What to do When Your Paper Gets Slick

What to do When Your Paper Gets Slick

So what do you do when your paper gets slick?

You’re in the zone, adding layer after layer, blending color, creating contrast and harmony. Then it happens. You pick up another pencil, start layering and…

…your pencil skids across the surface without leaving any color.

That happened to Eloise, who asked the following question:

When you have put so many layers on and you can’t get any more down, what do you do?

What to do When Your Paper Gets Slick

Before I share ideas on what to do when your paper gets slick, it’s worthwhile to explain why that happens.

Why a Drawing Surface Gets Slick

Every colored pencil is made with a binding agent that holds the pigment in lead form. The binding agent for all colored pencils contains some kind of wax, some kind of oil, and fillers.

When you draw, you put pigment AND binding agent on the paper.

The more layers you add, the more pigment and binding agent works it’s way into the tooth of the paper. All those layers fill in the tooth, and when the tooth gets full, your paper feels slick.

That’s bad enough, but depending on the type of pencils you use, it gets worse.

As I mentioned, all colored pencils contain wax as part of the binding agent. Wax-based pencils contain more wax than oil, while oil-based pencils contain more oil than wax.

The pencils themselves contribute to paper becoming slick.

Oil doesn’t fill the tooth of the paper as quickly as wax. So the waxier your pencils, the more quickly the paper tooth gets filled and your paper gets slick.

The type of paper you draw on also makes a difference. Smooth papers start feeling slick sooner than rougher papers. That’s because there’s less tooth to fill on smooth papers.

So what do you do?

Prevention is the Best Cure

There are several ways to avoid creating slick paper, beginning with your pencils.

The Pencils You Use

It also makes a difference what type of pencil you use. Oil-based pencils are less likely to fill up the tooth of the paper because they are generally drier than wax-based pencils. They contain less binding agent, and that binding agent is mostly oil.

They’re also usually harder than wax-based pencils. That means less pigment and binding agent goes onto the paper with each stroke. That means the tooth fills up more slowly, and you’re less likely to end up with slick paper.

The Paper You Use

Remember my explanation that slick paper happens when the tooth is filled? If you use a toothier paper, you’re less likely to get slick paper.

Sanded art papers have a lot of tooth. It doesn’t really matter what type of sanded paper you use. I’ve been experimenting with Lux Archival, Clairefontaine Pastelmat, Fisher 400, and UART. They each have enough tooth to take a practically endless number of layers, but they each have unique characteristics. They behave differently.

What to do When Your Paper Gets Slick
Pastelmat is the favorite paper for many artists. It takes a lot of layers without filling the tooth completely.

If you don’t care for sanded art papers, Canson Mi-Teintes is a more traditional paper that falls somewhere between sanded and traditional papers. I can’t recall ever ending up with a slick drawing surface while using Mi-Teintes.

In fairness, however, I must also mention that most of my work on Canson Mi-Teintes has been vignette-style portraits like Portrait of a Black Horse. I usually use colored paper, and chose a color that works for the background and the middle values.

In other words, I didn’t have to apply a lot of color.

Your Drawing Style

Your style of drawing also makes a difference. so you may have to experiment to find the right combination.

Whatever type of paper you use, you can also avoid (or at least delay) the build up of too much color by applying each layer with the lightest pressure possible. You’ll have to increase pressure slightly during the drawing process, but don’t use heavy pressure until the end.

Also don’t burnish until after the drawing is nearly finished.

What to Do When Your Paper Gets Slick
Cures for Slick Paper

There are a few ways to remove the slickness once it develops, but a word of caution before I share them. In most cases, it’s impossible to completely restore the tooth of the paper once it gets slick. That’s why I listed ways to avoid slickness first.

But once your paper gets slick, one of the following methods may be helpful.


Rubbing alcohol dissolves the wax binder enough to soften the surface, which sometimes removes a bit of the slickness.

Odorless mineral spirits also cut back the binding agent, but they also blend more thoroughly. If you only want to dissolve a little wax without a lot of blending, rubbing alcohol is the best option.

However, neither solvent completely restores the tooth of the paper.

If you decide to try solvents, test them first on a scrap of the same type of paper with similar applications of color.

A light blend with solvent may help reduce the slickness of your paper.
Workable Fixative

Most workable fixatives for dry media work on colored pencils. Dick Blick offers a selection of workable fixatives.

Whatever type of fixative you use, test it on a sample first to make sure it doesn’t discolor the paper or your drawing. Follow the instructions on the can, and work in a well-ventilated area.

Sometimes, workable fixative made for dry media helps restore a bit of surface texture. A couple of light coats may restore enough tooth for you to finish the piece.

But that’s not guaranteed. I’ve had mixed results with workable fixative.

Ways to Avoid Making Your Paper Slick

The best way to deal with slick paper is to avoid the slickness. The methods I described above will help you do that.

But if you like layering lots of layers on smooth paper, you will sooner or later end up with slick paper.

When that happens, it pays to know how to restore at least a little bit of tooth so you can hopefully finish.

But if you get the idea that there isn’t much you can do once your paper gets slick, you’re getting the right idea.

That’s why I spent so much time talking about ways to avoid slick paper. In this case, an ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

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