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Types of Art Paper

There are so many different types of art paper to choose from that it can be quite daunting to know which type you should choose for your artwork. Perhaps you are looking for paper for drawing, or watercolour painting; how do you know what all the terms around paper types mean and which one should you decide on?

Here are some facts, a little history and plenty of useful information on the different types of art paper, to help you gain an understanding of what types of paper there are available, how they are made and what they are good for.

Facts and more facts and a bit of history about paper!

Paper is made from interwoven fibres, the longer the fibre the stronger the paper. In the case of fine art papers these are usually plant fibres.

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 fibre 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 discolouration and deterioration. The interweaving of the fibres 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. Saunders Waterford, Somerset papers, Arches and some Fabriano papers, which are all 100% cotton, are sized to respond well to water based media.

Japanese papers have a subtle beauty all of their own; generally very light weight they are made with long fibres and have great strength. In Japan the making of paper is really an art form, often an artisan skill passed on from generation to generation in villages.

The Mystery of 'Size' in the Manufacture of Papers - What does this mean and how to choose?

There are two types of size used in the manufacture of paper: internal sizing and surface or tub-sizing. To confuse the issue some types of art papers have both!

Size is a glue-like sealant which can be synthetic, made from starch (cellulose) or gelatine. The function of size is to improve the strength of paper, toughen the surface and makes the paper more durable.

For instance 100% cotton watercolour papers have inherent strength from the interweaving of the long fibres but will probably be too absorbent without size, disintegrating when wet.

For internal sizing, the size is incorporated into the pulp at production stage. Internally sized papers are great for working with wet media, the paint or ink will sit on the surface even if the surface of the paper is damaged.

Surface or tub-sizing is the application of either a starch or gelatine-based size to the surface. Starch sizing smooth's the fibres and improves the surface. Gelatin size is used either in the mould-machine process or on to the dry sheet. This process toughens the surface and makes it durable for heavily worked drawings and painting.

Printmaking papers have a much lower level of internal sizing and are known as soft-sized papers. Size would be too resistant for printmaking processes. The beautiful indented prints that come from etching plates being put through the pressure of a press are possible because of the soft sized paper.

Weights of Paper

Different types of art papers are made in various weights, expressed in lbs (pounds) or gsm (grammes per square metre).

Fine art papers are usually made in the range of 120gsm to 850gsm. Oriental papers tend to be lighter weight.

Drawing papers are more commonly 130gsm weight but the heavier weight Snowdon Cartridge 300gsm is immensely popular. Thicker paper can cope with more erasing and mark making.

As a general rule, the heavier the paper (higher the gsm/lbs in weight) the thicker the paper.

Stretching Watercolour Paper

If you choose a watercolour paper of 300gsm/140lbs it is advisable to stretch your paper if you are getting it very wet with paint. For any lighter weight watercolour paper that is less than 300gsm it is essential to stretch. The reason you stretch is to avoid your paper buckling and going out of shape when you are applying washes of paint. Cockling is the phrase used by paper makers to describe this buckling process. Heavier weight papers do not need stretching but will be more expensive to buy. We offer a range of watercolour paper sheets online.

Instructions for stretching watercolour paper:

  1. Immerse sheet of paper under running water for 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Avoid touching the painting area as much as you can, paper is fragile when wet and fingermarks may show up.
  2. Place wet paper on strong board (drawing boards useful for this purpose), dampen gummed tape (too wet and the tape won't stick) and place tape all around the paper sheet (part on the paper and part on the board).
  3. Blot any excess water (clean paper towel or natural sponge is useful for this) and leave to dry overnight at a slight angle.
  4. Don't paint on paper until completely dry. The paper will be taut and tight on your board.
  5. IMPORTANT NOTE: Any residue of detergent will damage the surface of your watercolour paper, if you are soaking in your bath or sink make absolutely sure they are spotless!

Types of Art Paper Surfaces – What do these mean and how to choose?

There are several different types of art paper surfaces including Cold Pressed/Not/Fina, Hot Pressed/Satinata/Liscia, and Rough/Torchon/Grossa.

Three surfaces are made for western papers: Rough (also called Torchon or Grossa depending upon where the paper is made and the language!), Not or Cold Pressed (Fina, Fin) and Hot Pressed (HP. Satinata, Liscia).

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 fibres 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.

Each make of paper is usually produced in two or all three surfaces but the quality of each of the resulting surfaces varies from manufacturer to manufacturer. Try a variety to experience the 'touch' or 'feel' of the papers and you will find the kind of surface you might need to work with your chosen materials.

Surface for Pastel Paper has 'tooth' is most important when using pastels. The pastels need to adhere to the surface of the paper. Some printmaking papers with softer unsized surfaces are popular but more commonly there are textured surfaces eg Canson Mi-Teintes pastel paper or fully primed papers which include ground pumice stone mixed into a binder priming medium which smoothly coats the surface of paper e.g. Colourfix paper, Canson Mi-Teintes 'Touch', Fisher 400 and Pastelmat. There is also another popular paper with a velour surface by Hahnemuhle which I describe as 'fuzzy-felt' which shows my age! Most of these papers come in many different colours allowing you lots of choice.

The Storage and Longevity of Papers

The longevity of different types of art paper depends upon the material used in the manufacture i.e. the pulp.

Cheap paper where re-cycled pulp has been used is not good for longevity. Newsprint which is popular for quick sketches has lignin (a wood based impurity) which decays over time to produce acid, making the paper deteriorate.

'Acid free' indicated the paper is made without rosin and alum sizing which would make the paper acidic.

When you store paper you need to provide a barrier against the atmosphere. An atmosphere of ph7 is neutral – Cornwall is 7, London is 4 making London air more similar to lemon juice! Paper left lying about and exposed to the air will absorb the acidity. This is the reason for 'Foxing' – the little brown marks on paper happen when microscopic impurities on or in the paper rust.

Plan chests, portfolios are OK as long as the atmosphere is neutral. The ideal storage barrier is a plastic bag! These provides a complete barrier against the atmosphere.

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