8 Fantastic Surfaces to Draw On (Especially for Colored Pencil Artists)

By Carrie Lewis in Art Tutorials > Drawing Tips

When most people think of colored pencils and colored pencil art, they also think of paper. Why? Because pencils and paper go together like peanut butter and jelly. But drawing papers aren’t the only option for colored pencil artists!

Here are my favorite drawing surfaces:

These 8 surfaces are great for drawing on, and should be in every artist’s studio.

1. Printmaking papers

Printmaking papers are the papers that etchings, lino prints, copperplate prints, silk screens, and other forms of prints are printed on. Printmaking papers need to absorb ink from printing plates, so they are generally softer, thicker, and more absorbent than drawing papers. They come in a variety of colors and include shades of white and neutral tones.

Because of their softer surface, printmaking papers are more susceptible to surface damage, so exercise more care in working with them than you would with regular drawing paper. My favorite brand of printmaking paper is Stonehenge, but I do hate the fact that it seems to scratch if I look at it the wrong way. It can take a lot of layers if you apply color with medium-heavy pressure or lighter. Other brands of printmaking papers are BFK Rives, Arches, and Somerset.

The drawing below was created with a mix of water-soluble and traditional colored pencils on a fawn-colored sheet of Stonehenge paper.

2. Watercolor papers

Watercolor paper is obviously great for water-soluble colored pencil work, but it can be also used for dry pencil work, as well as a combination of both. The texture of the paper plays a significant role in defining your artwork, however, so be prepared. You can develop a high degree of detail with watercolor paper, but it will be much more difficult than working with a smooth paper.

On the other hand, watercolor papers are great for less representational styles or for creating special effects with any subject. They’re especially suitable to landscapes and more impressionistic styles.

This image (above) is a mix of water soluble and traditional colored pencil on watercolor paper. The paper wasn’t extremely coarse in texture, but you can see in the detail photo below how the texture of the paper affected the final appearance of the drawing.

3. Sandpapers

Yes—you can work on basic, everyday, hardware-store sandpaper if you prefer, but UArt makes a great line of sanded paper in both dark and light tones, designed for artistic purposes. It comes in four grades ranging from 240 grit (coarse) to 800 grit (fine). If you’re looking for a unique and painterly look for your colored pencil drawings, give this a try.

The only downside I’ve found is that it eats pencils for lunch AND dinner. This landscape is on 800 grit UArt paper.

4. Pastel papers

Pastel papers and pads are designed with a coarser tooth to hold dry and oil pastel pigments. Some are sanded, some are not, but all are suitable for colored pencil work.

Some companies also produce board versions of their popular pastel papers. You can create beautiful colored pencil art on any of them and, if you protect the drawing with a retouch varnish, you don’t have to put it under glass.

5. Mat boards

Most of us know mat board is the material from which mats are cut, but do you also know it makes a great drawing surface? Mat board comes in a wide range of colors and surface textures, from eggshell-smooth to linen texture, to coarse texture. You don’t have to look far to find a surface and color to suit whatever type of artwork you enjoy.

Make sure to look for “conservation quality” mat board. Conservation mat board is manufactured to be archival so that it won’t turn yellow or leech harmful chemicals into your artwork. My personal favorite is Crescent, but there are other manufacturers producing equally good mat board.

Select mat board in person the first few times so you can see the color and the surface texture before buying a large sheet. If you can’t get to a frame shop or art supply store, contact a company direct and request a sample set of mat corners.

This equine portrait is on gray mat board with a medium texture. The detail below shows how the tooth of the mat board shows through in areas where my color layers are not very heavy.

6. Wood

Wood is an excellent support for colored pencil. I’ve only worked with small blocks to draw landscapes, but any size can work.

Hardwoods are probably your best bet when working on wood because they are denser and more likely to stand the test of time. However, any wood that can be sanded or planed to a smooth (or fairly smooth) surface can be drawn on.

One benefit to wood is that you can work on it without preparing the surface. You can also prep it with gesso or paint, either of which allows you to add a base color to the preparation layer.

7. Acetate/Vellum/Mylar

These materials were developed for drawing on when technical drawings were still done by hand. They are petroleum-based products with very smooth surfaces. Most of them are translucent to one degree or another, which lets you work on both sides if you wish. They don’t handle erasing very well, so you need a sure hand and careful color application to get the best results.

I’ve yet to try them, but they are high on my wish list.

8. Plexiglas

Lastly, most of us only think of Plexiglas when we’re considering framing finished artwork. . . but you can also draw on it!

It requires a little preparation beforehand (peeling off the non-scratch surface protection and coating it with a ground) but that’s all. The really neat thing about working with Plexiglas is that you can draw on both sides to create a drawing that really does have depth. That’s the reason it’s on my list of supports to try. It scratches easily, however, so handle it with care.

To sum up: if you’ve been working exclusively on paper or on one type of paper, it’s time to try something new. A new paper; a new color of paper. . . or something really radical. Try one of the options above and see what you can create!


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