Wouldn’t it be great if you could skip all the trial and error and start using the best paper for drawing right now? Start paying attention to your drawing surfaces. It could be the difference between a long-lasting drawing that looks great and is a joy to create or a painful struggle.
Various Papers for Artists
So you’re getting more serious about your artwork and it has occurred to you that maybe you are not using the best paper for your drawings. You spend enough time on your renderings, perhaps you should invest in some quality drawing paper.
Does this sound like you? Good read on… we’ve got a lot to cover.
There are so many varieties and configurations of paper it can really be mind-numbing to choose one. Especially if you are buying your paper online where you cannot physically see the paper.
Also worth mentioning: what you use for pencil may not be your preferred paper for your charcoal renderings. Yep, you’re probably going to need to invest in a few different pads of drawing paper if you work in several different drawing media.
When choosing paper there are really 4 key characteristics to keep in mind:
I’ll be recommending my favorite and least favorite papers throughout and at the end of this article I’ll break it all down to a simple selection.
You really should, however have a basic understanding of papers in general so you can make your own decisions. So let’s go over some of the important features of paper.
Although most often you’ll be buying paper by the pad you can buy individual sheets too. Regardless you need to consider the typical size you create in.
It’s a good idea to buy paper that is slightly bigger than the size drawing you wish to complete. This way you can retain an empty border around your drawing. This border gives you a clean area to pick up your drawing. It also ensures that the paper is not bent and wrinkled at the edges which is what happens if you draw right up to the edge of the paper.
For example, if you want to create drawings that are 9 x 12 inches, go for the pad that’s 11 x 14 and retain a bordered edge!
Often misunderstood a paper’s weight is an indicator of how thick that paper is. The “heavier” the paper the thicker it will be. Paper companies have tried to phase in a smarter gauge (grams per square meter) but it really hasn’t taken off. Kind of like when the powers that be tried getting Americans to use the metric system of measurement. It was a really smart, logical idea but it never really took off outside of the scientific community.
Just to give you an idea of various weights of paper:
- Computer printer paper : 20lbs
- Drawing paper: 60-80lbs
- Decent watercolor paper: 140lbs
Of course this is not by any means the only weights of paper. Paper weights vary quite wildly actually but in general you’ll be paying more for heavier / thicker papers. 300lb Watercolor paper is a dream to work with but it’s quite expensive! Watercolor paper for drawing? YES… read on!
Each type of drawing paper has a texture which is what artists call a paper’s “tooth”. At extremes a paper could be ultra-smooth or extremely rough. Which tooth is best is determined by not only the medium you are drawing in but your own style, preference, and subject matter as well.
In general fine point tools such as pencils (graphite or colored), pens, and markers are most suitable with smoother papers while coarser grained media such as charcoal demands paper with more tooth (rougher paper).
Anything you draw and expect to keep for many years should be drawn on acid-free paper. Make sure the paper you are buying mentions this. The best quality drawing papers will! Manufacturers will proudly declare that their drawing paper is “acid-free” or “ph-neutral”. This ensures your paper doesn’t become discolored with age, become brittle, or otherwise fall apart over the years.
Best Drawing Paper for Pencils (graphite)
Unless you’re specifically going for a rough look in your artwork you’re going to want to use paper that has less tooth when shading in pencil. Smoother paper will allow your pencil work to be really precise and as a result heighten the details of your drawings. Smoother paper is especially nice when drawing small. Rough paper can really limit the clarity of your smallest details.
My go to paper for pencil drawing has always been Strathmore Brand Paper. It comes in a dizzying array of types and sizes, which can be really confusing to sift through.
Here’s the basics of choosing Strathmore papers. The larger the series number the higher the quality paper and the heavier weight that paper will be. Strathmore drawing papers come in 200, 300, 400, & 500 series paper and there’s all kinds of varieties and sizes in each category!
Within each category you’re going to find “drawing” and “sketch” paper which is what’s most applicable to pencil work. The sketch variety is always a lighter-weight paper but is sometimes smoother too. This is slightly disappointing but within the 400 series Strathmore does make a “smooth surface” drawing pad. At 80lbs this paper is a really nice choice for highly detailed pencil drawings.
