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Which Paper? Your Guide to Evaluating Paper

By Ed S. Brickler - 11/14/2017

It is true, “You cannot tell a book by its cover”.   This is also true when you attempt to choose a fine paper.  Choosing a paper surface can be a daunting task.  You stand there looking at all the pad covers or a display rack filled with sheets of paper and wonder:  Why are there so many different kinds of paper?  What is their purpose?  Which paper do I need?

The purpose of this article is to answer your questions and give you a working knowledge of paper terminology and its characteristics.  First of all, know that all papers are manufactured for an intended use based on specific paper characteristics.  These characteristics determine the performance of the paper with different art materials.  When handling a sheet of paper, certain visual characteristics are apparent such as the color, texture, weight and thickness, but there are also other non-visual characteristics that need to be considered, such as, acidity, paper grain and sizing.  

Sizing is by far one of the most important characteristics.  Sizing is a water soluble, gelatin or starch-based proprietary mixture that holds the paper together, but also determines the paper’s absorbency.  Papers used for printmaking need to be more absorbent than your typical drawing or watercolor paper.  On the other hand, watercolor papers need an optimum amount of sizing so colors are vibrant yet you are able to lift color but not so much that layering colors becomes impossible.   Bristol, traditionally used for illustrations using a variety of mediums including markers, pen and ink and gouache requires additional sizing to maximize color saturation and minimize marker bleed through.  Even using an inkjet printer requires a paper with a good amount of sizing in order to get a good print.  You can experience the effects of sizing for yourself.  Print a photograph to two different types of paper.  The results will be different.  In the photograph shown here, I applied additional sizing to the right side of a piece of paper and printed this inkjet print.  You can see the difference in the saturation of the colors. More sizing will make the paper less absorbent, and therefore make the colors appear more saturated.  By using a better paper in your inkjet printer will actually use less ink.  A real cost savings.


Effect of Paper Sizing on Color

Paper characteristics aside for now, a good starting point is to look at the name of the paper.  Most papers are given a name based on the creative activity, suggested art material, or paper type.  This is a good starting point when choosing a paper, but know that this is just a starting point.  Also, you can look at a paper cross reference chart which is usually found on the inside or the pad cover.

Koh-I-Noor Papers


But don’t just take our word for it.  The best way to see which paper is best for you is to make you own marks with your favorite mediums on a selection of different types of papers using a paper sampler.  We all make marks differently hence different drawing and painting styles.  All papers have limitations, evaluating a surface will familiarize you with those limitations and you will find the paper that appeals to your individual style.  

To give you an idea on how to evaluate papers, click here to download a copy of Your Guide to Evaluating Paper.  Besides a step by step procedure for evaluation paper, important paper characteristics are also defined.  Future articles will zero in on specific paper types and other paper characteristics. 

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