Choosing the Right Paper Type

One of the most hotly debated aspects of creating colored pencil artwork surrounds what is the best paper to use. Some will even post in artist forums desperately seeking the answer to this question as if it was some sort of secret that everyone is keeping from them. The answer is not a simple one and while that may be disappointing to hear, there are some great reason why it deserves a more in depth explanation.

Let’s Talk About Tooth

Paper comes in all different types of smooth and rough surfaces which is often referred to as the “tooth” of the paper. If a paper has a rougher or more textured surface it is said to have more tooth. This attribute of a paper’s surface can determine how a medium applied to it interacts. With some mediums, you want more tooth to the paper because that’s what will help the medium grab onto and stay on the surface appropriately. An example of this is using a chalk pastel on a paper formulated for pastel as opposed to something like a Bristol Smooth paper. If you were to try and apply the chalk pastel which has a very fragile and powder-like consistency to a paper that is too smooth, it will likely not stay very well at all. Introduce the same medium to a more textured surface and the peaks and valleys present in the rougher surface of the paper are able to trap and hold onto the fine pigments more easily.

paper swatches demonstrating how pastel looks on papers with different tooth
Pastel applied to both paper types yields very different results. The smoother paper type initially accepts the pastel, but doesn’t absorb the pigment evenly when blended. The Mi-Teintes paper which is formulated to work well with pastel by comparison has a more even application.

Colored pencil, comparatively, does not have a fine powder-like consistency and can be applied to both very smooth and more textured papers quite easily. So how do you choose which one is the best?

Related: How to Pick Your Coloured Pencils

Technique is Everything

The key to finding the right paper for you, lays very heavily in the techniques you are using with your colored pencil. Mixed media pieces require you to take into consideration what the medium is other than colored pencil that you are using in your piece. Techniques using OMS may require surfaces with more tooth or that respond well to wet media. If you prefer slowly building light layers of colored pencil, a super smooth surface might give you the best results. All of these factors play a roll in what paper you choose.

It should be noted as well that papers with more tooth often take more time and effort to completely cover the original color of the paper. In some cases you may make a stylistic choice to have some of that paper color show through, but generally speaking the goal is usually 100% coverage. With that being the case, many colored pencil artists tend to go for smoother paper types. Depending on the extent of the surface smoothness however, this may also limit the amount of layers you are able to apply. A setting fixative may be required between layers to add extra surface tooth for the colored pencil to grab onto.

“Quaco Head Lighthouse” by Barb Sotiropoulos 2021, PanPastel and Faber-Castell Polychromos on Fabriano Artistico Hot Press Watercolor Paper.

Where to Begin

If you are brand new to colored pencil, I would strongly suggest doing a bit of research before you run out and drop a small fortune on paper. Have a look at what artists you admire using the medium and find out what combination of pencils and paper they are using. Sometimes they may be using an expensive combination of products. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because you purchase those same products your work will somehow look more like theirs, because there’s A LOT more to it than that. What you can do is buy a smaller set of what they are using, or even a few colours and try it out. Some papers are available in smaller pads or sample packs. You could even purchase one full sized sheet of whatever paper they are using and cut it down into sizes that are suitable for experimenting.

“Succulents” by Barb Sotiropoulos 2021, Faber-Castell PITT Artist Pens and Prismacolor on Strathmore Bristol Smooth Paper.

Don’t be surprised if your preferences change over time. This is a very common and natural progression in an artist’s journey. I once swore by using Strathmore Bristol Smooth or Vellum with Prismacolor pencils. This was actually a great place to start for me as I primarily focuses on burnishing style of colored pence techniques in the beginning. Both of those products were also within my budget range and easily accessible. Although my preferences have now changed, I still enjoy using this combination on occasion.

Take Time to Explore

Once you get your bearings with this medium, you will likely naturally start wanting to explore more with techniques and pencil/paper combinations. This is a very valuable time in your journey with this medium. For me the exploration phase was when I started to get more of sense of what I liked and didn’t and also develop more of my individual style with the medium. The foundation I already had from my initial favourite combo allowed me to feel successful at what I was creating but the willingness to try others’ techniques and materials pushed me to find what really worked for the art I was trying to create.

Left: “Taliesin Orange” by Barb Sotiropoulos 2016, Prismacolor on Strathmore Bristol Smooth Paper. Right: Cropped Image from ” Muffie, Cooper & Tyson” by Barb Sotiropoulos 2022, Caran D”ache Luminance and PanPastel on Canson Mi-Teintes Paper.

Remember, none of this means you have to invest in full sets of pencils or expensive papers if that is not available to you. I would highly recommend taking notes for yourself when you try a certain paper or pencil combo so that you can refer back to it at a later date. I will sometimes change the paper and pencil combination I’m using depending on what the subject matter is and the finish I want to achieve with it. An example would be picking a smoother paper type with a softer/waxier feeling pencil for a drawing of a car which has a smooth and shiny surface.

In contrast, I may pick a more textured paper with a harder feeling pencil for an animal portrait. While my combination of paper and pencils is dependent on specific factors, I only work this way because of the years of experimentation that I have done. This method also works for me because as an artist taking commissions, I’m not always working on the same subject matter.

Want to Hear More?

On Episode 334 of the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil podcast, John Middick and I sat down to discuss this topic in-depth. We tackle some of the key differences to be aware of when selecting papers and give some of best advice for artists who are beginners all the way to advanced artists.

Listen to the Episode:

Choosing the right paper for you, may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be. There is unfortunately no right ONE paper type for everyone, but there may be a right one FOR YOU! Start by looking to other artists and discover what they are using if you are having a hard time knowing where to begin. Most of all, don’t be afraid to try new paper types and pencil combinations – you never know what will be your perfect match!

What’s your favourite paper to use in your artwork?
Share with me int the comments below!

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Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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