Before deciding upon the best watercolour paper for your painting practice, it’s useful to know what properties make for a suitable watercolour surface. As these attributes can affect the appearance of the finished painting.
What makes a good watercolour painting surface?
Watercolour needs an absorbent surface in order to adhere properly. However, the paper shouldn’t be so soft and absorbent that all the colour sinks in and the structure of the paper is compromised.
The colour of the paper is of equal importance. This is because watercolour provides a transparent paint layer, with the source of light coming from the bright reflective nature of the surface beneath. White will provide you with the brightest ground, from which you can paint over to delicately reveal highlights.
Note the permanence and stability of your painting surface. Paper that is acid-free means that it is archival. Acid-free paper won’t yellow or slowly degrade over time.
Thickness is another attribute that plays into a surface’s stability—look for paper that is 280gsm at least (this is the weight of the paper). If you paint on regular thinner paper like copier paper or cartridge paper, it will buckle and warp with the application of water.
Paper that has been primed with a ground will be more suitable for wet-on-wet techniques.
Now you know what you’re looking for, it’ll be much easier to select a paper that suits you from the many options available, I’ll walk you through each of these options below.
Best watercolour paper
Top product pick: Saunders Waterford Sheets
Paper is the most popular and commonly used surface by watercolour painters. I’d always advise you to buy paper that has been specially made for watercolour painting. Watercolour papers have been made to be thick, stable, ph neutral (acid-free). Cotton paper is more durable and stable than wood pulp and therefore comes at a higher price point.
There are many different types and qualities of paper available.
Higher quality, professional watercolour papers will be made from cotton, while student grade paper will be made from wood pulp. Cotton is also more eco friendly, as it grows faster. Most papers I outline in this guide are made from cotton, or mostly cotton, as it yields the best results. You can improve much more quickly with watercolour by using quality cotton paper, as wood pulp paper is not durable—you might find yourself wasting much more paper using the cheap stuff as it is more prone to breakage.
Watercolour papers come in three textures, the texture of the painting will affect how it feels to use different effects in your work and the appearance of the finished piece.
Hot pressed watercolour paper
Hot pressed paper is smooth and has a higher density of fibres, making it a less absorbent alternative to cold pressed paper.
This means that it is much easier to create intricate lines and patterns as the details won’t get lost or distorted by the texture of the surface. Staining colours are more likely to stay on the surface of the paper so colours will appear more saturated.
If you apply multiple layers of paint in glazes, there will come a point where the hot pressed paper will not hold the pigment as well as if you had used cold pressed paper.
Where hot pressed paper comes into its own is in use with lifting techniques—paint isn’t absorbed thoroughly so pigment can be removed from the surface more cleanly, for areas you want to appear lighter. Plus, using this paper extends the working time of the paint slightly, making it easier to blend colours into one another on the surface.
One thing to note is that if you plan on selling your work, or making prints, artwork appears smoother when scanning, as details won’t be obscured by the texture of the paper.
Best hot pressed watercolour paper
Arches Aquarelle hot pressed pad: 100% cotton, Arches paper is thick and durable. This hot pressed paper is smooth and won’t warp under washes of paint. The whiteness is natural but bright. The paper is sized for extra strength.
Cold pressed watercolour paper
Labelled CP in the US, or NOT (not hot pressed) in the UK, cold pressed paper is different to hot pressed in the way it has been made, in its resulting texture and in the properties it holds.
To make cold pressed paper, cellulose pulp is pressed through rollers at a cold temperature, to create a surface that has a slight texture.
Cold pressed paper is more absorbent that hot pressed, because of this colour appears less saturated than it would do if painted on hot pressed paper. It works relatively well with techniques such as lifting and blending, but hot pressed paper better handles these applications. Techniques that suit this type of paper well include glazing (applying multiple layers of paint), wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry.
Best cold pressed watercolour paper
Rough watercolour paper
A rugged textured surface is better prepared to absorb water, this makes it ideal for watercolour techniques such as lifting, blending, wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry.
Being suited to all manner of techniques and applications allows for you to make complex works, without worrying about whether your surface can retain its structure. The only downside of getting rough textured paper is that it becomes more difficult to render very fine details, as your pencil or brush strokes may get lost or appear wobbly in the texture’s weave. However, if your style is more expressive than realistic or intricate and if you like to create large washes, then a rough surface would be perfect for you to try.
With a rough texture, you can create the illusion of detail, as washes will appear dynamic rather than smooth and controlled.
Best rough watercolour paper
Blocks vs sheets vs pads
Blocks of sheets are gummed together on several edges, meaning you have to remove them with a flat knife like a palette knife, butter knife or spatula.
Watercolour pads are bound on one side either with a spiral or gum. They come in a book and are brilliant to transport.
