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Updated: Feb 24


various papers – Jeannette Sirois 2021

The humble drawing paper. So simple in its appearance but holds the power to bring our work to new and amazing levels of greatness. There are so many types of paper for colour pencil and graphite artists to choose from but because there are so many, how does a new artist know where to start? Choosing a paper can be confusing, this post is here to help guide you with information so you can make a more informed decision.

In this post I’ll discuss 3 key characteristics of good drawing paper to help you move forward on your drawing journey.


1 The Tooth of paper

2 The Weight of paper

3 The Construction of paper

Characteristic 1: TOOTH

What is this thing we hear about all the time called tooth?

The tooth of the paper is the valleys and mountains seen on the paper surface. You’ll see the tooth, sometimes referred to as texture, when you put down your medium. Depending on the size, depth and height of the tooth you’ll see bigger or smaller white areas left blank as your pencil passes over the paper surface.

See video below.

If you look at a slice of paper under a microscope you’ll see divots, dips, and bumps. The fibrous elements of the paper material and how they were formed into the paper is what creates the tooth which can be very defined to very flat. You might have heard of hot pressed or cold pressed papers. These two papers are characterized by a smooth silky surface for hot pressed papers, to a more textured bumpy paper for cold pressed. Knowing the difference will help guide you when trying to find the right paper for the work you are creating.

microscopic view of paper

This tooth is what affects how colour pencil and graphite adheres to the paper, how it lays on the paper, how many layers you can add, how fine or straight a line can be drawn and how much white from the dips in the paper show through. As the pencils is drawn across the surface of the paper we see white spots. A smoother less toothy paper will have lower mountains and valleys, closer in height, while a toothy paper will have very pronounced valleys and mountains.

Cold pressed paper vs hot pressed paper tooth demo

When you touch paper it has a texture, smooth and rough, and the degree of that smoothness and roughness is what distinguishes all papers from each other and slots them into particular categories for art making. Drawing paper often falls into the hotpressed category and coldpressed or rough paper is often used for water media or media that is liquid based.


  1. All paper has tooth. However, tooth on paper will be different depending on the type of paper and it’s use. For art papers, there are three general categories; hot pressed, cold pressed and rough. Two of them I’ve already mentioned above. Hot pressed paper is smooth, cold pressed is bumpy and rough has very pronounced bumps and groves.

  2. Manufacturing processes determines the tooth and one manufacturers process for making paper can be very different to another’s resulting in paper tooth that can feel smoother on one type of hot pressed paper compared to another that might feel bumpier or textured.

  3. Tooth is created through a variety of processes, from pressing using heat or cold, to using molds.

  4. It is important to note that the texture/tooth pattern on a good quality drawing paper will often be different from one side of the paper to another.


  1. For colour pencil and graphite drawing we need a paper that allows us to add multiple layers of media. This means we need a paper that does have some tooth to it to absorb the media pigment and binders such as oil, clay or wax. If the paper was very smooth like printer paper, after only a couple of layers of your media you would no longer be able to add more colour/graphite layers as the surface starts to get built up with the binder and creates a slick surface that resists more media.

  2. We need a paper that has enough tooth so it doesn’t limit how brilliant the colour is.

  3. If you want to draw fine details you’ll need a paper that is smooth enough to allow your pencil to glide over the surface and hold a straight line.

Characteristic 2: WEIGHT

The weight of the paper determines how thick or thin it is. All paper has a weight measurement. When we purchase a paper we often will see it sold with a weight number marked as lbs or gsm. Paper types fall within certain weights and can range from 25 lbs. or 40 gsm (g/m2) for tracing paper to 300 lbs or 640 gsm for water colour or wet media papers.


You might be confused about weight on paper. Some paper is sold with a pound weight measurement, while others use the gsm or g/m2 measurement, which means grams per meter square. To be even more confusing, sometimes we see both measurements.

But what does this mean?

LET’S DECIPHER. lbs and gsm

The pound measure or .lbs are based on a defined sheet size of a paper type with a stack quantity of 500 sheets. This stack is then weighed on a scale and whatever the number is for those 500 sheets is the weight of the paper.

For example: A manufacturer has a drawing paper type. Within that type they manufacture various paper sizes. When they need to find out the weight of that paper type, they choose one of the sizes, i.e. 22” x 30”, and stack 500 of these sheets on a scale. What that weight is, determines the weight of that paper. Even if they manufacture that identical paper in sheets of 30” x 42” or 9” x 12”, the weight from the 22” x 30” applies to all the paper of that type as it represents a portion of the other paper sizes.

The problem with this measurement is there is no standard across the paper industry. Not all manufacturers will use the same paper sizes for the weight measurement. In the end although this isn’t really an issue as you only care about the paper weight you are purchasing, the inconsistency in this weight measurement doesn’t allow for ease of comparison in various paper brands.

