The 5 Best Watercolor Paper Pads for Artists

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Watercolor paper is a crucial supply for any watercolor artist. Having the right paper can make or break your painting! Choosing a high quality paper pad designed for watercolors will give you the best texture, absorbency, and durability. In this blog post, I’ll recommend the top 5 watercolor paper pads based on weight, texture, composition, quality, and ease of use. My goal is to help you find the perfect paper to unleash your creativity and take your watercolor skills to the next level!

Introduction

Watercolor paper has a number of important characteristics that set it apart from regular sketching paper. The texture, weight, composition, and pH level all impact how paints interact with the paper’s surface. As a watercolor artist myself, I’ve tested dozens of papers over the years. I’ve found there can be quite a difference between student grade and professional grade sheets. Investing in a high quality pad designed specifically for watercolors can elevate your paintings and avoid many headaches!

In this blog post, I’ll explain the key factors that go into choosing a good watercolor paper. We’ll look at paper weight, surface texture, acidity, special coatings, and more. I’ll also recommend my picks for the top 5 watercolor paper pads on the market right now based on quality, price, and usability. Whether you’re a beginner looking for your first pad or a seasoned artist needing a recommendation, I’ve got you covered!

Section 1: Weight and Texture

One of the most important considerations when choosing a watercolor paper pad is the weight or thickness. Paper weight is measured in pounds (lbs). Some common weights for watercolor paper are 90 lb, 140 lb, and 300 lb. The heavier the paper, the thicker and more durable it will be.

Heavier paper is less likely to buckle or wrinkle when wet. Lighter paper can become wavy or damaged if too much water is applied. For beginners, I generally recommend starting with 140 lb paper. It provides good stability for basic painting techniques. Professional artists may prefer 300 lb or heavier paper for maximum rigidity with lots of water.

The paper’s surface texture is also key. The three main types are hot pressed, cold pressed, and rough:

  • Hot pressed has a smooth, hard surface similar to cardstock. Paint has less texture and dries quickly on hot pressed paper. Excellent for detail work.
  • Cold pressed has a medium-textured surface with slight tooth. It’s the most versatile and popular for achieving varied brush strokes. Good balance of control and flow.
  • Rough has a pronounced texture and visible tooth. Paint soaks in with beautiful blooms. Ideal for abstract washes and loose impressionistic styles.

Think about your preferred painting techniques when choosing paper texture. Hot pressed is great if you like painting realism or graphic styles requiring crisp lines. Rough paper facilitates lush washes with dynamic edges. Cold pressed falls somewhere in between.

Section 2: Paper Composition

Watercolor paper contains some ratio of cotton fiber versus wood pulp. Cotton paper is the highest quality and offers the most texture. It’s extremely durable and absorbent. Wood pulp paper is more affordable but weaker when wet. Many sheets combine cotton and wood pulp to balance quality and cost.

Here are the pros and cons of each fiber:

Cotton:

  • Pros: soft texture, very strong when wet, ages beautifully
  • Cons: expensive, needs stretching before painting

Wood pulp:

  • Pros: inexpensive, accessible, disposable practice sheets
  • Cons: prone to buckling, fades over time

Cotton/wood blends:

  • Pros: moderate price, decent stability
  • Cons: not as durable or resilient as 100% cotton

Another factor is a paper’s acidity. Acid-free watercolor paper has a neutral pH of 7.0. Acid-free sheets resist yellowing and deterioration over time. Non-acid-free paper will gradually fade and fall apart. Always check for an acid-free guarantee when purchasing quality watercolor pads.

Some papers are also buffered with calcium carbonate. Buffering provides extra protection against discoloration especially for museum-quality work. Acid-free is good, buffered is even better for archival storage.

Section 3: Top 5 Watercolor Paper Pads

Now that we’ve covered the key criteria, here are my recommendations for the best watercolor paper pads currently available. I’ll summarize the weight, texture, composition, and other features of each pad to help you find the perfect surface for your painting needs!

1. Fabriano Artistico Traditional White Extra White Soft Press Paper Pad

My top overall pick is the Fabriano Artistico pad. It offers pro-level quality with a very reasonable price point.

