One of the perks of my job is I get to test out new materials regularly, which includes watercolor papers! Over the last few months I've tested about a dozen papers, and I hope my tests can help you choose a paper that works well for you.
I find that good watercolor paper can be such a subtle thing, but bad watercolor paper can ruin a painting before it has even begun. Between sizing issues which may cause spotting and inconsistent colors, to overall poor paper that will just dissolve with use, bad papers can kill even a great artist's work.
All of these were tested with a wide variety of watercolors, including Kuretake (gansai tambi), M. Graham, Holbein, Daniel Smith, and Finetec Mica paints. Additional colors include Qor and Sennelier Aquarelle, as well as Holbein gouache.
Papers to Use
Arches Watercolor Papers
Arches is one of the top brands for watercolor papers, and their price reflects it. I had always been intimidated by the expensive blocks I found in art stores as a younger artist, but the paper is really worth it. According to Arches' site, the paper is made of 100% cotton and has natural gelatin sizing. I only worked with the cold and hot press papers, but both were superbly easy to work on and gave me bright colors with excellent control. If you have the money to invest in this paper, it is worth it.
Hot press paper
Cold press paper
Stonehenge Aqua papers
I am somewhat familiar with Stonehenge as a paper company for their colored papers, but I had never tried their watercolor papers before. However, all three I tried (cold press 140 and 300lb and hot press 140 lb) were excellent. I had a bit of trouble with the 300lb drying slowly, but depending on the humidity and temperature this is a potential issue for any paper. They will pill if overworked, but handle excellently overall.
They also sell sample packs of all their papers:
140lb cold press
300lb cold press
140lb hot press
Fluid Watercolor Papers
Fluid watercolor papers have long been one of my favorite papers, and my go-to for most work. Not only are they relatively inexpensive, they are bound on two sides which helps with stretching. I have also been known to pull them out of the block and stretch them on my work surface.
The Fluid 100 papers are 100% cotton, and are more resistant to overworking than the standard wood pulp papers, but are slightly harder to get the same color saturation because of the superior absorbency. I have had some issues with the hot press being a little bit more difficult to work with, but I've always struggled with hot press paper.
Papers to Avoid
Winsor and Newton Watercolor Papers
I have often found Winsor and Newton products to be hit-or-miss, with some being excellent, and some being pretty awful. Unfortunately, their watercolor papers had really bad issues with spotting, which happens when the gelatin is bad or wasn't well applied.
Strathmore Watercolor Paper
Generally I like Strathmore papers (and their colored pencil paper is SUPERB), but their watercolor paper pilled just from being stretched!
Bordern and Riley Watercolor Paper
Bienfang Watercolor Paper
So much trouble with spotting, and the water began to disintegrate the paper when I tried to stretch it. This paper is a mess best avoided.
Books Heidi has worked on:
Sons of Fire: Vol 1
Grass is Awful