Painting & drawing blog

MY SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT DRAWING PAPER

What’s the best artists’ paper for drawing and sketching?

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Artists' drawing paper

Sometimes when you have been drawing since you were young, you find yourself still using the same brands of art materials that you first bought as a student (or even earlier) and not really questioning your choice. This was the case for me with my drawing paper when I started drawing professional portraits. For many years I still used a paper that I’d used since art school: Daler-Rowney’s cartridge paper in their ‘Smooth-Heavyweight’ pads. The paper weighs 220 gsm and really suited my detailed portraits with its fine-grained, smooth surface. It also comes in ‘Fine Grain’ which has more texture.

‘Cartridge’ is a term used mainly in the UK and Australasia and it simply describes a good quality, heavyweight paper generally intended for drawing on, more usually made from wood pulp paper rather than cotton fibres and sometimes internally sized with gelatin or starch. The quality of cartridge papers is actually very variable but the mid-priced Daler paper is very good: thick and strong so it’s hard to accidentally crease or dent and sized internally. I still think it can take more rubbing out than any other paper I’ve tried. I didn’t particularly like the off-white colour which has a slightly pink tinge to it rather than a nice cream, but in every other way it performed very well for me and I didn’t try to upgrade to a more expensive and thicker cartridge which I would have had to buy by the sheet, and cut down.

Daler-Rowney Smooth-heavyweight cartridge paper

Like nearly all cartridge papers the Daler-Rowney pads declared themselves to be ‘acid-free’. I  took this at face value at the time and didn’t really understand the meaning of the term. Later I learned about how wood pulp paper is treated to remove the ‘lignins’ from the cellulose fibres of the wood pulp. These are the substance which causes yellowing in a paper over time. The label ‘acid free’ usually suggests that the wood pulp which the cartridge paper was made from was treated in this way. This may not always be the case however because sometimes papers have alkalizing chemicals added to their pulp to raise their ‘pH’ to neutral and so the designation ‘acid free’ or ‘acid neutral’ may be used to describe paper that hasn’t actually been treated to remove lignins.

Even if a wood-pulp paper has had its lignins removed the term ‘acid-free’ doesn’t really feel accurate because it’s not possible to remove them so completely that yellowing will never occur. Eventually all wood pulp paper will start to yellow, but with properly treated paper this may take decades. It depends however on how the paper has been kept and how much light it has been exposed to: kept in a drawer or a portfolio it will keep its colour longer than paper hung on a wall. It is the case though that ONLY paper made from cotton fibres rather than wood pulp can be said to be truly acid free because cotton cellulose doesn’t contain lignins to begin with.

Child portrait

Paper marketed specifically as ‘drawing’ paper is nearly always made from wood pulp fibre. Did this mean that my cartridge would turn yellow, and how long would this take? I dug out some old college drawings from a couple of decades ago and found that some of them certainly did now look a bit yellow in comparison to my recent work. Since I couldn’t be sure what kind of paper I drew them on I couldn’t be certain that they had changed shade (paper manufacturers are sometimes known to change the shade of their paper anyway as a deliberate product alteration).

I took a drawing out of a frame that I did about 8 years ago, and compared it to a fresh sheet from my Daler-Rowney pad. There was some distinct and unpleasant yellowing around the edges which I think is simply ‘acid migration’, which is to say that acid from the untreated backing board had leached into it. The overall shade of the paper didn’t look noticeably different to me yet, but I was still concerned because I sell portraits to customers who plan to hand them down through the family for generations. I didn’t want to give them a drawing on piece of paper that didn’t meet the best archival quality and might a shade yellower in 10-15 years time.

The problem with cartridge paper available in the UK is that there is very little information on how it has been manufactured. Daler-Rowney’s marketing information gives no clue as to whether it contains properly chemically bleached pulp, or has simply had an alkali solution added to raise the overall pH. The more expensive and heavier ‘Snowdon’ brand of cartridge paper which is carried by most UK art shops and sold only in sheet form, is described in its marketing information as ‘woodfree’ and ‘acid free’.

Snowdon cartridge paper

‘Wood free’ is a strange and confusing term, which is short for ‘Groundwood’ free. Groundwood refers to wood pulp that has simply been ground down mechanically rather than being chemically bleached, and hence ‘groundwood free’ means paper that HAS had its lignins removed. So the Snowdon paper at least has been treated to remove lignins, as have a few other wood fibre papers sold as ‘drawing paper’ such as Fabriano’s student grade Academia drawing paper. Winsor & Newton’s cartridge paper range gives no clue other than the usual generic ‘acid-free’ marketing claims.

As I’ve mentioned, the vast majority of paper marketed for drawing on is made of wood pulp and not cotton. Top quality watercolour paper is made of cotton however and at a point in my research I suddenly realized that artists were often drawing onto paper originally produced for all sorts of different types of work: for watercolour painting, for printmaking, for mixed media.  Just because a paper is marketed as a paper for one type of medium it doesn’t mean you CAN’T use it with another, as long as isn’t unsuitable in some way.

These type of professional papers are usually made of cotton and tend to be mould-made (a semi-automated process) rather than fully machine-made, which also adds to their strength. Could a good cotton watercolour paper be the answer? This would not only be a great archival choice because the best watercolour papers are also given an ‘alkaline buffer’ to take their pH from neutral to slightly alkaline in order to protect them from future damage from acids they may come into contact with.

