My Virtual Studio: Watercolor papers and sketchbooks

Good paper is on the list of top three things that make a difference in watercolor. (Can you guess the other two? Paint and brushes!) With paper of a poor quality, the paint won’t move in the way you might hope – it could pool up, bloom, and dry in all sorts of strange ways.

Watercolor paper types and textures

There are different types of paper, and each is made a little differently to create the surfaces on the paper:

  • Hot Press: the fiber is squeezed under a hot roller to make the sheet. This causes the fibers to lose their fringes and hence, they smooth out. Best for detailed types of works.
  • Cold Press: the fibers are turned into a sheet by the sheer pressure of a metal slab. It somewhat smoothens the fibers but overall is not as smooth as a hot press paper. Most populer; medium amount of texture.
  • Rough: the sheet is just crafted from the fibers and then it is left in the sun to dry up. The fibers retain their irregularities in this process and the sheet that is produced from this process is the roughest.

Water retention is also affected by the papermaking processes. Smoother surfaces retain less water, and more texture will retain more. Think of it as a linoleum floor vs a carpet: hot press is going to resist the water more, and the edges of a puddle will tend to be harder; getting soft edges can be more challenging. Cold press and rough are more like carpet, where the pigment fans out into the fibers of the paper and keeps going as long as it is wet enough to move.

Rougher surfaces, however, can prohibit the free flow of pigment – painting at an angle can help paint continue to move in and out of the peaks and valleys of the paper. Sketching or stamping on rough paper can get annoying quickly, but beautiful wet-in-wet techniques are fabulous on rough paper

Paper Weight: The most typical weights are 90lb, 140lb, and 300lb. Most watercolorists prefer paper with a weight of at least 140 lb. Why? Heavier paper absorbs more water and can accomodate more layers of paint, providing a lot of flexibility with the sophistication of the painting and the extent to which you can make corrections. However when it comes to 300lb (not 300gsm) paper, it’s double the weight; and while that means no taping is necessary and the paper won’t warp, I find the paper doesn’t function as I want it to – so I generally stay with the 140lb.

Pads, blocks, and sheets: Full sheets of watercolor paper are the best to work from in general; I find the sizing is different in pads, so I use sheets almost exclusively for fine art, and pads for craft projects that are less affected by sometimes uneven performance of a pad. Blocks are another option – the paper is sealed all around, with one small opening to help “start” the removal of the top sheet after the painting is complete. Again, the sizing can be odd in blocks – but I do use them when traveling the country or abroad, because blocks mean I don’t need to fly with a board and tape down paper for painting and can limit my supplies further.

Wood vs cotton fibers: Wood pulp is the cheaper of the two fibers, producing shorter fiber strands which makes for an inferior paper. Wood pulp paper warps more, and can have bleed-through on the other side of the paper; brands of paper that don’t tell you what the paper is made of are often made with wood pulp. Cotton is a much better fiber – it gives the paper impeccable quality both in terms of durability and performance. It warps much less, never seeps through the paper, and is less tear-prone. A 100% cotton paper will be more expensive than wood pulp paper, remember what I always say: You get what you pay for!

Yupo synthetic paper: One other kind of paper I’ve been playing with of late is yupo; it feels somewhat like a vellum, and paint takes forever to dry – crazy things happen to the paint as it flows, but it’s something I do to loosen up!

Watercolor Paper Pads

My favorites are Arches and Saunders Waterford in both cold press and rough; I generally work from sheets whenever I can.

  • Arches Cold Press 9×12 pad EH or AMZ or BLICK
  • Arches Rough – EH or AMZ or BLICK
  • Arches Hot Press – EH or AMZ or BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Cold Press – BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Rough  – BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Hot Press – BLICK
  • Yupo Regular Weight, White  BLICK
  • Yupo Heavy Weight, White BLICK

Watercolor Paper Sheets

  • Arches Cold Press Sheet 140lb sheet  BLICK
  • Arches Rough Sheet 140lb BLICK
  • Arches Hot Press Paper Sheet 140lb BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Cold Press 140lb   BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Hot Press 140lb BLICK
  • Saunders Waterford Rough 140lb   BLICK

Sketchbooks for watercolor

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True Watercolor Sketchbooks

There are MANY unsatisfactory sketchbooks; think about it: a pad of watercolor paper can cost a pretty penny, and that is only bound on one side by glue. Make that same paper – usually more of it than just 20 pages! – into a book with fancier binding and a nice cover, and the sketchbook can skyrocket in price! Though we may “say” we’re willing to pay a lot for a good watercolor sketchbook, there may not be enough of us out there to make it viable for many companies to make good ones.

That said – I do have a few sketchbooks I’ve found that I’m working through. They have nice paper, one is even 300lb, and I’m pretty impressed with them.

Etchr Labs Sketchbooks – They make these in different sizes and orientations and paper types (hot/cold) – browse and see what appeals to you! I have the cold press ones (sold in a pack of 3) and I like it aside from the white cover that *definitely* needs some decor since I can’t keep a fabric sketchbook cover clean! The site says the paper is 230g (not sure if that’s gsm?) If it IS gsm, the paper is between 90lb (190gsm) and 140lb (300gsm) so painting on both sides is definitely possible.

Indigo Art Papers Sketchbook – Fabulous sketchbook especially for those who hate having wrinkly paper if trying to paint on both sides, because these are made with 300lb paper – they’re priced to match the heavy paper, but remember – you get double surface to paint on.

Bockingford Sketchbook – this sketchbook is a surprisingly inexpensive one (or was when I last looked at the link!) – and is made by the same company that makes Saunders Waterford. I don’t believe it’s Saunders in the sketchook, but it’s not bad – and can be painted on both sides.

  • 7×10 pad of 140lb at AMZ

Sketch-quality watercolor sketchbooks

I have about 50 watercolor sketchbooks that I’d call “sketch” quality – for studies and the like. Many were part of my tour through dozens of unsatisfactory books! But I still draw in them and try out things – they’re just not ones I can recommend in good conscience. However – there are two that I use regularly and re-purchase!

Pentalic sketchbooks are my favorite for urban sketching right now – that’s the book I sketched my studio in. It holds up really well to any kind of pen and ink work, and can be watercolored with minimal warping that flattens out nicely. It’s not good paper for techniques – but I do like it for these kinds of sketches! See the Pentalic category of different sizes.

Bee Paper Super Deluxe sketchbooks are, I think, misnamed; there’s not a lot of “super deluxe” going on here, but boy is there a lot of inexpensive! I have a bunch of these that I do studies in – and I never worry that I’ve messed up a page; these are so inexpensive that it really doesn’t matter if something gets goofy! To watercolor you need to go light with it, as you’ll get some warping, but it’s not bad at all. Lots of sizes available.

Join our creative community! Our Student Facebook Group is for all classes here …and while there are no finished projects in this class, you’re welcome to join the group and get an idea of what kind of beautiful works can be created from learnings in classes on this website!