How to Choose the Right Watercolor Paper

Regardless of how much you spend on your watercolors, you could simply be wasting money if you don’t ensure you are using the right paper. Without question, you aren’t always looking to create a masterpiece. You may be trying out a new product or even a new technique. Either way, having the right tool will make all the difference.

As you have probably discovered already, your choices for paper are endless. Some will work better with pigments. Some will stand up better to heavy-handed techniques. Moreover, acid-free paper will preserve your work, while other paper isn’t “built to last.”

So what should you be looking for when making your paper purchase? Certainly, you’ll want to take into account what we refer to as the “Magnificent Seven” – Grade, Form, Production, Weight, Texture, Tinting, and Content.

To simplify your decision, Arteza offers great quality watercolor pads. They come in a set of 2 pads with 32 sheets each. The pages are acid-free, cold pressed, heavyweight (140lb/300g), and can withstand multiple washes.


The paper quality is certainly a major consideration, and there are primarily two grades—artists’ quality and students’ quality. Their names somewhat imply their functionality. Artist's quality paper is acid-free, considered by some as archival paper, and is made to showcase pieces of art for a very long time. Students’ quality paper is great for those just starting out and for trying out techniques. Do not expect your pigments to work the same way on students’ quality as they would on artist's quality. Also, the former paper is not acid-free, so your masterpiece won’t last centuries.


If you are just starting on your art journey, you’re likely going to want to practice a lot. So, the likelihood is that you are not going to want to start buying expensive individual sheets of paper in bulk. Thankfully, you won’t have to because paper, in addition to coming in a plethora of grades, also comes packaged in a variety of ways, including pads, rolls, blocks, and panels.

Pads and blocks are your best option as a beginner. Pads with artist's quality paper can be purchased, but for the most part, contain students’ quality paper and are great for practicing and for those times when you are working outdoors. Boards and high-quality individual sheets are the next step up for pieces that you want to be more permanent. Ultimately, however, your comfort with a particular medium will determine what you feel most comfortable painting with, and on, to create your works of art.


One of the reasons why students’ quality paper is less expensive is because it is usually machine-made. Artist's quality paper, on the other hand, should be mold-made or, if affordable, handmade. While handmade and mold-made paper have surfaces with irregular textures—which is a good thing—they also don’t get distorted when under heavy wash; at least they shouldn’t. The machine-made paper is susceptible to both deterioration and distortion.


Weight has several implications for what steps you may need to take before you put a brush to your paper. First and foremost, however, weight is not an indication of what quality your paper is because the even high-end paper is available in heavy and light versions. What paper weight does indicate though is whether your paper will need to be stretched prior to you starting. Lighter paper, if not stretched properly, is liable to wrinkle or buckle once it gets wet.

Some artists prefer heavy paper for a variety of reasons. As you have probably gathered, the heavier paper holds up to washes better and usually does not require stretching except when subjected to heavy washes. Certainly, heavier paper can be costlier. For beginners, we recommend 140lb paper. Although it might need stretching, you can work around that by just taping the paper down when you are working, including with watercolor real brush pens.


Without question, the best texture for your paper to be is completely subjective. The three paper textures are hot-pressed, cold-pressed, and rough.

The hot-pressed paper features a hard surface that is smooth. While this texture can prove difficult for some regarding controlling their pigments, some artists actually prefer hot-pressed paper for work that features fine details.

Cold-pressed paper, or “not paper” as it is sometimes called, has a semi-rough surface that works well for smooth washes and detailed work. Undoubtedly the most popular texture, this very versatile texture is great for both beginners and experienced painters.  

Rough paper works well with washes in that the texture’s pronounced tooth gives washes a glow.


Watercolor paper is primarily cream or white intentionally. The purpose is to give pigments a glow by reflecting light. In many cases, the paper itself doubles as a white pigment. Of course, there are endless tints that you may purchase paper in and, with a little effort and washes, can create paper tinted to your own specifications.


The high-end paper is made with 100% cotton. Called “rag paper”, this medium offers a strong canvas that is also pliable. For papers that are less expensive, common ingredients include wood pulp or even a hybrid featuring cotton mixed with some other fiber. It should go without saying, but if your intent is to create a lasting peace or a piece that will be created using various rough techniques, do not skimp on the totally cotton-based paper.

You have infinite options when it comes to your paper choices. The only real limit is you making the decision as to what paper you want to work on with your watercolors. While the temptation is certainly there to do everything with nothing but the best quality, the reality is that simply doesn’t make any sense. You don’t have to buy a bulk order of everything. Keep supplies of high-grade paper on hand, but recognize that you need lots of practice to perfect your techniques and even your style. Make sure you get to where you want to go in the most cost-effective manner possible. To help you on your journey Arteza offers a variety of different types papers, feel free to check them out!

1 comment

I’m totally hooked on Arteza 100% cotton paper. I’ve been an artist my whole life and I’m in my 60’s now. I still have some use for paper that is a lesser quality, but for commissions I always use the 100% cotton. I’m loving it so much lately though, that sometimes I don’t want to switch back to the wood pulp! 😂

Rose Locricchio

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