As I frequently get questions about the paper I use for my illustrations, I thought it would not be a bad idea to make an in-depth review of watercolour papers: the ones I have tried, whether I liked or disliked them and why, their caracteristics, and what you should pay attention to when looking for a good watercolor paper.
Keep in mind that all opinions are my personal ones, and refer to how I work - the right paper for me may not be the right paper for you, depending on your personal techniques. :)
Also, I use watercolour paper because I almost systematically mix markers with watercolour and thinned acrylics, but if you use markers only I would not recommend them - they suck the ink out like crazy.
Watercolour papers 101
Papers come in different thicknesses that are described by their weights in grams per square meter (i.e. gsm). Usual printing paper is somewhere around 90gsm, and watercolour papers typically range from 185gm (thin) to 600gsm (very thick). I use 300gsm, which is the most easily found type of watercolour paper. If you are going to use very wet paint (watercolours, thinned acrylics, washes of ink, etc) I would not recommend using anything thinner than 300gsm, as the paper will wobble badly or even tear.
Watercolour papers can have different textures:
- rough grain (or "torchon"), which is a coarse, pronounced texture
- fine grain (cold-pressed paper, or NOT), your typical watercolour paper texture
- satin paper (hot-pressed), which is a very smooth, almost textureless paper.
Hot-pressed is my personal favourite by a long shot.
Watercolour papers can be made from either wood or cotton fibers. Paper made from cotton is sometimes called "rag paper", and it is usually considered higher quality. If the fiber type is not stated, then it is safe to assume it's wood fiber. I personally like cotton papers much better, I find that they have a smoother surface and better absorbency (see below).
Archivality refers to whether a paper is meant to last in time. Most papers contain acidic substances that, over time, will yellow the paper and degrade the colours of whatever is drawn on them. Archival papers are processed to remove acidic substances naturally present in wood pulp, and are made using a procedure involving different chemicals compared to regular papers. As a result, they are more pricey. Non-archival papers can be used for roughs, sketches, and designs that are not meant to last - but for any type of artwork you may want to keep or sell, I strongly suggest using archival paper. Most but not all watercolour papers are archival. This should usually be stated in the description - if the paper is described as acid-free and without optical brighteners, it should be archival.
Depending on the treatment of the paper, it may be more or less white. Archival papers do not contain optical brighteners, i.e. chemical compounds that make papers very white and bright. They are usually a twinge more on the ivory, warm side - some more than others.
Again, depending on the treatment of the paper, but also on the fiber type, papers may be more or less absorbent. Absorbent papers will soak wet paint or ink in quickly (although on a high-quality paper, the colour should not feather or bleed either). Water will stay on the surface a bit longer on a less abosorbent paper, and sometimes even "bead" (especially on papers containing a lot of gelatine). This is more difficult to assess without trying the paper first-hand, but less absorbent papers often have a slightly waxy, gummy touch, and look slightly less matte. I personnally hate waxy watercolour papers and stay the hell away from them (yes, that's how bad I feel about them).
Pads vs. Sheets
Most brands sell watercolour paper both as pads of various sizes, and as large individual sheets (usually 50x70cm). That is very much up to your personal preferences. I love pads and always have a number of A3 ones lying around, but I use sheets as well when I need to cut out a larger piece of paper for a drawing.
Unless you are using your watercolour paper for a dry technique, watercolour paper should be stretched, i.e. taped to a stronger support (a piece of cardboard, plywood, your table, etc). This prevents the paper from wobbling and buckling when using a lot of water. I have heard that 600gsm paper does not need stretching but I have not tried myself, and am slightly skeptical about that. :)
On with the review!
Of course I have not tried out every single watercolour paper out there, so this is by no means exhaustive, but here you go.
These papers are pretty much ordered from my favourite to least favourite ones.
Arches watercolour paper is hands-down my favourite paper. It is known all around as one of the highest quality cotton papers you can find - and accordingly, one of the most expensives...
I have tried both the hot-pressed (which is my paper of choice) and torchon papers. Both are a superbly soft and absorbent surface on which pencils and colours glide beautifully. They are archival, and are a quite warm-toned, ivory-white colour (the warmest I have tried, I think). They come in pads and sheets - I tried and loved both.
Sennelier paper is a close second to Arches. I have tried only the hot-pressed paper. Again, very high-quality archival cotton paper, very smooth, colours glide one perfectly. It is slightly less absorbent than the Arches, and whiter as well. I think they are only available as pads though.
This paper is an interesting choice is you are concerned by environment protection (although paper production is highly polluting, no matter what...). It is the art paper counterpart of the printing paper I use for my fine-art prints.
The very first watercolour paper I got when I was about 9! :DI kept using Canson Montval for quite a while, but have not used it for years now (ever since I found out about hot-pressed paper). I used the fine-grained one, but it also comes in rough grain ("nuage"). It is a wood fiber paper, with a very white colour. The surface is quite scratchy, and not highly absorbent. It is acid-free but I am not sure about its archivality, as it may contain brighteners considering its colour. It comes in pads and sheets. Altogether a cheap paper that you may like for its price and texture, although I would not buy again anymore.
Daler Rowney Langton Prestige - my latest experiment and my least liked of the bunch. It is a cotton archival paper and comes in all three finishes (although I only tried the hot-pressed one). It is very white, and has a very waxy, poorly absorbent surface on which pencils do not hold very well, and that feels almost like Bristol board. I personally do not like that at all - but if you like these kind of surfaces where you can correct and retake colour easily, and have been looking for a sturdier, non-peeling alternative to Bristol, this may be for you. They come in pads only, and on the plus side, they are relatively cheap.
That's it folks!
Please feel free to comment on your personal preferences, and papers you would recommend! :)