Image of traditional paper making - Blog Mooch art supplies guide to art paper

The Ultimate Guide to Artist Papers

I have to admit to a bit of Click baiting in the title and realise it's nigh on impossible to include all the information on paper in a blog or even a book.  However, having been around several paper factories, spoken to lots of artists, and used many of the papers, I can say with confidence that knowing more about the surfaces you use, will have a profound impact on the work you create.

Happy days, you're in the right place to improve your understanding of paper so I've tried to split it into shortish nuggets of information you can pan for and find the golden ones most valuable to you (see what I did there). 

Your artwork should improve with better knowledge of the paper you use but this is partly achieved through saving you time and money.  Knowing what to look out for and what matters, means you will have fewer ruined drawings and paintings.  You will be more productive and waste less money on poor quality or inappropriate surfaces.  Focussing on the right specifications means you spend less time searching through the 1000s of products wondering which one is right for you.

Introduction to Artist Papers

Artist papers are generally made from plant fibres whether this be from wood or cotton.  Paper can be made from many different sources of vegetation including flax, hemp, onions, rice, straw, bamboo and even plastic resins but these materials are not used in any great quantity.  More than 90% of all paper is made from wood, much of that comes from sustainable forests. 


Trust me when I say that the time spent reading this will more than repay you in time, money and creative satisfaction.  I've split this post into 3 parts

1. Key Terminology - Know your GSM from your optical brighteners

2. What Papers for What Purpose - Not quite as obvious as you may think.

3. Buying tips - How to navigate the plethora of brands, retailers, quantities and sizes without resorting to shear guesswork.

Key Terms describing Artist Papers

On the front of a pad or somewhere in the specification you'll have a few facts and figures.  Many of which are obvious, many are not.

GSM - Grams per square metre. Put simply, if the sheet of paper is 100cm x 100cm, how much does it weight in grams.

LBs - For those countries who haven't caught up with the rest of the world's metrification, paper is also weighed in pounds per 500 reams of a standard size in that paper category.  American paper companies all refer to paper in pounds.

Tooth - Sometimes used in place of texture but they have slightly different meanings.  Tooth refers to the ability of the paper being able to hold and bond to your chosen medium, be it graphite, pastel or paint etc.  Texture is more how it looks, feels and what the surface is like.  Generally the more tooth paper has the rougher the texture and the better it will be at holding onto the material that is applied to it.  This is especially important for charcoal and pastels that need a tooth to be able to adhere to the surface its applied to.

Watercolour paper 

Image result for rough watercolour paper

Rough (Also referred to as Torchon in Italian) - The roughest, most textured surface with lots of tooth that gives a more granular effect with the paint pigments.  Rough paper comes out from the paper mould pressed between felt and isn't compressed between rollers like the other 2 smoother watercolour types.  

Cold Pressed (NOT, FIN or CP) - Intermediate textured surface that is the most popular surface.  It has a good balance where there is enough tooth to hold the paint but enough to enable a good level of detail in the work.  Named because the paper is pressed between cold rollers. Also named NOT in a confusing way to say it is not hot pressed. 

Hot Press (Smooth, Satine, Silk or HP) - The smoothest of them all as it has been pressed between 2 hot rollers. 

Acid Free - All paper is at risk of acid decay and you can see it most readily with old newspaper that goes yellow and brittle with age.  Artist papers that say they are acid free will stay whiter for longer and retain their shape.  Acid free papers will last up to 200 years under normal use and conditions.

Sometimes referred to as PH Neutral in the same breath, it is basically a balance of Hydrogen Ions. Too much and you have an acidic paper that will degrade faster.  Many watercolour papers have a buffer or alkaline chemical element added (usually calcium carbonate) into the pulp mix that neutralises the acidity and even make it slightly alkaline.  This is used to compensate for the acidity that the paper may develop through exposure to the atmosphere and sunlight throughout its life.

Lignin Free - Lignin is a polymer contained within the wood that helps maintain its structure.  Lignin is also a naturally occurring acid and will cause the paper to yellow and become brittle with age if it remains.  Lignin free is not necessarily acid free as there may be other elements in the paper that makes it acidic but in general the terms are used interchangeably.

Optical Brighteners (OBAs) - These are chemical additives that are added to paper that make the surface look "whiter".  They are a fluorescent chemical that reflects more of the blueish ultra violet light which gives a whiter appearance.   Given that wood pulp and cotton even after bleaching is a creamy colour, many manufacturers use optical brighteners to give their paper a cleaner look. 

The downsides are that these chemicals degrade over time and stop emitting the bluish white light causing the paper to dull over time.  Any good quality watercolour paper won't use optical brighteners so assuming the artist uses lightfast paint pigments, the artwork should look almost as good after 200 years as it was when first painted. 

