Drawing papers for coloured pencil artwork

This section of the site looks at the different drawing papers and surfaces available to coloured pencil artists. We will take each type of pencil in turn and which substrates will perform best. 

Keep in mind that drawing papers come and go, and will not necessarily always be for sale from the UK retailers. However, new ones arrive on the market to take their place. 

The surface that you use to complete your art work makes a vast difference to the result.  Papers that are too smooth will not pick up enough pigment from your coloured pencil and you will find they don't accept enough layers for you to achieve the colour strength you require. 

Papers that are too rough will pick up loads of colour from your pencil but give no accuracy of line or detail.

Special surfaces made just for your medium can produce superb results - at a cost! Is the extra investment worth it?

Let's start by considering paper - the most common surface that pencil artists use.

  • What is paper?
  • How do different papers have different surfaces?
  • How do you stretch paper to use water based media on it without it buckling?

We did a series of pencil tests on 15 different papers suitable for coloured pencil work and recorded the results on this page, which you may like to check out.

We also investigated the best paper for coloured pencil by drawing the same subject on 8 different surfaces, using the same selection of pencils. 

Paper weight and type

Paper is sold in many forms and the descriptions can be confusing to a new artist. 

To begin with, quality drawing papers are usually described by weight and the type of surface. 

Weight of the paper

Because we need to know how a paper is likely to perform, we need to know how thick it is and how it is likely to respond to treatment under a brush, pen or pencil. 

Weight relates to the weight of a square meter of a single sheet of the paper, quoted in grammes. Here are some example weights...

  • Copy paper for home printers, will probably be around 90gsm - too light for artwork. 
  • Cartridge paper could be 120gsm or even 220gsm. Good for dry media use and the heavier paper will take a fair amount of pencil work correction. 
  • Watercolour paper for serious use will be anything from 220gsm to 500gsm and above. 

These weights are quoted in Metric which is now more usual in Europe and the system is much easier to explain. In the USA and some other parts of the world, imperial measurement is still used. Here, the paper weight is quoted in Pounds (lb) and this relates to the weight of 500 sheets of 17 inches by 22 inches paper.

The comparisons are not exact, but the usual 300gsm watercolour paper compares with 140lb and a 400gsm paper with 188lb. I would not recommend that you use a paper with a weight under 125gsm (approx 60lb).

Surface type

Cartridge paper has a fine grain surface which works very well for graphite and purely dry media. It also works well for pen which involves very little moisture. 

Watercolour papers come in Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed or 'Not', and  Rough surfaces.

Other drawing papers can be labelled Plate, Smooth, Vellum or Satin. 

The two sides of a sheet of paper can look and feel identical, but often they are quite different. This is often the case with coloured pastel papers where one side can be relatively smooth and the other have a distinctive lined or honeycomb texture. For coloured pencil, the smoother side is more commonly used. 

Talking of coloured papers, you might like to check out the page on working coloured pencil on black paper for tips and techniques. 

Presentation

Some drawing papers come in pads with one edge secured with either glue or a spiral binding so they open like a book. 

Others come in blocks that are secured around all the edges so that they are pre-stretched for watercolour use. This can be confusing to the new artist who cannot find an easy way to remove the top sheet. The trick is to take a close look around the sealed edges, eventually you will find an area that has no seal, often a corner but sometimes along an edge. Carefully separate the top sheet using the edge of a plastic ruler or similar smooth, blunt, instrument. This will avoid tearing the next sheet down, which is possible if you use a knife.

How is paper made?

Paper is a mixture of fibres mixed with water and traditionally made by hand in a mould. However, these days they are more commonly made by machine.  The fibres enter the machine in the form of a slurry mixture which is drained of as much water as possible and the resulting wet, felt like, material is pressed between rollers and then dried. 

If the finishing rollers are smooth and hot, the paper will be smooth and referred to as Hot Pressed.

If the rollers are cold the paper will be Cold Pressed, or in old 'artspeak' NOT - or NOT Hot Pressed. (Who said artists don't have a sense of humour?).

Rough papers are made by pressing them between rough woven blankets or rough textured rollers at the stage where the surface is established. They are usually the heavier weight and more expensive papers, but they are less suitable for coloured pencil work so we will not get excited about them here. 

The fibres in drawing papers can be cotton, wood pulp or a mixture. 

Wood pulp is buffered by chemicals to delay internal acid rot. This tends to feature in the lower cost papers.

Cotton is used to create papers that are Archival and intended to last for a long time without going yellow.

There are more exotic drawing papers that use other ingredients, such as leaves and bamboo. These are generally sourced from the Far East. 

Internal and external sizing

The paper can have SIZE - a gelatine like ingredient - added to the pulp when it is originally mixed and will then be called internally sized. 

If the surface of the hot paper coming off the machine is sprayed with size as a final coat, the paper will be referred to as Externally Sized. If it has no Size the paper will only be suitable for dry media. 

If wet media (e.g. watercolour) is used on unsized paper, the colour will spread and edges of colour will bleed and merge - a little like blotting paper though hopefully not as bad.

