How to Choose the Right Surface for Your Next Drawing

How to Choose the Right Surface for Your Next Drawing

Last week, I shared tips for choosing the right color of paper for your next drawing project. Color is important, but it’s not the only thing you should consider. It’s just as important to know how to choose the right surface.

The paper you draw on should help you achieve your personal goals for the drawing. Choosing a smooth paper when paper with a medium or even rough surface would be better probably won’t ruin the drawing, but it may make it more difficult to finish.

So this week, I want to share some ideas for knowing what surface is best for your next subject—whatever that subject may be.

Why It’s Important to Choose the Right Surface

Papers come not only in different colors, but different surface textures. The surface texture of a drawing paper depends on how it’s made and what it’s made for. The roughness or smoothness of paper is called its “tooth”. The rougher the paper, the more tooth it has.

I wrote about the basics of drawing paper tooth in a previous post, but the illustration below will give you an idea of the three main types of surface texture and how colored pencil responds to each.

Each type of paper—rough, medium, and smooth—is made for a specific medium and sometimes for a specific purpose. Illustration boards are very smooth because they’re designed for illustrating mediums such as markers and inks.

Watercolor papers can be either smooth or rough, but are generally much rougher than drawing papers.

Most drawing papers are somewhere between illustration board and watercolor paper.

You can use any of the papers for any of the mediums, but your choices will affect the amount of time and effort it takes to complete a drawing and the way the finished drawing looks.

How to Choose the Right Surface: When Rough is Better

Rough drawing papers are good for layering. The toothier a paper, the more layers of color it takes without buckling or scuffing. A “toothy” paper is perfect if you like to use solvent blending.

However, it is more difficult to fill in the tooth of a rough paper because the pigment core doesn’t reach down into all the “hills and valleys” of the tooth. Unless you use heavy pressure or solvent blending, you’re more likely to end up with specks of paper color showing through the drawing. These “paper holes” may not bother you. If so, they can lend quite an artsy, painterly look to your colored pencil drawing.

If that’s your goal, a rougher paper is probably the best choice.

This drawing is colored pencil on sanded art paper. Sanded art paper not the same as even rough drawing paper (read about the differences here), but you can see how the colored pencil looked on rough paper. I could have filled all the paper holes, but it would have taken a lot of time and effort.

How to Choose the Right Surface Texture - Colored Pencil on Rough Paper

Use Rough Paper If:

  • You like to use solvent to blend colors
  • Want to do a lot of layering and/or use heavy pressure most of the time
  • Prefer a more painterly look for your drawings

How to Choose the Right Surface: When Smooth is Better

Smooth papers still have tooth, but they have much less tooth than rough papers. The little “hills and valleys” are shallower, and are therefore easier to fill in. That’s good if you don’t like paper holes showing in your finished drawing.

Papers that have less tooth are also ideal for drawing detail.

However, the lack of tooth also makes it more difficult to layer color effectively. You can still layer, but you’ll find it gets difficult to make color “stick” after just a few layers of color.

Solvent blending might help, but the smoother the paper, the more likely you are to damage the drawing if you use too much solvent. If the paper you use also is heavily sized (to keep it from absorbing moisture), the more likely it becomes that you could remove the drawing altogether, even with a solvent as mild as rubbing alcohol.

The drawing below is on Bristol paper with a vellum finish. Bristol vellum is a popular drawing paper because it’s very smooth that’s perfect for drawing detail.

However, it doesn’t take very many layers, and layering is key to my drawing method. I was able to complete the umber under drawing, but have had difficulty glazing color over that. Will the drawing ever be finished? I hope so, but I will have to compensate for the loss of tooth before going any further.

How to Choose the Right Surface Texture - Unfinished Drawing on Smooth Paper

Or I could start over with a toothier paper!

Use Smooth Paper If:

  • You don’t usually use many layers
  • You usually apply color heavily from the start
  • Highly detailed drawings are your goal

How to Choose the Right Surface: When Medium Tooth is Better

If your preferred drawing method falls somewhere between those two extremes, then paper with a medium tooth is probably your best bet.

Medium tooth paper has enough tooth to take a lot of layering (like rough paper), but also allows you to draw a high degree of detail (like smooth paper.) There is more paper tooth to fill in than you’d have with smooth papers, but it doesn’t take as much effort or pressure.

These types of papers can also often stand up to limited use of solvents, and may also be capable of accepting judicious use of water media such as water soluble colored pencils or watercolor.

All of those reasons are why my favorite drawing papers are medium tooth papers. The drawing below is on Strathmore Artagain paper.

How to Choose the Right Surface Texture - Medium Tooth Paper

Use Medium Tooth Paper If:

  • Your usual method involves a lot of layers
  • You draw a lot of detail
  • You begin with very light pressure and increase pressure to heavy pressure at the end of the drawing


Two factors play an important role in knowing how to choose the right surface texture. Your method and your artistic vision.

If your method of drawing involves lots of layers, you may want to avoid smoother papers, even if you enjoy drawing detail. Find a paper with enough tooth to take lots of layers, but still smooth enough to draw detail.

If, on the other hand, you apply color in only a few layers, smooth paper is probably best for you.

And if you really want to lay down lots of color fast, and aren’t concerned about details, give rough paper a try (especially those made for pastels.)

Finally, for those of us who like experimenting, try different kinds of papers with different subjects or for different effects. There is no rule that you have to draw the same way—or on the same paper—all the time!

Additional Reading

Drawing Paper Basics: Surface Texture

4 Frequently Asked Questions About Colored Pencil Papers

Which Paper is Best for Colored Pencils

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