Watercolor Paper: Choosing the Right Materials for Your Best Work

As you explore your artistic style, there are thousands of little decisions that you need to make. If you make the decision to experiment with watercolors, an important consideration is what type of watercolor paper to use.

It’s not as simple as with oil painting, where you can just grab a canvas, sketch a design, and start painting. Because watercolors are so, watery, you can’t use just any type of drawing paper or paper pad to get the effects that you want. Many paper types are basically water solvent – they will start to warp and even dissolve when you start applying watercolor paints.

We can help with that. Here’s a complete guide to choosing watercolor paper to add to your art studio, so you can get the best out of your watercolor masterpieces!

A Guide to Choosing Watercolor Paper

Whether you’re just getting started with watercolor painting, or you’ve been at it a while, the most important choice you make, is the surface you choose to paint on. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever scrubbed a hole through your canvas. Some of the so-called watercolor paper available at the store is too thin to support a serious painting effort.

watercolor paper

In fact, you may not know that paper is not even the material of choice for serious watercolor artists. If you’re trying to create a work of art with water colors, or even gouache, you need a watercolor paper that can absorb plenty of pigment and take a lot of abuse, and preferably without buckling. 

Cotton Rag Instead of Watercolor Paper

Cotton Rag is generally the most popular choice by the serious watercolorist. It takes some preparation before painting, and there are all kinds of tricks to making the best of it. Of course, the heavier the paper, the more versatility you get.


Paper (at least in the U.S.), is measured by stacking 500 identical sheets and taking their overall weight as an indicator for the thickness of the individual sheet. Keep in mind that thicker paper is going to have a higher price tag, so make sure the quality matches the cost, as well as the intended use of the material. 

Watercolor Blocks as an Alternative Surface Choice

If you’re just practicing, you still need something of better quality than those garbage paper pads that don’t hold their shape, much less any pigment. The watercolor block is an answer to this issue. The watercolor block is my favorite answer to the quality issue because you can just as easily create a polished piece using a page from a decent watercolor block. The paper from a watercolor block is almost always thick enough that no water or pigment will penetrate.


The reason for this is that two sides of the watercolor block are edge-glued, so the paper won’t buckle. Instead of removing each sheet before painting, you leave the top page attached, and only remove it after the painting is finished and dry. This makes your painting efforts very mobile because you can simply close the cover of the watercolor block and put it away protected. No need to carry around a hard surface with your page taped down. Watercolor Paper blocks come in a variety of weights and dimensions, and of course, you can still use painter’s or masking tape to crop a clean edge around the top page of your watercolor block.

Using Cheaper Watercolor Paper to the Best Effect

Cheaper watercolor paper works, but you’ve got to put in a little bit of preparation before you can get down to painting. Your primary concern is keeping a flat surface throughout the painting process, as well as leaving a flat finished image. It’s no good framing a watercolor painting with a wavy, distorted surface, no matter how well-rendered it is.

Winsor Newton offers quality watercolor paper for reasonable prices. You can purchase it along with a ton of other quality art supplies at Blick. 


You will need to prepare these cheaper papers in order to get the best results. There are multiple ways to prep paper, but we’re going to go over the two most popular techniques.

Prepping Your Paper with Water

If you can do a solid job taping your page tightly down to a hard surface, like those oversized drawing clipboards you can get at most art supply stores, you just have to brush a layer of water across the exposed paper and lay it flat to dry completely. If you get any buckling, either you need to do a better job stretching the paper slightly as you tape it, or you can try a second coat of water, before laying something heavy and flat (like a stack of books) across the whole paper surface as it dries. Use a plastic barrier so you don’t accidentally transfer the cover of Moby Dick to your once-clean watercolor paper.

Backing Your Watercolor Paper with Gesso

An artist friend first told me about this technique, which seems to work well for multiple reasons. Using a thin layer of gesso, paint an X shape on the back of your watercolor paper, from corner to corner, and let the gesso dry fully. Once dry, tape down your paper with the gesso backing as you normally would, to a hard surface as we mentioned earlier.

The gesso adheres to the paper without the glue penetrating(unless you used too much), and creates a stiff enough structure that the water filling the paper fibers won’t be able to cause significant warping. It is also translucent, so won’t affect the finished painting. 

The Limits of Your Watercolor Paper

The two ideas above are aimed at solving the issues that come with inferior paper that is still quite useful simply because of cost and availability. I mean, everyone needs to practice, and practice means exploratory painting, not necessarily frameable painting.


One Alternative to the Idiosyncrasies of Watercolor Paper

So much in watercolor painting revolves around your surface, that the unpredictability of watercolor paper can be discouraging. Watercolor Ground is an alternative to paper or cotton rag. Watercolor ground has the consistency of gesso, but when dry, creates an absorbent surface that behaves almost like the surface of cotton rag.

Watercolor ground is similar to Gesso. You can apply it to any hard surface, such as canvas or board. Once it’s dry, it becomes an absorbent surface ready for your watercolor art. 

The benefit of applying watercolor ground to a hard surface is that the surface can be sanded, and multiple layers of watercolor ground can be added to offer a more stunning depth of absorbency. Watercolor ground comes in multiple grades from smooth to rough finished surfaces, giving the watercolorist a little of the freedom of texture and transparency that oil painters enjoy. In addition, watercolor ground is a prime surface for water-based mixed media projects that may involve not just watercolor paints, but gouache, pencil, inks, marker, pens and even paint, as long as you’re smart about the sequence of media layers applied. 


Why Watercolor Ground Isn’t More Popular

Watercolor paper remains the most bright white surface you can get while keeping the level of absorbency needed to use watercolor paints. While watercolor ground arguably manages a bright white surface, it can’t stand up to the brightness of bleached cotton fiber watercolor paper. Personally, I’ve got no problem sacrificing that top level of value for the versatility of a watercolor ground surface, which by the way, can be improved upon with the addition of dry pigment. But for the purist, the brightness of watercolor paper is admittedly part of the reason a watercolorist can achieve such brilliant color. 

So when you make your choice between all the options we’ve discussed here, hopefully, you’ll have an idea of what you can use for practice, and what you can used for a thoughtful work of art, and choose your surface for each, accordingly.

Other WaterColor Supplies

Watercolor paper isn’t the only thing you need to consider when painting with watercolors. Choosing the correct brushes, easel, and a watercolor pan will help make mixing colors and painting with watercolors easier, especially for beginners.  You also might be interested in experimenting with watercolor pens or pencils.

Michaels has everything you need to get started with watercolor paintings – check them out!



Learning Watercolor Technique

Although I enjoy mixing colors and throwing paint on paper to get random abstract watercolor masterpieces, many people would rather take some courses and learn how to paint with watercolors from professionals. There are a variety of sources for online art lessons, demonstrations, and even specific watercolor classes. 

Here are a few to get you started:


Enjoy your watercolor journey!