There are a ton of different types of paper, and even surfaces you can paint on with watercolor. Browsing the isles of your local art shop, can leave you overwhelmed. So, what's the difference?
I recently did a test of a bunch of different papers and surfaces. The ones I tested are listed and linked below (the Amazon links are affiliate links that if you purchase I earn a small commission.)
In order to give each of these a fair test, I need to limit the variables. One way I am doing this is by using the same colors across all of the tests. I mixed up enough of three colors to do all of the tests, so that variable will be set.
Then I am going to preform the same tests on each of them. I am trying to test a few different things on each of the papers. The first of which is how much do wet on wet colors bleed together. You will see this represented in the yellow into blue test. I recommend looking to see on each of the tests how much they bleed together.
Another thing I want to test are intentional blooms, because this is something I love to do in my work. A red circle is painted on each, let to soak in briefly before I drop a little fresh water into the circle a few times. What I am looking for here are the interesting textures and variations of colors that can happen with this technique.
Then I want to test dropping in color. This is similar to the previous one, but also introduces a bit of the color bleeding possibilities. You will see this on each page in the blue rectangle with red drops.
Then one other thing I want to see is how many unintentional backruns occur. This is where a bit of watercolor sits and then other parts dry faster around it, it will create a harsh outline. These can be beautiful details, but sometimes you want to avoid it, so this is a good thing to look at for your surface choice. I will also be testing layering on this rectangle once it's dry.
Finally, I want to know how well you can lift the color off the paper. For this test I will be lifting with my brush. I gave each of the colors two swipes with a clean damp brush.
So.... what were the results from all my testing? There were mixed results and there isn't necessarily a clear winner because many of them excel in certain areas and then have downfalls as well.
Here are all of the tests featured together. You can notice a few things right away. Many of these have vibrant colors, but things like the watercolor ground, printer paper, and cardstock are obviously less vibrant. You can also see that some of the papers are more prone to blooms, and some of them lifted better than others. In the top left you can see how badly the printer paper warped. On both the printer paper and cardstock, the paper and water went all the way through to the bottom. During painting on the printer paper it also became flimsy and too hard of strokes would have gone through the paper.
If you like a more "logical" comparison, I have made a chart with some key characteristics each of the papers have or don't have. When analyzing this chart I wouldn't just add up each one of these and then say "oh, this one has the most, it's the best". Not all of these have equal value. You can see below that the Arches paper doesn't tick as many boxes as some of the others, but there is a reason that Arches paper is the gold standard for watercolor. The things it out-preforms in....it really out preforms in!
Taking a closer comparison of a few of these you can really see in the image below how much extra vibrancy the colors have when right next to the printer paper. You can also see how smooth the Arches paper is with layering and notice it has no backruns! I wasn't extra careful on this one, it's just way more forgiving in this way!
You can also see a huge difference in blooming between some of the surfaces. I love watercolor blooms, that's why I like papers like Canson and ArtistLoft. Look at the comparison between Canson and the watercolor ground, lots of blooms and backruns, barely any and a smooth appearance on the watercolor ground!
Below you can see some of the highlights as well as the price ranges for a few of the surfaces.
If you prefer to watch rather than read you can also watch the full length video here!