<< Back to List of Drawing Tips Articles

Selecting Your Drawing Paper

Acid-Free, Vellum or Plate, Thickness, etc.

The question most people usually ask when starting to draw is what kind of pencil to use. Ironically, even though there are a myriad of options when it comes to pencils, probably the single most important aspect of a quality drawing is not the pencils, but rather the paper.

Top quality, acid-free paper is essential if you want the best drawing results. Standard drawing paper has a poor-quality surface, and lacks the qualities needed to allow rich tonal development. Everyday papers also tend to have acidic qualities, which means they will yellow and/or discolor over time. (Think of old newspapers as an example – they turn yellow and discolor.)

The surface of the paper is going to be one of your most important choices. Most drawing surfaces have a slight texture, or “tooth” to them. These are usually known as vellum surfaces. Drawing paper is also available with an extremely smooth surface, which would be known as a plate surface. You can purchase drawing paper as actual paper, or in heavier weights known as bristol board. A sheet of bristol is heavy enough that both sides have suitable drawing surfaces. There are also illustration boards – these are heavier still, though only one side is suitable as a drawing surface.

As a general rule, most artists using pencil, charcoal or pastel will prefer the vellum surface. The texture in the paper provides some friction to the media applied, and thus allows for a greater range of effects. Smooth or plate surface paper is usually preferred by pen & ink artists as very clean lines can be achieved with such a surface. For myself, I prefer a bristol surface when drawing “living” subjects such as people or horse or dog drawings. I like the plate surface for more mechanical subject such as aviation drawings or historic home portraits.

The weight or thickness of the paper is another part of the decision. While lighter weight papers are cheaper and easier to use/store in bulk, they are also more prone to dents and wrinkles, so you have to use extra care when handling them. A lighter weight paper will allow some light to pass through, so if you plan to do any tracing that “pro” may make the decision for you.

In addition to the weight or thickness of the paper, you will want to consider brightness. Drawing papers come in a range of “whites.” Some are soft white and have an antique appearance. Others are off-white. My personal favorites are the brighter whites, as I feel I can obtain the greatest range of shadows on these papers.

For years my paper of choice has been the drawing paper is Strathmore 500. It’s bright white surface and acid-free/archival properties make it a superb choice for pencil drawing. Strathmore 500 is available in paper weight, bristol board and illustration board. I also like this paper as it is available in large sheets – up to 30″x40.” My top two suppliers for this paper are DickBlick.com and UtrechtArt.com.