Picking Paper for Colored Pencil & Mixed Media (Written Recap and Condensed Video)

Hi friends! The other day I did a free live class going over paper suitable for colored pencils and mixed media. Before the live class, I did a dry run and filmed it. You can watch that video below.

During the Livestream, I had many requests to repeat the names of different papers and ask for recommendations so I decided to create a written recap listing out the 6 different surface texture categories and what media they are best suited for. I hope it is helpful. Keep in mind that any good paper that gives you the effect you desire is the right paper for you. We all have different opinions on what is best. This is general paper advice that has worked well for me over the years and I hope you find it helpful. I have categorized the paper textures in relation to each other and not how the manufacturer may describe them. For instance, Strathmore calls the Art Again lightly textured but it is rougher than the vellum surface paper I consider lightly textured.

What is paper made of?

Paper can be made from a variety of natural and synthetic ingredients. When choosing art paper you want to make sure it is acid-free if you want your artwork to be archival. Acid can make paper turn yellow and brittle over time. All of the papers I am recommending below are acid-free.

  • Wood Pulp: Most economical papers are made from wood, also called cellulose paper. Art papers are usually made from virgin pulp but you can find some options with recycled content. Paper is said to be acid-free if it is buffered to bring the PH of the paper to neutral or slightly basic.
  • Cotton: Cotton paper is made from cotton linters (the seed fibers under the cotton puff) and it can also be made from leftover cotton from fabric manufacturing in the case of handmade cotton paper. Cotton paper is more expensive than wood pulp due to the cost of materials and processing and also less environmentally friendly due to the amount of water needed to create the plant and the paper. Cotton paper is the most archival so work done on cotton (providing archival materials are used in a customary way) will last the longest. There are many brands of 100% cotton watercolor paper to choose from. As long as you stick with a reputable brand, Arches is a favorite, you will be fine. Paper is available in sheets, pads, and blocks (which is a pad bound on all 4 sides that is a bit more expensive for the convenience of not having to tape it down.) *You can also find blends of cotton and wood pulp such as Fabriano Studio watercolor papers which bridge the gap between the quality of cotton and the affordability of cellulose, their hot press is nice.
  • Synthetic: Paper can be made from 100% plastic such as polypropylene YUPO paper or it can be used in conjunction with cotton fibers to help a paper lay flat when wet such as Strathmore Aquaris 2 paper.
  • Eco Friendlier options: The most eco-friendly paper you can use is what is already in your stash but if you wish to purchase a greener paper there are options. Hahnemuhle has Bamboo mixed media paper and an Agave watercolor paper that are lovely. They will take a bit of getting used to if you are accustomed to 100% cotton paper but should pose no issue if you are used to cellulose papers. You can also find paper with some recycled content like Strathmore Art Again paper.
  • Other: There are other specialty papers that I am not delving into today because they are not generally used as a substrate for colored pencils and mixed media. Rice, mulberry, and other organic papers are beautiful for collage on your work but are delicate and would be torn up easily under the pressure from the colored pencils. Stone and resin paper is new interesting material but I am not very familiar with it.

White or toned?

Choosing the shade of paper you work on is a personal preference. Your artwork will generally appear brighter on white paper but if you like to use opaque media a toned surface can make your work go faster and be exciting to create on. I really love toned tan surfaces but that is a personal preference. Colored cardstock is an economical way to try toned surfaces and due to the popularity of scrapbooking there are a lot of archival options. That said since scrapbooks are designed to be kept in a book away from light some of this cardstock will fade when exposed to light. Your best bet is to stick with earth or muted tones as opposed to brights to limit the chance of fading.

Surface textures

Super smooth papers: This surface is best for use with pens or markers as it is gentle on nibs and usually will not feather. You can apply a limited amount of colored pencil on top to enhance a marker drawing but you won’t be able to get many layers without the pencil skipping or gumming up. Softer pencils work best on smooth paper. You can expect 1-2 layers of pencil on this paper but ideally, you are using colored pencils for accents over other media.

  • Yupo: A slick plastic paper suitable for watercolor, alcohol ink, India ink, alcohol marker, and pencil. Avoid using heat.
  • Marker paper: This thin, slick, and coated paper is best suited for alcohol markers and does not accept pencils well. *Thicker marker cardstock is more similar to smooth bristol.
  • Smooth Bristol board: This is a thick, smooth, sized paper that accepts all kinds of markers and ink and takes pencil very well. I have not seen much difference between Bristol from different companies so try what is convenient and affordable.

Smooth paper: Smooth paper has a bit more tooth to grab the pencil well, but because it is smooth it will not require a ton of effort to fill in the tooth. You can manage to get 3-5 layers of pencil on smooth paper in my experience.

  • Strathmore mixed media paper: this is my favorite smooth paper. It comes in white, tan, grey, blue, green and black. It is affordable and comes in a variety of convenient pad sizes. I love using this with marker and gouache for the underpainting and colored pencil on top.
  • Stonehenge: This is a 100% cotton printmaking paper that is available in pads or full sheets in a variety of muted tones plus white and black. I like the white version of this paper. *Note: There is also a Stonehenge Aqua watercolor paper with a cold-pressed (medium rough) surface available in black and white.
  • Derwent Lightfast paper: This 100% cotton luxury archival paper has a natural tone and is formulated to be used with Derwent Lightfast pencils to be archival. It is similar in feel to Stonehenge.
  • Strathmore toned tan and toned grey drawing paper: These pads are great for colored pencils but lack the tooth for pastel or charcoal without transferring badly to the facing pages. Fixative is recommended if you wish to use the dustier mediums. *Contains 30% recycled content.

