I think every artist, at some point in their practice, has asked themselves, “Does it really matter what kind of paper I use?”
When you are on a budget, it’s hard to justify spending extra on more expensive “art” paper. Art is art no matter what kind of paper it’s on, right? And there are so many types of art paper out there – watercolor paper, cold press, hot press, mixed media, sketchbook, canvas paper, tracing paper. What are they all for? And how do you choose the right one for your project?
I’m going to go over that today to clarify the qualities of each art paper type and why you may want to use specific paper for your project in my Artist’s Guide to Types of Art Paper.
**This post contains affiliate links**
Do I really need “Art” Paper?
The first thing to think about when you are deciding if you want to spend the extra money on art paper is what you plan on doing with your artwork. If you are just playing with colors and don’t care if your project lasts beyond the time it takes to complete it, then you may not need to spend the extra money on special paper. It’s perfectly fine to brainstorm or doodle on cheap notebook paper.
However, there are a few reasons you may consider purchasing art paper. If you want your artwork to last so that you can show it off later, if you are learning how to use a certain medium, or if you plan to sell your original artwork to a buyer, it’s a better idea to purchase the paper that works best for that project. Choosing the right type of art paper for your work can make your art pieces more professional and raise their value. Here’s why:
1. Art paper is made to be “acid free”, which is more archival than printer or notebook paper.
This means the paper is manufactured with art in mind. The paper is made to minimize pigment fading and the paper itself is less likely to yellow over time. If you plan to keep your artwork for a few years, or sell it to someone who plans on displaying it, you definitely want to stick with paper that is going to preserve the integrity of the artwork.
2. Different types of art paper are made to assist the artist when using different mediums.
We will get into the details of how this works later in this article, but if you are trying to learn how to use a specific medium and want to improve your skills, you are going to learn much faster if you are not fighting the paper to give you the result you desire.
3. When you sell your artwork, you want to sell the best quality product possible.
As I stated earlier, good art paper helps preserve the artwork that is on it. People who invest money in artwork often do so assuming that the value of that piece is going to increase over time. This won’t happen if the artwork fades, discolors, or falls apart. Producing and selling artwork that doesn’t maintain its quality can severely damage your reputation as an artist.
What Kind of Paper Should I use?
There are many types of art paper out there. Once you have determined that you want to spend the little extra to get the right paper for your project, it’s sometimes overwhelming to figure out what the “right” kind is. Your paper choice will, of course, depend on the project you are doing, but also the artist materials you plan to use and what you intend to do with the finished product.
I’m going to focus on six different types of artist paper – Drawing, Watercolor, Canvas, Mixed Media, Specialty, and “Other” and explain the purpose and benefits of each. I am also including affiliate links to purchase these art papers on Amazon. If you choose to purchase from any of these links, proceeds will support this blog.
Drawing or Sketching Paper
Drawing or Sketching paper is used for, you guessed it, drawing and sketching. Manufacturers usually make these papers “acid-free”, meaning they are less likely to yellow as they age and will not break down the materials used on them as quickly and easily as something like notebook paper. But there are several levels of quality when it comes to drawing paper.
The cheaper drawing papers that you may find in a department store are usually made with wood pulp and treated with chemicals to make them “acid-free”, which makes them good for practice, but not ideal for quality art works. The more expensive sketching papers are often made from cotton or linen blends which naturally contain less acid than wood, so they do not need to be treated with as many chemicals and will maintain their integrity longer than their wood-pulp counterparts.
“Archival” paper is the highest quality paper, made to maintain quality for long periods of time, and it is the kind I recommend for fine art drawings.
Drawing paper can also come in different thicknesses or “weights”, as well as with a different “tooth” or roughness of the paper. A thicker paper, with a higher weight, will be more durable and withstand more abuse, but they are often more expensive and are not necessary for casual drawing.
The higher the tooth of the paper, the rougher that paper will be, which means it will hold more material in a more rigid fashion. Fine artists often prefer low tooth papers for artworks that require lots of blending and shading, but be careful because they are also more likely to smudge.
Higher tooth paper holds more of the material and doesn’t smudge as easily, but it’s harder to blend the colors on top and it will often “eat up” your materials (pencils, charcoal, etc.), requiring you to replace them more often.
You will want to use drawing or sketching paper if you are using graphite pencils or colored pencils, and sometimes with oil pastels and charcoal. Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, sketching paper is made for quick sketches and practice, while drawing paper is intended for finished artworks.
It’s a good idea to try papers with different weights and tooths to find the kind that you prefer for your art style. Practicing on different kinds of paper will let you know if you like the effect that paper is giving you. If you want to learn more about finding your art style check out my blog post here: How To Find Your Art Style
Here are a few Drawing Papers I recommend, listed from lowest to highest price:
Watercolor paper is also made acid free and is thicker and more rigid than drawing paper because it’s made to hold more liquid and minimize “buckling”. Buckling happens when you get a paper wet and it shrivels or becomes wavy. Thicker watercolor paper will buckle less and is best for full-page watercolor paintings. When you are painting only small areas of the paper at a time, you can sometimes get away with using a thinner paper.
Watercolor paper also comes in three different tooths, but unlike drawing paper, these tooths have more to do with how the water and pigments spread out onto the paper.
Cold-Press paper is the most common. The high tooth of cold-press paper allows artists to have more control over where the water goes and helps pull the pigment into larger areas. Cold-press paper is great for loose watercolor paintings where you want to take advantage of the “watercolor effect” that happens when the colors spread out and interact with each other naturally.
Some people also like to use cold-press watercolor paper for oil pastels because it holds the material well and allows you to apply multiple layers without compromising the integrity of the paper.
