Watercolor paper for beginners is a topic that causes confusion and frustration to many artists. Good watercolor paper can be expensive, and even if you find a great price, many watercolor artists are unsure if they are getting what they pay for. First, let’s clarify the different types of watercolor papers.
Best Watercolor Paper For Beginners & Pros
Let’s begin with sheets. This is the most common paper type and used most by experienced artists. Besides being cost effective, they’re very versatile and if you tape it down to a firm board it’s similar to blocks.
Best Sheet Paper
I highly recommend, and use Fabriano Artistico Cold Press. It’s made of 100% cotton fibers and acid-free and pH neutral. The paper comes in hot press, or smooth surface, cold press and rough press which has more texture. I’ll discuss this later on in this article.
Fabriano Artistico can handle heavy washes very well. High quality paper should absorb water and dry quickly, and this does exactly that.
The 140 lb. cold press is more suitable than hot and rough press options unless you are doing very detailed work. In this case hot press would be a better choice. With cold press you get the lovely texture plus it can handle some smaller details as well.
Additionally, opt for full sheets which measure 22″ x 30″. This way you can reduce them to quarter size sheets which measure 11″ x 15″, and cost per sheet is $7.92 each, 10 or more is $6.60 per sheet. You can buy in bulk to save a few extra coins you could buy in bulk.
Best block paper
Maybe you prefer blocks over single sheets and that’s totally cool. In this case I would stick with Fabriano Artistico block that comes in bright white, 140 lb cold press. It’s offered in various sizes but 12″ x 18″ is ideal for studies and beginner finished art.
There are a total of 20 sheets per block/pad. And use the back as well. Many students only use one side of paper and miss out on the other side. After-all, you will probably invest most of your time doing studies, exercises and sketches. So, why not use it all and get more mileage out of the paper? At the time of this article the cost per block – $44 USD
Best Runner Up – Budget Friendly
Blick Premier Watercolor Paper is made on a traditional cylinder mould in a European mill that has been making paper since the 1700s. Its surface is created using natural woolen felts, giving it the ability to withstand scrubbing and other wet techniques without tearing. It’s made from 100% cotton. It’s acid-free and archival which is ideal for watercolors.
Although I prefer Fabriano Artistico, I will still order some Blick premier paper if my fav is sold out. It does work well but just not as durable and responsive as Fabriano. But still a worthy choice and suitable for all levels.
Runner Up – Budget Friendly
As you can see I’m a fan of the Blick and Jackson brand. They do a great job of producing quality products at affordable prices.
The Blick Watercolor Block is great for painting on location! It’s a professional-quality paper is 100% cotton, acid-free, gelatin-sized and archival, ideal for watercolors artists.
Two things you need to know about watercolor paper
Paper weight is specified by how much 500 sheets of that paper weighs in lbs (pounds). The higher the weight, the thicker and more durable the paper. With shopping for high quality watercolor paper, you want to go as heavy as your budget allows. Good watercolor paper for beginners starts with at least 140 lb cold press (CPS). You shouldn’t go any lighter, or really any heavier. It can handle all types of watercolor washes and techniques.
One factor that is very important, but often not talked about is sizing. Sizing reduces how much a piece of paper soaks up water allowing you to paint for longer before it buckles which causes your painting to pucker and wrinkle – no fun! Good watercolor paper for beginners should have sizing already built in so that you don’t have to fuss with paper and focus on other more important things like color, values and so on.
What’s The Difference Between Hot, Cold And Rough Press?
Hot press: this is a smooth surface suitable for very detailed work. It’s also a fav for illustrators that prefer to use ink pens and draw over their watercolor washes. Paint can be more difficult to control with a slick surface which makes this a more challenging paper for beginners.
Cold press: this has a slightly rough texture to it which makes it easier to control washes. Beginners often find this somewhat difficult and confusing at first. The texture allows the water to move around a bit and will often dry with some random qualities. Again, beginners who try to control the wash too much will fuss over this and typically that will ruin the work.
Rough press: basically cold press on steroids. It’s suited for very loose work and those watercolorists that really want to push the randomness of the paint. The wet washes will settle into ruts in the paper and often dry unevenly as compared to cold press paper.
Watercolor is a random medium and it’s not meant to be controlled all the time. Beginners often get this wrong and try to manage every aspect of the painting, but learning how it functions on its own will give you a fresher result.
Watercolor Papers To Avoid For Beginners
Popular papers such as Arches: it’s overpriced and overrated in my opinion. It costs about 20% more than Fabriano Artistico and really doesn’t make any difference in the outcome of your work. Many beginner watercolor artists blame their mistakes on materials but usually it has more to do with their technique, not paper, paint or brushes.
Student grade papers: it’s made of wood pulp and maybe a little cotton if you’re lucky. The paper just doesn’t respond well to the characteristics of the medium. Plus it dries very slow and will buckle when wet which makes your washes puddle up in random places. This puddling will also cause ballooning, or a cauliflower effect.
Sketchbooks: they look so cool but really a waste of money. Buy full sheets or blocks to the job and I would personally recommend saving your money and investing it in other things like more paint. Be sure to check out these other articles where I share thoughts on watercolor brushes, and the perfect watercolor setup for beginners.
It really comes down to how you prefer to paint. Blocks are great because they’re lightly sealed, or glued, along the sides which helps reduce buckling. While loose paper would need to be taped to a firm board to help prevent buckling.
My personal choice is Fabriano Artistico, bright white, 140 lb cold press, full sheets. I find them very flexible and easier to work with because I can reduce them to smaller sizes and have several paintings going at once.
Everyone is a little different so why not try both to see how which you prefer?
One thing for sure both options are suitable watercolor surfaces for beginner and experienced watercolorists. And whatever you decide on please avoid cheap, student grade paper if you have the budget. They just don’t respond the same and can easily cause more frustration in the long run. Be sure to browse the other helpful tutorials here at Watercolor Fanatic.