Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils?

Will you expand on the paper in the basic list? I use Strathmore 400 series Bristol smooth for graphite, but prefer the vellum for cp. Which surface and weight were you thinking of? The Michael’s in my county only carries 300 series, which has inconsistent grain, so I order from Blick. –Jana Botkin

Thank you for your question, Jana. I’d be glad to share my thoughts on drawing paper. There are a lot of choices available so I’m confident many of your fellow readers have the same question.

Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils

 

The truth is, choosing paper for colored pencil work is as much a personal preference as anything else. So many things factor into those decisions. Jana mentioned the surface and weight of the paper and those are two important things to consider.

But they aren’t the only things, so before I get to my recommendations, lets take a look at a few “paper basics”.

Paper Basics

There are six things to consider when considering which paper to buy. Fiber, weight, surface texture, sizing, longevity, and color.

Fiber

Paper is made from plant fibers. The most common plants for paper making are cotton, linen, flax, jute, hemp, bamboo, rice straw or rattan. The size and shape of these fibers determine the type and sturdiness of the paper.

Cotton papers are made from cotton fibers, the longest fibers of all the plant types. It’s generally considered the highest quality paper and is referred to as 100% cotton rag. 100% cotton rag paper can withstand heavy erasing and drawing. The highest quality 100% cotton paper can last over 100 years, but not all cotton papers are the same. The shorter the fibers, the more the paper may tend to get “fuzzy” with use. Check the specifications on cotton paper to know what you’re buying.

Cellulose papers are made from wood pulp. Wood pulp papers are usually less expensive, but they’re also usually less archival (long lasting). That’s because wood pulp contains a natural acid that breaks down the fibers over time. Buffers can be added during the manufacturing process to neutralize the acids. Look for the words “buffer”, “buffered”, or “neutral” when deciding which cellulose paper to buy.

Weight

Paper weight is a measurement of the thickness—or heaviness—of paper. Traditionally, it’s been measured by weighing 500 sheets (a ream) at a standard size. The more a ream of paper weighs, the thicker each sheet is.

The thicker a sheet of paper is, the more color it can accept without buckling (if you’re using wet media), tearing, or falling apart.

Tracing paper is a light-weight paper. Strathmore 300 series papers are heavier. Card stock papers are still heavier.

Papers used to always be measured in pounds. 300-pound watercolor paper, for example.

But many art paper manufacturers have converted to a grams per square inch (gsm) measurement. A 50-pound paper is the same as an 81gsm paper. Many art retailers show both forms of measurement.

Surface Texture

Surface texture is properly known as “finish” when discussing art papers. How the paper is dried during manufacture determines the finish.

Paper with a rough finish is allowed to air dry without being smoothed or pressed. The resulting finish is very textured and is best suited for water media and pastel.

Cold press paper has been pressed before it dries. Handmade papers and machine made papers are pressed in different ways, but the result is the same. The surface fibers are “pressed down” somewhat. Since the pressing is done without heat, the paper isn’t completely smooth. Cold-press paper is the most popular and versatile and is suitable for most media, depending on its weight.

Hot press paper is made by pressing newly made paper through heated metal rollers or plates. All texture left after manufacture is pressed out of the paper. This paper is excellent for highly-detailed illustrations, printmaking, etching, drafting, sketching, and drawing.

Sizing

Sizing is added to make paper more water-resistant. The paper doesn’t absorb as much moisture or pigment, so watercolors and inks stay brighter and lines stay crisper.  It’s less important for papers used for dry media. Sizing also can affect a paper’s archival qualities.

Internal sizing is added while the paper pulp is still in a liquid state. It becomes part of the paper.

External, Surface or Tub sizing is applied to the surface of the paper after the sheet is formed and dried. Some paper is both internally and surface-sized.

Longevity

Also known as being archival. Archival papers have a proven history of stability over time. They don’t yellow or fade. They’re also more likely to be acid-free, which means they contain little or no cellulose acid natural to wood pulp papers.

Many sketching papers are wood-pulp based papers and are not archival. They’re perfectly suited for sketching, but if you want your better drawings to last a long, long time, use higher quality papers.

Color

Some drawing papers come in only one color. White.

But many others are available in a range of colors. Working on colored paper can be both fun and frustrating. Paper color does affect the way colored pencil looks, but it can also provide a good foundation for your drawing and reduce the amount of time it takes to complete a colored pencil drawing.

What I Use & Why

I buy the best-quality papers possible for colored pencil work because many of my drawings are portraits. Portraits or not, I want all of my best drawings to  look fresh and new for years.

My favorite papers are Stonehenge and Bristol Vellum.

Stonehenge

I’ve used Stonehenge for years. It’s a cotton-based paper suitable for watercolor (in limited amounts), drawing, and printmaking. It has enough tooth to take a lot of color, but is smooth enough for drawing details. It’s available in several sheet sizes, in pads, and rolls and comes in white and a selection of light colors and black. It has no sizing (that I’m aware of) so the surface is relatively soft, almost velvety.

