You’d think it would be the easiest thing in the world: finding some paper to start your art project. But when you’re just starting out in the world of art (such as GCSE students etc) it can be perplexing to navigate your way around the vast options available. Don’t be tempted to reach for the cheapest option just to save some money! I’m sure plenty of you have been in a situation where you begin full of enthusiasm only to find that your paper is wrinkling or your ink bleeding. This is because it really is important to be using the right kind of paper for your piece, it really can make or break a piece. I’m going to take you through the basics of choosing a sketchbook when you’re just starting out, or are just getting serious about pursuing your artistic interest. I’ll be putting key points/tips in bold/colour.
All sketch books will generally be suitable for what it says in the title: sketching. Just getting some ideas down in pencil. Where problems usually arise is when you begin using other mediums, especially ‘wet’ mediums such as paints and ink. The very basic sketchbooks you can find almost anywhere (such as budget shops) are usually not suitable for anything more than just getting down some ideas in pencil.
Over the years I’ve learnt to feel my paper before choosing in addition to looking at the description/symbols on the front of the book/pad (more on this later). Generally, cheap papers are quite rough to the touch and will feel thin. Slightly higher quality paper will feel thicker, but may also have a rough texture. But BEWARE! If you do choose a cheap sketchbook for just doodling it’s good to know that cheaper kinds of paper won’t usually stand very much erasing. Ever seen higher quality paper advertised as being ‘acid free’? This is beneficial because it means your work is less likely to fade and the paper less likely to break down.
Let’s talk about cartridge paper…this type of paper is widely available and a lot of illustrators and artists are happy to use it. If you do decide to go for basic cartridge paper for paints such as watercolour bear in mind it must first be prepared. Painting directly on to lower GSM* cartridge paper will cause buckling and you’ll end up with a wibbly painting! The process of preparing paper for watercolours/gouache is known as ‘stretching’. It’ll take a little effort to do, so if you’re desperate to get stuck in to some work straight away using wet mediums it’s best to avoid low GSM cartridge, or make sure you have a stash of pre-prepared sheets. I learnt how to stretch paper on an ‘introduction to art’ summer school at a local college when I was 15 and found the course a real stepping stone into GCSE art, which then progressed to A level, which then progressed to a degree. By the time you reach university it’ll just be assumed that you know these basics. It’s good to look out for taster courses or holiday schools at local colleges/uni’s as you could pick up some skills that prove useful for the rest of your artistic journey. You can find so many videos on Youtube showing you how to stretch paper: link
Now we’ve covered the cheaper ‘everyday’ papers let’s look into specifics. The good news is that a lot of the sketchbooks they stock in art and hobby stores usually have guides on the front, it’s just a matter of reading the symbols and understanding what certain things mean. Something I found confusing for a while was ‘hot pressed’ and ‘cold pressed’. It’s actually as simple as this: hot-pressed paper has a smoother, finer surface, whilst cold-pressed has a more textured surface. Some pads don’t even mention these terms though and keep it more straight-forward by saying ‘smooth’ or ‘grained’. It’s really a matter of personal reference, I use both depending on the finish I want. As I usually work with a lot of detail I generally avoid heavily grained papers as lines can be less ‘crisp’. Thanks to the information on a lot of sketchbooks it’s actually now easier than ever to select your book. Some pads will say ‘mixed media’, meaning that generally any medium is ‘safe’ to use, others will say ‘watercolour’ or ‘drawing’ (Daler Rowney label their sketchbooks really well making it easier to select one). As for symbols, they’re easy to work out; a paintbrush head means it’s suitable for paint, a fountain pen means fountain pens can be used, a fineliner/pen means drawing pens may be used and what looks like a conte stick means pastels can be used. But there’s one area that I know confuses a lot of people…GSM*. This stands for ‘grams per square metre’. Basically, the higher the GSM the heavier the paper, meaning it can handle more. GSM is sometimes written as ‘G/M2’. Papers with high GSM are usually labelled as ‘heavyweight’.
I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand what paper you’re using before you begin an important project, mainly to avoid frustration over things like buckling, bleeding, eroding etc. I think the most important thing you can do is read the specs of the paper (even individual sheets in art/craft stores will usually have a little label telling you hot/cold pressed and GSM) and if you’re not sure then ask!
Time for some recommendations! For general doodling and really rough work I carry around a small ‘Graduate‘ sketchbook. These are Daler Rowney’s reasonable, lower GSM books that come in various sizes. Hobbycraft also offer their own version of these, with a similar GSM and a very modest price tag. For work that I plan to use (for exhibitions, card designs etc) I rarely stray far from Daler Rowney finegrain heavyweight paper as I find it can hold all mediums really well. I’ve used pastels, oils, gouache, pens, pencil and I’m always happy with the results (though be careful if working on small areas in oils especially oils that have been thinned as sometimes you can get a ‘halo’). I also recommend Daler Rowney’s smooth heavyweight when I want less of a textured surface. If I’m solely using gouache or watercolour I may also opt for their Aquafine smooth pad.
So that’s it, your guide to choosing the perfect sketchbook. Happy creating!