The type and brand of paper you choose to work on can be nearly as big of a deal as the brand of colored pencil you choose to use. Too rough and it’s hard to get detail and smooth coverage, too smooth and you’re layering capabilities can be limited. The techniques that you choose will also play a huge role in which paper you like best.
Today I’m going to share my two favorite types of paper to work on as well as two that I used to use that may also be a good option for you. I blend my colored pencils with Mona Lisa Odorless paint thinner and by burnishing, so I require paper to be able to handle both techniques well.
If I had to choose just one paper to forever work on, it would probably be this. It is seriously durable. None of the various types of masking tape I’ve used to tape my edges down have ever torn the paper. I often airbrush my backgrounds. This means that the paper will be getting wet from the airbrush paint itself, plus the masking fluid I use to block out my subject when I work. As long as my edges are taped down, the paper always dries back perfectly into shape. Most of the paper I work on do well with this, but the Fabriano Artistico buckles less when wet than the others I will be listing. I never have that moment of “oh no, this is warping TOO much for me to fix!”
Lilac Breasted Roller in Polychromos and Luminance Colored pencil on Fabriano Artistico Extra White 140lb watercolor paper against a teal airbrushed background (video)
It is important to note that I’m using the Hot Pressed paper here. The cold press paper has far too much tooth (meaning it’s really rough and bumpy) for the way I like to work in colored pencil. I can get very sharp hard edges when doing the stencils I often use in the background of my work. It also seems to be the best paper when I use the Scotch magic tape trick because the paper is quite firm. I like working on extra white paper because this allows my areas that I want to stay truly white to be truly white. Colored pencils are somewhat translucent so while you will be able to have white and other colors show up on darker paper, it will never be quite as light as letting extra white paper show through on those areas.
I buy this paper online from Blick Art. They pack their paper REALLY well so it’s never damaged when it gets to me. I order it in 22x30” sheets and cut it down to the size I want, or in the 11x14” packs of 10. I’ve had people complain about the price of the paper, but I don’t use this for quick sketches. When I complete a piece in colored pencil I’m going to be putting 10-20 hours of work into a single piece of paper, so it lasts me quite a long time.
This paper is really great for several mediums. I have completed graphite work on it and more recently a water soluble graphite piece with a bit of inktense. It handled all that water beautifully.
Stonehenge 90lb individual sheets
My next favorite paper is by Stonehenge. I use this paper purchased in large individual sheets. The paper sold in pads has a vellum finish that is just a bit too smooth for my taste, which I will explain later. The individual sheets are less expensive than the Fabriano Artistico. They are also sold in 22x30” sheets, which I cut down to the size I want.
The Stonehenge paper is a bit softer than the Fabriano Artistico, and is my go to paper for portraits because of that. While I can get smooth blending for skin with the Fabriano, with the techniques I use, I prefer the finished look on the Stonehenge.
This paper handles wet media just fine as well. It seems to warp a tad more when wet from the airbrush than the Fabriano but as long as my edges are taped down (I tape my work all the way around the 4 edges), it dries back completely into its original shape. I do have to be a bit more cautious when using masking tape because of it being softer. I switch to my lower tack artist masking tape when working on this paper to avoid tearing the paper when removing the tape when I’m finished with my project.
While it handles smooth blending beautifully, I do find that it being a slightly softer paper, it is harder to get crisp edges when I use stencils for patterns like I did on the lilac breasted roller piece above. I had to depend on my paint thinner to clean up my edges. I also found that when I want to leave areas of the white paper showing, I had to be REALLY careful about not smudging my work. I hadn’t experienced that on the Fabriano Artistico. If I use a sheet of Glassine under my hand while I work though, it wasn’t a problem.
I find that I’m able to erase a bit more of the colored pencil from the Stonehenge when needed than I am from harder papers. That is a nice bonus for sure! I like to use an ink eraser from Faber-Castell to pull up areas for highlights or clean up various things as I work.
I should start out by saying that I do not use this paper anymore, but I felt it was worth mentioning because I am asked SO often for lower cost alternatives to the Fabriano Artistico and Stonehenge paper. Both of those generally need to be purchased online, which can make it a bit difficult for many artists, especially if you’re on a budget and don’t want to pay for shipping. The Strathmore 400 Series can be picked up in most art supply stores.
Polychromos on Strathmore 400 series Medium
This paper is 80lbs, so it is quite light weight. I do not recommend using regular masking tape with it as it can tear the paper so easily. You also have to be careful if you do a lot of erasing not to put a hole through it. All those negatives aside, it was the paper that I happily used for years! I love the tooth of this paper. It’s a tad rougher than the Fabriano Artistico or the Stonehenge, yet not so rough that you can’t get smooth blending or fine detail. As long as you don’t damage the paper while working on it, you can get a lot of layering done with that little bit of extra tooth. I find that the colored pencil goes down slightly faster than the two smoother papers I now use.
Because it is so thin, I’ve never used the airbrush on it for my backgrounds or masking fluid. I have used paint thinner to blend on it though, and it handled that just fine. Every once in a while I will use this paper for a demonstration and am reminded of why I stuck with it for so many years. I would likely still use it if it was heavier weight. If I didn’t sell my work I wouldn’t worry so much about that but I can’t afford to accidentally tear my paper or put a hole through it.
The last paper on my list is Strathmore Bristol Vellum. This is another paper that I no longer use, but I still feel is worth mentioning. There are two big bonuses with working on this paper. First, it’s very heavy weight (100lb / 270gsm). You really won’t have to worry about tearing it or putting a hole through it. Second, it’s easy to find in just about any art store. You don’t have to go looking online for this stuff, and it’s also pretty inexpensive for an entire pad.
I know a lot of colored pencil artists who love vellum. It is VERY smooth. For the techniques I use, which require around 20 or more layers, it is not the ideal choice for me because there isn’t enough for the pencil to stick to. I feel that it’s harder for me to get the color saturation I want because of that. For artists who do a lot of burnishing instead of layers and paint thinner as I do, you may love this paper. Considering it’s reasonable price it’s certainly worth giving it a try to see how it works for your techniques!
Eagle in Polychromos on Strathmore Bristol Vellum (video)
Getting super fine detail on this paper is very easy to do given how smooth it is. The ease of applying that detail is similar to the Fabriano Artistico. All four of the types of paper I’ve listed can get great detail. I don’t want to imply that they can't, it’s just a little easier to do in my experience with the Fabriano Artistico and the Vellum.
The paper that will work best for you is going to depend on the techniques and tools that you use. As long as it’s acid free (which all art paper should be), there is no single right or wrong paper to use. Every artist is going to have their own favorites to work on. It’s definitely worth trying out several types to find your favorites.