Understanding Paper Tooth – What to Look for in an Artist Charcoal Paper

What is a Paper’s Tooth?

Nobody wants to feel like a novice at their local art store, and unfamiliar terms are certainly one of the things that can make even the most seasoned artist feel like a beginner. Have you ever heard people discuss paper in terms of “teeth”? Well, a paper’s tooth describes the surface feel of paper. Generally, the more tooth a paper has, the rougher it feels. You could easily exchange the term for the words, “texture,” or “smoothness.” In general, charcoal artists prefer paper with a rougher texture, as the charcoal adheres better to unsmooth surfaces.

Cold press paper

There are a variety of paper finishes that charcoal artists employ, each with their own distinctive tooth. Most artists choose to use cold press paper for their charcoal drawings. Cold press paper has lots of tooth; there are many tiny bumps and grooves that retain water and pigment. If you are planning on painting a charcoal portrait with a dark, rich background, you will likely need to layer your charcoal on cold press paper. Arches Cold Press Watercolor Paper (140lbs) allows for a grainy effect, which is often desired in portrait backgrounds.

The paper with the most “tooth” is rough paper. It is even more textured than cold press paper and is most often used for watercolor painting. However, charcoal artists, especially those using thick blocks of charcoal, will select rough paper for its visually interesting surface. Notably, this paper can also be lightly sanded to create an uneven texture. Twinrocker Handmade Rough Watercolor Paper (200lbs) is particularly suitable for this task. Using the finest sandpaper at your local art store, gently sand the paper until it arrives at your desired smoothness. Be careful to pause in between vigorous sanding sessions, and check that you are not sanding a hole into your paper.

Hot Press Paper

As you can probably guess, the smoothest paper is hot press paper. This paper is often used for pen and ink drawings and pencil sketching. If you are a mixed media artist that utilizes pens, pencils and charcoal, Crescent No. 201 Hot Press Illustration Board may be the right fit for you. However, bear in mind that charcoal easily smudges on hot press paper, and has difficulty adhering to the surface. Hot press paper works best for artists who predominantly use pens and pencils, and sparingly employ charcoal pencils for dramatic effect. It may also be useful to inquire at your local art store for spray sealants which can be sprayed on your finished work, and ensure that the charcoal adheres to the smooth paper surface. Learn how to use fixative.

Charcoal Paper

Finally, all charcoal artists are familiar with their local art store’s supply of paper which is labeled as simply charcoal paper. This is a paper similar in texture to pastel paper, with a medium textured surface. It will be far less textured than rough paper and slightly less textured than most papers simply labeled as cold press paper. Canson Foundation Charcoal Paper is excellent for both sketching and using blocks of charcoal for more dramatic effects. The different varieties of paper discussed are all applicable for charcoal artists. The best paper choice depends entirely on the type of charcoal project you are embarking on! 

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Kristina B

Kristina B

Kristina B has written several articles for Nitram Charcoal. See below for her latest contributions.

  • Denise

    Hi there,
    Do you have any further instructions on how to do the sanding with cold press paper? I’ve been trying to do this for over an hour and when I sand, the paper feathers. Not visible feathering, but it’s pulling up the fibers, even with a light sanding using extra fine 220 grit. I tried it on Twinrocker 200lb rough, as suggested in the article, but because it’s cotton, it’s pulling up the fibers, so when I lay down the charcoal, the fibers are pulling up more. I tried it with 300 lb rough Lanaquarelle paper and it did the same thing. I tried it with different grades of charcoal. I’m using a light hand when I sand. It also seemed to effect the sizing of the paper. Does the paper need to be sized first? I even tried sanding over the charcoal after it was laid down and that didn’t work
    I tried Colourfix sanded pastel primer with so-so results. But something seems to be missing from the instructions. Can you give more detail please? I’ve wasted quite a bit of paper trying this. Thank you.

    1. Jerzy Niedojadlo

      Hi Denise, thank you for reaching out.

      First of all, I apologize that I did not specify that sanding cold press paper is something that is only advisable if done: 1) incredibly lightly 2) only in certain sparse areas for a smoother intended effect in these small, isolated areas. For example, I’ll sand the area of the paper that I intend to leave as the “whites” of the eyes for a portrait project. If you need a smoother overall effect, it is best to choose a paper that is less rough for your project as opposed to sanding a rough paper.

      On the other hand, some charcoal artists purposefully “over-sand” their paper in order to have the fibers pull up as part of their intended effect. It is best to keep in mind that this effect makes it much more difficult to control your charcoal drawing on these areas, making it nearly impossible to include fine details. However, the texture of the over-sanded, slightly degraded looking paper creates an interesting “worn” look which mixed media artists often employ.
      Good luck with your project!

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