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My Favorite Drawing Supports (Plus a Few Other Drawing Surfaces I Recommend)

It’s that time of year when we all start thinking about trying something new (right?) So today I wanted to answer a few questions about drawing supports, beginning with the most frequent questions that I come across:

1. Do I have to draw on paper?

The short answer is no. While most colored pencil artists (and dry media artists of all types, for that matter) do draw on paper, it is by no means the only support that works with colored pencil.

There are also many different varieties of paper available. You could draw on a different type, weight or color of paper every week for a couple of years and never even run out of new options to try.

But sometimes an artist wants something besides paper. So. . .

2. What other surfaces work for colored pencil?

The possibilities are nearly endless. Here are just a few that I’ve tried:

NOTE: You can click any of the links below for additional information and artist reviews of each product. Purchases made at DickBlick.com help support EE, but as always, all opinions presented are my own.

Mat board. This is one of my favorite alternate supports. I like it because it’s rigid, which means that it’s sturdier than most papers, and can take a lot more layers of color (and abuse in general) when you’re drawing on it.

It also comes in a wider range of textures and surfaces than paper. Mat board is available in a range of surfaces from one that’s almost like watercolor paper to others that are nearly as smooth as an egg shell.

Another advantage to mat board is color. Have you looked at the colors available at your local framer’s shop? A good framer usually has two or three racks of sample corners on display, and any of those colors can be purchased for drawing on. Imagine the possibilities!

Finally, if you mat your drawing with the same color and style of board you draw on, you can create some truly unique pieces of art. You can also mat in complementary colors of the same type of mat board or combine types of mat board. It’s just a great surface to work with.

Suede mat board. A lot of artists are discovering (and loving) suede mat board. The surface is very unique—it’s almost like drawing on velvet. I’ve tried it for small studies and like the results enough to be planning a purchase.

Suede mat board doesn’t come in all the colors available with traditional mat board (nor are there as many varieties of surface textures) but it IS usually archival.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you’re considering mat board of any kind, make sure to buy a brand that’s archival or museum quality both for drawing and framing. Mat board of lesser quality may contain acids that can leach into drawings and cause discoloration or other damage.

Wood. Some time ago, I wrote about drawing with colored pencils on wood. While wood isn’t necessarily on my list of favorite drawing supports, it’s still a good surface for colored pencils.

You can draw on pretty much any type of wood, but if you’re creating work you want to last, stick with the same surfaces oil painters have been painting on for centuries: hardwoords and birches.

3. What brands of paper or board do YOU like?

Now we’re down to where the rubber meets the road!

As I already mentioned, my favorite drawing support is smooth mat board—usually something like Crescent Museum.

I buy full sheets of archival or museum quality mat board, then cut it into common sizes for easy storage and use. Of course, if I want to do something large, this is pretty much my only choice, since few papers are available at the size of a full sheet of mat board.

I’ve used mat board to draw 20×24 inch portraits and have been very happy with it. Not only is it more stable for drawing than a large sheet of paper, it’s also easier to frame.

My favorite paper—bar none!—is Rising Stonehenge. Originally intended for printmaking, Stonehenge is a sturdy paper with a soft-ish surface. What I like about it is that it can take large amounts of color and countless layers. It’s also easy to impress lines to create intricate detail and it can take a good deal of abuse from erasers—even electric erasers.

Color options are limited (white, black, light blue, and a handful of light neutral tones) but those colors are perfect for me, since I mostly do landscapes and animal portraits.

My biggest complaint with Stonehenge is that it’s so easy to mar the surface. It’s just as easy to accidentally impress lines as to deliberately impress them. Sometimes just looking at it the wrong way seems to indent the surface. :)

That said, it’s usually easy to correct those errors by carefully filling them in with a needle-sharp pencil. And, Rising Stonehenge is conveniently available in small pads and full sheets of 90lb and 120lb weights.

Of course, if I want a paper with a little harder surface, I reach for a sheet of Strathmore Artagain paper.

Artagain is a sturdy, medium-weight black-fiber enhanced paper made from 30% post consumer material. It’s capable of taking and holding a good deal of color, and the surface is almost brittle in comparison to Rising Stonehenge, which makes it much more difficult to leave impressed marks either intentionally or accidentally.

It’s acid-free, archival, and also quite smooth. Eight colors are available and you can buy the paper in pads of assorted colors or black or in 19” x 24” sheets.

I should also mention that the black fibers gives the paper an interesting appearance. If I have anything against Artagain, it’s the fact that it doesn’t come in a true white and that most of the other colors are fairly dark.

Lastly, Bristol is another favorite surface of mine to draw on. Both of the Bristol surfaces (pads and boards) are excellent for rendering detail and are tough enough to take a lot of color and erasing. I’ve had no problems with Bristol at any weight, but I prefer regular finish to vellum.

I’ve used other supports once or twice and some more than that, but these are my favorites. Primarily I’ve chosen them because they take a lot of color and allow me to develop a high degree of detail whether I’m drawing horses or landscapes or just doodling.

In short, if you like adding detail to your drawings, or adding lots of layers, then any of these surfaces would probably be ideal for you, too. Give one of them a try in 2016!

*Note: this post may contain affiliate links*

It isn’t by accident that I teach students brush illustration before we begin working on the ABC's. There’s a little silence when I mention the word "illustration," followed by a sense of confusion and fear.

After all, they came to my calligraphy class to learn to make beautiful letters.

. . . read more

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