Medium Smooth Papers: These papers have a bit more tooth so you easily apply many layers of colored pencils as well as use them for mixed media applications. Since there is more tooth you can use pencil, charcoal, and light pastel. Papers noted as “mixed media” will accept light washes of ink or paint without too much warping.

  • Briston Vellum: This paper has all of the attributes of bristol smooth but it will accept more pencil layers, yet it is still smooth enough not to damage your pens or markers. A wonderful all-around surface. It’s even smooth enough for rubber stamping.
  • Hahnemuhle Bamboo Mixed Media: This is a very sturdy paper that takes most mediums very well. The weight prevents buckling.
  • Other Mixed Media pads: There are several mixed media and drawing pads available. The Canson XL mixed media pad is a good potion, it features a vellum surface, it takes light washes, and most media adequately. It is quite affordable and makes a great sketchbook. It’s perfect for colored pencils.
  • Vellum Surface Drawing Paper: This is a great, no-frills, surface for dry media such as pencil, charcoal, Conte, and light applications of pastel.

Watercolor Paper (multiple surfaces) When you want to use watercolor, gouache, or water-soluble inks as a base layer watercolor paper is the perfect substrate as it is sized so it can handle lots of water without buckling or feathering. The most common weights are: 90# (thin), 140# (standard), and 300# (thick almost like chipboard.) Papers are available in cotton, cellulose, a blend of the two as well as synthetic, recycled, and eco-friendly options. 100% Cotton will be the most reliable, archival, and expensive. Avoid using alcohol ink or alcohol markers on this paper. Refrain from using pens on the rougher papers to avoid damaging the nibs. There are dozens of brands making beautiful watercolor paper for any budget and need. Mould-made papers offer a beautiful random texture. Machine-made papers (like the Strathmore 300 yellow pads which I don’t recommend) sometimes have a distinct texture pattern that I find distracting and unappealing. Handmade papers are typically very rough and unsuitable for colored pencils but lovely for other applications.

  • Hot Press: Smooth paper capable of taking lots of water, pen & ink, and water-based markers. Colored pencils and water-soluble pencils can be used well on this paper.
  • Cold press: Moderately textured, good all-around surface.
  • Rough: Heavily textured, you get a grainy look when using colored pencils on this paper.
  • Handmade: This is even rougher but the soft sizing of this paper gives it less bite and so pencils may have a hard time sticking to it. I don’t recommend it for pencils. Handmade watercolor papers come in hot, cold-pressed, and rough but are much more textured than their machine or mould made counterparts.

Medium Rough/Typical Pastel Papers

  • Canson Mi-Teintes: Dual-sided (smooth/rough) great all-around paper available in a lot of colors in pads or sheets. I recommend this versatile paper for all dry media.
  • Strathmore Art Again: 30% recycled textured paper available in sheets and pads of assorted colors. Acid-free, I checked.
  • Ingres: This is a thinner and softer pastel paper with a linear texture to it. I personally do not like it as much as Mi-Teintes but many artists do.

Coated or Sanded Specialty Papers

  • Canson XL Sand Grain Dry Mixed Media Paper: This is, in my opinion, the best value in paper for pencils or pastels. It comes in natural and grey and is a dream to work on. It s 90# but it will accept a watercolor wash and you can layer for days. Grab a pad and you won’t be disappointed.
  • Pastelmat: If you like to layer check out this paper. It is the most expensive paper I have showcased today but its ability for holding layers of pencil and working light over dark is unmatched. I find colored pencils to be very slow going on it tho so I prefer to use it for pastels. This is a great paper for ultra-realistic techniques.
  • UART Premium Sanded Pastel paper 400 grit. I really love this paper, especially for use with my harder pencils like Procolour. The pad states it is acid-free but there is a bit of controversy about this in the art community. It is available in 7 grits, I have used the 400 grit and really enjoy it. I hope it is indeed acid-free as the pad states it is.

A (not so) secret weapon!

  • Liquitex Clear Gesso! I have been priming matboard with this and loving the surface for months. It adds the ideal amount of tooth for colored pencils and is also good for pastels. You can even add it over a collage or watercolor/ink underpainting to bring in more tooth for pencils on top. This stuff is magic. You can paint it on your plain paper as well so if you have a paper you are not happy with, tape it down so it doesn’t buckle and apply a thin coat of clear gesso and see what you think. I have had great luck with Liquitex but other brands have not worked as well for me.

I also wanted to recommend all of the Strathmore Visual Journal spiral-bound pads. They are a solid choice and you can find just about all of the surfaces I mentioned above, except the coated/sanded versions, in these affordable pads. They are cellulose but they are still of excellent quality for the price. If you are on a budget or you just want a middle-of-the-road solid paper to experiment on that won’t break the bank you can’t go wrong.

I hope this paper rundown was helpful. I encourage you to experiment with the papers you have. If your favorite is not on my list drop it in the comments and tell us why you like it. That will help others who find this blog post in the future. Even if I don’t like a paper it doesn’t mean it won’t work well for you. Let’s all use the supplies we love to create! Happy crafting!

*Affiliate links used in this blog post.