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The questions that often come up from students is, what pencils should I use? Which papers? Which degree of working surface is best. Often their asking to know which elements should I be employing to make my work instantly +10 amazing. Some people might say ‘bah, it’s not about the materials, it’s about you as an artist', but the fact is, materials do play a big part no matter what level you're at as an artist.


For those embarking on their maiden sketchbook journey, heed this advice: resist the urge to treat it as a precious artifact. If you anticipate adorning its pages solely with masterpieces, you're deceiving yourself.

Consider this sketchbook merely the initial entry among the many you'll undertake in your artistic voyage. Over time, your creations will evolve into wonders. Even seemingly trivial doodles will transform into pieces worthy of sharing. Yet, in the present moment, the most beneficial course of action is to draw prolifically. Bestowing undue importance on each page can breed anxiety, burdening you with the expectation of producing a flawless drawing— a skill you may not have mastered yet. This sets the stage for failure, sowing seeds of doubt and fear, ultimately impeding your progress and, in extreme cases, prompting abandonment. It's a perilous spiral.

Rather than viewing each page as a canvas for an unattainable masterpiece, consider it an opportunity for continuous learning and improvement.

The portability of sketchbooks is paramount. Given your busy life, carrying your sketchbook everywhere becomes imperative. Leaving it at home is not an option. Embrace the habit of drawing whenever a spare moment arises—while waiting for the bus or during those precious lunch break minutes.


Wherever you go, intriguing subjects for your sketches abound. Just be discreet, and perhaps don a pair of sunglasses to avoid awkward stares. Sketching on the go enriches your visual repertoire with diverse people, places, and things, forming a wellspring for future imaginative creations. If your surroundings fail to inspire observational drawing, that's okay; shift to drawing from imagination or reinforcing past lessons with practice. Consider engaging in warm-up exercises, as I'll guide you through.

Remember, draw anything you fancy, as long as you keep drawing. Consistency is key.


If you practice with bad equipment then this can have detrimental effects because not only is your creative output going to suffer in appearance, but the act of producing it will involve you almost fighting the materials to get the effect you're aiming for. A bad paper might tear quite easily under even slight stress and cheap pencils will be riddled with impurities that cause your pencil to produce scratchy, horrible marks. In short, the creative conclusions bad materials will dampen your spirit for thinking you can ever produce amazing artwork. For that reason, work with a set of decent materials, so you can learn their ways as well as their disadvantages.


Important Considerations

One very important thing to consider when purchasing a paper for your drawings is, how much tooth the paper has. The more tooth the more the paper can hold graphite particles. Also, the more tooth a paper has the more dark your softer B pencils will appear. The trade off here is that with pencils that appear darker, the more texture your drawing will have on account of the roughness.

Another aspect of the drawing process is the act of taking material away. The paper you choose should be durable enough that you can remove material without there being a catastrophic ruining of the paper tooth left behind in the rubber's wake. Whatever paper you use, you should always experiment first with pencils and rubbers to see what limits and possibilities for you drawing the paper throws up. Watercolour paper for instance is horrendous when it comes to erasing, the rubber will simply tear through the fibres.


Here we have an image that shows an example of the type of experiment I might make on a new paper. This features a ground layer of 9B graphite block applied loosely to smooth paper... and then attaching an eraser to a drill and seeing how much I can bring the paper back to white.

There are many, many variations of paper quality so experimentation is vital when you're attempting to find the right one. A thing that can often confuse is that paper types can vary between different manufacturers. For instance, a Bristol board for made by Strathmore could be entirely or subtly different from one made by Canson.


Inexpensive or Fancy

Whether it's a cheap notepad or a handmade paper like Fabriano (according to some historians Michelangelo used this type of handmade paper), it's usually a good idea to opt for the more expensive papers, and definitely those that are acid free.


If a pad doesn't say it's acid free on the cover, then the paper will degrade and yellow over time. A paper packed with lignin with gradually become worse over time. A cheaper paper will also reduce the range of tones you have at your disposal.

Archival paper is the best in terms of durability over time because it contains no unleached wood pulp.


Pencil on toned Strathmore paper

Canson  -  Canson bristol board is an excellent, bright white working surface. It's a hefy 250gsm which makes it a pretty thick card.


The Canson 'Vellum' has a moderate tooth to it which means you're able to get fairly dark with your B pencils. Then there is Canson bristol smooth which allows for more detail work. Alternatively to bristol board, Mellotex which has an excellent working surface that can stand up to lots of pencil work and subsequent reworking.

Strathmore  -  Strathmore produce a fantastic range of bristol boards. The 300 series is nicely balanced for what I like to produce although unlike the Canson bristol board, it has a slight creamy hue to it. Weighing in at 270gsm, this is a very thick paper which really appeals to me since it feels so robust against any rough erasing or pencil work. 


The 500 series goes a little too far with the tooth for me personally but seems like an excellent choice too. Whichever you go for, whether it is Canson or Strathmore or some other bristol board, then you will have the vellum and smooth options to consider. The smooth surface on bristol allows your pencil hand to glide more freely so you will often produce smoother lines when working on it as opposed to the slightly textured surface of vellum.

Fabriano  -  This is a fairly expensive paper made in Italy. It's high price is on account of it being a handmade paper. Erasing is not a problem with this surface since it can stand a lot of abuse even though the highest weight you can get is 200gsm. Like the Strathmore 300 it has a slight creamy hue to it. This is a very versatile paper that can accomodate pen and ink, graphite, charcoal and even gouche paint.


Smooth or Bumpy

For the sort of work I like to produce, I need a smooth paper. As we've mentioned, smooth paper reduces darkness of our grades but it enables higher resolution images to be produced. The amount of detail you can render on a smooth Bristol board is incredible. The image to the left for instance was produced on Canson Bristol board which has a remarkably smooth surface but yet, allows me to work fairly dark enough to suit my needs.


The double-sided Bristol board that Canson produced is also very nice and has a second use. One side is ultra smooth, the backside of the paper has a little texture to it. The smooth side is an excellent surface for graphite, and the rougher side is for charcoal and  colored pencil. All high grammage, smooth papers such as Canson Bristol board are excellent surfaces for using pen and ink.


Toned Paper

I have a soft spot for toned paper, and here's why:

  1. Enjoyment: It's simply fun.

  2. Time Saver: Skip the shading up to mid-values; toned paper already provides that foundation, saving you time.

  3. Textural Appeal: Certain toned papers boast a fibrous or woodchip texture, adding an extra layer of visual interest.

  4. Highlights: The use of a white charcoal pencil on toned paper enhances highlights, making them stand out.

  5. Blankness Defeater: For some, the fear of a blank page is alleviated by the character and warmth of toned paper. It feels less intimidating.



Strathmore proudly describes its toned paper as "100% recycled, with 30% post-consumer fiber, and includes kraft and bark fiber for added visual interest." This contributes to a unique visual texture. Despite its textured appearance, the paper itself is perfectly smooth, ensuring a seamless interaction with your pencil.

I fondly recall my school days, where sketching on recycled toned paper added an intriguing dimension to my drawings. While the quality of the drawings may not have improved, the aesthetic boost did wonders for my confidence and enjoyment of the artistic process. And that's a nice feeling!


Rag Content and Acid

Any paper that has been produced with cotton fiber is known as 'rag'. This type of paper is a lot hardier than say any paper that is made from wooden pulp. Wood pulp paper may contain acid that has been introduced in its manufacture which is another reason to go with a paper made specifically for artistic purposes. Rag paper will last far longer on account of it being acid free just remember to double check on the cover of the pad.

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