Watercolor on Regular Paper: Does It Actually Work?


Watercolor painting is best done on watercolor paper, but sometimes you might need to find an alternative.

This brings up the question… can you use watercolor on regular paper? Does painting with watercolor on normal paper actually work?

You can definitely use watercolor on regular paper, just don’t expect the best results. Regular papers tend to buckle and pill easily, and the paint won’t perform as well, but you can make it work. The thicker the paper, the better it will work with watercolor, so use at least 60lb paper or heavier if you can.

I decided to experiment with this myself by using watercolor on different papers to see how well they worked, and the results weren’t entirely what I expected!

Watch the video of me testing them below:

I tried using watercolor on regular papers. Here's what I found.
watercolor painting on printer paper

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Can I watercolor on regular paper?

It’s definitely possible to use watercolor on regular paper. Just don’t expect amazing results. The problem with using watercolor on regular paper is that the paper will warp, wrinkle, and pill, and the paint won’t perform as well as it could.

Regular paper can be useful for practicing when you don’t care about how the paint looks. For example, you could practice watercolor lettering strokes or basic leaves on normal paper and it would work just fine. Watercolor won’t bleed through paper as long as it’s thick enough.

For non-practice watercolor paintings especially, it’s always best to use watercolor paper instead of regular paper. Watercolor works much better on the right paper, and it would be harder to preserve a painting on cheap printer paper.

But if you need to figure out how to paint without watercolor paper, watercolor can be used on regular paper, so you can work with what you have.

You can use watercolor on almost any paper, it’s just a matter of whether it will work well or not!

Difference between watercolor paper and normal paper

Why do you need watercolor paper? The reason watercolor paper is considered necessary for watercolor painting is because it is thick and sturdy, holds up to layers and blending, and absorbs water and pigment well.

The thickness of watercolor paper helps reduce buckling due to wet layers, and high-quality paper makes it easier to blend watercolors on the surface on the paper.

Watercolor paper is versatile and can be used for more than just watercolor painting.

Here are five ways watercolor paper is different from regular paper:

  1. Weight/thickness. A standard weight for watercolor paper is 140lbs. Thick, durable paper helps reduce buckling and works the best for watercolor painting.
  2. Material. While cheaper paper is usually made from wood pulp, high-quality watercolor paper is made from cotton linters for a more durable paper.
  3. Texture. There are three kinds of watercolor paper that each have a different texture. Hot press is smoothest, cold press is more textured, and rough is very textured.
  4. Absorbency. Good watercolor paper has the right amount of absorbency so that the paint appears its best and can also be blended easily.
  5. Sizing. Watercolor paper sizing keeps the paint from sinking too far into the paper and helps it appear more vibrant on the surface.

(For more info, here’s a great article about watercolor paper by Jackson’s Art.)

Obviously, if you want the best results, use paper made for watercolor. Nothing will work the same as 100% cotton watercolor paper does!

If price is an issue, there are plenty of student-grade watercolor paper options that aren’t too expensive. Canson XL watercolor paper and Strathmore watercolor paper are two good ones.

You can find a list of my favorite watercolor papers and supplies on my resources page.

watercolor painting on paper
100% cotton paper, like this Fabriano Artistico paper, works the best for watercolor paintings.

What happens if you use watercolor on non-watercolor paper?

You can do watercolor on any paper, but there will be some downsides that can be really frustrating. Paintings won’t look great because of these, but it will still work.

Here are some problems that can happen when you use watercolor on non-watercolor paper:

  • Warping. Adding water to any paper will result in the paper warping. The best solution for this is flattening the paper after your painting has dried.
  • Wrinkling. Some thin papers, like printer paper, wrinkle badly when you use lots of water. The paint will puddle up in the wrinkles and make it look even worse.
  • Pilling. Painting layers of wet paint causes most normal paper to pill, even without you overworking anything. The paper fibers will start to separate and loosen, and this makes your painting look grainy.
  • Bleeding. Watercolor paint can bleed on some papers, and it will also bleed through thin paper like copy paper. To prevent this, use thicker paper. At least 60lbs is best.

If you have to use non-watercolor paper, you can try to work around some of these issues. There are several things you can do to make regular paper a little easier to work with.

Here are some things to try when using watercolor on regular paper:

  • Stack multiple sheets. This helps with bleed-through if you’re using thin paper.
  • Put packing tape on the opposite side. I saw this idea to prevent bleed-through on YouTube. You can trim the excess tape to fit the paper.
  • Tape the paper down to a surface. This helps a little with buckling.
  • Use less water while painting. This will help reduce paper sogginess and wrinkling.
  • Don’t scrub the paper. Scrubbing the paper can cause tears and extra pilling.
  • Flatten the paper after painting. Try moistening the back of the paper with a spray bottle and then stacking heavy books over the painting to flatten out wrinkles.