Hot-press watercolor paper is still thick to minimize buckling, but is made with a different process that results in a much smoother finish than the cold-press alternative. Hot press paper is usually more expensive than cold-press, however, it is the ideal paper for artists who like to produce detailed watercolor illustrations because the smooth texture does not interfere with small detailed paint strokes. It’s also often preferred by pen and ink artists for this same reason. It’s easier to achieve the smooth, even strokes in calligraphy with hot-press paper.
The third kind of watercolor paper finish is “rough” paper, which is made to have a very heavy tooth. Rough paper is not pressed the same way as cold-press and hot-press, leaving a much more textured surface that will hold larger amounts of pigment. Rough paper can withstand many layers and washes of watercolor and can hold its integrity after many layers of pastel application.
Here are a few watercolor papers that I have tried and recommend for watercolor artists, listed from lowest to highest price:
Canvas paper is made to mimic artist canvas for use with oil and acrylic paint. It has a heavier weight in order to hold the heavier materials, and prevent buckling, just like watercolor paper. Unlike watercolor paper, however, canvas paper is often printed with texture and primed to provide a surface much like that of an actual canvas. This priming prevents the paper from soaking up the wet materials too quickly and drying up the paint as quickly as watercolor paper does.
Canvas paper is great for practicing oil and acrylic painting because the paper is cheaper than stretched canvas and canvas board. As a bonus, it comes in smaller sheets that are perfect for quicker practice sessions and for traveling.
Canvas paper also provides an excellent surface for adding mixed media materials to your artwork because it is less likely to tear under the weight of heavier glued-on materials. Another reason artists may choose canvas paper over stretched canvas is that the size and thickness make it easier to scan finished artworks into a digital format.
Here are a few canvas papers I recommend, listed from lowest to highest price:
Mixed Media Paper
Mixed media art paper is like the happy medium between drawing paper and watercolor paper. It’s the kind of paper I like to use when I combine watercolor and colored pencil in some of my art pieces because it gives me the best of both worlds.
Mixed media paper has a heavier weight, similar to watercolor paper, that will hold wet mediums and minimize buckling. However, unlike watercolor paper, it has a smoother surface that also works well with pencils, markers, and charcoal. These properties make it ideal for projects that use “mixed media”, or multiple types of art mediums.
Artists may also use mixed media paper for collages because it is weighted enough to handle glue and other wet mediums while also providing a nice writing surface for pencils, ink and markers. Mixed media paper is a great option when you are just getting started in the art space and want to experiment with various art mediums until you find your favorite. Just keep in mind that this paper is not the best option for single media fine art pieces that you plan to sell to high-profile buyers.
Here are a few mixed media papers that I like, listed from least to most expensive:
Specialty paper is paper designed for a specific type of medium. I put marker paper, charcoal paper, bristol, newsprint and any other paper made for a very specific type of artwork into this category. These are often, although not always, more expensive than your more popular types of paper and can come in very handy if you are looking to get a specific effect for the medium you are working with.
For instance, marker paper is treated so that the ink will not bleed through and will instead stay on the surface of the paper. It also facilitates easier blending with alcohol markers. Charcoal paper is made to hold on to the charcoal particles to keep the integrity of the drawing while minimizing unwanted smudges and transfers. Bristol and Colored Pencil paper are recommended for colored pencil artists because they are made with a smoother finish and heavier weight than drawing paper, allowing for multiple layers.
I recommend that most beginning artists start with a more common paper like drawing, watercolor or mixed media as they continue to develop their skills. These are easy to get ahold of, and often more economical as you are learning and making mistakes. Once you gain more experience, specialty papers will help you take your art skills to the next level.
Here are some charcoal, bristol, and marker papers I recommend when you are ready:
I reserved the “other” category for any paper that does not quite fit into the categories already mentioned. There are many things that could go into this section but the two that I find the most useful and want to touch on are Tracing Paper and Transfer Paper. These “papers” are paper in the sense that they are thin sheets you draw on. However, artists use them to assist with artistic effects on other surfaces, not for holding finished products.
Tracing paper is an ultra lightweight, translucent art paper that allows you to see through it and trace the image beneath onto the surface of the paper. Then, depending on the technique you use, you can move that image to another surface in various ways. Transfer Paper is often used with tracing paper and is made with a layer of graphite on one side. The transfer paper goes underneath an image, graphite side down, so that you can “transfer” that image to a new surface using pressure.
I use both when I make a new artwork that I want to sketch out or piece together before I paint it. I sketch my idea on sketchbook paper, which allows me to erase and redraw over and over until I get the dimensions and composition just right. Then I tape a piece of tracing paper on top to trace the finished drawing. With a completed outline on my tracing paper, I put the traced image on top of the painting paper or canvas that I want my finished painting to go on, put transfer paper between the two and trace it again.
This method allows me to play with an idea or image on sketchbook paper first without damaging or smudging the painting surface that the finished product will go on. It is especially helpful with watercolor paintings because erasing and redrawing images on watercolor paper can alter the tooth of the paper and affect how the water moves when you paint your finished product.
Here are some tracing and transfer papers that I love:
I hope this article offers you a little more clarity on the uses and benefits of various types of Art Papers. When you are just starting out, figuring out the kind of paper that would work best for your project can feel daunting. In the Artist’s Guide to Art Paper I have laid out the properties of the most common types of art paper, and when it would be beneficial for an artist to spend the extra money to purchase specific paper for a project.
I have also linked suggested art papers beneath each section. Reminder – these are affiliate links, and any products purchased through these links will help support this blog.
If you would like more information on this subject or any similar subject, leave me a comment or send me a message and let me know that you would like to see more content like this.