Guide to Art Paper

Art Paper
Bristles Art and Crafts

When you buy art supplies, you want to get the best value for your money. To make the smartest choices, you need to be intimately familiar with the materials you buy and use. This guide will help you make wiser decisions about the surface you draw on. Nothing replaces the knowledge that comes from your own experience, so it’s worthwhile to experiment with a large assortment of substrates to find out what works best for you.

Paper without a doubt is the most common and popular surface for artists to work on. There being so many different types of art paper to choose from, knowing which type you should choose for your artwork can be quite daunting.

Paper Composition and Manufacturing

Paper is made from interwoven fibers, the longer the fiber the stronger the paper, most commonly cotton or wood, but also other fibers, such as rice, straw, flax and hemp. All natural materials are subject to decay over time, which is an important consideration for the artist. Light, heat, humidity and pollutants all contribute to this process. When looking for paper that will stand the test of time, check for the words cotton rag, alpha cellulose or lignin-free.

Handmade paper is made by dipping a wooden frame with a fine screen (called a deckle) into a vat of pulp–a mixture of water and cotton, wood pulp or other fibers. After the water runs off, the sheet of pulp is removed from the screen and pressed between layers of felt to dry. The paper might then be processed further by being run through rollers. One sign of handmade paper is deckle edges, which are uneven or ragged.

Machine-made paper is produced on a Fourdrinier machine or a cylinder mold machine. In a Fourdrinier machine, a conveyor belt made of wire mesh pulls pulp through the process. The continuous sheet is dried and pressed as it passes through many rollers and is finally wound into large rolls. A cylinder mold machine works in a similar way; the resulting papers are described as mould-made.

Machine-made paper is more regular, smoother and often less expensive than handmade paper. But surface quality is always determined by the screens used. Many papers have what’s called a laid finish, formed by the fine pattern of the wire screen. The thickness of paper is also determined in the manufacturing process. The thickness is indicated by weight.

Cartridge papers are made from wood pulp and provide a good surface to draw on quickly and extensively, but will not sustain a huge amount of amendments. If you are into unusual facts then here is one for you; cartridge paper is so named because it was originally used to pack cartridge shells! Heavier weight cartridge papers like the Snowdon Cartridge 300gsm can cope with stronger mark-making when drawing and light washes of paint or ink.

Newsprint and sugar paper are also ideal grounds for quick sketches and working out compositions or ideas, but will not be durable over time. Coloured sugar papers will fade and the lignin content in newsprint causes an acidity making the paper turn brittle and yellow over time (Lignin is part of the plant that helps to bind cells to make them woody and stronger). Choose acid free or pH neutral paper if you are looking for longevity.

Wood free paper is made by treating wood pulp, removing the element of fiber which yellows and through its acidity causes the paper to deteriorate. The fact that wood free paper is made from wood pulp is confusing but is the way paper has historically been named! This gives an economical acid-free paper.

The best archival grade paper is made from 100% cotton which gives a strong, acid free material which lasts longest, and is the most resistant to discoloration and deterioration. The interweaving of the fibers gives paper its inherent strength which is improved by the use of ‘size’, the paper being too absorbent on its own, prone to disintegrating when too wet.

Types of Art Paper Surfaces 

There are several different types of art paper surfaces including Hot Pressed, Cold Pressed and Rough.

Rough Surface has the most texture and during manufacture the blankets pressing on either side of the paper creates a heavily textured finish. This surface is very popular for landscape watercolours, abstract watercolours and also for mixed media work where dusty or dry pigments are attracted to the ‘tooth’ or surface texture.

Not or Cold Pressed paper is the most common surface for watercolour artists and also popular for drawing. The paper is pressed for a second time without the blanket, flattening the surface that has been imprinted with the blanket. The common name for this surface is Cold Pressed or ‘Not’ which stands for ‘Not Hot Pressed’. There is still tooth to hold pigment and carbon. Perfect for all watercolour techniques and drawing, you will have a bit of interest in the surface but not over the top!

Hot Pressed is the result of further pressing on a hot cylinder, bonding the fibers closer together and creating a smoother and finer surface. This type of surface is most popular for botanical artists and those who like fine detail. Generally the hot pressing makes a harder top to the paper but it will still create beautiful washes of colour when using inks or watercolours.

Paper Weights: 

Paper is measured in gsm (grams per square meter) or lb (pounds per ream—a ream is 500 sheets of paper). Papers suitable for dry media are 60 to 90 lb. Heavier paper withstands more vigorous techniques and manipulations. Bristol board is a heavier sheet (80 to 140 lb) that comes in a smooth (vellum) or ultra-smooth (plate) finish. Heavy watercolor paper—especially rough, 300-lb paper primed on both sides—is a good surface for acrylic or oil paintings.


Longevity in artist paper refers to how long the paper will last, taking into account how it reacts to UV light, and whether it will fade or deteriorate over time. If you intend to exhibit your work it is advisable to be mindful of these factors and select materials that guarantee that your work will last a long time.

To ensure longevity, artist paper is typically acid and lignin-free, which helps to optimise the structure of the paper, minimising deterioration over time, including fading, yellowing, or even preventing the paper from falling apart.

100% cotton papers are often used for professional-grade artwork because they are acid-free and known to last a very long time without deterioration or discolouration. They are naturally lignin-free, and cotton’s long fibres make them far more durable than wood pulp-based papers such as wood cellulose. This is important as it allows them to erase repeatedly, lift colour with ease, scrub and scratch, without breaking down the surface of the paper.

View paper at Bristles Arts and Craft Supplies


Artist Network: Guide to Art Paper, Canvas and Panels: Find the Right Substrate for Your Artwork

Jackson’s : What makes a Long Lasting Paper

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