Are you a beginner to the exciting world of watercolor illustrations? If you are starting out, you might be looking for affordable paper to practice on. A good quality paper suitable for your medium makes all the difference while learning new techniques.
In this article, I’m going to walk you through my picks for the best watercolor paper for beginners. Afterwards, you’ll find out everything you need to know about watercolor paper and picking the best one for your needs.
- Our Top 5 Picks Of Watercolor Paper For Beginners
- #1. Canson XL Watercolor Paper (300 gsm, 9″ x 12″)
- #2. Strathmore 300 Series Watercolor Paper (300 gsm, 12″x12″)
- #3. Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Hot Press, (350 gsm, 12″x16″)
- #4. Arches Watercolor Paper Pad, Cold Press, (350 gsm, 10″x14″)
- #5. Fabriano Artistico, Cold Press, (350 gsm, 9″x12″) – Extra White
- Everything You Wanted to Know About Watercolor Paper
- Start with the best option that you can afford
- If I Had To Choose One Option for Beginners …
Our Top 5 Picks Of Watercolor Paper For Beginners
Here, I’m going to help you find the paper most suitable for your style, experience, and budget. These are tips I wish I knew when I started out.
All student grade papers are not the same. If you choose the good ones, like this, you’ll be able to work on most watercolor techniques without struggling against the surface.
The first two options are some of the best cheap watercolor paper in the market for beginners. Followed by three of the best watercolor paper brands – suitable for framing and even commissions.
|#1. Canson XL Watercolor Paper
|Absorbent surface that will work well for a variety of techniques
|#2. Strathmore 300 Series Watercolor Paper
|Perfect texture for washes and granulation
|#3. Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Hot Press
|Archival, smooth surface ideal for detailed work
|#4. Arches Watercolor Paper Pad, Cold Press
|100% cotton paper that supports multiple washes and lifting
|#5. Fabriano Watercolor Paper, Cold Press
|Easy flow of color
#1. Canson XL Watercolor Paper (300 gsm, 9″ x 12″)
The Canson paper millers have been in the trade since the 16th century. This experience reflects the excellent quality of their paper. Canson XL Watercolor Paper has 30 natural white sheets glued at the top, protected with a fold-over cover.
- Cold-press texture: The paper has a light texture on one side, perfect for watercolor painting. The other side has a smooth surface for pencil and light washes.
- Shows colors accurately: Canson XL watercolor paper is a natural white on which colors show as they appear on the palette. If the paper is buff or beige, then it might dull your colors.
- Thick paper: The Acid-free paper does not bend or warp when you apply water on it. I like that paint spreads well on the paper and doesn’t gather in pools. You can apply several washes, lift colors, and even use some scratching and dry strokes. Of course, this is a student grade paper and cannot hold as much water as the professional ones.
- Perfect for experimentation: The paper lends well to other mediums like ink pens, gouache, and drawing pencils. Use it for greeting cards, journaling, and crafting as well.
- Color doesn’t spread very well: You’ll need to put in more effort for wet on wet techniques and getting smooth graded washes. That’s because while it holds water well, with too many washes it will warp.
- Not suitable for commissioned paintings: This might be a good option for learning and experimenting. You may prefer one of the artist quality watercolor paper brands for final artworks.
#2. Strathmore 300 Series Watercolor Paper (300 gsm, 12″x12″)
Designed for art students, the Strathmore 300 Series watercolor pad comes with 12 square sheets. You get a good quality acid-free paper at very affordable rates.
Do you use a quick, watery style of painting where you want the colors to spread and mix on the paper? Then, this paper is a fit for you.
- Easy to carry: This pad is very sturdy because of the spiral binding with strong chipboard backing. It works well for painting outdoors.
- Durable paper: The thick paper stands multiple applications of paint and does not warp easily. If you’ve made a mistake, you can fix it by lifting the color, adding another wash, or using dry brush strokes.
- Textured surface: You’ll get a rough paper one side with horizontal texture patterns. The other side is smoother. It is highly absorbent. Colors mix well on paper, so you can use it for wet on wet techniques as well. This paper lends itself to landscapes, heavy washes, and granulated finish.
