Have you ever arrived in an art store and been overwhelmed by the bewildering types of paper? How do you choose the best paper for pencil drawing? You can’t buy each one and test them out. That’s why I decided to demystify the process so you can buy the best drawing paper.
Buy a branded cartridge pad with a paperweight of 80lb (130gsm) or above. Choose ‘Acid-free’ paper to ensure longevity. Get a gum-bound drawing 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 support.
In all honesty, in the beginning, any major brand will suffice. Do not be tempted to ‘learn’ on cheap generic crap when high quality paper is not so expensive.
With that said let’s crack on.
Disclaimer: When you buy something via my affiliate links, I sometimes earn a commission at no extra cost to you. I only recommend trusted sites.
What are the Different Types of Pencil Drawing Paper?
‘Cartridge’ is the standard type of paper that artists use for graphite drawing. It has just enough tooth (grain), to produce a pleasing slightly textured pencil line. Most sketch 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 surface’, ‘rough texture’, and goodness knows what else.
They don’t even explain what their descriptions mean, smoother than what for heaven’s sake?
Different brands have their own grading systems, so a smooth paper in one brand will not be exactly the same as its competitors in another. Confused? You’re meant to be.
Daler-Rowney Heavyweight cartridge is one of my favorite papers. It has the right amount of tooth and a robust and substantial feel. It’s durable paper. Are my drawings any better with the heavier paper? Probably not, but using thicker paper gives me more pleasure.
I use Daler partly because I am so used to it. I can predict how the paper will behave and responds to my techniques. I make detailed drawings and it’s perfect for my style, as you see.
I’m going to add the Strathmore 400 series drawing paper to this section. It’s a high-quality paper, off-white, and the surface of the paper is smooth and even.
The heavier-weight paper is robust, at 100lb (163gsm), it has a neutral ph (acid-free). The most popular Strathmore pad is the 80lb (130gsm) below.
The 60lb (89gsm) 400 series is a lighter paper, it’s fine-toothed, and as far as I can tell, this sketching pad is not archival quality. Whatever the case, it’s too thin and flimsy for me personally.
Check out Stephens’s work on Proko. I know he likes Stonehenge paper. His technique is superb
Stephen uses mechanical pencils extensively. This post will interest you: Best Mechanical Drawing Pencils For Artists in 2023
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’s a great option for markers, pen and ink drawings, airbrushes, and even ballpoint pen, but not so great for a graphite pencil drawing. Without a toothy surface, 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:
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Pastel paper makes a superb drawing paper, especially if you require a tinted background and prefer chalk highlights.
The heavy texture of the paper allows several layers of pastel to be applied and that produces a grainy, sketchy line.
I’m keen on Canson Mi-Teintes 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. It has a great texture for pastels but it’s too thin for my liking, but hey it’s subjective.
Numerous artists online use Pastel Mat 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 hot-pressed 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 its 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||Weight in GSM||Paper Texture|
|Daler-Rowney Drawing Paper||120gsm, 160gsm, 200gsm||Medium|
|Daler-Rowney Smooth Cartridge||96gsm, 130gsm, 220gsm||Smooth|
|Daler Rowney Fine Grain Cartridge||120gsm, 160gsm, 200gsm, 220gsm||Fine|
|Daler Arteco Sketching Paper||95gsm||Medium|
|Strathmore 500 Series Drawing||125gsm||Ultra Smooth / Medium|
|Strathmore 400 Series Heavyweight||163gsm||Medium|
|Strathmore 400 Series Drawing||130gsm||Smooth / Medium|
|Strathmore 500 Series Bristol||250gsm, 375gsm, 500gsm||Smooth / Semi-Smooth / Medium|
|Strathmore 400 Series Bristol||270gsm, 405gsm, 540gsm||Smooth / Medium|
|Stonehenge Fine art paper||135gsm, 250gsm||Smooth / Medium|
|Canson Mi-Teintes Pastel Paper||160gsm||Medium|
|Fabriano Artistico HP Watercolor Paper||200gsm, 300gsm, 640gsm||Smooth (Hot-Pressed)|
|Fabriano Artistico NOT Watercolor Paper||200gsm, 300gsm, 640gsm||Medium (NOT)|
It’s worth mentioning that if you decide to draw on tinted paper, 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 fine details.
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.
This post is related: What is the Best Type of Pencil to Use With Watercolor?
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 any 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||Commonly Used As…|
|135||Light drawing paper|
|165||Posters/Firm drawing paper|
|200||Heavyweight drawing paper|
|300||Light card/Watercolor paper|
What Size Paper is Best for Pencil Drawing?
When you are starting out, and faced with a variety of sizes, I advise you to opt for an A3 pad. It’s the ideal size at16.54 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 series 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.
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.
Professional artists will always demand acid-free paper.
What is the Main 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.
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.
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 and quick sketches. It’s like a notebook for drawing ideas and experiments. Sketches can be viewed as the precursor to a more accomplished piece.
Sourcing an acid-fee sketch paper is not essential unless you intend to save and sell your work.
I’ve written more in this post: Drawing and Sketching: Is There a Difference?
If you need more help with drawing, then I urge you to check out
Dorian Iten on Proko. His course is reasonably priced and inspiring
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 in 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 confused by different kinds of paper and all you can do is choose a major brand and get used to it. That way you can use your choice 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. It’s easily available where I live, here in the UK, it’s good drawing paper, and it suits my drawing style.
I like to use their heavyweight cartridge paper, it takes more punishment and feels substantial.
If I lived in the States I’d use the best quality paper from Strathmore; the heavy 400 series, and the 500 series. If I had the spare cash, I would certainly use Stonehenge paper.
I will leave you with a tip as an added bonus.
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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You’ll also be interested in these posts. Check them out:
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- Can You Copy Art and Sell a Painting of a Painting? I Found Out
- Are Online Drawing Courses Worth it? I Chose 5 of The Best For You!
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- Repair Damaged Drawing Paper – 8 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork
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