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What Kind of Drawing Paper Should I Use?

Step 5 in the Drawing Process in Art: Choosing the right paper

Another question beginning artists commonly ask is What Kind of Drawing Paper Should I Use? The answer to this question has several parts. Choosing right paper for a drawing depends on the media and the subject. Paper size, weight, texture, and tone (color) are also critical components of a drawing.

Different Kinds of Drawing Paper – So Many Choices

Sketch, pastel, and Bristol drawing papers. What kind of drawing paper should I use?
Sketch, pastel, and Bristol drawing papers. Image © 2023 Rhonda Roth

Drawing paper is available as loose sheets or bound pads. Bound paper pads are the most economical and most beginning artists use them, so we will discuss different sizes of paper pads. Canson and Strathmore are the two most popular brands of artist paper, and the sizes of drawing pads offered by each brand are almost identical except for a few. Here are types and sizes of drawing paper pads found on the Dick Blick art supply website: 

Drawing paper pad sizes: 9”x12”, 11”x14”, 14”x17”, and 18”x24” (Canson)
Bristol paper pad sizes: 9”x12”, 11”x14”, 11”x17”, 14”x17”, 19”x24” (Canson)
Pastel paper pad sizes: 9”x12”, 12”x16” (Canson), 9”x12”, 11”x14”, 18”x24” (Strathmore)
Charcoal paper pad sizes: 9”x12”, 12”x18”, 18”x24” (Strathmore) 

The three most popular sizes of paper pads are 9”x12”, 11”x14”, and 18”x24”.

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Choosing Paper Size by Subject

What Paper Size is Best for Portrait Drawing?

For a beginning artist, the optimal paper size to draw a portrait is 9”x12”. Here’s why.

Drawing a portrait on paper less than than 9”x12” doesn’t give the artist much room to work with, especially when drawing the eyes. Give yourself plenty of room to comfortably draw the facial features. Conversely, a portrait on larger paper is ok if there’s lots of blank space, or breathing space, around the portrait. Otherwise, the head looks abnormally large. For more information on breathing space in composition visit How to Plan a Composition in Drawing.

Isaac Levitan, Self Portrait, size 14x10 in, Public Domain
Isaac Levitan, Self Portrait, size 14×10 in, Public Domain

What Paper Size is Best for Landscape Drawing?

Any paper size works well for drawing a landscape. First try 9”x12” size paper. After you are comfortable drawing landscapes, have fun and move on to larger size paper. Viewing a large, sweeping landscape is amazing.

Landscape by Cornelis van Poelenburch, size 9×12 in
Landscape by Cornelis van Poelenburch, size 9×12 in, Public Domain
Here's a drawing on large size paper. Van Gogh, Road in Etten, size 15x22 in
Here’s a drawing on large size paper. Van Gogh, Road in Etten, size 15×22 in, Public Domain

What Paper Size is Best for Still Life Drawing?

A paper size of 9”x12” is fine for a still life drawing. If the objects in the still life are large, or if there are many of them, 9”x12” paper isn’t large enough to comfortably draw everything. 

My favorite size paper for drawing a still life is 11”x14”. This size paper gives an artist ample room to draw several objects without the composition feeling cramped.

Bouquet of Flowers, Odilon Redon, size 31x25 in, still life on very large size paper
Here’s a still life on very large size paper. Bouquet of Flowers, Odilon Redon, size 31×25 in, Public Domain

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Choosing Paper Size by Drawing Media

In The Drawing Process Step 3 – How to Choose the Right Drawing Media, we discussed drawing with graphite pencils, charcoal, colored pencils, oil pastels, and hard and soft pastels. We now consider which paper size is best for these drawing tools.

Best Paper Size for Drawing with Graphite, Colored Pencils, and Charcoal Pencils

Any size paper works well with these media for rendering fine detail and/or broad mark making. Just remember that when using pencils, the larger the paper, the longer it takes to cover large areas.

Best Paper Size for Drawing with Charcoal Sticks, Hard and Soft Pastels, or Oil Pastels

Use a large paper size to accommodate the broad strokes of these media. For these drawing tools, my favorite paper size is 11”x14” or larger. 

Additional Considerations for Paper Size

When choosing the size of drawing paper for an artwork, there are two important things to remember which have a large impact on the success of a drawing.

First, the subject needs ‘breathing space’. Leave some room between the subject and the edges of the paper. If there isn’t enough blank space around your subject, choose a larger paper size to accommodate some breathing space.

Second, if the drawing is matted when framed, the opening on pre-cut mats is roughly 1/2” smaller than the size of the artwork. For example, an 11”x14” drawing requires a 16”x20” mat. This mat has an opening of 10.5”x13.5” . One loses 1/4” on each side of the paper. Sometimes a beginning artist creates a very nice composition only to find that, after matting, the objects are too close to the edge of the mat. So account for the mat when selecting paper size.

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Drawing Paper Weight and Texture Explained

What Does Paper Weight Mean?

There are two methods by which the weight of paper is measured. Paper weight is stated either in pounds, or grams per square meter. 

