An (extremely unscientific) paper test

Last week I was working on some new ink drawings (using brush and pen) and started running low on paper. I made a run to the art store down the street to re-up, figuring on a 20-minute errand: walk in, pick up the usual, then be on my way. But they didn't have my usual paper, and I realized I had no idea, really, what I should be looking for in an alternative. I found myself standing there in the paper aisle, wandering back and forth, staring at the shelf labels; 20 minutes came and went, and then another.

Part of the issue is that ink wash ( (Note: ”Ink wash” and “ink drawing” are terms with a lot of interpretations. Wikipedia’s entry defines it as a traditional Asian art form — particularly Chinese "literati" style painting. However, I've heard the term also used to describe certain kinds of cartooning and line drawing. I use "ink wash" in a very broad way, meaning any form of ink drawing that uses both wet and dry media. ) ) is a medium that makes kind of odd demands on paper. It includes both precise black lines and loose, watery tones; it's both a “dry” and “wet” medium. It's a little bit like watercolor, but often tighter and more line-based, with less layering. It's also a bit like pen-and-ink, but often looser and more gestural. In short: hard to find good paper for it if you're just going by the shelf labels.

Likewise, most of my drawings are meant to be scanned; very little of my work on paper is “finished.” That means I need smooth, reasonably neutral-toned paper. And it shouldn’t warp too badly if it gets wet (I hate scanning a drawing and then discovering that a quarter of it is blurred).

Hot press watercolor paper does all this pretty well, and I'd been using it happily for awhile. But it's drawbacks are getting a little harder to deal with: it's pretty expensive, for one, and it can be hard to find. And, because it's expensive and hard to find, it often feels like overkill to use it for work that I'm only scanning. Sometimes I'll need to do a dozen small drawings for a given illustration, and it can be pretty painful to blow an entire $30 pad of Fabriano on one piece. Especially if I run out and then need to drive to Baltimore to get more.

In the end, hot press is already working for me, but I wanted to find out if there's a cheaper, more ubiquitous alternative I could use alongside it. This “workhorse” paper could handle everyday stuff, and I could save a pad of hot press for the more challenging stuff.

So I did a quick and extremely unscientific test of a few common papers using a variety of super-wet to super-dry brush strokes. This was done mostly on scraps of paper I had around my office (like I said, unscientific), but the results were both helpful and surprising; these familiar papers behaved a bit differently than I'd expected. (I'll try to revisit this post occasionally and add more papers as I try new kinds out.)

  • A wet-on-wet swirl with a very loaded brush, and then a swirl of dry brush on top. (1)
  • A few wet-on-dry strokes, going from dark to light (loaded brush to light brush). (2)
  • A super light wet-on-dry stroke. (3)
  • A few dark strokes going from dry to wet brush, with a thin, dry stroke through them. (4-5)
  • Some pen lines: medium-nib fountain pen, fine-nib fountain pen, and felt-tip marker. (7-9)

Bristol board

Paper test: Strathmore Bristol board

Bristol Board is great stuff, but I'd always assumed it was for dry media only. I saw it as a cartoonist’s paper - great for precise dry-brush and marker. And that's true: a #3 sable brush and Bristol Board go together like white wine and fish. Hard to go wrong.

But what really surprised me here was how well it took a wash. In #1 and 2 above, it soaked up even the most drenched places with almost no pooling or “haloing” around the edges. Light washes and wet-on-wet tapered off nicely, with a little bit of fibrous bleeding but nothing too bad. Even more surprising was that the board didn’t warp that badly.

Bristol Board has always been a pretty ideal paper for scanning, thanks to its smooth surface and bright white tone (this was “vellum” finish, so it was slightly more textured. Curious to try the smoother finish and see how it compares). With my heavy washes, it needed to be weighted under a book to scan in perfect focus, but otherwise it worked far beyond my expectations. Really nice to have my assumptions proven wrong here.

