What’s The Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)

Assorted pencil drawing pads and sketching paper. How to choose the right paper
THERE’S TOO MUCH BLOODY CHOICE!

Have you ever arrived in an art store and been overwhelmed by the bewildering choice of paper? How do you choose the right paper for pencil drawing? You can’t buy each one and test them out. That’s why I decided to demystify the process and offer you a few pointers.

Buy a branded cartridge pad with a paperweight of 80lb (130gsm) or above. Choose ‘Acid-free’ paper to ensure longevity. Get a gum-bound pad because the spiral-bound paper is harder to remove without damage. And make sure to buy a pad with a firm backing board as a support.

In all honesty, in the beginning, any major brand will suffice. Do not be tempted to ‘learn’ on cheap generic crap, why spoil the barrel for a ha’porth of tar? Good drawing paper is not so expensive. With that said let’s crack on.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

What are the Different Types of Pencil Drawing Paper?

Cartridge Paper

The standard drawing paper for general use is called ‘cartridge’. It has a noticeable tooth (grain), and a soft pencil produces a pleasing slightly textured line. Most pads are white but some brands produce an off-white which is warmer.

The confusion arises when the marketeers bamboozle their customers with variations on the theme. You will see ‘fine-grain’, ‘smooth’, ‘heavyweight’, ‘medium’, and goodness knows what else. They don’t even explain what their descriptions mean, smoother than what for heaven’s sake?

Each brand will have its own grading system, so a smooth paper in one brand will not be exactly the same as its competitors. Confused? You are meant to be.

I use a Daler-Rowney Heavyweight cartridge pad (affiliate). It has a slight ‘tooth’ but has a robust and substantial feel. Are my drawings any better with the heavier paper? Probably not, but using it gives me more pleasure.

Baby elephant drawn using the lost and found technique. Drawn by Wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Best Foot Forward’ drawn on heavyweight cartridge paper by Kevin Hayler

I’m going to add the Strathmore 400 (affiliate) drawing paper series to this section. It’s not a standard cartridge, it’s off-white with an even smooth surface. The paper is robust at 100lb (163gsm), acid-free, and the pad measures at 24″ x 36″. The 400 series sketching paper is lightweight at only 60lb (89gsm), fine-toothed, and measures 25″ x 38″. As far as I can tell this sketching pad is not archival.

Check out Stephens’s work on Proko (affiliate). I know he likes Stonehenge paper. His technique is superb

Bristol Paper

Bristol paper (or board) is a light card made of glued multi-ply sheets of paper, compressed together, and is available with a smooth or vellum surface.

Bristol paper (or board) is a light card made of glued multi-ply sheets of paper, compressed together, and is available with a smooth or vellum surface.

Smooth Bristol board is a brilliant white paper with a shiny toothless drawing surface. It is fine for markers, pen and ink, and airbrushes but not so great for a pencil drawing. Without a tooth, the graphite is pale and insipid.

Vellum Bristol Board has a slight texture and is more suitable for graphite, charcoal, and colored pencils. The thicker board will take watercolor and I see claims that it’s also suitable for pastel. It’s possible I suppose, but only if you apply very few layers. I doubt many pastelists use it.

Bristol paper is often used by commercial illustrators for easy blending and quick results and they are not always concerned about the lifespan of their paper. If you are, then be sure to check that your paper is acid-free and 100% cotton rag for longevity. Many boards are not.

If you’re stuck for ideas bookmark this: 120 Drawing Ideas for Beginners to Practice

Pastel Paper

Pastel paper makes a superb drawing paper, especially if you require a tinted background and prefer chalk highlights.

The paper surface is heavily textured to allow several layers of pastel to be applied and that produces a grainy, sketchy line.

I’m keen on Canson Mi-Teintes (affiliate) pastel paper. It’s heavyweight paper and I like a neutral grey as my base. The upper surface has just the right coarseness and ‘bite’ to it. The reverse side has a different texture altogether and is not so good.

Their sister-paper is called Canson Ingres (affiliate). It has a great texture for pastels but it’s too thin for my liking, but hey it’s subjective.

