Basic Breakdown


Basic Breakdown: Paper


It is extremely crucial for you to understand that to achieve the perfect results from an art project, you need to choose the correct and right paper for the medium you are using. For example, you wouldn’t choose a really thin paper like tracing paper for a watercolour or oil piece. The paper would more than likely break or become wavy and disfigured, which isn’t something you would generally want unless you were trying to achieve something very experimental. For the normal artists and projects out there, you would want something that does its job properly.

But this is perhaps where it gets complicated, there are so many different variations and things an artist needs to consider before even thinking about purchasing that product; which is why we have created this simple, easy to follow blog that explains everything you need to know about paper and the paper making process.


A Basic Breakdown of Paper

The Fibre

Before we look at how paper is made, first let’s look at its ingredients. The two most important things it needs is water and fibre. A variety of plant sources can be used for the fibre, however, the two most common are; 

CottonConsidered to be one of the best fibres you can have, 100% cotton rag paper is typically the highest quality. The duration of this paper can last more than 100 years and is commonly hand-made when it is being produced. It can handle things like heavy erasing, it doesn’t show wear and is a really strong paper.

Cellulose - Usually made from wood pulp, and although this fibre can also be very high in quality it is also a lot more acidic which makes it not as long lasting as cotton. However, things can be added to help with this. 

Cotton Fibreplant fibre

Cotton Fibres

When it comes to the fibre that is used, you really want something that is high in quality especially for when it’s for a professional piece because a strong and durable paper is much better. Fibres like cotton or long natural unbleached virgin fibres are more suited and are usually contained within professional artist quality sketchbooks, paper and pads.


How it’s Made

This could easily be a blog on its own, in the most simplistic description, there are two ways it could be made;

Hand-made paper - Involves someone creating each sheet separately and by hand. Khadi Paper is one of the best examples for this. The mixture goes into a mould (also known as a deckle) and then hung to dry - a deckle edge is usually formed from this, click here to read our Basic Breakdown Blog on the deckle edge. One thing to note here is that each sheet will be different because every sheet is made by hand, although they do try to keep it consistent.

Machine-made paper - Is created by using a machine, the two main industry standard types are the Cylinder and Fourdrinier. Both consist of a vat that is constantly rotating and has the mixture in. Although the different machines provide a different filtration process, once that is done it would be then dried in a similar way. A deckle edge can be created but more commonly machine-made paper provides a cut edge when it’s finished.

How it is made will really be down to personal preference. Most brands focus on quality and consistency, especially when it comes to machine-made paper. However, there is such a uniqueness to hand-made paper that it really is down to you. If you are new to art we would suggest using machine-made paper more as it is smoother and more unified, so you can get use to the technique first. 

handmade paper

Khadi Papers Handmade Process


Rough, Smooth and Everything In-between

One thing that you have probably noticed when looking at paper is that it says whether it is rough or smooth; this is the finish and the texture the final product has. The surface of the paper is just as important as the weight. If you want to do more bold and expressive art or want to work with things like watercolour, rough paper would be highly recommended as there is more ‘tooth’ to it, meaning the medium you use will latch on well. In comparison, a smooth paper has no texture. This allows the medium to sit on the top layer, and not get lost in the texture which is great for finer details and botanical work, for example markers, inks and fine liners would be more suited for smooth paper.

Most sketchbooks would typically say rough or smooth but when you start looking at more specific pads, such as watercolour, they might say something else. A good example of this is Bockingford, they label it slightly different, but this difference will give you more of an indication as to how the paper was finished.

The labels used could be;

Rough - More texture than cold pressed, and highly recommended for landscape paintings as it can show more depth and structure.

Cold Press - Middle of the range paper meaning it is slightly textured but not as much as rough. This paper is used the most and we would recommend that you go for this kind of paper if you are new to something like watercolour.

Not/Cold Press - This term is used instead of cold press. A ‘Not’ sheet just means that it is not hot pressed.

Hot Press - Very smooth paper. During the production process sheets are run through a heated roller or plate that smooths out the texture like an iron, leaving a flat, featureless surface.