- Shows colors well: The white paper brings out true colors. I love that the painting remains vibrant, even when the colors dry out.
- Unsuitable for pen and wash style: As the paper is quite rough, the nib of your ink pen might get stuck in the grooves. This paper is suitable for classic techniques.
- Getting a smooth graded wash is difficult: It needs skill and patience to master some techniques, like a good graded wash for backgrounds.
#3. Arches Watercolor Paper Block, Hot Press, (350 gsm, 12″x16″)
Arches paper is reliable, of excellent quality, and lasts for years without yellowing. This pad comes with 20 sheets in a convenient portrait size glued on all four sides.
- Delightful surface for wet on wet technique: When you dab a bit of color on a wet surface, it just moves magically, forming gorgeous blooms.
- Superb for glazing and blending: Arches hot press paper has a smooth surface with the least texture. When you apply a layer of color, it moves well. Colors blend and bleed into each other beautifully. Use non-granulating color for absolutely smooth washes. It is also easy to apply masking fluid on this paper.
- Shows vivid and bright colors: Arches paper has a pure natural gelatin-coating (called sizing). This ensures that the paper does not soak in all the water, resulting in brighter, vibrant colors.
- Larger and looser compositions: The larger size of the sheets (almost an A3 size) allows you to paint with broader and looser strokes.
- Paper dries faster: Washes dry much faster on this paper than rougher cold-pressed paper. Your wash might dry out before you complete it. Beginners will find it difficult to lift color as well.
- The block falls apart sometimes: The glued together binding tends to fall apart after you have used it for a while. You’ll need some tape or a clip to keep it together.
- Not suitable for dry brush technique: Since the paper is smooth, when you apply dry brush strokes there are no interesting effects.
#4. Arches Watercolor Paper Pad, Cold Press, (350 gsm, 10″x14″)
Arches cold press paper is a universal favorite amongst artists. This 12 sheet pad gives you the best cold press watercolor paper to learn on if you can afford it. While the paper has a nice tooth to it, it is not too rough and offers predictable results.
- Shows vibrant colors: Pigments appear deep and rich because of the natural white tint. You can see a difference in the results almost immediately! And, the texture adds an interesting depth to it.
- Amazing dry brush results: Arches cold press paper has a good tooth to it, creating a nice texture with dry brush strokes. For example, creating reflections on a lake.
- Absorbent surface: This paper absorbs water easily, so you’ll never find water pooling on the surface. And, this makes it easy to control the washes. It is resilient to many layers of colors.
- Supports multiple techniques: You’ll be easily able to try a range of techniques on it, such as wet on wet, charging, bleeding, and lifting.
- Difficult to apply masking fluid: The rough texture makes it difficult to apply masking fluid, especially in precise lines. You can remove it without damaging the paper though.
- More expensive than other papers: Since this paper costs considerably more than the other options, you might be hesitant to try out new techniques.
#5. Fabriano Artistico, Cold Press, (350 gsm, 9″x12″) – Extra White
Fabriano Artistico is one of the well known watercolor papers. The 100% cotton cold press paper comes in a velvety, fine-grained texture, much smoother than the Arches cold press paper. You’ll get 20 sheets of extra white paper that shows colors well.
- Stands up to heavy use: It is a strong paper that doesn’t warp, even with many washes. You can use techniques like lifting, scrubbing, rubbing and scraping. It won’t break!
- Works well with masking fluid: It is easy to apply and remove masking fluid. You won’t have any tearing or peeling.
- Good flow of color: Works well with both wet on dry and wet on wet application. Paint flows smoothly and the paper remains moist for a long time without any pooling.
- Re-working after the first wash is difficult: When I applied paint on an area with a previous wash that had dried up, I found the color bleeds a bit. You’ll need to be extra careful to get hard edges sometimes.
- Gum edges fall apart: The glued binding is not very durable. The sheets separate almost right away, and you’ll have to tape them before painting.