Many artists online use Pastel Mat (affiliate) paper

Watercolor Paper

Hot-pressed paper is made by pressing the sheets together between two heated rollers. It results in a smooth surface, ideal for watercolor washes, and pencil drawing.

Good watercolor paper is expensive so few pencil artists will use it exclusively for drawing, but there’s no reason not to, if the price is no barrier.

The advantage of using watercolor paper is the quality. Top brands use 100% cotton fiber which is made to last. The best papers also avoid optical brighteners and this gives the paper a lovely off-white tint, fantastic for monochrome.

The chart below compares some of the better papers at a glance. I’ve included Daler-Rowney pads because they are widely available in the UK. Strathmore is more widely available in the USA. Stonehenge and Fabriano are premium papers.

Paper Brand (affiliates)Weight in GSMPaper Texture
Daler-Rowney Drawing Paper120gsm, 160gsm, 200gsmMedium
Daler-Rowney Smooth Cartridge96gsm, 130gsm, 220gsmSmooth
Daler Rowney Fine Grain Cartridge120gsm, 160gsm, 200gsm, 220gsmFine
Daler Arteco Sketching Paper95gsmMedium
Strathmore 500 Series Drawing125gsmUltra Smooth / Medium
Strathmore 400 Series Heavyweight163gsmMedium
Strathmore 400 Series Drawing130gsmSmooth / Medium
Strathmore 500 Series Bristol250gsm, 375gsm, 500gsmSmooth / Semi-Smooth / Medium
Strathmore 400 Series Bristol270gsm, 405gsm, 540gsmSmooth / Medium
Stonehenge Fine art paper135gsm, 250gsmSmooth / Medium
Canson Mi-Teintes Pastel Paper160gsmMedium
Fabriano Artistico HP Watercolor Paper200gsm, 300gsm, 640gsmSmooth (Hot-Pressed)
Fabriano Artistico NOT Watercolor Paper200gsm, 300gsm, 640gsmMedium (NOT)
Quality manufacturers of drawing paper (acid-free)

It’s worth mentioning that if you decide to draw on a warmer paper, one with a creamy tint, it’s trickier to make accurate reproductions. If you print in grayscale, the paper will scan as a grey tone. This will need editing out and in the process, you might lose some finer detail.

Alternatively, you can print in color and color match the paper tint. That’s also difficult to get right. Color printing also costs more to produce.

What Does the Paper Weight Mean?

The international system of paper weights couldn’t be easier. The paper is graded according to the grammage or the weight in grams per square meter. A small number means the paper is thinner, a large number means it’s thicker.

The American system is known as the basis weight and measured in pounds per 500 sheets (a ream) and that varies according to the sheet sizes of different papers!

It’s all too mind-numbing to dig deeper, so for ease and sanity, we will stick to the metric system which will be indicated on the pad.

Think of paper weights by relating them to common paper products, as follows:

Weight in gsm (lb)Commonly Used As…
75Photocopy paper
90Letterhead
120Brochure
135Light drawing paper
165Posters/Firm drawing paper
200Heavyweight drawing paper
300Light card/Watercolor paper
The scale will help you gauge the relative thickness of each paper weight you encounter

What Size Paper is Best for Pencil Drawing?

When you are starting out, and unsure about your preferences, I advise you to opt for an A3 pad. The size is 16.54 x 11.69 inches (420mm x 297mm). The ‘A’ series is the international norm, and they are ubiquitous.

The USA however, has its own system which means some brands will have different sizes. The nearest sized pad in the Strathmore range would be 14 x 17 inches.

Do you realize that size matters: What Size of Art Sells Best?

Choosing this intermediate size will allow you to experiment. It’s not so big, that the white space will intimidate you and not so small that draw too close to the edge. Plus, you can take it outside and draw in the field without it being a burden.

Two drawing pads. What size paper is best for drawing? A3 and A5 examples.
Daler-Rowney Cartridge Pads A3 and A5

Which Side of Art Paper is Used for Pencil Drawing?

You can draw on both sides but each side will produce a different texture.

