Cotton Watercolor Paper: Choosing the Best Brand for Your Artwork


Purchasing watercolor paper can feel overwhelming with the numerous options available on the market. Even when you’ve figured out the criteria for selecting paper, there’s still the question of which brand to choose. With so many brands to consider, making a decision can be daunting, despite reading reviews. So, which brand stands out as the best?

After extensive experimentation with various watercolor brands, I have determined that Arches is the superior choice when it comes to watercolor paper. When you invest in Arches, you’re not just paying for the name, but for the unparalleled quality of the paper itself. However, it’s important to note that Arches is also the most expensive option. Fortunately, there are other outstanding alternatives for artists who desire exceptional quality without the hefty price tag.

The Importance of Watercolor Paper

As a watercolor artist, the paper you use is of utmost importance. Skimping on paper quality is not an option. While Arches is undeniably the gold standard, it may not be a feasible choice for everyone due to its cost. Thankfully, there are viable alternatives that I will discuss in detail below.

Before delving into the alternatives, here are my top three go-to brands for watercolor paper:

  • Arches Watercolor Paper: 140lb Cold Pressed. Made in France. Arches is renowned for its exceptional quality and undisputed leadership in the field. However, it is also the most expensive option. Widely available worldwide.

  • Legion Stonehenge Watercolor Paper: 140lb Cold-pressed. Made in the USA, Stonehenge is designed to rival expensive brands like Arches. It offers excellent quality at a more affordable price. While more accessible in the US, it can be obtained in other countries like the UK.

  • Saunders Waterford Watercolor Paper: 140lb Cold-pressed. A beautiful, British-made paper of superior quality. While readily available in Europe, it can be ordered internationally.

I recommend these three brands based on my personal experience and because they are all reputable and reliable. Although I haven’t tested every brand on the market, these three have consistently delivered impressive results. Each brand possesses distinct properties that cater to the preferences and projects of different artists.

Note: I recommend starting with 140lb cold-pressed paper as it is versatile and popular among artists. Once you’ve mastered this type, you can explore other options if necessary.

Arches Watercolor Paper: The Leader

Arches watercolor paper is widely regarded as the pinnacle of quality in the watercolor world. Artists, both professional and amateur, praise it as the ultimate choice. But is it truly as extraordinary as its reputation suggests, or is it merely riding on its name?

I must admit, everything about Arches exudes quality. From the moment you hold the paper in your hands, you can feel that it’s something special. I was initially hesitant to purchase Arches, especially during times of price volatility. However, upon comparing it to other brands, few papers can rival its exceptional quality.

Perhaps it’s the presentation, but the care and attention put into creating this paper are evident at first glance. I personally use the 140lb cold-pressed block, which comes with an elegant black cover to protect the paper. When you remove the cover with a palette knife or letter opener, the paper remains undamaged.

The way water interacts with Arches paper is remarkably different from cheaper alternatives. It allows for effortlessly creating soft edges, and the way the paint flows is superb. Additionally, the paper is robust and can handle various techniques, including masking and scratching, which can be harsh on weaker paper.

Pros of Arches Watercolor Paper:

  • Exceptionally durable paper designed to withstand rigorous techniques.
  • Ideal for using masking fluid without damaging the paper.
  • Resists tearing.
  • Provides a beautiful flow of paint with smooth washes.
  • Prevents pooling and abrupt edges that lower-tier papers may cause.
  • Reacts well to salt for creating unique effects.
  • Each sheet is meticulously hand-cut, checked, and rigorously tested.

When you switch from non-cotton paper to Arches, the difference is striking.

Cons of Arches Watercolor Paper:

  • Expensive, which may not be suitable for beginner artists who use a significant amount of paper.
  • Some artists may feel hesitant to use it due to concerns about wasting paper because of its quality and cost.

Note: While some artists express concerns about potentially wasting Arches paper, I discovered that using it actually improved my artwork. I began valuing the paper more and took greater care in my painting process.

7 Ways to Save Money When Purchasing or Using Arches Watercolor Paper

Arches can be priced between four to eight times higher than equivalent papers from other brands. Personally, I find it unreasonable to pay such exorbitant prices for watercolor paper. If you’re set on using Arches but want to save money, here are a few recommendations:

  1. Wait for lower prices: Monitor the market and purchase Arches when it becomes more accessible and prices decrease.

  2. Use cheaper paper for practice: Reserve Arches for your best work and utilize less expensive options for practice pieces.