Strathmore Mixed Media paper

Paper test: Strathmore mixed media

“Mixed media” paper is, I had supposed, a paper designed exactly for what I needed: wet and dry stuff in the same place. Where I had assumed, before, that Bristol Board was for dry media, I'd likewise assumed that it's wet-media-friendly counterpart was this stuff. So I used it for awhile but was disappointed here and there by it. Sometimes it wouldn't handle a wash as well as I'd hoped. Tones might shift as the ink dried; it didn't seem to preserve contrast.

And, unfortunately, it did pretty much everything poorly in my test. The washes have dark “halos” at their edges, lots of unpredictable pooling and blotchiness, and the paper buckles like wet tissue. It also seems to wash out most tones except for the darkest dry strokes, leaving things looking muddy and gray. In general: it's very hard to control brush strokes on this paper because they dry so unpredictably.

I noticed, for the first time, that this paper is also slightly cold-toned relative to the others, which is curious. That may contribute to the low-contrast effect I'm seeing, as the Speedball ink I use seems slightly warm.

Fabriano Hot Press watercolor paper

Paper test: Fabriano hot press

This is the hot press paper I've been using, so it's sort of the “control” of this experiment. But I also partly wanted to see if it really held up as well as I thought it did against cheaper siblings. I wasn't disappointed; it handled washes and dry-brush alike well, and seemed to also preserve tone and contrast the best.

That said, this paper is versatile but not necessarily spectacular at all extremes. There was still a little haloing at the edges of my lighter washes, and occasionally a little pooling or swirling where it got super wet. But all in all it was the most predictable and controllable surface for the widest range of dry and wet strokes. It took a really wet wash but also allowed smooth, fine lines.

This Fabriano paper is, I believe, their lower-cost/student-grade version, and the artist-grade stuff probably performs even better. It would also be, I expect, more archival.

Cold Press watercolor paper

Paper test: Strathmore cold press

Finally, I did the test on some traditional cold press watercolor paper. This is fairly inexpensive 300-series, 140 lb. (middle-weight) Strathmore paper from a pad.

I’ve not used this type of paper often as it’s textured enough that A) it’s difficult to scan and B) it’s usually not great for fine lines, especially with fountain pens or very dry, thin brushes. But it’s easy to forget all that because cold press paper does sexy, sexy things with washes. The texture and the complex way it absorbs water create that signature “watercolor” look -- somehow flowing and rough at the same time. I especially love how the tones taper and modulate with a wet, loaded brush on dry paper, as in #4. Where that same line gets blotchy and erratic on hot press, above, it’s magical and alive on cold press.

I see the cold press as the most specialized surface here: it’s “watercolor” paper in both name and nature, and it responds to loose, wet work. It’s very hard to scan, but I can definitely see myself keeping a pad of it on-hand just for occasional loose background washes.

NameHeavy washLight washDry brushFine linesContrastScanning
Strathmore Bristol Board (vellum finish)GoodVery goodVery goodVery goodGoodVery good
Strathmore 300-series Mixed Media paperPoorOkayGoodVery goodPoorVery good
Fabriano Studio hot-press watercolor paper (pad)GoodVery goodVery goodVery goodVery goodVery good
Strathmore 300-series cold-press watercolor paperVery goodVery goodVery goodPoorGoodPoor

It looks like Bristol Board is my winner so far, based partly on its hidden talent for tolerating washes. But equally important are its other qualities: it’s easy to scan, you can find it almost anywhere (including the Michael’s down the street from my house), it’s reasonably inexpensive, and it’s available in a wide variety of sizes and sheet counts.

So for the time being I’m going to try working on Bristol Board most of the time, but keep a couple pads of hot press and cold press on the shelf. Hot press will usually work best when I’m using heavier washes alongside dry stuff; it will tolerate a wider range of extremes than illustration board. And I’ll keep the cold press around for not only heavy washes, but also for output: it’s also a very nice inkjet paper.

It’s important to note that this review is very specific to my use case. I’m only really interested here in ink applications with wet/dry brush and pen. I hope this is helpful and/or interesting, but I’m definitely not pretending that this is any kind of serious industry review. You may have wildly different impressions, especially if you work in a different medium. If you’ve done some experimenting yourself, I’d love to hear about it: give me a shout on Twitter at @inkpixelswords.