Drawing Paper Basics: Surface Texture

Drawing Paper Basics: Surface Texture

Drawing paper basics is our subject today. The topic was suggested by a reader, who wanted to know my thoughts about working on smooth paper.

This reader isn’t the only one with questions about paper, so since that’s such an important topic, I thought it time to talk about surface texture in general.

Drawing Paper Basics Surface Texture

Before I go any further, let me say that I used to be a big fan of smooth papers. I loved papers like Rising Stonehenge, Bristol vellum, and many of the Strathmore artist papers. Generally, the smoother a paper, the better I liked it.

But over the years, I started experimenting with different papers, and have changed my mind. More on that in a moment.

I thought I’d piggyback on the reader question to tell you about the differences in the papers and my thoughts on each of them.

Drawing Paper Basics – Surface Texture

Smooth Papers

Smooth papers are papers that have very little tooth. Some of them may appear to have little or no tooth at all. Popular brands are Rising Stonehenge, and Strathmore 400 series.

They’re ideal for fine detail and ease of color application. If you like to create colored pencil drawings that have no paper showing through the finished drawing, smooth papers will probably help you the most. Many of them are available in colors.

Most come in pads, rolls, or sheets, and are easy to find in most art supply stores or online. If you like buying paper in pads, make sure to compare it to the full sheet versions of the same type of paper.

Bristol board is also a smooth surface drawing support. It comes in a vellum surface or regular surface. The regular surface has a bit more tooth than the vellum, but both are very versatile. I used Bristol paper with a regular (smooth) surface for this drawing.

Among these, I’ve had the best success with Bristol paper or boards, Rising Stonehenge, and a recycled art paper colored Strathmore Artagain. Artagain is made from 30% recycled material mixed with fiber, so no matter what color you buy, there is a pattern in the paper. It’s quite sturdy, but is very smooth. It takes the least amount of layers of the papers I use most often, but it’s great for use with multiple layers of color applied with very light pressure.

Medium Papers

Medium tooth papers are drawing papers that are neither smooth nor rough. Most were developed for other types of dry medium such as charcoal and pastel. Strathmore 500 series paper is one such paper. Others are Canson Mi-Teintes and Daler-Rowney Murano Textured Fine Art Papers.

These papers have enough tooth to grab and hold onto color quickly and easily. They also can take a lot of layering and most of them can stand a good deal of rough handling and medium to heavy pressure color application.

But they’re still smooth enough to allow you to create high levels of detail if that’s what you want to do.

I use medium tooth papers more often than I used to. The paper I’ve used most is Canson Mi-Teintes. It’s a nice, sturdy paper (98 lb), so it takes color very well. This portrait is on Steel Grey Canson Mi-Teintes.

Rough Papers

Many rough, or coarse grained, papers (also known as textured papers) are available are suitable for colored pencil work. Popular brands are Ampersand Pastelbord, Art Spectrum Colourfix Coated Pastel PaperCanson Mi-Teintes Touch Sanded Papers and Boards, and UArt Sanded Pastel Paper. I used UArt sanded pastel paper for this landscape.

You can lay down tons of color and get very painterly drawings quite easily. These papers are hard on pencils—they eat them for lunch!—but if you love the looser look, they’re well worth trying.

BONUS! Mount the paper on a rigid support, and frame your colored pencil drawings without glass, just like an oil painting. Some of the papers listed above come in a panel form.

Many of them also come in colors and some in various “grits” or levels of coarseness.

So What Do I Think of Smooth Papers?

As I mentioned earlier, my opinions have changed. I used to use smooth papers all the time.

Then I tried Canson Mi-Teintes and liked that so much, I started using it more. Mostly because of the wide range of colors, but also because it was much sturdier than Stonehenge. And more forgiving.

Then along came Uart. I tried that but didn’t like it at first. I didn’t see how it was possible to get the kind of detail I liked drawing.

In 2020, I finally bought a pad of Clairefontaine Pastelmat. Despite thinking it was impossible to get detail, I found it to be very useful. It stands up to a lot of layers and it is possible to draw detail.

Drawing Paper Basics - Detailed landscape on Pastelmat

As I write this post, I have three portraits in progress on Pastelmat. One paid, and two practice. I won’t deny there is a learning curve that sometimes seems quite steep.

But I can also see that intricate detail is not only possible on this type of paper; it’s easier in some ways.

And it’s definitely a lot of fun to be able to add light values over dark values and have them show up!

Those are the Basics of Drawing Paper

I’ve barely skimmed the surface on this complex and broad subject, but hopefully you have enough information on drawing paper basics to make your own decisions.