  • 140 lb paper with soft press/cold press texture
  • Deckle edge sheets made with 100% cotton
  • Acid-free and buffered
  • Bright white color for brilliant paint application
  • Excellent wet strength and minimal buckling

I’ve used Fabriano Artistico for years and it never disappoints. It’s highly versatile for all skill levels and painting techniques from wet-on-wet to glazing. The cotton paper has a perfect tooth for blending and layering. A great value for professional results!

2. Saunders Waterford Cold Press Paper Pad

For artists who want velvety texture, Saunders Waterford is the ultimate choice.

  • 140 lb 100% cotton deckle edge paper
  • Cold press finish with ultrafine texture
  • Luminous white shade shows off vibrant color
  • Excellent flow and blending with minimal drying time
  • Resists warping due to strong interwoven fibers

This premium paper is a dream to paint on. It has the most buttery, luxurious feel of any cotton paper. Layers blend seamlessly for atmospheric paintings full of depth. Truly like painting on velvet!

3. Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Pad

Strathmore 400 provides very nice quality for beginners at a student grade price.

  • 140 lb paper with vellum surface
  • Acid-free with a decent cotton/wood fiber blend
  • Cold press texture suitable for all techniques
  • Good wet strength and stability
  • 20 sheet glue-bound pad perfect for practice
  • Much more affordable than professional pads

This is my top recommendation for beginners looking for their first watercolor paper. Strathmore 400 has enough texture for breathing room and washes. The sheets withstand moderate water for basic techniques. And the price is very budget-friendly!

4. Arches Rough Watercolor Paper Pad

For bleeding blooms and abstract expressionism, Arches Rough paper is ideal.

  • 300 lb 100% cotton paper extremely resistant to warping
  • Distinctly textured rough pressed surface
  • Deckle edged sheets with natural look and feel
  • Allows incredible blending and ichy washes
  • Excellent for wet-in-wet techniques
  • Loose fibers produce beautiful expressive edges

Arches paper is crafted in France and beloved by watercolorists worldwide. The heavyweight 300 lb rough texture excels for uncontrolled, expressive techniques. Large juicy pigment blooms come naturally on Arches rough paper.

5. Canson XL Series Watercolor Textured Paper Pad

Canson XL offers a more affordable pad with quite decent quality.

  • 140 lb pad with textured fine-grain surface
  • Acid free paper good for basic practice
  • Cold press texture suitable for washes and glazing
  • 30 sheets per pad make it quite economical
  • Good for beginners before investing in pricier pads
  • Fibers withstand moderate water applications and lifting

The Canson XL series provides very nice quality for the price. While not top of the line, it performs well for basic painting across multiple techniques. XL is also easy to buy online or in big box stores. A great starter pad on a budget.

Section 4: Other Considerations

Beyond the core paper characteristics, here are some other factors to keep in mind when shopping for a watercolor pad:

  • Pad size: Pads come in standard sizes like 9×12 or 11×15 inches. Mini and travel pads around 5×7 inches are also available.
  • Special features: Some pads have spiral binding, removable sheets, or sturdy backing boards. These provide extra convenience but often cost more.
  • Price range: Student grade pads typically cost $10 to $25. Professional grades run $30 to $60+ per pad. Individual full sheets are the most costly.
  • Availability: Check local art stores, online retailers, Amazon, and big box stores like Blick Art Materials. Online has the best selection.
  • Sample packs: Try buying sample or starter packs with sheets from different brands. Testing various papers with your preferred tools is incredibly helpful before committing to a full pad.
  • Storage: Store pads flat and avoid moisture or sunlight. If paper gets damp, let it fully dry flattened under weight before using to prevent warping.

Conclusion

I hope this overview gives you a better understanding of the different factors that go into choosing a watercolor paper pad. Key elements like texture, weight, composition, acidity, and price all impact your painting experience. Testing out sample sheets is extremely helpful before settling on a full pad.

My top 5 recommendations – Fabriano Artistico, Saunders Waterford, Strathmore 400, Arches Rough, and Canson XL – provide exceptional quality across different budgets. With the right paper for your style and skill level, you can focus on improving your watercolor techniques rather than fighting with your paper! Let me know in the comments if you have any other favorite watercolor paper brands I should try. Happy painting!

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