Watercolor Basics: All About That Paper

Watercolor paper can be daunting when you're first starting out.  Maybe you've dabbled with watercolors in a regular sketchbook, and were horrified at the results.  The paper buckles, the water pools, you can't blend colors-  its nothing like the watercolors you see online.  Don't let discouragement take over, I'm here to help!  In this post, I'll break down the defining features of papers used for watercolor, explain some helpful terms that will enable you to confidently shop for paper, and share some of my favorite brands and how I use them.

If you're unfamiliar with any term used in this post,  I recommend my post earlier in this series covering commonly used terms.

The best way to find out what you like is to try lots of different papers- every artist has their own preferences.

Ways to test multiple papers:

  • Can buy sample packs (Paper and Ink Arts, Cheap Joes)
  • Can exchange sheets with friends.
  • Can buy smaller pads to use for studies
  • Can buy a single sheet, tear it to size

Many types of paper suitable for watercolors, and many weights

Watercolor Paper
Mixed Media Paper
Bristol Board
Illustration Board
Watercolor Board

Lucky Cat painted with Grumbacher opaque watercolors on Strathmore's Visual Mixed Media Journal

Paper for Watercolor Should Be:
Buckle resistant
Absorbent (with the exception of synthetic papers like Yupo and Mitz TerraSkin)
Able to withstand water (should NOT take on the texture of toilet paper when wet)

July ArtSnacks Challenge on Yupo

Within watercolor paper, there are multiple weights

90lb- Student weight- can be run through a toner printer if you wanted to print out lineart, digi stamps, or inks.  Very prone to buckling, even if stretched.  About the weight of cardstock.
140lb- Still needs to be stretched. Thin enough to run through a printer for bluelines, heavy enough that after stretching, buckling should be minimal.
300lb- Does not need to be stretched, should not buckle

Handmade Vs Mouldmade

Scan of Shizen Handemade watercolor paper to show texture

Handmade is excellent for sensitive studies, working large, and working from reference.   The surface texture is fairly irregular, and there may be irregularities in paper color as well.  This post explains the process of making handmade watercolor paper.

Scan of Moulin du Roy, a mouldmade paper

Mouldmade is excellent for detailed illustration work and comics, as it can hold detail a bit better than the rough surface of handmade watercolor paper.

Cottonrag Vs Cellulose (woodpulp)

This watercolor illustration was painted on Arches cold press watercolor paper.

Higher end papers are made from cotton rag. Colors appear more vibrant, and these papers can withstand more reworking than cellulose papers.

This page from Chapter 5 of 7" Kara was painted on Canson Montval watercolor paper

Handmade paper tends to be made of cotton rag, unless it is a recycled handmade paper.

Cellulose papers have their value though- they're great for mixed media, inexpensive, widely available.  I use Canson XL with my alcohol markers, and Canson Montval for 7" Kara pages.

This mixed media (alcohol marker and watercolor) illustration was rendered on Fluid watercolor paper.

Sheets, Pads, Blocks

Sheets- Large individual pieces of watercolor paper.  May need to be torn or trimmed to fit your needs
Pads- Tapebound or spiral bound, include sketchbooks. Tapebound pads feature easy to remove pieces in pre-determined sizes, and are ideal for comic work, as you can easily run these through a printer for bluelines.
Blocks- Paper is gummed on multiple sides to hold it taught.  Should not need stretching, as the block stretches the paper while you work.  Paper needs to be removed from block after dry.

Some brands are available in multiple formats.

Surface Finishes

ColdPress-Some surface texture, varies by brand.
Hot Press- Smooth surface texture, like illustration board
Rough Press- Rougher than cold press, almost like a sandpaper.

This ArtistsNetwork article is very insightful and will better explain the three surfaces types, as well as best-use scenerios.

Kara inked and painted on Arches Rough Press watercolor block

Meldina (Kara's mother) painted on Arches cold press

So what do I recommend?

Page from7" Kara, Chapter 5, painted on Canson Montval watercolor paper

For Comic Pages:  Canson Montval, 140lb tape bound
Canson Montval is affordable, ubiquitous, and comes in the right size for comic pages, no trimming needed.  It is thin enough to run through my printer for bluelines, tough enough to handle some techniques.  It is cellulous based, so there are limitations to what I can do with this paper, and paints end up looking muddy if the humidity is high, which is why I switch to nicer papers for higher end illustrations.

Illustration painted on Arches Cold press

For Standalone Illustrations:  Canson Moulin du Roy, Arches
Both mould made papers are cottonrag based, and can take a lot of paint and a lot of water.  Paint stays brilliant on paper surface even after dry, and both papers can handle a lot of working.  Both brands are thin enough to run through my printer, available in a variety of sizes, and I can opt to work on blocks (Arches).

Flower study painted on Shizen handmade watercolor paper

Kara illustration painted on Winsor and Newton cold press watercolor paper

Study completed on Fabriano Artistico paper

For studies:
Fabriano Artistico, block, bright white
This lovely block of high quality watercolor paper is ideal for painting portrait studies.  When you're finished, it's easier to remove the paper from this block than from Arches watercolor blocks.
Shizen Handmade watercolor paper
This beautiful handmade paper has a lot of texture and a lot of character, making it fun to paint floral studies on.  Paints look brilliant.
Strathmore Visual Journal Cold Press Watercolor Paper
This inexpensive, spiral bound watercolor journal is perfect for loose studies and practicing techniques.  You're going to go through a lot of watercolor paper while you're learning, so it's fine to have an inexpensive watercolor journal for practice.  Make sure you keep a bulldog clip on hand, as you'll want to clip down the free side of your paper to keep your surface flat as the paper absorbs water.
Winsor and Newton Cold Press Watercolor Paper
This toothy paper is great for watercolors or pastels. Colors look brilliant. This heavier 140lb paper is not prone to buckling so long as you tape down the edges.

Pet commission completed on Fluid watercolor paper

For convention commissions:
This cellulose paper comes on blocks, which means I don't need to take time to stretch my mini watercolors before painting.  The paper itself is tough, and can handle watercolor, gouache, or alcohol markers.  Fluid is inexpensive and fairly easy to find in a variety of sizes.

Illustration completed on Fluid 100 watercolor paper

Alcohol marker and cut paper illustration completed on Canson XL watercolor paper

For YouTube Demonstrations:
Fluid 100
Canson XL
Canson XL watercolor paper is very affordable and heavy enough that it doesn't require much stretching for smaller pieces.  It's excellent for mixed media applications like alcohol marker and watercolor.

Watercolor sketches completed in a Handbook

For Travel
Global Art Materials Handbooks
These inexpensive, sturdy little books are cheaper than watercolor Moleskins, but feature many of the same qualities, and a few improvements.  They come in a wider variety of sizes, and although the paper will cockle while wet, it's not unmanageable.
Handbook can be hard to find sometimes, and you may have an easier time finding Moleskines while you travel.  Although these sketchbooks are much touted, I feel it's much ado about nothing really, and if you can get a Handbook, I recommend that over Moleskine.

Second Opinions

Watercolor Paper Comparison- Arches, Fabriano, and Canson- Beginners Which Paper to Choose?
Getting Started:  Watercolor Paper and Pan Paints 
Watercolor Papers
Paper Matters!  Choosing the Right Watercolor Paper
A Guide to Watercolour Paper
Favorite Watercolor Papers- What I recommend & Use
How to Pick Great Watercolor Paper
My Favorite Watercolor Paper, Brushes, And Paint
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