Paper is a BIG deal when you’re starting out on a creative journey. I wanted to put together a basic introduction to paper for a variety of reasons.

There are hundreds of types of paper to choose from that vary in weight, colour and size, are composed from a variety of materials from rags to cellulose pulp or pure cotton, are handmade, cylinder mould or fourdrinier machine made, with chain and linear grid-like patterns that create different types of surface texture.

Add to this some of my favourite (if not equally baffling) descriptions of the sizing of paper itself. Full and half imperial, quarter imperial, elephant and double elephant!

I’m still learning lots about the range of papers that exist out there.

I talk about paper all the time. This is one of the most common question I get asked too. “What should I be using to draw, paint or sketch on? Followed by “Can’t I just use what I have?” Yes you can but…no…

Spend some time reading through this introduction to paper. You’ll be amazed at the difference you will discover in the quality of your work when you get the right type of paper matched to the medium you are using. You will also quickly discover your favourite types of paper you like to use that are suited to your particular creative style!

If that doesn’t convince you here are a few more reasons;

  • Choosing the right paper is an essential, if not the most important, piece of equipment in your artist’s arsenal of tools. Your drawing and artwork will be defined by the paper you choose.
  • Once you know which paper you need to opt for, you expand your creative potential across a new medium. Paper is as important and equitable to an actual medium itself. You can then start to experiment and understand the different effects that paper has on mediums.
  • You preserve the integrity of the art work you choose to put on it!

Paper Sizing and Weight

A basic introduction to paper must start with the sometimes complex issue of sizing and weight. The first clue linked to the choice of paper you will make is how heavy it is.

Paper weight is defined in two different metrics. Grams (gsm) and Pounds (lbs). Measuring the paper in lbs originated in the US. The weight of paper is defined by how much a ream of 500 sheets of paper would weigh when cut to a standard size. The standard size is defined as the “full imperial” and usually alludes to watercolour paper. You can see where the first challenge comes, therefore, as not all paper is measured in the metrics of the full imperial size of 22″ by 30.”  You can suddenly have a variety of sheets that weigh a particular amount but do not measure 22″ by 30,” the accurate sizing by which the 500 sheets are traditionally measured.

Using the grams metrics, therefore, may prove more accurate. It tells you what one metre of paper weighs for all types of paper.

When you look to purchase paper the weight is an important gauge of the type of paper it is. You will always see this outlined on a front cover or pad of paper you look to buy. The lighter the paper the less water or “stress” it can withstand. The heavier the paper the more appropriate it may be for heavier painting mediums such as watercolour.

If you are simply looking to draw you can aim for papers that start at a 100 gsm weight. If you want to use heavier mediums or those that require more water such as watercolour aim towards the heavier end of the spectrum from 200 gsm upwards. There is a whole heap of science for everything in between and over these weights.

The size of paper has always traditionally been dictated to by the size of paper moulds used to make paper. In a nutshell, paper is made by pouring the paper stock (pulp – which is made from refining rags, wood, cellulose fibre, or other materials) into moulds and then being drained and shaped by wire meshes. These moulds define the sizing of papers. So, for example, the mould size itself will then be split into a variety of smaller sizes as it is halved and halved again. I always used to wonder too why some sizes had specific names attached to them on the front cover of paper pads.

There are 5 key sizes that you may come across;

Full Imperial.          762 by 559 mm / 30 x 22 inch

Half Imperial.         381 by 559 mm / 15 x 22 inch

Quarter Imperial.   381 by 279 mm / 15 x 11 inch

Elephant.                 584 by 711 mm / 23 x 28 inch

Double Elephant.   673 by 1016 mm / 26.5 x 40 inch

I must say I have yet to come across the elephant and double elephant! The other common sizing scale is the “A” sizing.  This is particularly common in the UK and familiar to anyone who has studied art in school.  Again the sizing works from A0 to A10, the most common you will find is between the A6 to A1 ranges which I have listed below.

