There is a sort of magic to painting - a way the pigment, water, paper, and your own creativity all come together to make something. Sometimes it comes easily, and sometimes it doesn't; but having the wrong supplies should never be what gets in the way. I've been a little more experimental with my fine art papers these days, so I gathered up five I had in stock and put them to the test with some pen and paint. In addition to photos of the paintings themselves, I've gathered up some videos and close-ups so you can really see for yourself the differences. I've included both cold and hot press papers, both professional and student grade, and even a smooth bristol just for the sake of thoroughness. Let me know in the comments what papers you'd like to see tested in the future, and I hope this helps you get the just-right-paper for your next project!
All of the below paintings were made using Kuretake pan paint sets, micron pens, and Silver Brush Voyager and Princeton Velvetouch brushes.
All five of these papers are linked to Dick Blick as the retailer; this is not a sponsored post and these are not affiliate links! I felt like Dick Blick had the best descriptions of each type of paper and the most in stock, so thought they would be the most helpful. Please keep in mind all of these papers are widely available in many countries from many different retailers!
Paper 1: Arches Cold Press
Current cost: between $6-$10 for a 22"x30" sheet
If you have watercolor painted before, or even spent time gazing longingly at nice papers in an art supply shop, you're probably familiar with Arches papers, especially cold-press. Arches is known as a high quality paper, and the cost reflects this. My local retailers (in upstate NY) sell one sheet of Arches cold-press, 22"x30" for about $9 a sheet. Compared to the watercolor paper pads of student-grade available, the price is much steeper. Splurge once, though, and after using Arches it can be hard to go back to more affordable papers.
There is an obvious texture to Arches, which may be because the paper is are "mould-made" as the company describes. The paper is 100% cotton fiber, and the texture creates a beautiful background for brush strokes. It is very absorbent, and in the video below you can see how smoothly the brush moves on the paper and how quickly the water and pigment soaks into the paper and blends. For smooth transitions between colors using a wet-on-wet technique, Arches is always going to do the trick. The paper is also thick and durable, and stands up to lifting paint back off of it or erasing pencil marks. Why don't I use Arches all of the time? A lot of my work is mixed media, including using micron pens to illustrate a subject before painting it. The natural texture of Arches does not make for a smooth illustration surface, and scanning and digitizing the work can be quite challenging afterward; the lines don't show up evenly or smoothly and the overall effect is rough. If you can afford it and are more focused on brush painting and not illustrating, I say go for Arches!
Scroll to the bottom of the post to see three videos comparing cold press, hot press, and bristol papers compared as pen is used on each!
In the below close-up photos, you can see how the texture of the paper comes through the pigment of the green leaves. It is a subtle effect but goes nicely with how smoothly the water and pigment blend together. The touches of pink and orange color in the middle of the flowers blends out smoothly without a lot of lines when clear water is touched against it.
Pros: A lovely texture, very durable and absorbent, allows for smooth blending of colors and can handle heavy washes, has a nice natural tone to the paper and is archival quality.
Cons: $$$! If you're just starting out, consider also using more affordable student-grade papers too, especially for sketching out compositions and testing color combinations. Also, if you're using pen for an illustrated work this isn't the best choice for a smooth surface.
Paper 2: Fabriano Cold Press
Current cost: between $5-$9 for a 22"x30" sheet
Fabriano is another 100%, high-quality, cold-press paper similar to the Arches paper described above. It is durable, absorbent, and a professional-grade paper as well. It also has a texture, but compared to Arches it is a little less natural appearing. I can't explain exactly why, but I always find the colors look more vibrant on Fabriano than on Arches; I don't have to add quite as much pigment to get a bold, bright color. In many other ways, it is comprable to Arches if not a little more affodable.
Like Arches, the texture of the paper doesn't make it the best fit for using pens or other items you want a smooth effect on. It also has a nice color to the paper, which watercolor pigments appear high-quality against. It is a very durable paper, and I love that pencil marks erase easily and color can be lifted off fairly effectively, in the case of a mistake.
