I often think of art tools like people. Some are fine and I enjoy being around them, though I might not want to take them home with me. Some are difficult, but I can usually find a bit of good in there somewhere. Some are excellent with others but totally rub me the wrong way.
And some I fall completely, irrevocably in love with.
The trick is to find a tool, or in light of this topic, a watercolor paper that suits you. Whether or not you enjoy a certain brand of watercolor paper has more to do with you than the paper. Most artist-grade watercolor papers are extremely well made, but if your personalities and characteristics clash, you won’t enjoy painting on it.
Today I’m sharing my four favorite watercolor paper brands. They aren’t necessarily the top selling brands nor are they the most well known, but I think these papers are worth the effort to seek them out.
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Watercolor Paper Brands Featured
In the lead photo of this post, I painted a simple landscape on all four of my favorite watercolor paper brands. The full names of the papers are listed below, clockwise from top left.
Clicking on the links will take you to the manufacturer's website where you can find more information about the paper, order samples, and find retailers where the paper is sold.
Just because I love all four of these brands doesn’t mean that they all paint the same. Each is rather unique in its own right, and the one I’m using at the moment depends a lot on what I’m painting.
To keep the comparisons as equal as possible, all of the papers I’m critiquing are 100-percent cotton, artist-grade papers, and I’ll only be discussing the 140-lb weights. (Other weights of papers paint quite differently.)
So in no particular order, below are my four favorite watercolor paper brands along with my opinion of each. Hopefully my comparisons can help you find a brand that suits you!
Cézanne Watercolor Paper: Hardy, spontaneous & not afraid to lead
Hahnemühle Cézanne is a nicely sized paper with excellent workability and flow. Watercolors look beautiful on its surface, and Cézanne provides wonderful lift and movement. In fact, it’s so easy to lift pigments from this paper’s surface that I often take away more than I need. However, Cézanne doesn’t seem to mind if you overwork it. This is a patient paper, indeed!
Though Cézanne tends to let a painter do what he or she wants, it also doesn’t mind taking charge. This paper is very spontaneous; I’m always pleasantly surprised at how pigments settle on its surface. The drying rate is slow so there’s plenty of time to work things out, and pigments appear extremely vibrant on this paper.
Cézanne performs flawlessly in my hands, and it's one of the finest papers that I've ever used. I sent some samples to a friend who experienced the same, exceptional performance. Hahnemühle's Leonardo paper is the only heavyweight watercolor paper that I use, and I highly recommend trying these Hahnemühle papers. For more on Cezanne, see my review of the full line of Hahnemühle’s watercolor papers.
Kilimanjaro Watercolor Paper: Casual, frank & highly dependable
I normally advise fleeing from store brand watercolor papers as if they housed the plague, but Cheap Joe’s house brand is an exception. If you like your pigments to stay put, Kilimanjaro may be your paper. It has a high absorption rate which results in a low flow rate and a drier painting surface. This means that there aren’t many surprises with this paper—what you see is what you get—which is why I like it for quick sketches and nature studies.
Regardless of the high absorption, colors remain vibrant. The surface of Kilimanjaro is fairly sturdy and pigments lift easily, but this respectable paper doesn’t appreciate a lot of abuse.
Joe must have a distinct painting personality because Kilimanjaro paper pairs well with Joe’s house brand watercolors, American Journey—their boldness and flow rate highly compliment each other. I recommend trying both.
Stonehenge Aqua: Frugal, unassuming & nearly indestructible
Legion's Stonehenge Aqua paper has exploded onto the scene with good reason. This is the most inexpensive artist-grade watercolor paper I've ever run across, yet it performs exceptionally well. It's slightly thinner and smoother than the others but exhibits no curling or buckling, and the surface has enough texture to allow fun effects like in the dry brushed water area above.
When I first tested this paper, I really put it through the ropes. In fact, I tried to kill it. (I tend to do that when testing art tools.) I was unsuccessful, and when I posted the results of my efforts on social media, someone shared this fun video with me.
Colors aren't as vibrant on this paper and it doesn't have the juicy surface that I prefer, but with good performance at an unbelievable price, I can overlook these trivial inadequacies.
Saunders Waterford: Vivacious, surprisingly unpretentious & responsive
Saunders Waterford is a paradox. It’s a soft paper which usually means high absorbency, but it has wow-factor movement and workability. The name recalls images of blue blooded aristocrats, but when put to the test, it's actually a workhorse. Because of these unusually cohesive characteristics, Waterford is one of my favorite papers to use.
Because it’s a softer paper, colors may fade slightly as they dry especially on Waterford’s natural white. However, this paper gives a soft, ethereal quality to paintings that I’ve not found duplicated with any other brand. I highly recommend trying it with misty, flowing landscapes... or anything else.
Video: Testing Watercolor Paper Brands
Though the photos above serve as good examples of the papers' abilities, there’s really nothing like seeing these papers in action, so I’ve put together a video where I test all four watercolor paper brands with a simple landscape painting.
I hope this helps and encourages you to test these and many more watercolor papers for yourself. Happy painting!