Which Watercolor Paper Should I Practice On? I've Got Answers.

jenna rainey

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Which Watercolor Paper Should I Practice On? I’ve Got Answers.

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Something I get asked alllllll of the time is, “Is there an inexpensive watercolor paper I can use to practice on?” And my answer is, well, yes and no. Technically speaking, there are a few factors you’ll want to consider when practicing watercolor so that you have a more authentic experience and pleasing results.

So, without further ado…

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links which means if you purchase from a link, I may earn a small commission—at no extra cost to you. St. Cutherbert’s Mill (Saunders Waterford and Arches) also sponsors my work.


What Watercolor Paper Should I Practice On? I’ve Got Answers. 

What about Canson Watercolor Paper?

This is a budget “watercolor” paper that I get asked about alllll of the time. Can you use it to paint on? Of course! This pad of paper is inexpensive and definitely readily available, but unfortunately there are a few factors that are missing that I consider really important, and here’s why.

  1. This is a cellulose paper and is not 100% cotton. Why does this matter? Having 100% cotton paper like Saunders Waterford or Arches means that when you soak the paper or even just apply a little more than a glaze of water, it’s going to absorb and handle the moisture well. With cellulose, you’ll notice that the grain of the pigment and water separate quite easily and it will create hard lines and weird patches quite often.
  2. Their cold press paper I would actually consider smooth/hot press. The Canson watercolor paper is incredibly smooth compared to the other two papers I mentioned above or any other 100% cotton cold press paper. If you like painting on hot press paper, great! If you’re like me though, you will not enjoy painting on this paper without the toothy texture of good quality cold press paper!

Of course Canson Watercolor Paper is not the only “cheap” watercolor paper on the market. There’s a whole bunch, but a major thing to consider when you’re looking for a paper to buy is that it is 100% cotton and not cellulose, unless you’re ok with practicing with the frustrating results mentioned above!

Can I use the backside of paper?

Technically? Yes. But the tooth or texture of the paper is going to be more apparent on the front than on the back side of the paper, whether you’re using sheets, blocks or pads. Why is this important? Well, that texture (especially if you’re using cold press or rough paper) is what helps to keep the water and pigment in place while drying. It also helps with absorption and dry time, so while you can definitely practice on the backside of paper, the results will not be the same as the front, which could lead to frustration.

The goal is to enjoy the process!

While what I mentioned above isn’t a deal breaker for everyone looking for an inexpensive watercolor paper option, there’s one more thing I think every artist should consider before they use the “cheap” paper for practice and that is this:

Enjoying your results and your process while painting has a huge impact on not only the length of time that you practice, but your excitement to come back to this medium and continue painting. 

I personally never invest my time or money on the “cheaper” option for practice because it’s going to give me inferior results if I painted the exact same thing on a better quality paper. If your budget just doesn’t allow you to always be spending top dollar on paper, then check Cheap Joe’s for their discounted packs or sample packs! 

Moral of the story, trust and enjoy the process and find the paper you love to work on and love seeing results on. It’s different for everyone!

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  1. Juli St says:

    Really glad I listened to you on this. I started painting in July and love it so much. I paint almost every day (except for the 3 days I work as an RN. If I had only used the Canson paper I had, I think I would have give up by now. After following your paper recommendation, I found that using cotton paper really makes a humongous difference. I’ve also learned that not all 100% cotton papers are created equally.

  2. I always use the good paper because, many times, my practice piece becomes one of my favorites! Perhaps because when you’re “experimenting” you don’ hold back and you are at your most creative self?!

  3. Kay Bryan says:

    Canson does make a line of 100% cotton paper as well as their other watercolor papers.

  4. Amber says:

    I’ve become a watercolour paper ‘snob’, because nothing behaves as well as 100% cotton paper, and like the commenter above, even if it says it’s 100% cotton, that isn’t a guarantee of its quality. I’m assuming that’s something to do with sizing, as well as texture – for instance I bought a (expensive!) 100% cotton sketchbook from Mossery – should have watched more reviews before I did. It’s cute and the cover is pretty but the paper is dreadful, just soaks up paint or ink immediately.
    I’m told Bee 100% cotton paper is relatively cheap if you’re US based, and Baohong used to be fairly cheap but costs have gone up over the last couple of years.

  5. Semaj says:

    Now if that isn’t TRUTH telling.
    I get it, we all want to take a slow approach to a new thing as beginners. Though I found that even spending a bit more on the quality paper, makes me happier with my results. Great thing is you can cut the paper down in sizes and have lots of play spaces to practice on. Many of the Main sellers of art supplies have some really great deals on “starter/sample packs”. Or sometimes they have great deals on large sheets of watercolor paper you can cut down to size.
    Whatever you choose remember. Ultimately, you are investing in yourself, your growth and potential. Why not maximize that while working with the good stuff, it will make you happier and gives results that keep you coming back to the blank page.
    Enjoy the process and keep being creative!

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