Everything You Wanted to Know About Watercolor Paper
What Is Watercolor Paper Made Of?
Watercolor paper is made of wood pulp or cotton. Cotton is preferable because it is naturally acid-free and stronger. This means it will handle different techniques well and not yellow with age. That’s why the best paper for aquarelle painting is always 100% cotton.
What Are The Types of Watercolor Paper?
Student vs Professional Grade Quality
This painting done on student grade watercolor paper allows me to blend colors and use washes. However, the machine texture shows through in spots.
Student grade paper is made from wood pulp or a combination of cotton and wood pulp. I’ve noticed that it usually has a machine-made uniform texture and might yellow with age.
Professional-grade paper is usually handmade or mold-made using 100% cotton rag. It is acid-free and of archival quality.
Hot vs Cold Pressed Texture
Hot pressed paper has a smooth surface. You’ll find it easy to make detailed paintings such as food or botanical illustrations and portraits. The only challenge is controlling the watercolor paint on the slippery surface – beginners might need some time to perfect it.
Graded wash on cold press texture … the colors blend easily. The paper here did most of the work for me.
Opt for cold pressed texture if you like spontaneous, wet washes and loose painting. The rough (or toothy) cold pressed surface absorbs water quickly. Beginners might find it easier to control watercolor on this paper. It also works well with detailed paintings, making it a good overall option.
Here’s a neat watercolor drill on graded wash, that you can use to test your new paper!
Heavy vs Light Weight
Anything less than 300 gsm is considered lightweight paper. Starting out with a thick, substantial paper makes it so much easier to master techniques.
Lighter doesn’t mean low quality. It is all about convenience. If you buy light watercolor papers of high quality, you’ll have to stretch them out manually – a tedious process that I’m not going to go into right now.
I always use 300 gsm paper, as it is absorbent and doesn’t need stretching. And, if I am using a very wet technique, then I just tape the paper onto a board or use a block.
Pad vs Blocks
Now that you’ve learned to choose the quality, texture, and weight of the paper, it is time to decide what form to buy it in.
Pads come with sheets bound by gum or a wire spiral one end. The spiral-bound paper is usually perforated so that you can tear it out easily. These are convenient for outdoor painting.
Blocks are a stack of sheets that are glued on all sides like the Arches block. This keeps the paper stretched and prevents it from warping. I find these convenient for studio painting and wet work.
Don’t forget to check watercolor papers for sizing
High-quality watercolor papers need pure cotton fiber and a process called sizing. Sizing refers to using gelatin internally and/or as a coating. This controls the absorbance and spread of water. The gentle blossoming of color when you touch a loaded brush on the wet paper, that’s because of sizing.
Sometimes you might find odd patches on the sheet – this is usually because of inconsistent sizing. The professional brands offer even and predictable sizing.
Start with the best option that you can afford
Does this seem counterintuitive? Beginners might end up buying the cheapest and worst ones, such as cartridge paper, to learn on. The logic is: get better and THEN buy quality art supplies.
I learned the hard way that this doesn’t work. When I started to learn how to watercolor paint, I started out with cartridge paper. And, couldn’t get the results I was aiming for. I almost gave up on myself as a lousy artist.
I started painting with inexpensive paper back in 2014 – the pigments didn’t blend well. I couldn’t erase the pencil marks as the paper would tear. It would start buckling after two layers.
Eventually, I learned to compensate by tweaking my technique. Later, when I moved to quality supplies, I had to relearn many of the basic techniques.
If I Had To Choose One Option for Beginners …
Start with the best watercolor papers that you can afford. You won’t have to fight with your support while learning to use the medium. You’ll learn faster. And, won’t pick up any bad habits (by having to compensate for lousy paper)!
I’ll pick the Canson XL Watercolor Paper
Although it is not 100% cotton archival quality, the paper is acid-free and offers a decent absorbency. It is versatile enough for most aquarelle techniques that you’ll be learning. The affordable pricing means you’ll be able to learn without burning a hole in your pocket.