Sizing - Paper that isn't sized behaves very much like blotting paper.  So sizing paper prepares it to change the absorption properties so it can take pen, paint or ink.  Traditionally, gelatine was added in a tub to the paper after it was made which is termed external sizing.  Paper can also be internally sized where the size can be added to the pulp mix before the paper is made.Gelatin tub sizing traditional illustration 

Mould Made - This refers to the process used to make the paper.   In simple terms, Paper is made through spreading out a pulp solution then drawing out the water and pressing it to become a flat, smooth surface.  With handmade paper it's spread out in a framed mesh like the image below.

handmade paper frame iage

When a watercolour paper is called mould made, they are talking about a cylinder mould depicted below.  The cylinder or mould is covered with a wire mesh and immersed in the water and wood pulp mix.  The mixture penetrates the mould and the fibres are deposited evenly on the mesh as it turns round.

Watercolour paper Cylinder mould diagram


It's a fascinating and mesmerising process where the paper come out of the mould and transported on a wool felt that is then pressed and dried to form the paper we know.  The watercolour paper has a felt side and a mesh/mould side. Both can be used for watercolour painting but the felt side is often considered to be better. 

You may be able to see the lines in one side imprinted by the mesh but many people will use the paper with the embossed logo showing the right way up and not back to front.  I've seen watercolour paintings with the embossed logo back to front and it would niggle me like a kinked hair in my sable brush!

What Papers, for what purpose

Simple right?  Well you may think so but I've had hundreds of customers use totally inappropriate paper for their work before they find what works well.  For this purpose I will go from the lowest price to the highest

Sketching paper - Click HERE

The cheapest and lowest quality paper of all and typically lighter in weight, around 90 - 100gsm.  Often best for preliminary studies or quick drawing life classes.  It doesn't have to be archival or permanent because you're not going to be framing it or even keep it for posterity.  You can even use copy paper as its whatever is the cheapest.

Best for dry media only such as graphite and charcoal but you can also use pen if it isn't too wet.

Cartridge paper - Click HERE

A heavier, better quality paper used for drawing and tends to go from 100 - 200gsm but really you should aim for 140gsm or more.  Fascinatingly the name comes from the paper used to make paper cartridges for the use in firearms before the invention of metal cartridges.  The muzzle loading guns had pre weighed gun powder and shot wrapped in cartridge paper inserted into them before firing.  Cartridge paper is the best option for artist sketchbooks and pads.

Best for dry media such as graphite and charcoal for regular cartridge paper.  For more detailed work then go for a "fine grain" or smooth surface.  The heavier cartridge papers can take a light wash of watercolour or smaller amounts of ink but use too much an it will "cockle" or buckle and ripple.  It's safer to use a heavier watercolour paper i.e >180gsm if you are looking to add any liquids to your artwork. 

Watercolour Paper - Click HERE

Watercolour paper is some of the most versatile paper for artists and can be used for all dry media like, graphite, charcoal and pastels and also wet media like inks and even acrylic paint as well as watercolour and gouache.

Because watercolour papers vary hugely in weight and surface it's useful to know exactly the style of artwork you want to create and the type and amount of materials you are wanting to use on the piece.  It's also worth knowing that the heavier, thicker papers are not necessarily better quality.  

The main consideration is having the right tooth to hold the media and the right weight so the paper won't cockle when using wet media.  The most popular weight is 300gsm because it offers a good balance between rigidity and cost and the most popular surface is NOT or Cold pressed because it offers tooth and texture to hold watercolour but can also be used for more detailed work. 

If you use lots of liquid in your watercolours then you will have a risk of your paper cocking that can be dealt with in a number of ways

1) Use heavier, thicker paper - Heavier paper is more resistant to cockling and if you use 400gsm or more you are getting to very robust paper that can cope with a good deal of watercolour before they cockle.

2) Use a watercolour block - These watercolour sheets are gummed on 3 sides so the paper is kept stretched so you can paint onto the surface, wait for it to dry then get a knife and cut the paper away from the block and voila! A perfectly flat painting.

3) Stretch your paper - This is the best way to ensure your paper doesn't cockle but it does take a bit of effort.  Soak your paper in a bathtub for 5-10 minutes or with a sponge making sure there are no detergents or contaminants that affects the sizing. Then tape using gum strip tape to a wooden board and leave to dry.  The paper will stay flat during the painting process so more liquid can be used.