Saunders Waterford paper

Having recently started working in watercolour again for the first time since I was a teenager, I had lots of little paper samples and I ordered lots more. I chose a ‘hot press’ finish which is the smoothest type of watercolour paper with the least grainy texture, because a rougher grain (known in the UK as ‘not’ or ‘rough’ paper) wouldn’t be suitable for drawing a finely detailed portrait. I found that the one side of the paper was smoother than the other because quality paper made on a cylindrical mould will usually have one side which is slightly more textured. This is the side that was deposited onto the layer of felt after being collected from the vat by the wire-covered mould and is considered the ‘front’ of the paper. It’s where you will see the maker’s watermark. The other side that wasn’t in contact with the felt is the ‘wire’ side is nearly always smoother, although occasionally the fine wire mesh creates a visible imprint in the paper.

Some of the samples were too textured. Winsor & Newton’s watercolour paper was really rough grained even in the hot press finish, and the new 50% cotton 50% Botanical paper made by St. Cuthberts Mill had a visibly irregular finish despite being marketed as a smooth paper suitable for botanical painting. Canson’s nice Heritage and Moulin du Roy papers felt sort of fibrous to draw on. I would have considered the wood-pulp paper Bockingford paper because it’s made by St Cuthburts Mill and is probably as archival as a wood paper gets, with an alkali buffer to raise its pH to over 7. However it felt too smooth, as did my favourite watercolour paper Fabriano Artistico, and Legion’s Stonehenge Aqua which was the smoothest of all with almost no tooth. Fabriano 5 was quite good but I don’t want to use a paper with OBAs (optical brightening agents). Saunders Waterford and Langton Prestige were contenders and the very closest texture to my old cartridge paper turned out to be the famous Arches Aquarelle.

Daler-Rowney Smooth-Heavyweight cartridge paper

Daler-Rowney Smooth-Heavyweight cartridge

Arches Aquarelle paper

Arches Aquarelle paper

Something felt not quite right however when drawing on watercolour papers. Firstly the papers didn’t take erasing as well as my old cartridge, which is really important because I draw a lot with my erasers, layering shading and cutting back into it with vinyl, putty and electric erasers. The Arches took erasing with the battery eraser surprisingly well but If I overworked it by dragging a putty rubber over it repeatedly the paper surface appeared disturbed with fibres eventually becoming visible.

Additionally, the graphite pencil looked more grey and pallid on the watercolour paper than on cartridge – perhaps due to the heavy sizing that’s applied to them.  It was hard to get very dark tones without applying a lot of pressure. Although the pencil felt like it was gliding over the paper in a very pleasant way the papers all seemed too soft to offer enough resistance against it and the result was that my marks all had a slightly streaky ridge of darkness in each stroke as if the graphite was being unevenly applied.

Bockingford paper sample

Pencil on Bockingford paper: uneven tones

I explored other options, ordering Strathmore’s 500 series Bristol from the US which is their top quality, cotton fibre bristol board. I’d not even heard of bristol board before (it’s a multi-ply stiff sheet often favoured by illustrators) and found the ‘plate’ surface too smooth. I managed to get some of Strathmore’s wood-pulp fibre 400 series Drawing paper in the vellum finish but wasn’t impressed with the feel of it, and besides it was too textured.

Next I tried a few papers designed for printmaking by the Arches paper mill but also sometimes used to draw on. I ordered a sample of their Velin, Arches Velin 80 (an unsized paper often used for screen printing) and BFK Rives papers. The Velin was too textured and soft and the Velin 80 was super smooth and being unsized it couldn’t take rubbing out at all. The BFK Rives was lovely and a really close contender but was just a tiny bit too textured and soft.

A winner at last

Finally I ordered a sample book of the US company Legion’s ‘Stonehenge Fine Art’ paper. This is one of the few cotton fibre papers marketed specifically for drawing which is available in the UK (originally it was actually developed for printmaking but is now a popular drawing paper). Only Jacksons import it and I feel a bit uncomfortable to have just one supplier, but at least the price was quite reasonable and less than some European papers. Although made from cotton, the pencil behaved on this paper like it did on my cartridge pad: the graphite went on evenly with no ridging and no greying effect.

Stonehenge fine art paper

The 320gsm paper in the sample book had exactly the right texture, but you can’t get it in the UK. The 250 gsm (90lb) sample was very slightly more textured that I’d have liked on the wire side but not so much that I thought I couldn’t quickly get used to it. The ‘polar white’ colour in 250gsm was for some reason smoother (and wasn’t really super white but an acceptable off-white colour) but is only available in sheet form and since Jacksons don’t tend to package their sheet paper well I wasn’t confident it would arrive without creases. So I settled for the 250gsm in white, which comes in pads of convenient sizes.

This paper seemed much more robust than the watercolour papers and didn’t go ‘hairy’ if I erased the same place several times. The surface actually didn’t cope quite as well as the Daler-Rowney cartridge when it came specifically to my battery powered eraser, but it was okay. I really liked the creamy, gentle off-white colour which was much nicer than the cartridge, and when I applied a pencil to it I got the same degree of blackness from the graphite that I was used to.

It’s hard to establish exactly what kind of chemical treatments the paper has received. Apparently it is ‘buffered with calcium carbonate’ and yet the description by Legion calls it ‘pH neutral’ which doesn’t seem to imply that the paper has actually been given an alkali buffer that takes the pH over 7. However since it’s a fully cotton fibre based paper I’m not too concerned. I anyway always advise my customers to hang a drawing somewhere it doesn’t receive direct sunlight and to use acid free mounts and backing boards to avoid acid migration.

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