The gelatine size enables colour to stay where it is put, but is not essential for dry pencil work.  Internal and external sizing is good if there is any risk of adding water to the paper and pigment.

A Hot Pressed paper with a very smooth finish, such as Arches, may be initially too smooth for coloured pencil work, but a wipe over with a damp cloth before use will remove some of the external size and also raise the grain of the paper slightly to give more tooth making it more suitable for wax type coloured pencil.

Cartridge paper

Using thin papers such as Cartridge (an unsized paper) is fine for dry point coloured pencil but it is advisable to still hold the paper in place on your drawing board with either pins, tape or WhiteTac to stop it moving about while you work. It is worthwhile checking that your board is perfectly smooth before working with a thin paper, otherwise place a sheet of smooth paper below your working sheet to smooth out any unevenness. 

I also like to place a second sheet of fresh cartridge paper on top, secured at the top edge by tape or white tac so that the artwork is protected whilst being transported or stored during the painting process. 

Stretching paper for wet media

Because a paper stretches naturally under a wet media, the even nature of the paper can be disturbed  with the surface ending up buckled once it has dried. To prevent this we can stretch a paper before using watercolour or watercolour pencils, if we intend to use any appreciable amount of water in our painting process. An example would be a situation where the sky of a landscape drawing is blocked in with watercolour pencils and then wet with a brush.

If, in the end, no water is used the stretching process will have done no harm to the paper.

If we are only using modest amounts of water and simply dampening the paper surface it will not be necessary to stretch the paper as long as we use the heavier options such as 300gsm (140lb) paper. 

A feature of paper is the fact that it expands when wet and contracts when it dries, and if it is re-wet it expands again. By attaching it to a board before painting it can do this multiple times without permanently buckling. 

Finally, paper becomes partly translucent when wet and looks grey in colour. This is why watercolour appears darker on wet paper and lighter when the paper dries. The colour reflects better against the opaque white of the dry paper.


How to stretch paper

For full instructions check out our dedicated page on stretching watercolour paper

The aim is to wet the paper enough so that it 'relaxes' and spreads out. It is then fixed to a board and when it dries and contracts again it comes under tension and stays that way while we create our artwork. 

When we add water media to the surface, that part may well expand, but as the paper is still under tension from the original stretching process, it stays flat. 

How wet to get the paper while stretching it depends on its weight.

Some 300gsm papers are very strong and have the power to bend the drawing board as they dry! In these cases it is wise to limit the amount of water and then allow time for the paper to relax before fixing it to the board. 

Thinner papers may need wetting with a large brush rather than soaking in a water bath, to limit the amount of water applied. 

From this you will see that it is the TIME the damp paper is stretching that is crucial, rather than the amount of water used.

For example, 300gsm Daler Rowney Botanical paper needs a short water soaking treatment (usually in the bath), a further relaxing time to stretch and will then need to be fixed to the board with both wide brown paper tap along with staples. Without the staples the paper may well tear itself away from the brown paper tape as it dries. As your experience grows you will be able to gauge how long the process will take.

If you have enough boards available you might like to stretch a number of sheets at a time.

An alternative to the brown paper tape method is to use a commercially made aluminium  framed board that firmly holds the wet paper down at the edge. This can give a more reliable result. The Keba Artmate is not inexpensive, but it is easy to use and trustworthy. It comes in a range of sizes (based on the old imperial paper sizes.

Drafting Film

Tawny Owl by Carol Leather was created on a single sheet (worked on both sides) of Polydraw film. Cream paper was laid behind it as the background. 

Roe Deer worked on both sides of two sheets of drafting film by Carol Leather

A popular drawing surface is Drafting Film. This is not made of paper, but polyester. In appearance it resembles a thick tracing paper as it is translucent. It is very smooth but takes coloured pencil beautifully although the number of layers you can use is reduced. However, you can also work on the back of the film or even layer multiple sheets. 

The weight of the film can vary, with PolyDraw being the flimsiest, DuraLar a little thicker and Grafix Drafting Film the most sturdy. 

Another plastic based substrate is NeverTear 'Paper', which unlike Drafting Film is pure white and opaque. This is another ultra smooth surface which works really well with coloured pencil. It is also waterproof which means you can use wax pencils on it when drawing outside in all weathers. 

Sanded papers

Going to the other extreme you can work on sanded substrates, such as Uart or Tim Fisher pastel paper. These have a grit surface to the paper which grips hold of pastel, or in our case coloured pencil.

Lux Archival, a sanded surface designed and manufactured by Alyona Nickelsen's company Brush and Pencil is a white paper rather than the darker colour of the Uart, It is currently only available from Jacksons Art. 

Another product designed originally for pastel artists is ClaireFontaine Pastelmat. Similar to the sanded boards the surface of this grips hold of the pencil (or pastel) but has in fact a cellulose fibre coating. It allows for many, many layers of pencil but some artists are put off by the grainy appearance as the first few layers go down.

Did you know?

Did you know that you can also use coloured pencil on untreated wood and even dried gourds?

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