Watercolour paper stretching on board


Pastel Paper - Click HERE

The term pastel paper is used but you can just as easily use these papers for Charcoal, graphite or any other dry media.  Pastel papers are made in different ways but all have something in common, a tooth or texture to their surface.  

 Pastels and charcoal especially need this tooth to bind it to the paper. If you have ever tried using soft pastels on a smooth surface you'll find much of it falls off when raised to vertical.

Textured pastel paper

The more tooth and texture you have, the more you can layer the pastel colours but the less refined the edges will be to your work.  

Oil/Acrylic Paper - Click HERE

A primed paper with a canvas texture imprinted onto it are a great affordable way to start painting.  You can paint oil onto acrylic paper and visa versa so don't think you have to buy an oil or acrylic specific pad.  Being primed, these papers will also take all wet and dry mediums although pastels and charcoal are unlikely to look any good on them given the canvas texture.


Artist Paper Buying Tips

Paper will be a large part of your total budget for art materials so it's worth doing your homework. Here are our top tips for buying the stuff

1) Buy with your artwork in mind

This sounds a bit crazy but many artists will buy generic drawing pads all the time rather than separating the type of work they do and buying the appropriate pads/paper for each style.   Everyone is different, but for me, buying specific pads for specific purposes changed the way I work and especially once I'd split these into at the very least informal/rough and formal/best.  Buying lots of cheap, loose cartridge paper can be a great way to increase the speed you sketch at and the amount you learn in the process. Click HERE

2) Stick with Quality Brands Click HERE

The best paper makers have done their homework and been making it for an awfully long time.  We stock a lot of Daler Rowney as well as Bockingford (By St Cuthberts Mill) who have been making paper for hundreds of years and have a proven track record of producing quality paper as a reasonable price.   

The main papermakers in the UK are Daler Rowney and St Cuthberts mill that encompasses Bockingford and Saunders Waterford.  There is also the french based Canson and Arches, the Italian Fabriano, the German Hahnemuhle and the American Strathmore.  There are many more producing excellent quality papers but it's not an easy or cheap process to get started so many of the newer companies have manufacturing in China where the quality can be patchy.

3)  Get out your gesso/primer - Click HERE

It may be a bit of work but you can save money by buying a pot of primer for your paper to change the properties to be suitable for oil and acrylic or pastels (oil or soft).  Mix sand or marble dust in with your gesso and you can create a great surface for pastels at a tenth of the price of high end pastel paper.  You can also add acrylic colour to tint your paper in any colour you wish.

4) The Beauty of Watercolour Paper - Click HERE

I hope I've managed to communicate just how versatile some papers are, especially watercolour paper.  You can use good quality watercolour paper for more projects than you may realise so you won't have to waste money on multiple pads.  The rise in sales of multimedia pads are a simple rebranding/recovering of watercolour pads so don't be fooled.

5)  Sign up to our newsletter

We send out deals just to the people who subscribe and no one else.  Special codes offering discounts on paper amongst other products are sent only to the people who subscribe to our newsletter so do it now!!  Click HERE

6) Get the chop (break out of the standard sizes)

Find a paper you love and you may realise it's only available in a few sizes.  If you can't find it in the size you want you can easily get it cut get a local printers and it will cost you very little.  Mine used to do it for free, although I did use them for other jobs. 

It amazes me that some of the most creative people around will accept the sizes given to them by the big brands and they are all in similar aspect ratios.


Final Word

Paper is a beautiful surface and one that can make a piece of artwork sing.  You needn't spend lots of money but just being aware of the properties of the paper and its limitations will mean you don't waste time or money on it.

For me It becomes really important when choosing watercolour or fine grain cartridge paper.  You will no doubt have, or will find a paper that you love.  Standing up to the umpteenth erasing or showing off your paints in a way that makes the images stand out are things that will make you love certain papers and not others.

You will become use to and expect certain properties to the point where you'll be very upset if the manufacturer changes it.  Fabriano know this to their cost when they changed the machinery that produced their Artistico botanical papers.  There are still bereaved artists out there who feel they have lost the paper they knew and loved!

Find the papers you love and you'll depend on then like you would a faithful dog.  Although lots of science goes into making the paper, it's your very unscientific personal opinion that matters.  You can paint or draw on anything, and any side.  That doesn't mean it will stand up to it or look any good but don't be cowed by convention or the description on the front.  There are thousands of pads that have identical paper within them but have a different cover that markets it to another artist.

Thank you very much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it, glad you made it this far!!  I have a lot more information on paper that's interesting to me but doubt it would be interesting to many others.  Speaking to other paper manufacturers is a nerd's paradise and you will be amazed at the detail and the depth to which they analyse their products.  They take your opinion very seriously so don't be afraid to let us know.






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