The gsm measurement alleviates that issue. This measurement is not dependent on a determined paper size, but instead is based on a cubic measurement. This standard of cubic measurement is easily transferable to all paper manufacturers and gives greater weight measurements across the board.

A heavy weight paper of 640 gsm from one manufacturer can then be compared easily to another brands 640gsm weight because you know that they all start from the same cubic square weight measurement. A 640gsm paper will be thick and able to take lots of media from dry to wet. It can withstand lots of use. While a paper such as at 250 gsm is more flexible and care is needed so it doesn’t dent, or bend.

NOTE: It’s important to note that the surface of the paper is never affected by the weight of the paper. A lighter paper can have the same feel, texture and tooth as the same paper at a heavier weight.

Characteristic 3- CONSTRUCTION

The construction of paper, refers to the materials found in the paper. Paper construction starts with a cellulous or fibre that is ground into a pulp. Some of the most common fibres for paper are wood, cotton, linen and bamboo. This pulp is then mixed with a liquid and placed in large machines that slowly removes the water from the pulp and rolls it. There are various stages to produce paper from adding colour, bleaching for greater whiteness, add sizing (mainly for water colour paper to prevent the water colour paint from spreading over the paper), adding texture for cold press and rough papers, and water marks. It’s an amazing process. I’ve included links to a couple of videos to view if you’re interested in the process.


This is an important question. The construction of the paper equates to quality. An archival paper will have different properties and materials than a non archival paper. When considering paper construction you’ll need to consider what you will be using the paper for.

If you’re doing simple sketches a paper that is non-archival such as newsprint would be acceptable (unless you will be framing those sketches or selling them).

If the work created on the paper is for sale and/or has expectations of being available for several years, it will be important to find a paper that is acid free and archival.

Because paper construction and the quality is essential to know a standard measurement for papers is used and is based on the ISO (International Standards Organization) 9706 measurement.

The standard outlines various requirements for paper construction.

1- papers containing any fibre must have a neutral or low basic pH of 7 (or slightly greater).

2- Lignin (polymer that fills the space between fibres) and sulfur must also be removed.

Papers that meet these standards are sometimes sold with an infinity symbol accompanying the name and for drawing papers you’ll want to look for a paper that says acid free 100% cotton.

NOTE: It’s important to note that although good quality drawing paper does say acid free and archival, it is still a biodegradable product. The life of paper will depend on many factors. The fibres, the quality of the fibres, the construction process of the paper, and the chemicals used in the construction.

In addition, how the paper is stored becomes a crucial part to the overall paper longevity.

Longevity of paper is also affected by the environment that it is located. Light, heat, moisture, and other surfaces that it is sitting beside or touching such as matting boards, storage drawers, or surface mounting materials all come into play on how long a paper will last.

If you intend to frame a work, make sure the surface and mat (if you are using one) is also acid free so it won’t harm the paper over time.

Many of the high-end papers for drawing are constructed of cotton fibres and are listed as acid free and archival. This means the paper will not become brittle, yellow or degrade over a long period.

Rag What is it?

Often referred to as the same thing, cotton paper can be made up of two elements of cotton product. One being rag, which is the remnants of cotton textile processing, and linters which are pure cellulose fibres which are the by products of cotton processing. Linters are shorter fibres than rag. Papers today are often made of linters, or rag, or a combination of both. Rag is a longer fibre than linter and thus more desirable as it has greater durability.

Acid free vs archival

Acid free paper vs archival paper will be something you should be aware of. There is no standard measurement for what the difference is between the two but a good drawing paper will be both acid free and also “contain no ground wood or unbleached pulp, meet strict limits on metallic content and be free from optical brighteners which artificially make the sheet whiter” which would make it archival (Strathmore

Wrapping It Up

1- When purchasing a paper that you will be using for permanent finished pieces you want an acid free paper that also states it is 100% cotton.

2- You will be interested in what the tooth of the paper is with a lower smoother texture or tooth allowing for more refined details and line, such as a hotpressed paper.

3- Paper weight comes into the picture only as a question of artist preference and how the work might be mounted or presented. It also plays into durability and ease of use if adding any wet media is an important part of the art making process with colour pencil and graphite. Look for a paper that has a gsm of 250 or higher.

Some Paper Brands I recommend

This list provides a good place to start for drawing papers that meet acid free and archival expectations, good tooth for drawing details and a paper weight that will withstand layering, erasing and movement. Check them out, and give them a try.

Happy drawing

Stonehenge – Legion Paper

BFK Rives

Saunders hot press water colour paper

Rising Museum Board 2 ply

Strathmore – 500 series drawing

Canson Edition Paper – Canson

Arches – Hot Press Watercolor Paper

Velin d’Arches

Ingres d’Arches MBM

Arches Lavis Fidelis for mixed media

Fabriano – Fabriano Artistico Hotpress

Thanks for joining me, happy drawing everyone, J

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