It’s Only a Paper Moon: A Primer on the Best Paper for Illustration
Not all paper is created equal. To master the art of illustration, it’s not just a matter of putting your best foot forward, it’s making sure you’re striding on the proper surface.
Photos and illustrations via CakeSpy
Here, we will introduce you to some of the most common types of paper for illustration, and which types of illustration projects are best suited to each type.
Different qualities can be better suited to different media and styles of working: This guide will help you determine which type of paper is best suited to helping you tell your story in images.
And, just in case you missed it, be sure to check out this post on tips and techniques for pen and ink illustrations, to help you put your primo paper to good use!
Drawing paper is a versatile paper that is well-suited to illustration, particularly pen and ink as well as pencil works. Drawing papers can vary from lightweight or “sketching pad” styles, which are typically non-archival and well suited to practice sketches or figure studies, to heavier weight papers that allow for erasing, reworking and applying pen and ink. A variety of textures, from smooth to quite “toothy” and suitable for pastel work, are available. If you are producing a finished piece, be sure to use an archival, high quality drawing paper.
Works beautifully with pen and ink as well as pencil, colored pencil and a variety of dry media. It is also a relatively inexpensive paper option.
Not as absorbent or thick as other papers. If you are using ink from a well or watercolor, it may bleed through or make the paper warp. The slightly textured surface on some drawing papers can snag pens with a quill-type nib.
Thicker than drawing paper but not as thick as illustration board, bristol board provides two working surfaces, front and back. It typically comes in two varieties: one being vellum (lightly textured), the other being smooth. Bristol board is well-suited to all of the dry media you’d use on drawing paper, but because it is sturdier, it can also accept some wet media. Light watercolor is appropriate on the absorbent vellum surface (note, however, that it may bleed on the smooth surface). Better quality bristol boards are archival.
More affordable than illustration board & sturdier than drawing paper. But, it’s not as absorbent as watercolor paper, so bristol board can warp on the edges if the paint is applied too thickly.
More wet ink varieties, marker and watercolor can bleed unattractively on smooth bristol board.
Watercolor paper is a thick, sturdy and absorbent paper designed for wet media. It is thick enough that it won’t warp even when you apply watercolor washes, and absorbent enough so that the paint doesn’t spread or bleed. While watercolor papers are available in a variety of thicknesses and textures, there are main varieties: hot press (the flatter variety), and cold press (the more textured variety).
Student-grade watercolor paper is wonderful for practicing, but they are not archival, which means that eventually, the paper will yellow and deteriorate. For finished pieces, use a high quality archival paper.
Brushed pen and ink work, or pen and ink with watercolor, both work perfectly on this surface. The absorbent nature of the paper will keep it from curling.
The texture or “tooth” of the paper can snag pen tips. Use a thick, sturdy pen tip for best results, or use pencil for a base drawing atop which watercolor lies. The texture may show up on scans, so be sure that your design will support that.
A note on pens:
If you want to incorporate pen and ink into your watercolor illustration work, ball point or rollerball tips are good choices for using pen and ink on watercolor paper. The texture can wear away felt tip pens, dulling the line quality. This doesn’t mean you can’t use them, but their shelf life may be shorter. Quill pens can easily catch — use with caution. If you’re adding watercolor or an ink wash, be sure to use waterproof ink (water-resistant is not the same).
Illustration Board is thick — in the photo above, you can see how it compares to the thickness of bristol board. This sturdiness makes it fantastic for reproducing, as the paper is unlikely to bend or warp. Like watercolor paper, it comes in both hot and cold press varieties, but the texture is not as pronounced as that of watercolor paper, making it better suited to a variety of media, from pen and ink to pencil to light watercolor and even other paints such as acrylic or gouache.
The sturdy surface can stand up to a variety of media, and it is presentation-ready and easy to scan. Just about any type of pen can be used on illustration board. Use the same cautions for cold press papers that you would for watercolor papers.
Illustration board only has one working side, and can be expensive, so don’t use it for practice pieces.
Canvas, or canvas paper, bears mention even though it is quite different from the other types of paper. Canvas is a woven paper that is designed for painting — pen and ink and watercolor do not work well on this surface, but it is well-suited to creating works of art in acrylic and oil paint.
Perfect for creating works of art in acrylic or oil paint.
Can be difficult to scan or reproduce. It is not well suited for pen and ink, pencil or watercolor.
To further refine your techniques, check out Craftsy course The Art of the Picture Book, in which published illustrator Shadra Strickland guides you through the foundational techniques you need to create strong visual stories, including various picture-book structures that will help you select the best format for your work.