While these things won’t make the issues go away completely, they can help. If you’re using thin paper, you’ll have to be especially gentle with it. Thicker paper always holds up better to watercolor painting.

Can you use watercolor on printer paper?

You can use watercolor on printer paper if you need to and it will work fine. The finished result won’t look great, that’s all.

A standard, 20lb copy paper just isn’t made for watercolor. The paper wrinkles badly, gets soggy, the paint bleeds through, and the paper pills a lot. This all results in a grainy-looking, wrinkly piece of artwork.

During painting, the paint quickly soaks right into the paper and you can’t lift it or blend it out very well. I also discovered that the dried pigment sometimes rubs off on my hands when using watercolor on printer paper.

All that said, printer paper does work with watercolor. It’s fine for practice, trying ideas, or just playing around, if you don’t care as much about the end result.

If you have to use printer paper as watercolor paper, try to use a thicker kind. Anything heavier than 20lb copy paper would be better, like this HP Premium 32lb printer paper on Amazon.

Does watercolor work on cardstock?

Watercolor works quite well on cardstock paper. The biggest downsides are that the paper will buckle and pill with multiple wet layers. This isn’t ideal, but cardstock is still a great alternative to watercolor paper.

Watercolor paint does not bleed through cardstock paper since it’s fairly thick. As long as the paper is at least 60 to 80lbs, you shouldn’t have to worry about the paint bleeding through.

I was actually impressed with how well watercolor works on cardstock paper. The blends and layers looked better than they did on other regular papers I tried. If you don’t have watercolor paper, cardstock makes a very good substitute!

You can use cardstock to make your own watercolor cards, too. I recommend using less water while painting and putting the paper under heavy books after it dries to flatten out wrinkles.

watercolor on normal papers

Can you watercolor on kraft paper?

Kraft paper is another non-watercolor paper that you can use for painting. Watercolor works fairly well on kraft paper, just remember that colors will look different on brown/tan paper.

Watercolors can look really beautiful on tan paper. There are different kinds of kraft paper available, and some will work better than others. If you want to do a project on kraft paper, do some testing so you know how the paint and paper will behave.

I used watercolor on 40lb kraft paper from a craft store. The watercolors looked a bit dull on the brown paper, and even with additional layers it’s hard to get a very vibrant color. If you like muted colors, though, that might be perfect for you.

I found that watercolor bleeds slightly on basic kraft paper, although it didn’t bleed through to the other side. Some of my brush strokes had fuzzy edges as a result. There was also some buckling, which I expected.

I can see gouache working very well on brown kraft paper since it can be more opaque than watercolor. Adding some white to your painting would help it stand out, too, like this Dr. Ph. Martin’s Bleedproof White paint on Amazon.

There are some kraft papers/tan papers that are made specifically for art, and these will probably work best with watercolor.

Use a thicker kraft paper if you can. I would also suggest looking for a lighter tan color, since watercolor doesn’t show up as well on a darker brown.

What can I use if I don’t have watercolor paper?

If you don’t have watercolor paper, there are several alternatives that work well. Figure out a way to use what you have and don’t let it stop you from painting!

Here is a list of substitutes that you can use instead of watercolor paper:

  • Mixed media paper. Mixed media paper is made for multiple art materials, so it works pretty well with watercolor paint.
  • Cardstock paper. Cardstock is an great substitute for watercolor paper because it’s thick and sturdy.
  • Canvas. Any canvas can be used with watercolor, whether it says it’s for watercolor or not. Canvas won’t really absorb the paint, so it will sit on top of the canvas and is easy to remove. You may want to seal the painting afterward with a varnish to preserve it.
  • Kraft paper. Kraft paper works with watercolor, too, but the colors will be more muted. Look for a thicker kraft paper for better results.
  • Drawing paper. Drawing papers tend to be fairly thick, so these can work for watercolor painting, too.

Seeing a theme yet? Thick paper is best! If possible, use a paper that is 80lbs or heavier for a watercolor paper alternative.

For more unusual watercolor paper substitutes, some suggest using fabric, rice paper, vellum, parchment, or Aquabord, which is a type of watercolor painting panel. You could try these options and see what it’s like to paint on different surfaces.

It can be fun to try alternative watercolor surfaces just for something different!

watercolor swatches on different papers

In my early days of watercolor painting, I didn’t use the best supplies. I used what I found around the house at first, and that included cheap paper. There were times I felt frustrated with how my paintings looked, but I still practiced and learned things.

Using regular paper for watercolor painting is certainly doable. Just know that if you’re dissatisfied with your artwork, it’s probably the paper and not you!

Maybe you don’t have watercolor paper on hand right now, or you want to save money by using something else for practice.

Either way, I really hope this post was helpful and that you’re feeling inspired to paint with whatever paper you have.


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