Texture Guide

Texture of Paper

Additionally, when looking at something like Bristol paper you would see just two surface types; Smooth and Vellum. Vellum is simply paper that has more tooth to it but still smooth to touch which is something perfect for coloured pencil and pastels. There are other terms, but the ones above are the most used.



Paper is usually sized to make it more water-resistant and less absorbent which is highly important when it comes to watercolour or inks. It also means that it will highly reduce or eliminate bleeding as well as protecting the fibres of the paper from breaking down due to oxidation. If the sizing is a neutral pH it would make the paper acid-free as well which helps with the deterioration of the paper. Sizing is usually done through gelatine, however, brands such as Hahnemühle only use a synthetic size alternative so it is vegan-friendly. There are two methods to size a paper with some products using both to protect the paper even further.

The methods used are;

Internal sizing - Added whilst the paper is still a pulp mixture.

External, tub or surface sizing - Added onto a dry sheet.

Ink on sized paper

Sized Paper - so it doesn't Bleed




The weight of the paper determines what exactly you can do on that sheet, it is important to get this right unless you are experimenting. GSM is the system of measurement we use as it is the metric system way of weighing paper, the other two systems is ‘basis weight’ and ‘caliper’. It stands for ‘grams per square meter’ - which means the weight (also known as a grammage) of a sheet is equivalent to one square meter size.  

What you need to understand is the higher the GSM, the heavier and thicker the paper. This means it will be able to absorb more water, paint, ink and any other medium used. Things like layering and using different mediums will be more feasible. 

Here is a list of the most common weights with their most common uses;

40gsm - Tracing paper

45gsm - 50gsm: Newsprint

75gsm - 90gsm: Sketching, writing and dry mediums. It’s thick enough for things like pencil, charcoal and pastels (soft or hard). Could be used for ink or markers but they may bleed through. With limited water usage, watercolour can also be used on this paper, however, we highly recommend something a lot thicker.

100gsm - 130gsm: Sketching, drawing and dry mediums. This thickness is great for finished artwork (especially for dry art techniques), will bleed less and is a lot more suitable for wet techniques.

180gsm - 260gsm: Heavy-weight, bristol and watercolour. It is a great multi-media paper whilst also very suitable for watercolour and wet techniques.

300gsm or over: Heavy-weight papers. Less likely to be used for drawing but it is still a good paper for that. More commonly used for all types of painting, it holds wet techniques very well. Good for a watercolour journal.

Although we have tried to cover everything within this, if you are still unsure, here are some common art techniques and what we suggest would be the best weight of paper to purchase - Watercolour (300gsm), Drawing (130gsm), Sketching (90gsm), Bristol (260gsm) and Charcoal (95gsm).


different formats for paper

 Formats of Paper


Paper comes in many styles and formats. It is really down to personal preference on what format to use, the four main formats you would see are;

Single Sheets - Great for experimenting as you can purchase different variations for the same price as a sketchbook. However, you need to consider that you may have to tape it to a board so it would remain flat when you are working (especially when working with watercolour).

Sketchbooks - Very convenient for travelling with. More suitable with dry techniques but you would probably need to remove the sheets out of the sketchbook for wet techniques, like single sheets, it would need to be secured into place.

Blocks - Once again convenient for travelling with, however, compared to a sketchbook all four sides are glued together meaning it’s great for watercolour and you wouldn’t need to tape it onto a board. The only inconvenience is that you can only use one sheet at a time.

Rolls - Useful for when you have found your preferred paper, it’s especially economical if you only use one style of paper.



Similar to formats, when considering the size of the paper or sketchbook you want it is all really down to personal preference. As a good starting point A4 and A5 are the most common sizes, they aren’t too big or too small and are perfect for traveling. We also provide a great selection of square, landscape and portrait options. Check out our size guide below to illustrate the difference in this.


Size Guide


Image Credits

Product Shots and Size Guide - Sandra Manchester

Paper Process - Khadi Website

Cotton Fibres - Pixabay