Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sketchpacker Tools for Beginners - PAPER

I realise I haven't really posted much on tools for quite a while. If you're just starting off, you're probably wondering what materials you need and where you should start. Chances are you don't want to be spending loads of cash till you feel proficient enough. That's how I felt too, and I think everyone feels the same way. So I thought: Why not put up some posts to answer these questions on what kind of tools and materials a beginning sketchpacker can get, and what are some things to look out for?

I think a good place to start would be finding something to draw on, yes? We'll look at tools to draw with in future posts.


Unless you're thinking of bringing parchment and leather pieces around, or intend to draw on leaves and stones and scraps or in the sand, or on your digital tablet, you're going to need some PAPER. Assuming you're intending to keep your sketches, using a sketchbook may be the best option to keep all your sketches in one place. However, there may be times where you like a particular type of paper, but it doesn't come bound in a pad or sketchbook; or you may be just starting off and intending to use normal printing paper (although if printing paper is what you have in mind, it's still better to get a sketchbook). In these instances, bring along a folder. You don't want your sketches to get crushed and crumpled in your bag.

The first thing you need to know is Not All Paper Is The Same. Different kinds of paper will interact with different media for better or for worse. Use the wrong paper with the wrong medium and you may ruin your sketch from the start. So before deciding what paper you want to use, it would be helpful to know what medium you intend to sketch with. Do you want to use dry media like pencils, charcoal, or pastels? Or do you want to use wet media like watercolours and other kinds of paints? Or are you planning to use markers?

Paper for different media

For starters, there are some types of paper that can take a wide range of media reasonably well. One of my favourites at this point in time would be Daler Rowney's student ranges. They take ink, dry media, markers, and watercolour pretty well, and they're very affordable. If you're just starting off and are not sure what to get or what media you'll be using, these might be good sketchbooks to start with.

Left: Daler Rowney Simply A6 hardcover sketchbook
Right: Daler Rowney Graduate A5 softcover sketchbook


Dry Media

Dry media would include things like pencils, pens, charcoal, pastels, and crayons. Generally for a beginner, if these are the media you are planning to use, you won't have to worry too much about paper types. Most (if not all) papers will take dry media fairly well, though the paper's texture would give different effects. Paper with more "tooth" (grain) would give more texture to your drawing than paper that is smooth.

Another consideration for paper suitable for dry media such as pencils is erasability. The quality if your eraser is important, but so is the paper. Some kinds of paper are hard to get pencil marks off, even with a good eraser. For years I stuck with one brand of sketchbook that I could get from ordinary stationery stores and avoided other brands of the same range just because of erasability.

Wet Media

If you're planning to use wet media like watercolours, acrylics, gouache, poster colour, Chinese ink, or oils, you need to be more aware about what liquids do to paper. Some types of paper cannot take water well and will buckle (warp) badly when wet, or the surface might get rubbed off or damaged when wet and rubbed with a brush. If the paper buckles, you find your watercolours or paints pooling in the troughs. If that's the effect you want, fair enough, but if you're trying to get an even flat colour over a large area, that can cause quite a bit of frustration.

If you're planning to use watercolours, be sure to choose a paper that can take water. Some paper can stand up to light washes but not heavy washes, and too much water would degrade the paper's surface or cause it to buckle.

Your local art store should have a variety of papers for wet media. Hopefully the store assistant knows his/her products, and you can get some good advice ('cos I've met art store assistants who know nothing about their products).


The main thing you'll be concerned about when using ink is whether the ink will bleed on the paper you are using. Bleeding is what happens when your ink spreads away from the point of contact. It would take a bit of experimentation to know what kind of inks will bleed on what kinds of paper, because different inks use different solvents, and different papers interact differently with each kind of ink. Take the following sketch, for example, which I did using Pilot's Parallel pen:

Copyright © Favian Ee  2012

As you can see, the ink bled quite badly. But in another sketch using Hero ink (and watercolours) on the same paper, we don't find any bleeding:

Copyright © Favian Ee  2013
Some types of paper that are more absorbent will allow you to use watercolours over your ink if the ink is semi-water-resistant (such as Hero ink) when dry without much problems, while paper that isn't so absorbent where the ink just sits on the surface will cause big black messes when you put water over it - even after the ink has dried.


Typically there are 2 types of markers we commonly come across - water-based and solvent (usually alcohol) based. Examples of water-based markers would be magic markers (magic pens), while alcohol-based markers would include Copic, Marvy, Touch (by ShinHan) and the like. Solvent-basedmarkers will bleed like crazy on normal paper. Not only will they bleed outwards. They'll bleed right through, oftentimes onto the sheet(s) underneath. To avoid that, place a piece of unwanted card or board (cardboard, or better still, a plastic cellophane sheet) under the sheet you're working on. Or get proper marker paper. But that's going to cost you a bit more. Markers themselves aren't the cheapest media either.

Copyright © Favian Ee  May 2013

Back. The markers have bled through.
Fortunately I placed a backing when working on this piece.

Acid-free paper

A lot of paper turns yellow over time. If it's not because you spilled your coffee on it, it's quite likely because the paper contains acid. This acid is naturally occurring in the wood used to make the paper. Besides causing discolouration, it can also degrade the paper and make it brittle over time. If you want your sketches to last, get paper that is acid-free. The inexpensive Daler Rowney sketchbooks I listed above are acid-free.

Texture and Colour

Texture and colour of paper may not be a big concern for complete beginners. But as soon as you are keen to experiment, you may be interested in considering using paper of different textures and colours to get different effects. Most watercolour paper is cold-pressed and textured (hot-pressed paper is smooth). You could get interesting effects using dry media on watercolour paper, or paper with coarser grain. If you are using dip pens and ink, rougher paper may not always be ideal, since the sharp tip will scratch the surface and the paper fibres may get stuck in the nib. Likewise rougher paper might be less kind on your marker tips and wear them out faster.

Coloured paper is best used with opaque media like pastels, chalk, acrylics, and gouache. Colours can range from off-white (or ivory) to black, and any hue and shade in-between. It would be quite a waste to use transparent watercolours on dark coloured paper for obvious reasons, but if that's your kinda thing, why not?

Some Final Tips

Hopefully you don't feel overwhelmed with information or intimidated. Yes, there's a whole load of paper to choose from, but ultimately the best paper for your sketchpacking trip is the paper you're most comfortable with. Unless you're intending to sell your drawings or hold an exhibition, who cares what paper you're using?! A friend of mine uses any local paper he can lay his hands on (even paper from children's exercise books!). Another friend doesn't even need paper. She sketches on leaves, wooden planks, concrete blocks, anything! Of course, it'll be very difficult (if not impossible) to carry those things around and store them properly while on holiday, but that's where a camera comes in handy.

If you're just starting out, just get some cheap sketchbooks and experiment. But you may want to do your experimenting before you leave for your trip, because if you're like me, you wouldn't want to find out that your paper (or materials) can't do some things you want just when you're beginning your sketch.

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