All you need to remember is the ‘top’, (the felt side) has a smoother surface and matches the product description. The reverse (wire side), faces the screen during fabrication and usually has a rougher texture.

The only exception is bonded ply-paper, such as Bristol board, which is identical on both surfaces.

What is Acid-Free Paper?

Acid-free paper refers to the wood pulp that has had the acidic lignin chemically removed. Calcium or Magnesium Bicarbonate (alkaline) is added to make the wood pulp PH7 (neutral). An additional alkaline buffer of 2%+ is applied to counter environmental acids.

The sizing, a protective layer, or additive, that controls the absorbency of the paper, must also be acid-free.

If the pulp is left untreated the paper turns yellow and becomes brittle. Old paperbacks are good examples.

Processing preserves the paper, in ideal conditions, for many hundreds of years.

For added reassurance look for the international standard code for permanent paper, ISO 9706.

What is the Difference Between Acid-Free & Archival Paper?

Archival, or as it is also known museum grade paper, is a cotton-based fiber, usually referred to as ‘cotton rag’. It was traditionally manufactured using 100% cotton textile remnants, but these days it’s more likely to contain cotton linters, a by-product of cotton processing.

Cotton fiber is stronger, more durable, and absorbs ink better than wood-fiber paper, and is the paper of choice for watercolorists. Some drawing paper is also cotton fiber, notably the Strathmore 500 series.

The international standard code for archival paper is ISO 11108.

N.B. It is worth reminding you that acid-free and archival paper is of little value unless the mount (mat), backing board, and tape, are also acid-free.

Don’t take the chances, this is How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster

Are Acid Free Colored Papers Fade Proof?

No, sorry. All tinted papers will fade in the sun to varying degrees. Its longevity depends on how the paper was fabricated. Dye-based inks will fade quicker than pigment-based inks, and optical brighteners will also discolor over time.

male orangutan drawing by wildlife artist Kevin Hayler
‘Enigmatic Ape’ drawn with mechanical pencils on cartridge paper, by Kevin Hayler

No artwork should be exposed to the full sun for any length of time, but framing the picture with conservation glass will block the most harmful UV and extend its lifespan considerably.

For more info read this: Does Art Fade? Does Pencil Fade? Do Paintings Fade?

What Is the Difference Between Sketch and Drawing Paper?

Sketching paper is generally intended to mean a lower grade paper used for preliminary work. It’s like a notebook for drawing ideas and experiments. Sketches can be viewed as the precursor to a more accomplished piece.

I’ve written more in this post: Drawing and Sketching: Is There a Difference?

if you are early on your drawing journey, this Proko (affiliate) course by Dorian Iten will help you on your way

Drawing paper is therefore intended to be used for the finished work. It has a more serious connotation. The paper is typically heavier.

In truth, it’s all nonsense. There is nothing preventing you from sketching on better paper. The distinction is more about marketing than any real use. Different companies will describe their papers their own way.

Daler-Rowney, for instance, has a ‘drawing’ paper, made for sketching, and a cartridge paper made for drawing. Whereas Derwent has a sketching paper, thicker than Dalers cartridge paper. Don’t try to figure it out.

As a rule of thumb, thinner paper is better for sketching only because you get more paper for your money.

The Right Paper For Pencil Drawing – Final Thoughts

Are you better informed? I hope so. I know what it’s like to be frozen with too much choice.

Choose a major brand and get used to it. That way you can use it as a benchmark with which to judge the others.

If you want to copy me and start with a good all-rounder, I like to use Daler-Rowney cartridge paper (affiliate). I like to use heavyweight paper, it takes more punishment and feels substantial.

I will leave you with one extra tip.

The texture of your paper is affected by both the support beneath it and the atmosphere.

The paper grain is more pronounced if you draw on paper on a hard surface. If you use the same pencil, with the same pressure, and draw paper on paper, as you would in a drawing pad, the grain will be softer.

Likewise, if you decide to draw outside on a muggy day with high humidity, the paper will absorb the moisture and you will lose the crispness of your line.

No one tells you this kind of stuff online do they?


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How to choose the right paper for pencil drawing