A Primer on the Best Paper for Illustration

Whether you’re working in watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, colored pencil or something else entirely, one thing’s for sure: You’re not creating anything if you don’t have paper. And using the right kind can make all the difference.

Here’s what you need to know.

Drawing Paper

This versatile paper is great for illustration, especially pen and ink and pencil works. Lightweight or “sketching pad” styles are typically non-archival and best for practice sketches or figure studies. Heavier-weight papers allow for erasing, reworking and applying pen and ink.

Drawing paper comes in all kinds of textures, from smooth to “toothy” (which is best for pastel work).


Works beautifully with pen and ink as well as pencil, colored pencil, and other dry media. It’s also pretty easy on the wallet.


Not as absorbent or thick as other papers. If you’re 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.

Bristol Board

Thicker than drawing paper, bristol board provides two working surfaces, front and back. It typically comes in two varieties, vellum (lightly textured) and smooth. Bristol board can accept all the dry media drawing paper can, but because it’s sturdier, it can also accept some wet media. Light watercolor is fine on the absorbent vellum surface, but it may bleed on the smooth surface. Better-quality bristol boards are archival.


It’s sturdier than drawing paper. (But be warned that it can warp on the edges if the paint is applied too thickly.)


More wet ink varieties, marker and watercolor can bleed on smooth bristol board.

Watercolor Paper

Watercolor paper is a thick, sturdy, and absorbent paper designed for wet media. It won’t warp even when you apply watercolor washes, and the paint doesn’t spread or bleed. While watercolor papers are available in a variety of thicknesses and textures, there are two main types: hot press (the flatter variety) and cold press (the more textured variety).

Student-grade watercolor paper is wonderful for practicing, but it’s non-archival and will eventually yellow and deteriorate. For finished pieces, use high-quality archival paper.


Brushed pen and ink, or pen and ink with watercolor, both work perfectly on this surface. The absorbent nature of the paper will keep it from curling no matter what wet media you throw at it.


The texture or “tooth” of the paper can snag pen tips. Use a thick, sturdy pen tip for best results, or use pencil as a base drawing for watercolor. The texture of watercolor paper may show up if you scan your work digitally, so be sure that your design will support that.

A Note On Pens

If you want to use pen and ink in your watercolor illustration work, ball point or rollerball tips are good choices for watercolor paper. The texture of watercolor paper 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.

Illustration Board

Illustration Board is thick. 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’s 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 Paper

Canvas is a woven paper designed specifically for painting.


Perfect for creating works of art in acrylic or oil paint .


Can be difficult to scan or reproduce. It’s not well suited for pen and ink, pencil or watercolor.

What is your favorite illustration paper?

Let us know in the comments! To further refine your techniques, check out Craftsy course The Art of the Picture Bookin 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.

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