A0.                841 by 1189mm.          33.1 by 46.8 inch

A1                  594 by 841 mm           23.4 by 33.1 inch

A2.                420 by 594 mm           16.5 by 23.4 inch

A3.                297 by 420 mm           11.7 by 16.5 inch

A4.                210 by 297 mm           8.3 by 11.7 inch

A5.                148 by 210 mm           5.8 by 8.3 inch

A6.                105 by 148 mm           4.1 by 5.8 inch

On another note there is another definition in paper-making linked to the word “sizing.”  In this case it becomes a noun. Sizing is added to paper to manage how absorbent the paper becomes when it is in pulp status. This is known as internal sizing. External sizing is added when the paper is produced and is treated once made. It means that your paper can “hold” the materials put onto it. Paper, after all is made up of fibres interwoven with each other. Test your paper by adding a droplet of water to the surface and seeing what it does.

The Surface of Paper 

There are two things to understand about the surface of paper.

  1. The contents with which it is made.
  2. How those contents are pressed and shaped together on the mould as well as the type of wire meshing used to shape its fibres.

Here lies the heart of understanding paper. Being aware of the texture of paper is fundamental to ensuring the success of the medium you use on it. As paper is being made so is it’s texture. We can sometimes get a “feel” for paper when we run our hands over it, but it helps to understand the basic types of paper as well as the types of moulds they are made upon. (Yes…more recognisable definitions.) I always like to think about how the paper would look under a microscope, each very different to the next.

The Main Ingredients of Paper

Paper is a combination of a variety of ingredients or cellulose fibres blended from wood to cotton (rags), as well as other plant materials. All these raw materials are stripped back to their natural states in order to then process them into paper. You may also see a combination of dyes, as well as the size (see above) to ensure they are in a stable enough state for you to work on.

What I find fascinating about these ingredients is that when they are broken down to their elemental forms they hold unique characteristics when made into paper. They determine how strong paper will be from how the fibres arrange themselves when processed.

The most common ingredient we come across is wood. Fast growing trees service our global demand for paper production. Both hardwood trees (broadleaf trees maple, birch, poplar) and softwood trees (pine, fir, and spruce -evergreens with needles)  are used to make paper. Each type of tree produces different types of fibres that support a paper’s strength. Softwood trees contain soft fibres that are long and and soft but maximise paper strength and hardwood trees contain short, dense and narrow fibres which bulk out the paper. Blending both softwood and hardwood gives us a mix of strength and bulk.  For the more specialist artist papers softwoods are more popular based on the surface strength.

The next ingredient to take the hot seat in this basic introduction to paper is cotton. The two types are cotton rag and linters. You may find that this is a more expensive type of paper to buy as pure cotton rags (traditionally used in paper making) is become rarer to come by as the use of synthetic fabrics has overtaken pure cotton globally. Cotton fibres are stronger than wooden fibres because they are much longer and therefore when processed are able to create a tighter weave. Cotton is also naturally acid free. Added to this cotton papers can be put under immense temperature pressures which can add to the longevity of the paper. High quality cotton fibres is known to last hundreds of years. Cotton linters for those of you that may be wondering are the little shorter fibres attached to the seed of the cotton plant. Paper produced solely from linters are not as robust as cotton rag paper.

Prior to cotton, linen rag was the popular choice based on the linen textile heritage from the 13th century onwards. Derived from the flax plant, linen paper is composed of long fibres and is now only used on very few papers. If it is used today it tends to be blended with cotton.  Another ingredient that has been used for thousands of years and can be commended for its sustainability and fast growth is bamboo. The Chinese have been making paper with bamboo for centuries. It turns out to be a softer fibre paper with a variety of “gaps” in its structure that enables it to be a soft and strong paper.

There are a variety of other ingredients added to paper once the core components have been processed.