Different weights of pastel and sketch paper.
Different weights of pastel and sketch paper. Image © 2023 Rhonda Roth

Paper weight measured in pounds is determined by selecting a particular paper for a basis, then weighing 500 sheets. For example, 80 Lb paper is the weight of 500 sheets relative to the paper used as a basis. Paper weight measured in grams per square meter is the weight of one square meter of paper in grams.

The Strathmore Artist website has an excellent description of paper weight and how it’s measured.

Here are common types of drawing paper and their weights:

- Universal Sketch Paper 65Lb (Canson): A medium weight paper good for sketching and drawing with graphite or colored pencil.
- Artists Series White Drawing Paper 80LB (Canson): Slightly heavier than sketch paper. 
- Mi-Tientes Pastel Paper 98LB (Canson): For hard and soft pastels, oil pastels, charcoal
- Artist Series Mixed Media Paper 138LB (Canson): For a combination of wet and dry media.
- 300 Series Smooth Bristol Paper 100LB (Strathmore): For graphite, charcoal, pen and ink
- 300 Series Vellum Bristol Paper 100LB (Strathmore): For all drawing media
- 200 Series Newsprint Paper 30 LB (Strathmore): For practice and rough sketches

Paper Texture, or Paper Tooth, and Why It’s Important

The texture of drawing paper, also known as paper tooth, is the small bumps and valleys on the surface which gives the paper its rough feel. Paper tooth enables multiple layers of media to adhere to the surface. Usually, the more tooth, the heavier the paper.

paper tooth close up
Paper tooth

Types of Drawing Paper and Their Texture

Sketch paper, has little paper tooth, and is suitable for light applications of graphite and colored pencil. For heavier pencil applications, drawing paper, having a bit more tooth than sketch paper, is more suitable. 

Bristol paper is a heavy weight paper that it comes in two types – smooth and vellum. Smooth Bristol paper has virtually no tooth and is great for drawing smooth strokes and very fine detail. Vellum Bristol paper has a rough texture suitable for all media.

Pastel paper is a medium weight drawing paper, typically 80-90 Lb, having a fair amount of tooth to hold chalk or oil pastel media.

Newsprint paper is a lightweight paper with very little texture. Because it’s inexpensive compared with other drawing papers, I recommend an artist use newsprint to practice drawing skills and to experiment with rough sketches.

Drawing Media and Paper Texture

Charcoal sticks, oil pastels, as well as hard and soft pastels, need a good amount of paper tooth so that the media adheres well to the paper. Attempting to draw multiple layers with these media without enough paper texture soon becomes futile. The media slides off the topmost layer leaving little or no mark. In addition, when using oil pastels, the paper needs to be thick enough to accommodate heavy application of the media without the oil staining through the paper. 

For drawing with oil pastels, I prefer a paper weight of at least 98 Lb, like the Canson Mi-Tientes paper. For drawing with hard or soft pastels, 80 Lb paper is fine, like the slightly thinner Strathmore 400 Series Pastel paper. Many textured papers have a rough texture on one side, and a slightly less rough texture on the other side. This gives an artist flexibility to decide how much tooth is needed for a particular drawing.

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What is Toned Paper and Why Use It?

Simply put, toned paper is non-white paper. Pastel pads typically include a selection of different color papers. The most common color of toned paper for graphite is tan or gray. Newsprint paper color is always a medium gray. 

Toned Paper and Color

The color of toned paper dramatically enhances the appearance of a drawing. The paper color shows through, adding a color cast to the final drawing. Color value appears different on toned paper. Dark colors appear darker on light toned paper. Light colors appear lighter and more vibrant on dark toned paper. Colors also appear warmer or cooler depending on the paper tone. It’s advisable to try out colors on a scrap of toned paper before beginning the drawing.

Advantages of Drawing on Toned Paper

Toned paper makes the drawing process easier by using the paper color as a mid-tone. The artist need only locate the lights and darks of the drawing. For example, if my color scheme has lots of blue, I’ll use a medium blue for the paper tone. The blue of the paper is my mid-tone value. Colors that are lighter or darker than this mid-tone migrate toward the highlights or shadows respectively. When drawing on white paper, the highlights, shadows, and mid-tones are each rendered on their own, and makes the drawing process a bit more complex.

Below are examples of artwork on white and toned paper. The artworks on white paper, the fishing boats and the circus scene, are brighter and elicit a feeling of excitement. The two landscapes on toned paper are more subdued, and express a reserved sentiment befitting nature’s tranquility.

Fishing Boats Key West on off-white paper
by Winslow Homer
Fishing Boats Key West on off-white paper
by Winslow Homer, 1903, American, Public Domain
Mountain Path with a Tree on blue paper,
 Friedrich Nearly
Mountain Path with a Tree on blue paper,
 Friedrich Nearly, 1825-1835, German, Public Domain
At the Circus: The Spanish Walk on off-white paper,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
At the Circus: The Spanish Walk on off-white paper,
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1899, French, Public Domain
Lake Squam from Red Hill on gray-green paper, 
William Trost Richards
Lake Squam from Red Hill on gray-green paper,
William Trost Richards, 1874
 American, Public Domain

For more on using toned paper, see How to Choose a Color Scheme for a Drawing and click the link entitled The Effect of Toned Paper on Color.

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Forward to Step 6 in the Drawing Process in Art: Drawing a Value Study

Back to Step 4: How to Choose a Color Scheme