How I Decide What Paper to Use

How I Decide What Paper to Use

A few weeks ago, I published two posts. One was on my preferred papers, and the other was my preferred pencils. Since then, someone asked how I decide what paper to use for each project. That’s an excellent question!

How I Decide What Paper to Use

You might think surface texture is the first thing I consider. After all, the smoothness or roughness of the paper makes a big difference in the finished artwork.

But surface texture doesn’t play into my decision making, at least not directly. I think about two other things first.

The Type of Drawing

The first consideration is the type of drawing I’m planning. This consideration doesn’t concern the subject; rather, it’s all about the purpose of the drawing. Is it an illustration? Will it be for sale or exhibit? Is it a sketch or a practice piece?


I use whatever paper I have on hand for article or blog post illustrations, but I prefer Bristol Vellum. Bristol is smooth so I can lay down smooth color more quickly. The artwork in progress is also easier to get a good image of either by scanner or camera because there is less tooth.

Quite often, I can also work up simple illustrations in a day or two and have them turn out well.

Toothier papers like Stonehenge, Canson Mi-Teintes, and sanded art papers can be used for illustrations, and I often do use them. Especially if the illustration is part of a tutorial.

But the best paper for my illustrations is Bristol Vellum. The Bristol I prefer is Bienfang, which I buy in 9 x 12 pads. It’s heavier than most other Bristol papers (146lb,) so it stands up to layering a little better.

How I Decide What Paper to Use
Afternoon Graze is one of the last exhibit quality pieces I did on Bristol vellum.

Art for Sale or Exhibit

Whether it’s a portrait for a client or a landscape I hope to exhibit, I prefer paper with more tooth than Bristol Vellum. I have successfully used Bristol Vellum for portraits and landscapes. But my drawing method involves a lot of layering with light pressure, and I am limited in the number of layers I can use when drawing on Bristol.

I also used to do all my portrait work on Stonehenge, usually white. But the last portrait I started on Stonehenge had to be scrapped when the paper surface began scuffing about halfway through the drawing.

So sanded art papers are now my go-to papers for portraits and exhibit-quality artwork. They take an almost endless number of layers, which allows me to blend by layering and still be able to add final details.

They are also very tough and resilient. I have no worries about scuffing the paper or even working over it so much a thin spot develops. I have no worries about tears or punctures either.

Blazing Sunset is on Lux Archival sanded art paper, by Brush & Pencil.

Right now, my favorite sanded paper is Clairefontaine Pastelmat, which I buy either in full sheets (usually white) or pads (usually 7 x 9 and in assorted colors.) However, I have also used Lux Archival by Brush & Pencil, and it’s a beautiful paper to use.

Type of Background

The type of background also is an important factor in my paper selection process. Will the drawing have a full background, or will the color of the paper be the background?

If the drawing has a full background, then I often choose my paper based entirely on the type of drawing.

But if I’m doing a vignette-style portrait, in which I do nothing with the background, then I choose paper by color. I have to think about the color that works best with each subject.

How I Decide What Paper to Use
Black Tennessee Walking Horse II is a vignette-style portrait drawn on Canson Mi-Teintes Steel Grey.

Working on colored paper limits my choices somewhat. I can eliminate some papers, because they come in only one color. Lux Archival is only white, for example. Uart and Fisher 400 sanded papers are either tan or dark gray in color.

If I need a color other than those, then I need to look at papers like Clairefontaine Pastelmat or Canson Mi-Teintes. Canson Mi-Teintes comes in many more colors than Pastelmat, so it’s a good choice for vignette-style portraits. But not every color in either type of paper is suitable for the type of work I do.

Quite often, I decide what paper to use based on which type of paper has the best color for the project.

The Base Color of the Drawing

The third consideration is the base color of the drawing I want to do, especially if it’s not a vignette-style portrait. This consideration is similar to, but not the same as choosing a paper color based on the background color.

For example, some of my favorite types of landscapes are those with dark, brooding clouds in the background, and bright sunlight in the foreground. This landscape was drawn on Pastelmat Anthracite.

If I were to draw it again on a bright paper like Pastelmat Buttercup, the resulting drawing will be different. Even if I cover every bit of the paper, the color of the paper still influences the finished artwork.

So sometimes I choose a paper based on the main or underlying colors in the drawing.

That’s How I Decide What Paper to Use

Those are the three main things I consider when choosing the paper for each new project.

But I don’t always have to consider all three things when choosing a paper. Sometimes, the choice is as easy as having the right size. Yes. That does sometimes happen, though I usually work small enough that it doesn’t happen often!

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    1. Bristol Vellum is pretty much Bristol Vellum no matter who makes it.

      The difference is the Bienfang Bristol is thicker than any other Bristol I’ve considered. The others are all 100lb. When you work at 9×12 or smaller, that extra 46lb in paper weight makes quite a significant difference. I prefer the additional thickness, and that’s why I use Bienfang.

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