All About Drawing Papers and Surfaces

All About Drawing Papers

What’s the first thing that you consider when you’re about to start a drawing? Is it the subject matter, the medium, or maybe the composition? These aspects are incredibly important to your success, so it’s no wonder that they are typically the first places that your mind goes when starting a drawing.

How much and how often do you consider the surface itself?

Often neglected in the art-making process is the surface that the art is created upon – in essence, the very foundation of your work. And like the foundation for a building, the foundation for your artwork is critical.

The tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, measures 2,717 feet tall. (That’s over a half mile). It is truly an engineering marvel, a masterpiece of construction. But without its foundation, it would be the largest mass of rubble on the planet. The foundation for this structure is equally impressive. Deep into the earth, 164 feet down, 58,900 cubic feet of concrete supports the building. It took over a year to build the foundation alone.

Your art deserves the same attention to the foundation that it is built upon. It’s time to carefully consider the surface, so let’s take a look at your options and how they will affect the mark.

What is Paper Made Of?

Paper can be made out of a variety of materials.  Papers are made by turning fibers into moldable pulp.  Most commonly, these fibrous materials originate from timber (wood) or cotton.  The pulp that is produced is molded together, most often pressed, and dried to produce the paper. The molding, pressing, and drying process all affect the finished surface.

Lower quality papers are typically made from wood pulp.  Wood pulp is highly acidic and will degrade over time. Newsprint and lower quality drawing papers will fall into this category.

Newsprint Paper

Newsprint Paper

Higher quality papers are made entirely from cotton and/or linen fibers making them more resistant to chemical break-down over time.  These papers are commonly referred to as “rag” paper.  These papers are usually “hand-made” and feature a deckled edge along with an embossed watermark.  Papers such as Arches and Stonehenge will fall into this category.

Rag Paper

Rag Paper

Many papers fall somewhere in-between and are made with a mixture of wood and “rag” fibers.  Often, chemicals are added to the papers to slow or prevent pH changes over time. Many mid-priced papers fall into this category.

Acid Free Vs. Archival

Papers that are labeled “acid-free” means that they are acid neutral.  Many papers are treated to make them “acid-free”.  If the paper has been treated, it will wear off over time and the paper will begin to deteriorate (along with your art).  Papers that have been treated will be labeled as “acid-free” but may be missing the “non-archival” mark up.

Archival papers are also acid-free but are by nature, non-acidic.  An example of this would be “rag” papers that are less likely to break-down over time.

In the end, “archival” papers are best, “acid-free” papers are good, and the rest are best used for sketching.

Understanding Paper Weight

Drawing papers are designated by weight. This can be confusing if you don’t know why they have a weight designation. The weight gives the artist an idea of the thickness and stability of the paper.  It is most commonly dictated according to pounds.  The weight designation is the physical weight of a ream of paper, which is 500 sheets.

Logically, 500 sheets of heavy watercolor paper will weigh more than 500 sheets of thin tracing paper.

Example: Strathmore 300 Series tracing paper is 25 pounds, while Strathmore Coldpress Watercolor Paper is 140 pounds.

Understanding “Tooth” or Paper Texture

All papers have a surface texture that influence the mark.  This surface texture is commonly referred to as “tooth”.  The tooth of the paper is produced according to the process that is used to create the paper. “Coldpress”, “Hotpress”, and “Rough” are designations assigned to watercolor papers.  (Watercolor papers are not just for use with watercolor.  Many artists prefer them for drawing as well.)

Coldpress Papers

Coldpress papers typically feature a coarse tooth.  They are referred to as “Coldpress” because unheated cylinders are used to press the paper as it is manufactured.  This results in small, irregular indentions in the surface of the paper.

Surface Texture of Coldpress Paper

Surface Texture of Coldpress Paper

Coldpress papers are typically preferred by watercolor artists, pastelists, or anyone looking to exploit the surface texture.  Since Coldpress papers have a heavy tooth, watercolor paints can easily be controlled. Pastels can be heavily applied and layered.

Drawing on Coldpress Watercolor Paper

Drawing on Coldpress Watercolor Paper

Hotpress Papers

Hotpress papers feature a smooth tooth.  They are referred to as “Hotpress” because the cylinders that are used to press the paper during the manufacturing process are heated. The heat causes the paper to conform to the smooth mold producing a smooth surface.

