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.
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
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 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.
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 Paper, Canson 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.
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.