Using the best watercolour paper for painting is important because the paper needs to hold up against wet media. This means it needs to be hardy, but also allow the colour to shine brightly. Usually, watercolour paper will be heavyweight (around 300gsm/140lb), however speciality paper or student paper will often be lighter.
Low-quality watercolour paper could be too thin. With thin paper you run the risk of the paper rumpling under the water and the colour pooling unevenly. Watercolour papers are formulated for watercolour paints but you can use them with a whole range of materials, especially water-based media (like these top watercolour pencils. Keep in mind that, while working flat is best for washes, a tabletop easel gives a useful vertical view of your work (see our guide to the best easels).
Here, we've selected the best watercolour paper for artists and pointed out surfaces that work for various painting approaches. You will need to choose between hot and cold press papers, which are manufactured differently. Cold press papers are textured and more absorbent (suiting a wide range of approaches), while hot press paper is smooth and suits more precise work as it displays detail well.
Traditional papers are made of cotton or cellulose, or a blend of these. Cellulose papers tend to be more affordable, while cotton papers are of higher quality, as they are stronger and archival, making them suitable for finished work.
If you are looking to brush up on your watercolour painting, you can build your skills with these watercolour techniques and invest in the best watercolour paints. Meanwhile read on to find the best watercolour paper for you.
The best watercolour paper
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Saunder's Waterford offers an excellent quality watercolour paper. It has a strong surface and though still a cold press paper, the texture is on the lighter side. The colour of this paper is just a little off white.
Colours look bright and crisp on this surface, and wet-on-dry textures are easy to create. It feels absorbent and holds water well, as it doesn't buckle easily. Watercolour paint tends not to pool unless it is very wet, but stays damp for a while and will bleed readily, creating smooth transitions. This does require a bit of patience for applying layers. It's forgiving and tends to tolerate lifting out well. Overall, an excellent choice for any finished work.
Arches' watercolour papers have an excellent reputation, and with good reason, as this surface is a treat to work on. The surface takes washes well and doesn't buckle easily, so the colour lays down evenly. It's a fairly absorbent paper, so there's less pooling of water on the page. Colours show up especially well and look vibrant.
This paper is ideal for more layered approaches, as colour tends not to lift out or change once dry. This hot press is relatively smooth and would suit illustration and more precise work particularly well. It is an archival quality paper, so it is best used for finished work.
Legion's Yupo paper is a unique offering, unlike traditional watercolour papers. It is made from polypropylene, a type of plastic, and is very smooth. Watercolour paint can be wiped off the surface, making it very forgiving. This helps make up for the cost, as paint can be washed off and the paper reused.
Yupo paper doesn't absorb washes, so it is slower to dry, and won't buckle at all. The lack of texture limits granulating colours from producing effects, and colours diffuse more gradually. It's easy to push watercolour paint around and manipulate it, even allowing for dry paint to be reactivated – though this makes layering a delicate process. It is an excellent choice for any work requiring a very smooth surface, or artists looking to experiment.
Aquabords are an unusual option for watercolour surfaces, as they are much more like gesso board than conventional paper, with the texture of the clay surface being somewhat gritty or 'toothy'. Because they are a board, they are well suited to float frames, much like oil panels. They are expensive compared to paper, making them best for finalised work.
Colours look wonderfully bright on this surface. It doesn't absorb water as readily as traditional papers, so it is quite slow drying, and well suited to wet-in-wet techniques. Panels won't buckle either, so washes lay evenly. This surface is a little challenging at first, as it doesn't behave like typical papers, but is of excellent quality. A great option for anyone looking for high-quality panels suitable for watercolour.
Winsor and Newton's Professional watercolour paper is a good quality archival paper. It has a bright white surface, with a typical cold press texture. This paper is particularly suited to wet-in-wet techniques, with colour spreading easily across it. It stays wet for a good time and will produce blooms readily – this might be frustrating for some, but for those wanting these textures, it is very effective.
One issue is that when especially wet, it is prone to buckling. Otherwise, the surface is strong and tends not to let paint lift out easily, so it's stable for adding layers. This paper is a good option for finished work, being particularly well suited to artists who favour wet-in-wet techniques.
Strathmore's watercolour visual journal is one of the few watercolour notebooks with 300gsm paper in it, making it considerably more sturdy than those with lighter papers. The cover is solid, so the sketchbook can handle being carried around, and supports the paper when you are working on it.
The paper is thick and can handle a reasonable amount of water for colour sketches, though too much will cause it to start to buckle as it's cellulose-based. Watercolours will dry quickly on this paper, making it best suited for sketches as opposed to more developed work. This watercolour sketchbook is ideal for anyone looking for a reliable option for creating watercolour sketches en plein air.
Many manufacturers produce their own watercolour postcards, and they are still a popular way to send sketches through the mail. These Fabriano postcards are some of the best quality ones available, with nice, thick paper. One downside is that the glue binding is a bit tough, and can make removing postcards from the pad without bending a corner or using a blade a little tricky.
The surface quality is very good as well. The paper doesn't buckle easily, absorbs water nicely, and colours look bright on it. Each postcard comes with a printed address space on the back, making these a convenient option to just paint and post.
Canson's XL pads are student quality papers. The paper is cold-pressed, but not too rough, and the ring-bound version lets the pad lay flat. These pads are good value and are one of the best quality papers for their cost.
Paint flows quite well on this paper, and the colours show nicely too. However, it buckles fairly easily for a paper this thick and does not cope too well with heavier washes. Otherwise, the surface is perfectly strong and sturdy and handles mixed media well. These pads are an excellent choice for beginners and anyone wanting a more affordable paper for practising.