One of the biggest questions that any teacher or artist working with charcoal gets from those just starting out is, “What sort of paper should I use with charcoal drawing?” The answers are as varied as the artists that are being asked. However, there are some aspects of this that aren't just personal preference. When considering a project, understanding the basics of the paper can go a long way towards your finished piece. First, consider the fiber the paper is made from. Wood pulp, cotton, and cellulose are most common and each offer different sorts of behaviors when used as paper. Secondly, the way the paper is produced is another consideration. It can be machined or hand processed, heat and pressure play a big factor in the end product and as a result- your completed piece. The drying process and even the mould the paper was made in can have an impact. Finally, there is also amount of size, which refers to the binding glue. This will impact both how toothy your surface is and how well it retains moisture. As you can see, there is more to the paper you use than meets the eye. Here are a few of the commonly used descriptions of paper. We’ll also go into what these describe and how it impacts the overall process.
Smooth: Hot Press
Smooth paper, also known as hot pressed, is hot rolled during its production. The finished product is an incredibly flat, very smooth surface for which to work on. If you’re working with detail in mind, smooth is likely what you want to choose. This is because with that texture, or lack thereof, fine details are easier to create without having to deal with bumps or abnormalities coming through.
When you have a medium paper, it’s also sometimes referred to as “not”. All that means, is that it hasn’t been hot pressed. Instead, it’s things like medium-surfaced drawing paper or cold pressed water color paper. It does still have a fairly fine grain to it, which brings a nice, subtlety when shading in charcoal.
When rough paper is produced, the pulp used is pressed with no added heat. This creates a natural, more bumpy surface to the paper and the pits will cause shading irregularities. You’ll typically see white spots in your shading, which can lend a really interesting texture to your finished charcoal pieces created on rough paper. Mould made water color paper is a great example of this. Though the surfacing makes it a bit harder to control your tone, it does also make for really broad, simpler, and in many cases, more expressive gestures.
In order to make wove paper, it’s produced on a woven wire cloth. This resembles a very fine sieve and does not have the more traditional parallel lines you’d see in Laid papers. This is one of the more common types of paper and it creates a very smooth, fine surface with very little, if any texture. You can buy paper that has specially added textures, and also, if you go with a heavier weave, it will usually have a very minute texture to it.
Textured Charcoal, Pastel, and Other Craft Papers
These papers usually try to mimic natural irregularities that come with mould-made papers. Usually, their tooth and hardness vary depending on the manufacturer, but for the most part, you’ll find they have a hard vellum surface that carries moderate sizing. They’re typically not great if your project involves heavy layering, but they can be incredibly expressive with charcoal and with the large scale pencil works.
When people talk about Laid paper, they’re usually referring to paper with patterns created by parallel lines. Some brands that carry this will have more pronounced surface texture that definitely shows up in your finalized piece. You can find laid papers that don’t have such texture, and the best thing to do when choosing laid is to choose the one that will lend itself best to whatever style of drawing you are working with. For the larger scale work, you can go with the pronounced texture, but if you want to go smaller scale, it’s usually best to work with the fine textured.