In the close-ups below, you can see just how vibrant the colors look. Those greens remained bright and clear, even when they blended with each other. The paper is so absorbent, it holds pigment in place and allows for a wet-on-wet technique using heavier washes.
Pros: Slightly more affordable than Arches, keeps colors looking bright and bold, allows for blending without muddying the colors and is very absorbent.
Cons: Again, pricey - but it's a professional grade, and you want to invest in quality materials. Again, if you're using mixed media tools such as micron pens, the texture will make drawing, scanning and digitizing work challenging.
Paper 3: Canson heritage hot Press
Current cost: between $7-$10 for a 22"x30" sheet
I have become increasingly attached to hot press papers, particularly as I work more and more often with pen to create illustrations. Canson hot press papers are the only hot press paper available in large sheets in my rural-ish area, and I recently ordered some Fabriano hot press papers and will be excited to compare those!
Hot press means the paper is pressed using heated cylinders, while cold press papers use unheated cylinders. Using the heated cylinders results in a smoother paper, with much less texture than cold press. Keep in mind, there are other options out there such as rough and smooth papers. I encourage you to try them all!
When using pens to draw prior to painting, hot press means a much smoother and more pleasant surface to work with. Again, you can scroll to the bottom of the post to see three videos comparing cold press, hot press, and bristol papers compared as pen is used on each. I think a high quality hot press paper can be a perfect middle-ground; the smooth surface allows for using mixed media, but it is still durable and absorbent, so great for using wet washes of watercolor paints. Canson's Heritage hot press paper is a really nice, bright white but still creamy color to it and stands up to a little bit of scrubbing and lifting. As you can see in the photos, the colors stay vibrant as the paper soaks up the water. I do think there is a little more blending of colors as they touch (the pigment doesn't stay in place quite as much as with cold-press papers) but I really do find this a lovely paper to work with.
In the close-up photos below, you can see how the different colors gently blend into each other when they touch (such as with the goldren-rod yellow and green in the below photo to the right). The colors have remained bold, but the pen lines have gone on smoothly and cleanly.
Pros: A very smooth surface but still absorbent and durable, so can hold up to watercolor washes, lifting, and erasing. A really nice tone to the paper, and a great choice for illustrations that include both pen and watercolor work.
Cons: This paper is still not cheap, but is a high quality and worth the money if you are able to afford it. Very little texture, so if you're very attached to having that you may want to stick with rough of cold-press papers. Otherwise, I am struggling to come up with any cons - I just really like this paper!
Paper 4: Canson xl Watercolor Paper
Current cost: between $6-$11 for a 30 sheet pad of 9"x12" paper
As you can see from the prices above, this is a very affordable paper. Typically sold in paper pads, I always keep one on hand for testing out compositions and colorways prior to diving into it on my pricier papers. While there is a significant difference in cost and quality when this paper is compared to the cold-press and hot-press papers reviewed above, I felt it would be remiss not to compare a student-grade paper. While this paper is also 140lbs (and when held side-by-side with the other papers, feels just as thick) we should talk about some of the differences.
The best thing about this paper is the price. You can sketch out and paint a quick warm-up or study and not feel a bit guilty about messing it up. Go ahead and experiment! Try a new technique, add a strange color-choice and if you don't like how it turns out you can pat yourself on the back for having been innovative. Keep in mind, if you like how something on this paper turns out but wish you had it on a higher-quality paper, go ahead and consider this a practice-run and do it again on your favorite $$$ paper.
In the video below, you can see how the color sits more on top of the paper (versus being absorbed quickly, as in the videos using higher-quality papers above). This causes the paint today differently, which can cause effects you may or may not enjoy.
Take a look at those close-ups below and a few things probably already stand out to you. On the photo on the left, you can see the obvious pencil marks from an earlier sketch; no matter how I tried or how good my erasers were, I could not get it off without destroying the paper. I'm so used to using higher-quality papers, I had forgotten about this particular issue.
On the right, you can see the different effects created in the watercolor paint as it dried; there are blooms and places it did not blend smoothly at all, as it dried. Particularly, on the lower flower and on the steps you can see lines and breaks between pigment. If you're going to that sort of texture this could be a good thing! If you're not, you might be disappointed.