If you’re looking for the smoothest paper possible than look no further than bristol board. Again Strathmore makes a bunch of bristol boards as expected. You can buy the 300 series smooth bristol board which is great. If you’re looking at their even higher quality 500 series bristol paper please note the main difference though between what they call “plate” and “vellum”. If you’re looking for smooth paper, go with the plate variety, it’s by far the smoothest. Because bristol boards are a laminated variety of drawing paper (multiple plies) they are very thick indeed!
As an artist you sometimes need to think outside of the box and paper is no exception. Many artists choose watercolor papers for drawing purposes. Watercolor papers are generally of very high quality and extremely thick so they are a fantastic choice for work you expect to sell or care about deeply. I think Fabriano Hot Press Watercolor Paper is an excellent drawing surface to draw on. They sell “blocks” of it under their Artistico series which are basically pads of paper bound on 3 sides. This stuff is 140lbs and really nice to draw on with pencils.
Best Drawing Paper for Charcoal
In general you’re going to want paper that’s slightly rougher (more tooth) for charcoal drawing as compared to what you would normally use with graphite pencil. The charcoal particles will need that extra tooth to stick to. Again, the Strathmore Brand is my go to source of paper even with charcoal drawing.
Strathmore sells a 500 series pad made precisely for charcoal drawing. At 64 pounds I really wish this charcoal paper was thicker. It’s a bit on the thin side if you ask me and is overpriced for what you get. I’ve always been very aggressive with charcoal so it’s easy for a 64 pound paper to get ravaged during an aggressive drawing session. If you’re looking for a decent pad of charcoal paper you really can’t go wrong with Strathmore’s 300 series Charcoal Paper. It’s good quality paper for a good price.
I absolutely hate Canson Brand charcoal papers… the ones that come in the red pad (foundation series?) have this grid pattern pressed into their surface for some strange reason. I find it incredibly annoying to look at any drawing completed on that paper. Avoid this paper.
For more serious charcoal work I suggest going with watercolor paper. Watercolor paper comes so incredibly thick it can take a beating like you can’t believe which is sometimes what you need when drawing in charcoal!
My absolute favorite paper to draw on in charcoal is Arches 300lb Water Color Paper. It comes in 3 tooths:
- Hot press (smoothest)
- Cold press (medium tooth)
- Rough (yep, like it sounds)
This stuff is really expensive but is a dream to work on. I know the materials don’t make the artist but sometimes when you’re sitting in front of the best materials made you approach your work with the utmost seriousness.
Best Drawing Paper for Pen & Ink
I can’t really see any reason to use rough paper for any pen or ink drawings, but hey you never know. So in general you’re going to want to choose a really smooth paper for your pen work.
Most of your smoothest papers you’d use with graphite pencils will serve you well with your pen drawings. If you didn’t read the section above on pencil papers, please review that… it’s filled with a ton of good information.
Now let’s just cut to the chase. Most often you’re just going to want to use a good quality bristol board to complete your pen drawings on.
I recommend Strathmore’s 300 Series Smooth Bristol Board. It’s thick, sturdy and really smooth!
Best Drawing Paper for Colored Pencils
Colored pencils are extremely similar to graphite pencils in construction and in technique. For this reason all of my recommendations above are precisely what I recommend in a quality drawing paper for colored pencils.
Of course it’s a matter of preference but you’re most likely going to want relatively smooth paper and if you can afford it, heavier paper. Remember, the heavier the weight the thicker and sturdier the paper!
Building a Paper Collection
There’s no doubt you’re going to amass a paper collection in the long run as you become more serious about your drawings. I have used countless brands and types of paper over the past couple of decades. Some paper I have come to love and other’s not so much. I’ve found some pleasant surprises along the way such as drawing on watercolor paper!
Because you’re going to create smaller pencil drawings, and larger charcoal drawings and vary the tooth it can be confusing. I know you’re probably going to dabble in various drawing media over the next couple of years so let me save you some time and money with these recommendations. Here’s some excellent starting points for choosing your next drawing paper.
I would always have all three of these drawing pads handy. These three are good papers, at a good price…
Going Pro? Each section above has some premium recommendations when you are ready to buy some of the absolute best papers.