Guide To Art Paper, Canvas and Panels. Find the Right Substrate for Your Artwork23/09/2021
When you buy art supplies, you want to get the best value for your money. To make the smartest choices, you need to be intimately familiar with the materials you buy and use. This guide will help you make wiser decisions about the surface you draw and paint on – whether it’s paper, canvas or panels. 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 fibres, most commonly cotton or wood, but also other fibres, 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 a paper that will stand the test of time, check for the words cotton rag, alpha-cellulose or lignin-free.
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 fibres. 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 mould 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 mould 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 the paper is also determined in the manufacturing process. The thickness is indicated by weight.
Cheaper paper made from wood pulp is suitable for disposable work. When you’re practising your techniques rather than producing a piece of art, the permanence of the paper isn’t a major concern, though the price might be. Newsprint is an excellent choice; it’s cheap and receptive to most dry media, such as graphite, charcoal, crayons and coloured pencil. It’s not suitable for wet media, however. Newsprint not only buckles when wet, but it also darkens temporarily, making colour 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 fibres. Alpha cellulose paper is made of specially treated wood fibres and is longer-lasting than other wood pulp papers. The quality is often comparable to that of cotton rag papers.
Wood-based papers: These less-expensive art papers are suitable for practice work in dry media.
For the work, you want to keep or sell, use high-quality paper made from cotton rags. If you’re using dry media such as graphite, charcoal or pastel, the paper’s texture and colour will be the most important considerations. If you’re working with liquid media such as watercolour, ink or markers, the paper’s absorbency and weight will also be factors to think about.
Drawing paper made from cotton fibres 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.
Cotton papers: This high-quality paper is suitable for dry media, water media (when sizing is added) or acrylic and oil (when heavy and primed).
Most papers suitable for charcoal work well for pastel – especially coloured 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.
Coated papers: These ground-coated, velour and sanded papers provide more tooth and grab the filaments of dry media like pastel.
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 watercolour 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 coloured 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.
The traditional and time-honoured surface for paintings is a canvas. Artists have been painting 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 a 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, the lightweight canvas is 4 to 6 ounces, medium-weight is 7 to 9 ounces, and heavyweight is 10 to 12 ounces.
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 watercolour 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.