Surface Texture of Hotpress Paper

Surface Texture of Hotpress Paper

Hotpress papers are preferred by artists wishing to have control over precise marks, such as with pen and ink or detailed watercolor paintings.

Rough Papers

A third category of surface texture, conspicuously referred to as “Rough”, exists among paper types. Rough papers are not produced by cylindrical pressing, like Hotpress or Coldpress papers.  Instead, they are flat-pressed mechanically or not pressed at all.  The result is a very heavy tooth.  Rough papers can stand up to multiple washes of watercolor or heavy applications of pastels.

Surface Texture of Rough Paper

Surface Texture of Rough Paper

Other Textures

Not all papers are designated as “Hotpress”, “Coldpress”, or “Rough”. Some papers are manufactured to purposely feature a regular textured pattern.  (Coldpress and Rough papers have an irregular pattern.)  These papers are pressed by machine to create the pattern.

An example of paper that features a regular pattern is Canson Mi-Teintes paper.  The dimples are equally spaced apart and are equal in depth.

Pastel Drawing on Canson Mi-Teintes Paper

Pastel Drawing on Canson Mi-Teintes Paper

Detail Showing Texture of Canson Mi-Teintes Paper

Detail Showing Texture of Canson Mi-Teintes Paper

Laid Papers papers also feature a regular textural pattern.  Instead of dimples, this paper features a linear pattern.

An example of paper that uses a laid pattern is Strathmore charcoal paper.  (This paper is my preferred surface for House Portraits)

Graphite Drawing on Charcoal Paper

Graphite Drawing on Charcoal Paper

Upon close inspection, the laid pattern is clear…

Close Up of House Portrait

Detail Showing Texture of Strathmore Charcoal Paper

Bristol Board Textures

Bristol board or Bristol paper (named for the town in England) requires its own category for texture.  Bristol board is a heavier paper, much like cardstock. It is suitable for a variety of media and features two different types of “tooth”, both of which are fairly smooth.

Drawing on Bristol Paper

Colored Pencil Drawing on “Vellum” Bristol Paper

“Plate” surfaces are supper smooth and are best for use with pen and ink applications.  “Vellum” surfaces feature a weak tooth, but are still quite smooth.  The weak tooth, however is still present and is best for use with graphite, charcoal, or colored pencils.

Illustration Board

Illustration board is manufactured as “Coldpress” or “Hotpress” like watercolor paper.  Coldpress illustration board is slightly textured.  The tooth of coldpress illustration board is very similar to that of Vellum Bristol Board.  Hotpress illustration board is very smooth with an almost waxy surface.

Illustration board differs from Bristol board in rigidity.  Only one side of illustration board is suitable for marks, unlike Bristol board.  The backside features a heavy board for support.

Graphite Drawing on Coldpress Illustration Board

Graphite Drawing on Coldpress Illustration Board

Because of its rigidity, a variety on media can be used on illustration board including graphite, ink, watercolor, acrylics, charcoal, and colored pencils.  Because it can accept such a wide variety of media, it is a suitable surface for mixed media applications.

Sandpaper For Drawing

Many paper manufacturers produce light sandpapers for drawing/painting.  These papers allow for heavy applications of media while maintaining the tooth of the surface. These papers are mostly used for colored media applications such as colored pencils or pastel.

Drawings or paintings that are created on sandpapers usually have an ethereal, “smoky” look as the paper is usually still visible in areas.


Vellum is a smooth paper that is created by combining plastic with cotton or wood pulp materials.  The material is translucent making it suitable for tracing.  This type of vellum paper should not be confused with Bristol paper that has a “vellum” surface.

This surface is suitable for ink drawings and preliminary drawings and it is also widely used for colored pencil drawing.  It is quite easy to get a smooth surface with colored pencils working on vellum paper.

Paper Suggestions

There are far too many paper manufacturers and types to examine each brand, but having a bit of knowledge about paper in general should help you in choosing what’s best for your application.

Some people will tell you that you need to use a specific type or brand for a specific medium or technique. You won’t hear this from me.  Your choice of paper is as unique as the mark that you make. Only through experimentation will you find what works best for your artistic voice.

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All About Drawing Papers and Surfaces — 1 Comment

  1. Do you have a course on boats, waves, and clouds that are realistic. Waves seem difficult for me.