Whats Your Best Paper for Drawing or Printmaking?

During my first week of graduate school at Cornell University, the professors called the students together to order supplies for the semester. We were given the opportunity to request specific papers, inks, and drawing instruments that would be shared by all of us, and we were able to specify the materials that would be available for purchase through the bookstore. As we went around the room itemizing our requests, I heard names of papers I had never used before. The lithographers wanted Basingwerk, the etchers wanted German Copperplate, the drawers wanted Fabriano Roma, the painters wanted Saral transfer paper, and everyone mentioned specific papers made by Rives, Fabriano, and Arches.

That day I learned how important the specific characteristics of papers are to the creative process, and I made it my business to find out why a smooth, hard paper is needed for lithography; why heavily sized laid paper is preferable for drawing; why soft, supple papers are best for intaglio printing; and why a heavy, textured paper works best for pastel painting. From then on I knew I had to pay more attention to the way a substrate influenced the final appearance of my drawings, prints, and paintings.

That education came back to me this past week when I sat down with executives of Legion Paper, one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of fine-art papers in the United States. They explained why they produce so many papers in a wide range of dimensions, colors, weights, surfaces, and finishes; and why they are making a concerted effort to produce them with the least amount of negative impact on the environment. The executives also indicated that their challenge is to help artists understand exactly what I was taught in graduate school: The substrate an artist uses will likely have a significant impact on the finished work of art.

It occurred to me that you could help other professional artists and dedicated students by sharing information about the papers you have found most helpful in realizing your intentions when you draw, make prints, or paint. For example, you might describe the different watercolor papers, drawing surfaces, pastel substrates, or etching papers you’ve tried and why two or three of them proved to be ideal for your creative efforts. You might also mention the surfaces you recommend to students who are on a tight budget or the reasons you urge beginners to use a quality paper.

I’m sure your experiences will be of interest to all of us who recognize how the selection of art materials plays an important role in our creative efforts.

M. Stephen Doherty

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

12 thoughts on “Whats Your Best Paper for Drawing or Printmaking?

  1. From my limited experience (been drawing for about 3 years now) my personal preference is Stonehenge paper. I like to draw in both pencil and colored pencils and erasing, and /or burnishing is so fast and easy with this brand. It costs a little more that your average student paper, but I keep all my drawings and very often my friends and family will offer to pay for one or more of my paintings. To me paper and pencils are eqquivalent to an artist’s brush and canvas. Without these you don’t produce your best work ever!

  2. I love the way graphite lays down on a new sheet of Rives. My students, usually having experience mostly with low quality papers – and usually lacking any kind of distinctive surface – tend to be blown away by the tactile characteristics of a fine drawing paper.

  3. To my surprise I found that the Strathmore 300 or 500 charcoal paper works for me. I go outside taking a 9 x 12 spiral Strathmore 300 charcoal along with some Derwent Sketching pencils a kneaded eraser and a sharpner. I stumbled into this particular paper by accident while looking for an inexpensive acid free paper. I have also found that Strathmore 400 or 500 drawing paper also works but the charcoal has the tooth that grabs the graphite. I have filled a number of 9 x 12 pads with field studies. I do use a Strathmore 5.5 x 8.5 spiral bound 400 or Recycled sketch book for quick notes and thumbnails. I have many of these books and they work well with markers, Bic pens, pencils. The only problem is that sometimes looking back through them I cannot read some of my notes.! They are great to take to a musuem since they are small enough so as not to be intrusive . In the studio I enjoy using Arches watercolor paper. This paper can take quite a beating. I have also found that Canson, Strathmore and Tiziano have given me satisfactory results when I use colored pencils. The variety of colors enables me to try out different color combinations before I begin painting. I can experiment with different colors to see what works and does not work regarding a potential toned surface. Canson is my favorite colored paper. Most catalogs have it on sale and the quality is excellent for the price. Cansons “Biggie” pads may contain inexpensive paper but when I need to work out ideas I can go through a pad quickly so I keep some readily available.

  4. I used Rives for the first time last year when asked to do a portrait drawing commission. Using pastel pencil I found the surface to be absolutely delicious to work on and the ‘feel’ of the paper was outstanding. When completed it gave the piece a soft look to it which was very appealing.

  5. I stumbled on a paper made by Cartiera Magnani(Annigoni) a few months ago. It has a nice smooth,yet soft surface that really appeals to me. I know other brands have similar characteristics, but the “feel” of this paper seems a little different. It also is a bit more expensive than others, but worth it. The pads are available in various sizes & color. The beige color for example gives the drawing an antique look which is what i was looking for. I agree totally that the “substrate” makes a significant impact on the finished work. Enjoyed the blog!

  6. I use a variety of papers, Rives, Strathmore, but in recent months have been using a velum drafting film called Denril, by Borden and Riley, that I really like a lot. It’s translucent, can be used with any medium – my fav is graphite, and comes in pads of several sizes.

  7. Ah paper a personal favorite: I do most of my digital printing/giclees on Arches 88. It goes through my epson 1400 very well and the colors look great. If the colors arenot quiet right Golden Acrylics has some new progducts out that are meidums specifically for digital printing. When coated on my arches paper I get even more saturation.
    but I also am a painter and my favorite papers for a wet medium are Arches & waterford 300lb. I use the Arches 140lb to draw on and frequently mix both pencil and water media on this surface. Every so often if I win the lottery I will buy a wonderful and exotic paper called Fabriano Esporziano. It is a hand made ( in the old traditional way) water color paper that is exceptional but very $$$$.

  8. The paper I like best for creating pen-and-ink drawings is Strathmore Series 400 Drawing Paper. It takes ink beautifully and the ink really looks wonderful on the warm off-white color.

  9. For ordinary day to day use I have found the Modigliani 200g sketch pad to be of reasonable quality. For greater work Strathmore bristol is a favourite paper for many artists. I think the important factors are not how good the feel or even the tooth of the paper is, but it should rather be not acidic or pH neutral paper. These papers are more durability and discolouration is minimized over time. Just a note on framing – the backing board should also be of the same standard or else some form of “leackage” will happen and discolouration might happen on certain areas but will be more visible on the areas left as white.

  10. My favorite when I did a great deal of drawing with Wolf CArbon Pencils was Stonehenge. The effect of the soft carbon pencils to me was fantastic. I’d also mix the Wolfs with graphite and white charcoal pencils. The paper would take erasure extremely well.

  11. I have recently been doing prints on Basingwerk paper and as my supply has dwindled I though I would purchase more. However, although I feel that I have explored the internet in my search I cannot find any vendors.

    If anyone knows a vender PLEASE reply to this post.


  12. Looking for help with a variety of art papers that have watermark with name or image located in corner of sheet. I’m trying to figure out what paint, ink or drawing tool would be best to use on each type paper.. Is there a link that might have photos of these markings? I hate to ruin good paper by using the wrong method. Thanks so much.