A good-quality pad of watercolor paper is just as important as the paint and brushes you use. Available in a range of fiber types, textures, and weights, these sheets can completely change the performance of your pigments. Watercolor paper really runs the gamut from cheap practice sheets to luxurious archival ones, and making a choice can often come down to price. But it’s important to remember that while an inferior product can save you money, it can also hold you back, preventing you from getting the results you’re capable of. Our picks below provide a good overview of the best pads to suit a range of needs.
1. Savoir Faire Fabriano Pad
For artist-grade watercolor paper, cotton is king. But sheets made of 100 percent cotton can be pricey. For frequent use in the studio, whether for practice, experimentation, or long-lasting masterpieces, we recommend this high-quality watercolor pad that won’t break the bank. It has 50 sheets made of 25 percent cotton and 75 percent alpha cellulose, and the resulting surface feels a lot like premium cotton rag. Pigment moves beautifully and evenly on it, and it has a nice thickness that can absorb and handle a decent amount of water and layered paint without buckling. It’s an excellent option for beginners and experienced painters alike.
2. Strathmore 400 Series Watercolor Pad
Made of wood pulp, Strathmore’s product is a good-quality pad that does everything you need watercolor paper to do. Its sheets are durable and thick enough to take water with minimal warping, and pigments flow well on the clean and even surface. We also like the pad itself, which is handsome and sturdy with wire-bound pages. It’s perfect for plein air painting, with the backing doubling as a portable easel.
3. Canson XL Series Watercolor Pad
For an excellent student-grade option, we recommend Canson’s budget-friendly watercolor papers, great for young artists as well more experienced painters who are newcomers to this medium. Made of wood pulp, these cold press sheets hold up nicely to water; they are very forgiving, allowing you to add more water to correct errors without disintegration. While they might buckle as you work, they eventually dry flat. Overall, these are ideal sheets for practice and experimentation, with each affordable pad including 30 sheets.
4. Arteza Watercolor Pad
We like this option because it comes in a set of three pads, offering a total of 90 sheets for a fraction of the cost per sheet of our other picks. They are wire-bound and perfect for spontaneous painters, being small enough to slip into a tote bag to carry everywhere. The cold pressed surface of these 140-pound sheets is highly absorbent and has a fast drying time, which is a nice bonus for those who want to work quickly. While this paper is more susceptible to warping than higher-end papers, you can easily flatten out your works by setting some heavy weights on them.
5. Arches Watercolor Paper Pad
Regarded by many as the gold standard of watercolor papers, Arches’ products are made entirely out of cotton fiber, which makes them thicker and more rigid than papers composed of wood pulp. This is costly paper, but you’ll be making a worthwhile investment: Colors look extra vibrant on this tough surface, which absorbs water very well. The paper is particularly great for wet-on-wet painting; you won’t get any puddling or pilling even with heavy washes and multiple layers of color, nor will the natural-white surface warp. While perfect for professionals, this pad is also a fine choice for watercolorists who are just starting out, as it can help the beginner refine techniques and blend colors with greater ease.