Pros: Very affordable! No guilt with experimenting, here. Also, widely available at almost any art & craft supply store.
Cons: The difference in quality is really apparent. There is less ability to make a mistake or lift out a pigment, and overall the effects as the paint dries can be less desirable.
Paper 5: Canson xl Bristol Smooth
Current cost: between $1-$4 for a 19"x24" sheet
A bristol paper is quite a bit different than any of the others I have described. You'll see from the video how differently it takes water, and some of the pros and cons in the painting after it dries. Bristol paper in sheets is very affordable, and available in many art supply locations. The sheets are slightly smaller, but at a couple of bucks a sheet it doesn't make too much of a difference. It's only 100lb vs. the 140lb of the earlier papers reviewed, and has an extremely smooth surface for writing. Canson describes bristol paper as working with both wet and dry media, and while that is true I would caution using wet media too heavy-handed. Bristol paper is not a cheap stand in for watercolor paper.
The bottom of this blog post includes videos comparing pen drawn on both cold, hot, and bristol papers so I won't dwell too much on that difference here. If you take a look at the video below, you can see just how different watercolors sit and blend on this smooth and less absorbent bristol surface.
One thing that stands out to me is that how easy it was to lift some of the wash off of the paper. While I wouldn't regularly use bristol for the same kind of painting I use watercolor papers for, I do have to say that the colors stayed vibrant, and using a less absorbent paper allowed me to remove color easily creating highlights on the petals I couldn't have done with Arches.
In the close-ups below, you can see the way the watercolors dried creating lines and texture. I actually really enjoyed the results, as it feels like the flowers have more dimension. However, on the stems you can see how poorly the different colors blended together, and that's a sacrifice I wouldn't want to make in most projects.
Pros: Excellent for pen and ink illustrations! Such a smooth surface, a pen glides over it with ease. Very affordable, as well. Paper is a nice, bright white that scans beautifully. If you're going for a light-wash of watercolor and want the ability to lift out paint, it does that well.
Cons: Does not hold up to heavy use of wet media such as a watercolor wash, and as the paint dries there is a lack of blending and some strange after-effects.
Let's talk about texture! If you frequently use pen and ink, like me, to illustrate a subject before painting it you'll want to consider how the texture of the paper is going to work with, and not against, you. Below are three very short videos demonstrating the same subject drawn with the same pen, but on three different surfaces; the first is a smooth, bristol paper. The second is Arches cold-press, and the third is Canson Heritage hot-press. You can see how differently the pen glides over the paper, and where on the cold-press it snags and it takes more effort and time to create the same shapes.
For me, the hot press paper offers a great balance of being smooth enough for pen-work, but still holds up to watercolor painting afterwards. The cold press paper is too difficult to achieve smooth pen lines on, and afterward all of that texture shows up on the scans, making it difficult to create a good digital image. The bristol paper is divine for using pen, but is not as suitable for watercolors.
One thing you might notice is that in none of the videos did I stretch my paper first. When I was in college taking watercolor painting classes we absolutely always wetted and taped our watercolor papers first. Many artists recommend stretching any paper less than 300lbs, and there are great reasons to do so; you can avoid buckling in the paper and achieve a smoother finish as the watercolors dry. This means the original painting frames well, too, since it is much flatter.
To be honest, I've gotten away from this post-college. Partly, I don't have a wide, clean sink for wetting and my time and space is very limited. Also, I find that if I use a high-quality paper such as Arches, Fabriano, or Canson Heritage cold or hot press I usually don't experience much buckling even of 140lb papers. I very rarely do a heavy background wash, however; if that were the case I would need to reconsider and probably stretch my paper. To be fair, none of the five small paintings I did for this blog post show any buckling at all... so, no harm done?
Do you have a favorite watercolor paper? Have you experimented with cold, hot, rough, and smooth papers? What papers would you like to see reviewed in the future? Please share in the comments below!
Supplies I used for this post
Affiliate shop links are included.