And that’s what you’ll have to do, because there is no one-size-fits-all paper that works for every artist all the time.


  1. Vickie C.

    I’ve tried a few kinds of papers, including Strathmore Bristol Vellum, Stonehenge, and Fabriano 140 lb. Hot Press Watercolor paper, all of which I like. I also have some Mi Tientes black pastel paper, 98 lb., and Strathmore Toned Gray, 80 lb. to try out. I so appreciate your reviews.

  2. Cee

    I have just started out with colored pencils and am using Canson Mixed Media paper. I don’t know if this paper is considered rough or medium. It does have some tooth to it so I know it can’t be considered smooth. I’ve noticed that after a few layers, it doesn’t seem to want to take any more color. Any opinion on this inexpensive paper?

    1. Cee,

      I can’t speak personally about Canson Mixed Media paper, but in looking at the description of it on Dick Blick, I would conclude that the paper is most likely too smooth to accept very many layers of colored pencil. It also appears to be sized so it’s less absorbent and can be used with wet media. That may also be working against you.

      However, the description also says it has a smooth side and a rougher side. If you’re using the smoother side, try a drawing on the rougher side and see if that helps.

      I’m using Canson Mi-Teintes for some of my work. It’s designed for Pastel, so the front has quite a bit of texture. The back is much smoother, and is great for colored pencil. You might want to give that a try and see how it compares to the mixed media paper.

      I hope that helps.


    1. Kehinde,

      I’m not familiar with that paper, so I looked up Borden & Riley, then looked specifically at the vellum finish drawing papers. Without working on them myself, I can’t do more than say that most Bristol papers are suitable for colored pencil, but you need to be aware that they’re usually so smooth, they will take a limited number of layers. You can do highly detailed work on them, but the more layers you do, the more difficult it becomes to make new color stick to what’s already on the paper.

      I like the idea that they offer cloth-bound pads. That’s not something that’s offered very much in the states anymore.

      Have you use this paper or are you wanting to try it?


  3. Gail Jones

    I know this isn’t a paper type surface but have you ever tried suede mat board with colored pencil? I have done three animal portraits on it and it works really well. I believe it was Gemma Gyling that had tutorials on that, which I did. Would love to see what you could do on suede mat board with a horse picture. Bet it would be very pretty. I did a dog and a cat on the suede mat board from a tutorial and then did a red panda on my own for my daughter. Loved the surface!

  4. Toni Boyce

    Hi Carrie,love your email on what papers to use,i can’t beleive you like Mi Tientes,how differant we all are ,i must have used a differant weight because you said you used the back of it for a picture,the Mi Tientes i used the back of mine and it was Honeycombed yuck. I love smooth i must admit. If anyone is interested in working on Suede Matboard (it is used in framing) it is wonderful for Animals,great Fur,their is an Artist in Australia.NSW Karen Hull email address is http://www.karenhullart.com Karen is aMaster at Pencil Work an can never help you enough do yourself a favour and check her website out.Happy Crafting Toni.

  5. Marlene

    Hi Carrie,
    I’m finding your article and the discussion that follows very informative. You mentioned in one answer that a paper with sizing is less absorbent. What is sizing with regard to paper and how do you know if there is sizing in paper? Is this more important for water colour than coloured paper?

    1. Marlene,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I’m glad to have answered some of your questions about paper.

      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. The sizing can be added while the paper is being made (internal sizing) or after the paper is dried (external sizing.)

      To find out if a paper has sizing, you’ll have to do a little research. If you buy online, check the technical information.

  6. Rachel

    I know that this is an older post, but I am just wondering whether the bristol vellum would still be smooth enough to get smooth shading. I read somewhere that it is like cold-pressed watercolour but this seems unlikely. I am looking for something smoother than even hot-pressed. I create very detailed pencil sketches and like a smooth surface for the detail. I used to use Strathmore 300 but don’t remember which one I used as it has been a while. This time I am looking to use the 400 series, but deciding on which to get.

    1. Rachel,

      Thank you for your question and comment.

      Bristol is very smooth and is great for shading smooth color. It’s not at all like cold-press watercolor paper, which has more texture. I’ve used both and found it very difficult to draw smooth color on the cold press watercolor paper. It’s not impossible, but it does take more effort.

      I don’t have any personal experience with the Strathmore papers, so can’t advise you there.

      However, if you’re looking for an extremely smooth surface, you might try drafting films. That’s about as smooth a surface as you can get.

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