Have you ever asked yourself what type of paper other artists are using? Or, have you wondered if you're using a good paper for your medium? If you have or if you have questions, I'm going to try to cover a few basics of choosing what type of paper to use for your project. There’s a variety of paper out there, and each one will create a different look.
The biggest thing to consider is your Medium!
The paper you use for graphite will not be the same kind you use for colored pencil. What you use for colored pencil will not be a good choice for pen and ink. Once you have determined your medium, we can work from there.
Graphite drawings – Smooth Bristol paper is excellent for graphite, especially if it is labeled as “hot press” as it has been run through heated metal roller which smooths out any texture. There’re many brands, but a reliable one is Strathmore, and you can find it in pads or single sheets. You also will preferably want 50-80 lb paper.
If you are looking for top quality paper, you want to look for generally the 500 series type, that specifies it is 4-ply, 100% cotton. If you look for this in the Strathmore brand, you will usually get single sheets and it can get pricey.
However, 2-ply paper that indicates it contains wood pulp is acceptable, though it does tend to degrade (after many decades).
Canson also has a decent Bristol paper that is double sided – smooth on one side and some texture on the other. This is excellent if you are work in graphite AND colored pencil, as the smooth side is for graphite, and the textured side is for colored pencils. This is also excellent for students as it is less costly but still good quality.
Pen and Ink – Smooth Bristol paper is also wonderful Pen and Ink and I highly recommend following the same guide as above, though exceptions can be made such as for paper that has some texture like watercolor paper or Artagain paper by Strathmore.
Colored Pencil – You want your paper to have a bit of texture. Not a lot, but enough to give your pencil enough grip to color evenly. Preferably 50-80 lb.
Stonehenge paper is excellent as it has an even texture and is 100% cotton, and is ¼ the cost of smooth Bristol. It comes in a variety of tints and can come as large sheets or pads.
Illustration board is also a good option as it is rigid and durable and can take a lot of heavy pressure. You can even scratch out details with an X-acto knife as it resists gouging and tearing. You can find this in many brands and I do not personally have a preference.
Suede board is a really wonderful option, however, this is one more expensive and difficult to find as you can typically only find it in frame shops. It has a fuzzy surface and gives your pencils a pastel-like quality, to the point that you can blend it with your finger (it is NOT recommended to use a blending stump or tortillion as it will take off the fuzz). Pastel also works well on suede board though it is recommended to use darker boards for pastel, and lighter boards for colored pencil.
Artgain paper by Strathmore is excellent for colored pencil and pen and ink. It has a mostly smooth surface with enough texture to evenly hold colored pencil, and it comes in pads or single sheets. It can be in a variety of colors and tends to have a speckled appearance since it’s made from recycled paper stock.
Mat board, which you can find at frame shops or art stores, is great. It tends to come in large sized by can be cut down and many people will have scraps that you can take. Crescent board is also under this label and I have used it for various projects like The Night’s Soul. It can take a heavy beating and can even hold up watercolor.
Print Making – Depending on what type of print you are making (relief, monotype, intaglio, etc), you will be choosing from a variety of paper.
For relief prints, it is better to use the Stonehenge paper previously mentioned.
For other projects, from relief to even screen printing, you might try Magnani Pescia, which is 100% cotton, has heavy durability, and takes colors and ink well.
Generally, you will still keep an eye out for 60-300lb paper, though anything below 90lbs tends to be less durable. I would also look for the GSM, or grams per square meter, and look for 192-640gsm.
Watercolor Paint – Watercolor paper has to be able to withstand quite a bit as it will be wetted, wiped, painted, and so forth. I prefer to use cold press watercolor paper as it has a slightly textured look and absorbs better than hot press, though some people may prefer the smoothness of hot press paper. Once again, look for 100% cotton.
Look for the absorbent ability, which can be indicated by the weight of the paper (140 lb is the most popular), and can also be learned from experimentation.
If you are a student, 90lb paper is thin and buckles but it will be good if you want to practice. If you want to paint a high quality piece, 140-300lb paper is far better. It buckles less under water, dries faster, and leaves the pigment on the surface (versus absorbing it into the fibers) which gives you brighter, more vibrant pieces.
The previously mentioned Magnani Pescia is excellent for watercolor, as it doesn’t buckle even after being wet, holds color well, and can withstand quite a bit of abuse.
As with paper for print making, look for 192-640gsm.
Acrylic – I’m going to preface this first by saying I do NOT recommend paper for Acrylic painting, at least for anything that you wish to showcase, sell, or turn in for a grade. Spend the extra money and get canvas, preferably pre-gessoed to save time, or buy canvas sheets and gesso them yourself. It will cost a little less, though it is more work, but you have a higher quality canvas this way. If you don’t care for canvas, anything from wood (hardwood or even chipboard) to metal to plastic are also excellent surfaces, though you should still gesso them, or, in the case of metal and plastic, use sandpaper on them to give them a bit of “tooth” or roughness. However, if you would like to use paper for your acrylics, look for thick, heavy duty paper similar to watercolor paper or print making materials.
300lb/640gsm cold press watercolor paper is excellent, but you can go as low as 185lb/400gsm
There are Acrylic papers, from Canson to Strathmore and more, which tends to be 185lb/400gsm. It doesn’t buckle, similar to the qualities you want in watercolor paper.
For all papers, I would recommend acid free papers, though it is usually a given. It’s just still good to look for as it’s excellent for archival purposes.
With all of this said, these are just a few mediums with just a few options. I highly encourage you to experiment and find what works for you. If you do not like any of the papers listed, or simply don’t like painting or working on paper, many of these mediums are great for trying out on different surfaces. In printmaking or acrylics, look for banana paper or crescent board or fabric. For pencils, graphite, pen and ink, you might try charcoal paper or cardboard. Feel free to use scraps of paper or anything that interests you. Be creative! And if you’re not brave enough for that… Start with these papers :)