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

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 or 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, at the beginning, any major brand will suffice. Do not be tempted to ‘learn’ on cheap generic crap, why spoil the barrel for a ha’peth of tar? Good drawing paper is not so expensive.

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. 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
‘Best Foot Forward’ drawn on heavyweight cartridge paper by Kevin Hayler

I’m going to add the Strathmore 400 drawing paper series to this section. It’s not a standard cartridge, it’s off-white with an even smooth surface. It takes graphite beautifully but why the hell is it so thin? You must get the heavyweight pad or choose the 500 series that are 90lb (165gsm) paper and archival.

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.

Further Reading: How to Plan and Compose your Art (A Guide For Beginners With Examples)

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-Tientes pastel paper. It’s a 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 not so good.

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

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 is 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.

Further Reading: How to Store Drawings Safely

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 it’s own system which means some brands will have a different sizes. The nearest sized pad in the Strathmore range would be 14 x 17 inches.

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

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 anyway – probably.

Think of it this way:

Weight in GSM Commonly Used
75Photocopy paper
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.

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 papers absorbency 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 both 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.

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.

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.

Further Reading: How to Prevent Your Drawing From Smudging. ( 5 Good Tips, Especially Number 3 )

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 of 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.


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. I like to use the heavyweight paper, it takes more punishment and feels substantial.

I will leave you with one extra tip.

The texture of your paper is effected 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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