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Drawing Paper - A Quick Guide to What's Available

One type of drawing paper is much the same as any other isn't it? Well no, it isn't.

There's a huge variety of weights, qualities and colors for every possible use. For example, are you using pencil or charcoal, pen and ink or pencil crayons?

Are you going to leave the drawing as it is or add a wash of color later on? If you're new to drawing, you need a reasonably economical paper to start with.

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However, you don't want something so cheap and nasty that's going to crease and tear and make it twice as hard to develop and improve your sketching! We'll look at some of the things you need to consider when buying paper. Some of the must have's - and also the things to avoid.

Oh, by the way, in this article I've ignored paper specifically made for pastel drawing. Pastel

is a hugely popular medium and warrants several pages in its own right - which is what I've done elsewhere, including reference to various types of pastel papers.

However, there's no reason why you shouldn't use pastels with ordinary drawing paper if you want, so read on...

For starters, here's a list of just some of the other items that you may want to draw with:-

  • Sketching Pencils
  • Watercolor Pencils
  • Colored Pencils
  • Charcoal Stick
  • Charcoal Pencil
  • Pen and Ink
  • Gel pens
  • Spirit Marker Pens
  • Conte Pencils
  • Brush & Ink

This isn't an exhaustive list but it covers pretty well most of the items most people draw with.

I think drawing paper has five main features you need to be aware of if it's going to be 'fit for purpose'; i.e. your purpose.

These are size, format, weight, texture and what I've termed 'resilience'. We'll come to that shortly.

Drawing paper is available in a multitude of sizes, from A6 (51/2" x 4"), through to about 18" X 24" in pads, and A0 size(44" x 32")in sheets. See below for precise sizes.

Pads generally have a heavy card backing, making them easy to use whilst standing. They are either wire bound, enabling the pad to be opened flat, or glued and taped along one edge, so you can easily tear a sheet out if you wish.

The spine or ring binder can be had along the short or long edge, to suit your style of work.

Many pads can be purchased with a hard front and back cover, providing a degree of permanence. This is ideal for color notes alongside a sketch as preparation for a later painting.

Or it can provide a wonderful visual and written diary of your travels for you and others to enjoy for years to come. Far more satisfying than a mere photograph.

On the same theme, you can even get ring bound pads which have a feint ruled sheet every other page, which enables you to make notes without defacing your drawing.

If you want to maintain your sketchbooks as a long-term record in pristine condition, also have a look out for pads that have a translucent slip sheet in between each page to prevent pencil, charcoal etc from transferring to the sheet above and smudging when the pad is closed.

Sketchpads and drawing paper using recycled paper is now readily available without any noticeable loss of quality.

On a similar theme, many paper suppliers are at pains to promote the sustainable resources they have specially created for maintaining the raw materials for their paper without eating into long established forested areas.

Moving onto the weight of paper, this is measured in Pounds per Ream (500 sheets) or Grams Per Square Metre (GSM). Generally speaking, the heavier the paper the better the quality, though this isn't always the case.

For example printer and copier paper is only about 80GSM but provides a smooth, high quality product that is vital for trouble-free copying.

My advice however, is not to buy sketching paper less than 110GSM. Less than this and it becomes creased and easily damaged.

This is especially true if you intend to use wet media such as watercolor pencils, watercolors, inks and so on.

For this sort of work, go for something around 180 - 220GSM. This will also be much less likely to be accidentally torn out of a ring bound pad. It also stands up to erasing and re-working better.

And it's easier to use both sides if you want - remember you paid for both the front and back of the paper!

Most drawing paper (usually referred to as cartridge paper) feels quite smooth. However, on closer inspection you'll see it has a 'tooth' or slight roughness in texture. Use this to your advantage with any sort of pencil, charcoal, conte etc. to create additional texture in your work.

I've tried some very smooth, heavy cartridge which is lovely to touch but awful to draw on.

It felt like the pencil was on ice skates, sliding all over the place, so the drawing suffered. It didn't allow much depth of shading or texture to be created with the pencil. Or did I just have a bad day?

Anyway, I found it great for marker pens and especially pen and ink, where the nib isn't as inclined to dig into the paper surface and splatter ink over your drawing. It was also good with watercolor paints (not too watery mind!) - again in conjunction with pen and ink.

Talking of marker pens brings me back to that word resilience I mentioned at the beginning. If you use some spirit based markers or certain inks, you'll find they bleed through even heavy drawing paper, which is unsightly. This can also ruin the sheet(s) underneath as well. So look out for drawing paper that is specially formulated to take these materials - normally described as bleedproof.

There is also a widening range of colored drawing paper offering a vast array of tints and colors. Personally, I tend to avoid the brighter, vivid paper colors for drawing as I find they tend to overpower your sketch.

However, try black or very dark paper with light colored conte pencils or metallic gel pens. This can give a quite different effect and really forces you to look hard at working out your light areas against the darker passages. (counterchange).

Some of the more subtle tints available in drawing paper along with say colored pencils or watercolor pencils give you a wide range of opportunities to create mood and atmosphere.

And don't forget good old watercolor paper! It provides an excellent, heavyweight textured drawing paper that is as good with any drawing media as it is with the paints it was designed for.

There's really no reason why you can't find a suitable surface to draw on. Photocopy or printer paper has often been the first thing I've picked up to sketch out an idea or do an impromptu demo.

Many an artist's acclaimed masterpiece has started life quite literally on the back of an envelope!

As to sizes, even now, the world's your oyster for choice. The International (ISO) Paper Sizes, intended to provide a worldwide consistent standard, generally run from A6 (the smallest) through to A0 - see below for actual sizes.

However, whilst encompassing this standard - for example in photocopiers - the USA makes massive use of paper based around the 'Letter/Legal' size - 8.5" x 11", 17" x 11" and so on, with almost any other combination you can think of, including 9" x 12", 18" x 12", 18" x 24" etc.

Thankfully, for us traditionalists, the Imperial sizes of drawing paper (30" x 22") remains as popular as ever.

Some wonderfully evocative descriptive sizes such as 'Double Elephant (40" x 26")were used by artists such as Audubon to permit him to create his wonderful bird studies full size.

Royal, Quarto, Foolscap, Crown Double and Demy Quad were the order of the day in British paper mills of bygone days but Imperial is now one of the few still generally available.

If you're doing a lot of drawing or on a very large scale, drawing paper is available in rolls and is readily available up to 60" (152cm) wide by perhaps 11 yards (10 metres) long.

Other countries have also adopted their own variants as well, so the A0 standard has made relatively little headway in the art world, perhaps apart from pre-cut pads.

For those who need to know, here's a quick list of the International Paper sizes. For all practical purposes in drawing paper, these range from A0 the largest, to A6 the smallest. If you look carefully at the sizes below, you'll see that the longer side of a smaller size becomes the shorter side of the next size up. 

So the length of A6 (5 13/16") is the width of A5, and so on.

  • A0 - 841mm x 1189mm - 33 1/8" x 46 13/16"
  • A1 - 594mm x 841mm - 23 3/8" x 33 1/8"
  • A2 - 420mm x 594mm - 16 1/2" x 23 3/8"
  • A3 - 297mm x 420mm - 11 11/16" x 16 1/2"
  • A4 - 210mm x 297mm - 8 1/4" x 11 11/16"
  • A5 - 148mm x 210mm - 5 13/16" x 8 1/4"
  • A6 - 105mm x 148mm - 4 1/8" x 5 13/16"

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