise with the mediocre” not realizing they’re roughly the same price per unit – or “the mediocre” may be more expensive!