  • Colour is the most obvious and if you are interested in maintaining the integrity of the paper you use it is important to note the effect any colouring agents have on your paper, especially over time. Bright white paper for example will have been chemically engineered as an addictive which, when exposed to UV light can impact the longevity over time of your art piece.
  • Purified water is used to break down your paper and blend with other ingredients. Hence the location of paper mills by natural water sources.
  • Pigments and dyes.
  • Brightening agents to produce whiter paper.
  • Calcium carbonate is added to reduce the darkness of paper and create a smoother paper. China clay and talc have also been used to create the same results.

How Paper is Made

This post cannot comfortably chart the history of paper making in a few paragraphs. From its Egyptian roots from papyrus plants on the bank of the Nile, to the first paper making process invented by the Chinese in the second century, from the founding of the Fabriano mill in Italy in the 13th Century to steam driven machines in the 1800s, paper production has evidenced how this humble day to day object that we take for granted has mapped our evolution as human beings.

Taking the ingredients listed above and the pulp mixture they make when stripped and mixed with one another, one wonders how paper is then made into the pages we use today. Paper making processes involve pouring the pulp mixture aka paper stock into a mould, compressing out the water and then binding it into sheets as it passes through a variety of different presses.

There are three popular main ways in which paper is processed. By hand, on a cylinder mould or on the fourdrinier machine.

Handmade papers  and how they are made have not changed over the centuries. Hand made papers tend to be cotton rag. Stock is poured into a mould and then a wire mesh is placed on top of it, water squeezed out of it by weaving woollen felts between the sheets, and then left to air dry. You may have seen a range of handmade papers from example from Nepal. The surfaces can be a little unpredictable when working on them albeit they are hardy and robust.

Most of our paper that we purchase today, however, has been made on cylinder moulds. Paper stock is added to a vat. A cylinder covered in a wire mesh spins round collecting the stock. The water flows away from the mesh and a web is formed around the cylinder.  It then moves onto a belt and processed along different parts of the machine.

You will see in the paper grid I have included below, as well as my blog post on the different types of watercolour paper (as an example), that depending on what type of paper you want, it will then undergo a specific type of treatment. Paper is pressed between liners to flatten it further, which may be hot metal rollers (for hot pressed) or felt rollers for a rougher texture.

The Fourdrinier Machine Made paper has got to be my favourite type of paper. It was developed by Henry Fourdrinier, a British entrepreneur in 1806 to cater to mass production of paper. Pulp is dried and textured quickly by a series of rollers, water vacuumed and then large heated rollers squeeze out excess water. There are some traditional fourdrinier presses that still exist today for the specialist artist papers. I have a traditional fourdrinier paper sketchbook that I love to use as the quality and texture of the paper is lovely to work on.

Types of Paper

By now you may have established that there are hundreds of papers to choose from depending on what medium you are interested in using. Part of the creative experience is to experiment and explore the brands and papers that exist in the marketplace today.

Below I have included a basic guide to paper depending on the medium you are interested in using. I have referenced the weight of the paper you are likely to need and cited some brand examples. I’ve covered watercolour, basic drawing, pastel and oil. Take a look at it, decide what medium you’d like to use and try out a new paper.

Each brand or type referenced will carry different traits to the next. Taking into account the paragraph described above, remember that the content (i.e the materials used to produce the paper), the surface texture, the sizing it comes in based on the mould on which it is made, weight, how it reacts when wet, its format (i.e does it come as a single sheet or pad), all play a contributory part in creating the type of paper it is.

A Basic Guide to Paper

As you build your confidence sampling and trialling papers you will start to see that paper rules become simpler. I, for example, love using hot pressed heavyweight cartridge papers for watercolour. My sketchbooks too are a range of different types of papers for a variety of different drawing or painting techniques. Combinations are limitless. Understanding the basics though in order for you to then be able to experiment is critical.

If you are just setting out and learning to draw these are valuable lessons to understand.

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