Painting Surfaces


This article is courtesy of the Artists Network written by Greg Albert - it is one of the best articles on paper we have seen lately.

On the Surface: Find the right substrate in our primer on art paper, canvas and panels. 

By Greg Albert 

Nothing replaces the knowledge that comes from your own experience, so it’s worthwhile to experiment with a large assortment of substrates to find out what works best for you.

Paper without a doubt is the most common and popular surface for artists to work on. Compared to the cost of what you put on the paper (charcoal, graphite, inks, pastels or paint) and the tools you use (brushes, pens or markers), paper is relatively inexpensive.

Paper is made of plant fibers, most commonly cotton or wood, but also other fibers, such as rice, straw, flax and hemp. All natural materials are subject to decay over time, which is an important consideration for the artist. Light, heat, humidity and pollutants all contribute to this process. When looking for paper that will stand the test of time, check for the words cotton rag, alpha cellulose or lignin-free.

The deckle edge of handmade paper

Handmade paper is made by dipping a wooden frame with a fine screen (called a deckle) into a vat of pulp–a mixture of water and cotton, wood pulp or other fibers. After the water runs off, the sheet of pulp is removed from the screen and pressed between layers of felt to dry. The paper might then be processed further by being run through rollers. One sign of handmade paper is deckle edges, which are uneven or ragged.

Machine-made paper is produced on a Fourdrinier machine or a cylinder mold machine. In a Fourdrinier machine, a conveyor belt made of wire mesh pulls pulp through the process. The continuous sheet is dried and pressed as it passes through many rollers and is finally wound into large rolls. A cylinder mold machine works in a similar way; the resulting papers are described as mould-made.

Machine-made paper is more regular, smoother and often less expensive than handmade paper. But surface quality is always determined by the screens used. Many papers have what’s called a laid finish, formed by the fine pattern of the wire screen. The thickness of paper is also determined in the manufacturing process. The thickness is indicated by weight.

NOTE: The word paper is derived from papyrus, the name of the plant whose fibers the ancient Egyptians used to create a writing surface:

  • Wood-based papers: These less-expensive art papers are suitable for practice work in dry media.
  • Cotton rag: This high-quality paper is suitable for dry media, watermedia (when sizing is added) or acrylic and oil (when heavy and primed).
  • Coated papers: These ground-coated, velour and sanded papers provide more tooth and grab the filaments of dry media like pastel.

Wood-based papers:

Cheaper paper made from wood pulp is suitable for disposable work. When you’re practicing your techniques rather than producing a piece of art, the permanence of the paper isn’t a major concern, though price might be. Newsprint is an excellent choice; it’s cheap and receptive to most dry media, such as graphite, charcoal, crayons and colored pencil. It’s not suitable for wet media, however. Newsprint not only buckles when wet, it also darkens temporarily, making color and value judgment difficult. Newsprint shows signs of deterioration within a few years.

So-called drawing papers and sketchbooks are often made of wood-based paper, or a mix of wood and cotton fibers. Alpha cellulose paper is made of specially treated wood fibers and is longer-lasting than other wood pulp papers. The quality is often comparable to that of cotton rag papers.

Common surfaces of cotton rag, from left to right: cold pressed, rough, hot pressed

Cotton rag:

For the work you want to keep or sell, use high-quality paper made from cotton rag. If you’re using dry media such as graphite, charcoal or pastel, the paper’s texture and color will be the most important considerations. If you’re working with liquid media such as watercolor, ink or markers, the paper’s absorbency and weight will also be factors to think about.

Drawing paper made from cotton fibers is the obvious choice for dry media such as graphite and charcoal, and there are many such papers to choose from. They come in individual sheets and in pads or spiral bindings. Paper described as drawing or sketch paper is usually white and comes in a variety of surface finishes, from smooth to rough. Surface texture is also called tooth, referring to how the surface holds particles of graphite, charcoal or pastel. The softer your medium, the more tooth you want. Smooth paper is great for graphite, but it doesn’t hold charcoal or pastel as well as drawing paper with a rougher texture.

For those softer mediums, look for paper with more texture, often called charcoal or pastel paper. Canson Mi-Teintes, Canson Ingres, Strathmore 500 Series and Fabriano Tiziano are good choices for charcoal as well as graphite. Canson, Strathmore and Fabriano also produce heavyweight paper ideal for acrylic paint.

Handmade and mould-made, 100-percent cotton rag watercolor papers are among the finest art papers. They’re still produced today as they have been for centuries by Arches, Fabriano, Saunders Waterford, Twinrocker and others. When the paper is made, it’s allowed to dry without passing through rollers; hence, the surface is very irregular and referred to as rough (or “not,” as in not pressed). If the paper is pressed between unheated rollers, the surface becomes smoother but still retains a noticeable texture; this is called cold pressed. If the paper is passed between hot rollers, the surface of the paper becomes smooth and hard and is labeled hot pressed.

Gelatin sizing is often added to watercolor paper, either to the pulp or to the final sheets. Sizing makes the paper stronger and also water-resistant; without sizing, the paper would act like a giant blotter, soaking up everything it came in contact with. (Most papers contain some sizing.)

Paper Weights: 

Paper is measured in gsm (grams per square meter) or lb (pounds per ream—a ream is 500 sheets of paper). Comparing gsm and lb measurements is like comparing apples to oranges—there’s no direct conversion.

