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.

The Only Methods You’ll Ever Need for Blending Colored Pencil

Blending Colored Pencil with Rubbing Alcohol - Blending

There are many methods of blending colored pencil, but they can be classified in three basic ways.

Pencil blending

Dry blending

Solvent blending

Over the course of the years, I’ve touched on each of these methods in various demonstrations and tutorials. I dedicated a few tutorials to nothing but blending colored pencil.

Because this is such an important topic—and one of the most frequently searched topics among all of you—I’d like to share basic information on blending methods in a single post.

Basic Methods of Blending Colored Pencil

Pencil Blending

This might seem painfully obvious, but the obvious is often the thing that gets overlooked most. One of the only three blending methods you’ll ever need for colored pencil is….

…your colored pencils.

Blending Colored Pencil - Pencil Blending

It’s also the method that is the most automatic. Every time you layer one color over another, you’re blending.

The most familiar way of blending colored pencil with colored pencil is burnishing. When you burnish, you use very heavy pressure to “grind” layers of color together.

You can use any color over any color, but it’s most common to burnish with a color lighter than the color you’re burnishing. Keep in mind that the color with which you burnish will affect the color you’re burnishing.

TIP: When blending colored pencil with colored pencil, be careful to match pressure with sharpness. The sharper your pencil, the lighter the pressure. Using heavy pressure with a sharp pencil is likely to either break the tip off the pencil–possibly leaving an unsightly mark–or tear the paper. If you want to burnish, it’s best to use a blunt pencil.

Dry Blending

For the purpose of this discussion, when I refer to “dry blending”, I’m talking about blending without solvents (see below), but with a tool other than your colored pencils.

The blending tools I use most often are a couple of household items. Paper towel and bathroom tissue. Both are great for blending colored pencil and producing an eggshell smooth surface.

Blending Colored Pencil - Dry Blending

They’re also easy to use. Simply fold a piece into quarters or smaller and rub them over the area you want to blend. You can use very heavy pressure if you want without risk of damaging the drawing paper. Granted, the effects are light, but if all you want is a light blend between layers, paper towel or facial tissue is the tool you’re looking for.

Blending stumps and tortillons are more often associated with graphite drawing, but they also work with colored pencil. I’ve found them to be slightly less effective than paper towel, but they are very useful if you want to blend a small area.

I also use a Prismacolor Colorless Blender. It’s a colored pencil without pigment and it works great for any colored pencil. Other lines of colored pencil may also include colorless blenders. One thing to note when using this type of blending tool is that it adds wax or oil (depending on the brand) to the paper.

Solvent Blending

I use three basic solvents for blending colored pencil. In order from mildest to most aggressive are rubbing alcohol, odorless mineral spirits, and turpentine. (I have used rubber cement thinner in the past, but only sparingly, since it’s very aggressive in “melting” color. It’s also quite toxic.)

Blending Colored Pencil - Solvent Blending

Solvents work by breaking down the binding agent that holds the pigment together in pencil form. Dissolving the binder to any degree allows the pigment to flow together almost like paint.

Before you try any solvent on a colored pencil, test it on a piece of scrap paper. You want to make sure the paper will stand up to a solvent blend. Nothing is more discouraging than to have your paper buckle or warp when it gets wet.

It’s also a good idea to see how colors react to the various solvents before blending a drawing. While solvent blends are appropriate in most cases, they may not produce the look you want.

If your paper is very smooth or heavily sized, it’s possible to remove color completely, no matter how carefully you blend.

So test first!

Blending with Rubbing Alcohol

Rubbing alcohol is ideal for doing a light blend. It breaks the wax binder in colored pencil just enough to move a little pigment around and to fill in paper holes. You need a good amount of pigment on the paper for the best results, but it also works with less pigment.

Use cotton balls or swabs or painting brushes to blend with rubbing alcohol. Because rubbing alcohol is relatively mild, you can do a little scrubbing with a bristle brush IF THE PAPER WILL TAKE THAT KIND OF ABUSE.

Blending with Odorless Mineral Spirits

Odorless mineral spirits blend color more completely than rubbing alcohol. It breaks down the wax binder more completely, freeing pigment to blend more thoroughly. Again, the more pigment on the paper, the better the results, but you can also do a watercolor-like wash with odorless mineral spirits.

For an even lighter tint, “melt” a little color in odorless mineral spirits, then wash it over the paper. You need sturdy paper or board for this kind of treatment, but the results can be very painterly and saturated.

Any type of odorless mineral spirits suitable for oil painting can also be used with colored pencils.

Use bristle or soft brushes to blend with odorless mineral spirits. In later layers, where there’s a lot of pigment on the paper, you can use heavier pressure, but it’s best to use medium pressure (normal handwriting pressure) to avoid scuffing the paper or removing color.

The most potent of the solvent blends I use is turpentine. It works the same way as odorless mineral spirits, but breaks down wax-binder more completely. My experience has been a maximum of two blends before the solvent begins removing more color than it blends.

Use turpentine the same way you’d use odorless mineral spirits.

Safety Tips

Make sure you use all of these solvents safely. Work in a well-ventilated space and exercise caution. Don’t work around children or pets and make sure to clean your work area and tools thoroughly, and close containers when you finish.

Artwork should also dry thoroughly before you begin working on it again. I like to let drawings air for no less than an hour and often let them sit overnight.

And there you have it. The only three blending methods you’ll ever need for creating fabulous colored pencil work.

What method is your favorite?

Blending Colored Pencils Without Solvent

I’ve written a tutorial describing how to blend colored pencils without solvents. The tutorial is now available at Colored Pencil Tutorials. It’s ideal for artists who cannot use solvents for health reasons or who simply prefer not to use solvents.

Click here to read more about the tutorial or to buy your copy.