It’s my go-to paper for large and small drawings. For smaller drawings, the 90-lb (250 gsm) is very good, but I prefer the heavier 120-lb (320 gsm) paper. It’s also available as a rigid support, which I haven’t yet tried.

The biggest disadvantage to Stonehenge is that it can be difficult to find locally. I order mine from Dick Blick.

It also should be handled with care, since the surface can be easily impressed. Flat storage for sheets is recommended.

Bristol Vellum

Bristol paper is a more economical paper. Usually acid-free and generally heavier than other papers, it’s often referred to as “Bristol board”; usually 100-lb (270 gsm).

It comes in two surfaces. The smooth (or regular) surface is very smooth and somewhat slick.

Vellum finish has a little more tooth and is ideal for drawing. I have a pad of it in my paper drawer and use it for article illustrations, but layering a lot of color can be difficult with use of solvents or workable fixative.

Bristol generally comes only in white and is available from a variety of manufacturers. I currently am using Strathmore Bristol Vellum, but have also used—and liked—Beinfang and other brands.

Other papers I’ve used and liked include Strathmore Artagain and Canson Mi Tientes.

2 Replies to “Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils?”

  1. I have 2 questions:
    1) I read somewhere that the Stonehenge pad and Stonehenge single sheets are different. I have been buying the pad, because I have to order from online also and shipping and handling costs become a factor. Are the single sheets of a higher quality opposed to the pad? Does it have more tooth? I also use Saunders Waterford Hot press and Strathmore Bristol Vellum.
    2) I have been using Pablo pencils. Recently I bought a set of FC Polychromos. They seem to be fine on the Stonehenge paper but not so much on my other paper. I have never heard or read anyone saying a certain pencil works better on one paper or another. Have you experienced a difference? Or is this just me getting used to a different pencil? Kind of a strange question, I know!
    Thank you for taking the time with your tutorials, very informative!

    1. Linda,

      Thank you for your questions. They’re excellent questions.

      Is Stonehenge in the pad different from Stonehenge full sheets?
      Yes. Stonehenge full sheets were designed for printmaking, so they’re a soft-ish paper that’s somewhat absorbent. They’ll take a lot of layers of colored pencil, but they can also have marks or lines impressed in them quite easily by accident.

      The pads have a smoother finish. To me, the surface is a little “harder.” It’s almost like Bristol.

      It does seem to me like the full sheets have more tooth than the pads. However, the company says the formulation and manufacturing process is exactly the same, so the quality is the same for full sheets and for pads.

      Is one better than the other? No. They’re just different. But one will definitely suit certain methods better than the other.

      For example, I do a lot of layering and blending by drawing one color over another with light to medium pressure. But, I like deep color and full saturation (no paper holes showing.) For me, the full sheets definitely provide a better surface. The fact is, that while I used to use Bristol vellum as well, I considered that paper better suited to more direct drawing methods with fewer layers applied with heavier pressure.

      If you like Bristol, the Stonehenge pads are probably going to work better for you, since the surface is similar to Bristol.

      Are Certain Pencils Better for Certain Papers?
      The Caran d’Ache Pablo pencils are the same pencils as Caran d’Ache Luminance, except that the pigment cores are harder. They hold a point longer and are better for fine detail. If you’ve ever used Prismacolor Verithin, that’s what Pablos are like. They’re all wax-based pencils, but the formulation is different.

      Faber-Castell pencils are oil-based pencils. They are harder than Prismacolor Soft Core pencils, but not as hard as the Verithin or Pablo pencils. In this case, the hardness is due to there being less wax in the Polychromos.

      I can’t say that any one pencil is always better on one kind of paper or another. Where the difference is most noticeable is in how you use the pencils.

      The softer the pencil, the more quickly it will put color on the paper. The harder the pencil, the more difficult it will be to put color on the paper. By that, I mean you’ll have to do more layers or press a little harder with hard pencils than soft ones.

      Hard pencils are better for drawing detail. That’s where they really shine.

      I use Prismacolor Soft Core and Faber-Castell Polychromos together. I do the first several layers with Prismacolor, then finish with the Polychromos. The two brands work very well together that way.

      I have yet to do an entire drawing with Polychromos, so I can’t speak to which paper would be better for that. I’ll have to add that project idea to my ever growing list of possible tutorials!

      There is also a lot to be said for simply learning how to use one type of pencil, then having to learn a different type. They do behave differently. I’ve used Prismacolors for years and the first time I put Polychromos on paper, I was disappointed at the way they felt! But they are good pencils once you learn how they behave and feel.

      I hope that helps you.

      Thank you for your questions. I’m glad you asked because I’m certain other readers have wondered the same things. In fact, I’m already planning to expand on my answers for a post in the near future!

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