Papers suitable for dry media are 60 to 90 lb. Heavier paper withstands more vigorous techniques and manipulations. Bristol board is a heavier sheet (80 to 140 lb) that comes in a smooth (vellum) or ultra-smooth (plate) finish. Heavy watercolor paper—especially rough, 300-lb paper primed on both sides—is a good surface for acrylic or oil paintings.

Coated paper for artists: Most papers suitable for charcoal work well for pastel—especially colored charcoal paper. But papers such as Hahnemühle velour and Bugra, Amalfi handmade pastel papers and Sennelier Papier Carré, made especially for pastel, have surface textures ideally suited for the medium. Some papers have a ground coating that really grabs pastels, such as Sennelier La Carte pastel card, Wallis sanded pastel paper, UArt sanded pastel paper, Ampersand Pastelbord and Art Spectrum Colourfix Supertooth board.

Three types of nontraditional paper for artists, from left to right: ginwashi (inclusion ppaer made with kozo and manila hemp), unryu paper (mulberry or rice paper with kozo strands) with gold and silver flakes, unbleached mulberry paper

Nontraditional art papers: There’s a fascinating variety of specialty papers made from fibers other than cotton or wood available. Delicate Japanese papers made from kozo (mulberry), mitsumata and gampi fibers are especially good for printmaking and collage.

Yupo synthetic paper is made from polypropylene, which doesn’t absorb paint as organic fibers do. With synthetic paper, the artist can manipulate paint on the surface to create interesting effects.


  • Watercolor Paper: Saturate the paper by soaking it for several minutes in cool water.
  • Canvas: Using stretcher bars, staple or tack the center of one side; staple the center on the opposite side; repeat. You’ll have a taut diamond shape with four loose corners. Starting from the center, staple each side. Fold the extra canvas at the corners and staple the folds.


The traditional and time-honored surface for paintings is canvas. Artists have been paint- ing on stretched canvas using paints ground in linseed oil for centuries. Stretched canvas is lightweight (and therefore portable) and relatively inexpensive. Nothing compares to the feel of painting with a high-quality brush on well-stretched canvas.

Artist’s canvas is made from cotton or linen; it’s sold primed or unprimed and comes in rolls, pre-stretched or mounted on panels. Cotton canvas, sometimes called cotton duck (from doek, the Dutch word for canvas), is less expensive than linen. Linen is made from the flax plant, the same source as linseed oil. Canvas comes in rolls in a variety of widths and weights: Generally, lightweight canvas is 4 to 6 ounces, medium-weight is 7 to 9 ounces, and heavyweight is 10 to 12 ounces.

Raw, untreated canvas must not come directly in contact with oil paint, which causes the fabric to rot. Traditionally, canvas was sized with glue made from rabbit skin and primed with lead-based paint. Now artists can choose to stretch raw canvas and prime it with several coats of acrylic gesso, or use canvas prepared with an acrylic or oil primer. Stretching a canvas properly can be an exacting process but not a difficult one. The more you do it, the easier it gets. For a lucid explanation, consult Phil Metzger’s Artist’s Illustrated Encyclopedia(North Light Books, 2001). In any case, pre-stretched canvases or canvas panels provide a convenient and economical option.

Pre-stretched canvases come in a wide variety of sizes, thicknesses and textures, ranging in quality from inexpensive to the caliber for professional work of the highest permanence. As is generally true with art materials, you get what you pay for. For good quality pre-stretched canvases at an affordable price, look for 7-ounce cotton primed with acid-free gesso and back-stapled on solid wood stretcher bars. For the next step up, look for linen (preferably Belgian) double-primed and back-stapled on heavy, kiln-dried bars.

Priming Canvas: Acrylic gesso is a suitable ground for acrylic, pastel or gouache; true gesso (white pigment, mixed with a binder of glue, often with an addition of marble dust) is suitable for egg tempera and oil. If you use an oil-based ground, make sure the canvas has been sized with gelatin or glue.


An attractive alternative to using stretched canvas is painting on panels, which are made of various materials. Panels provide a rigid, stable substrate not subject to the movement that can lead to cracking on stretched canvases. Panels are made out of solid wood such as maple and birch, or out of plywood, medium- density fiberboard or acid-free hardboard. Panels come unprimed or pre-primed. You can buy panels cradled on a wooden frame for extra rigidity. There are also panels with canvas or watercolor paper mounted on the surface.

Unprimed panels can be prepared with several light coats of acrylic gesso applied in alternating directions. Better yet, use a gesso specifically formulated for use on panels, such as Art Boards acrylic panel gesso.

Canvas panels consisting of cheap canvas glued to cardboard are neither permanent nor warp-resistant and are suitable only for practice. Most pre-stretched canvases, canvas panels or artist’s boards come with a medium texture. Adding extra layers of gesso, lightly sanded between coats, produces a smoother surface, which is conducive to portrait work.

Types of  panels:

  • Wood panels: Birch or maple panel primed with several coats of acrylic gesso provides an unyielding surface suitable for finely detailed work.
  • Clayboard panels: This rigid hardboard is coated with fine kaolin clay, producing either a textured or a smooth surface.
  • Art Board panels: This acrylic-primed panel is suitable for painting with oil or acrylic.

The satisfaction you get from your art will be greater knowing you’re working on the right surface. Keep in mind that most drawing and painting media work on most surfaces, and experimenting can be both creative and instructive. I think you’ll discover that when you’ve found the right surface, diving deep into your artwork is easy.

GREG ALBERT is an artist and teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of The Simple Secret to Better Painting and he is a regular contributor to The Artist’s Magazine.

Brad Speirs
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