The advantage of sheets over blocks, is that you don’t have to pull the sheets from a gummed pad in order to start painting. Sheets can come in much larger sizes that what you could normally get in a pad. So if you love working at a large scale, buying separate sheets may be the best option.
Blocks are usually more expensive than sheets because they’re much more convenient—buy large sheets and cut them down to size to save money.
So what to choose, hot pressed, cold pressed, rough, or something else entirely?
Best watercolour blocks
Best watercolour paper sheets
Saunders watercolour sheets are traditionally made by St Cuthberts Mill on a cylinder mould machine. This paper is endorsed by the Royal Watercolour Society. The surface is primed with gelatine to help preserve the fibres and the paper has a distinctive random texture. If you’re interested in see how watercolour paper is made at St Cuthberts Mill, watch their video.
Best watercolour paper pads
Brands of watercolour paper
Even if you are a beginner on a tighter budget, to get the best results it’s important to get good quality paper. A poor quality paper can cause colours to bleed, hard edges in unwanted areas, the paper to buckle or even for little bits of the paper to come away from the sheet. It’s difficult to use techniques you’ve spent time learning effectively if you’re battling against your materials. Plus if you’ve been using budget paper for a while, you might find that your skill level is much higher than you thought it was when you come to use higher quality materials.
Luckily, there are quality, mid-range options available for artists on a budget. For watercolourists looking for the best of the best, I’ll outline those options too.
Canson: Heritage watercolour paper
Daler Rowney: Langdon Prestige watercolour paper
Hahnemuhle watercolour paper
St. Cuthberts Mill: Bockingford watercolour paper
St. Cuthberts Mill: Saunders Waterford watercolour paper
Winsor & Newton: classic watercolour paper
Best watercolour sketchbooks
Keeping a sketchbook is a brilliant way to practise your art. You can keep these studies and tests totally to yourself, or you could get a sketchbook that has tearaway pages, so if you paint something you like, you could take it out of your book and frame it.
A test of whether a watercolour sketchbook is good or not is in how thick the pages are. Go for a paper weight of at least 300gsm, this will prevent any bleeding of paint between the pages and to prevent the paper from wrinkling too much.
There’s something wonderful about carrying around a sketchbook wherever you go, you can pack it away in your bag when you’re on a trip and take it out when inspiration strikes. If you like the idea of travelling and painting, you might be interested in watercolour pencils or markers, as they are easy to transport and make less mess. To wet them, you could take these paintbrushes with you that have water wells in the handles of the brush, simply squeeze to release the water.
Top tip: to keep your paintings looking neat and to ensure that the paint doesn’t bleed into the edges of the paper, use masking tape to create clean hard borders on the page.
Extra tip: to prevent sketchbook paper from warping when water is applied (as you can’t stretch sketchbook paper like you can with sheets), get a flat board and place it underneath the page you want to paint onto. Then attach some drawing board clips to the paper to keep it in place. This will simulate the action of stretching and should prevent surface warping.
Strathmore 400 series watercolour sketchbook
48 pages of 300gsm paper prevents buckling and warping when creating washes. It has a natural white colour and is cold pressed.
Pages can be opened flat—the hard cover makes the paper easier to work on.
Beyond paper: What other surfaces can you use with watercolour paint?
Yupo: synthetic paper
Painting on Yupo will give you a watercolour painting experience unlike any other. Yupo is non-porous, pH neutral, smooth paper made from polypropylene, a recyclable plastic. The smooth surface allows you to build complex patterns, with intricate detail. Yupo is tear resistant and it won’t buckle either, so there’s no need to prepare the surface by stretching it or treating it first.
The surface is waterproof, and stain resistant so all paint can be removed just by pouring water over the surface and wiping clean—even staining pigments.
The surface lends itself to lifting techniques where to achieve clean whitespace and high contrast areas of colour. This is great for any areas that you need to redo—wipe it clean and start again.
Consider adding a fixative medium to your paint to make layers or areas of the artwork water resistant. Otherwise these areas could be easily removed. When you’ve finished your painting, if you are planning to keep it, it’s pretty much essential to spray with a watercolour fixative, this way, if water droplets come into contact with the painting it will be totally protected.
Another quirk about this painting surface, is that masking fluid doesn’t adhere to the surface properly but due to the nature of the paper, wiping away paint with water will cleanly remove it anyway.
This board gives the option for watercolour artists to paint a primed wooden surface that is absorbent enough to hold pigment.
They are museum quality, acid-free panels with a textured clay surface that will absorb watercolour paint like paper.
Using a panel like this has many benefits. The absorbency emulates that of the finest cold pressed paper, allowing for techniques such as wet-on-wet, wet-on-dry and glazing. However, the intensity of the colours are never compromised as they can be with cold pressed paper. The colour lifting properties of this surface are more similar to hot-pressed paper, you can cleanly lift pigment for highlighted areas.
The panels come in cradled or uncradled varieties, which can be easily framed and hung to display.
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