  3. Bulk buying: Take advantage of discounts by purchasing larger quantities when they’re on offer.

  4. Cut down larger paper: Most artists don’t create exceptionally large watercolor paintings, so consider buying a bigger sheet and cutting it down to size. (Avoid buying blocks for this purpose.)

  5. Utilize both sides of the paper: By using the back of the paper, you can halve the cost without compromising usability. Although the characteristics may differ slightly, it remains perfectly suitable for painting.

  6. Opt for paper pads instead of blocks: While blocks are convenient, they do come at a higher price. Paper pads are a great alternative that offers quality without the added cost.

  7. Choose 140lb cold-pressed: Avoid lighter 90lb paper, which may be cheaper but lacks stability and does not match the quality of 300lb paper, which costs more.

Additionally, consider purchasing from specialty art stores, as they often maintain reasonable prices.

Legion Stonehenge Watercolor Paper: An Excellent Economical Choice

I must confess my love for Stonehenge watercolor paper. It performs exceptionally well across all major watercolor techniques, even surpassing my expectations. I initially overlooked this paper and did not anticipate enjoying it as much as I did.

After receiving a recommendation, I decided to give Stonehenge a try. To my surprise, it delivered outstanding results. When I first picked up the paper, I wasn’t paying much attention and didn’t expect anything special. Yet, as I started painting, I discovered that it wasn’t bad at all. Intrigued, I conducted further tests, exploring various techniques. The result? The pansy painting turned out beautifully, and Stonehenge proved to be a dream to blend colors on.

Pros of Stonehenge Watercolor Paper:

  • Exceptional blending ability.
  • Easy paint removal from the paper.
  • Prevents paint from pooling and leaving unwanted dark lines along the edges.
  • Performs well in wet-on-wet techniques, allowing colors to mingle seamlessly.
  • Tear-resistant.
  • Suitable for vegans due to synthetic sizing.
  • Available in pads, blocks, and sheets.
  • Offers excellent value for money compared to other brands.

I appreciate that Stonehenge is 100% cotton, acid-free, chlorine-free, and provides great value for its quality—an uncommon combination in many papers.

Cons of Stonehenge Watercolor Paper:

  • Some artists experience issues with masking fluid tearing the paper.
  • Availability may vary, necessitating ordering in advance.
  • Occasional pilling can occur if overworked (paper comes off and is damaged).

St Cuthberts Mill (England) – Saunders Waterford Watercolour Paper

Saunders Waterford watercolor paper, like Arches, is a top-tier option revered by artists. It has been manufactured in England at St Cuthbert’s Mill since the 1700s.

This paper stands out due to the evident love and care poured into its creation. The quality speaks for itself, and St Cuthberts Mill is known for its commitment to working in harmony with nature.

For our purposes, we will focus on their watercolor range. However, if you’re struggling to find 100% cotton paper, St Cuthberts Mill also produces a high-quality pulp range called Bockingford, which closely compares to Saunders Waterford. It is more economical and easier to purchase in Europe.

Pros of Saunders Waterford Watercolour Paper:

  • Offers excellent quality at a reasonable price.
  • Easy removal of sheets from blocks without tearing.
  • Suitable for masking fluid (140lb).
  • Creates stunning effects with salt.
  • Provides even paint distribution for flat washes.
  • Offers reasonable results with graduated washes.
  • Manufactured by a quality paper mill, independent of larger mills.
  • Made using the traditional cylinder mold process.

Cons of Saunders Waterford Watercolour Paper:

  • More readily available at a good price in Europe, although it can be found in select art stores in the US at a higher cost.
  • Sizing can sometimes hinder color absorption into the paper.

Choosing the Right Brand of Watercolor Paper

If you can afford it, I highly recommend Arches. However, if your budget doesn’t allow for it, don’t let that discourage you from pursuing your passion as an artist. Avoid purchasing extremely cheap paper as well. Instead, explore the diverse range of options available between these two extremes. Many outstanding artworks have been created on quality, affordable brands. Don’t overlook brands that are predominantly available in your country; they may surprise you.

While striving for 100% cotton paper is preferable, especially due to its favorable paint reaction, select the best brand that fits your budget. Line and wash artists, in particular, often find it unnecessary to invest in more expensive papers, opting for cheaper 100% cotton alternatives.

The brands I recommend in this article are of exceptional quality. Give them a try, and remember, your choice of paper isn’t permanent. Feel free to experiment with different options as you progress in your artistic journey. Remember, it’s not just the brand that matters, but your passion and commitment as an artist that truly shines through. So go ahead and create something marvelous!

Quill And Fox