Drawing vs. Sketch Paper: What’s the Difference?

Drawing vs. sketch paper: What's the difference? That's an important question to ask if you are planning to draw anything that would be considered a finished piece of art. It's also important to ask if you are simply sketching because using high-quality drawing paper for sketches can get expensive very quickly. 

Once you can compare drawing vs. sketch paper, you'll be able to see which type of paper you should be using for any project that you are working on. While understanding when you should use drawing paper and sketching paper is important, it's also important to keep in mind that there are different kinds of drawing paper. For further information about premium quality drawing and sketching paper, click here to visit Amazon. 

Drawing paper is manufactured for specific purposes. For example, smooth papers are better for detailed work or ink drawing, and rougher paper is better for charcoal or pastel drawing. So, on top of learning when to use drawing paper and when to use sketching paper, you'll also need to learn when to use each kind of drawing paper. While this might all seem complicated, it really isn't, and taking the time to understand the many different types of paper you can use an artist will save you money and help you to produce artwork that will last for a long time.

Difference Between Sketching and Drawing and Why You Need Different Paper

Drawing vs. Sketch Paper: What's the Difference?
Drawing vs. Sketching Paper

Why do you need to use different types of paper for drawing and sketching? Technically you don't, but from a practical standpoint, using different kinds of paper makes sense. The first rule you have to follow as an artist is that there are no set rules. You can draw on cardboard if you want to. As an artist, that's your right. But, from a practical standpoint, using the right drawing surface for the right project is important for two reasons. First, you don't want to spend countless hours drawing a masterpiece on cheap paper that will yellow and fade over time. Second, you don't want to be sketching and doodling on high-quality paper that costs a lot of money.

The simplest way to think about this is that you can sketch on any cheap paper or surface that you can find. Sketches aren't meant to be archival, they are a way for you to explore different ideas and get them down on paper. Sketches are what you do when you are brainstorming and trying new things. When you are ready to draw a finished piece of art, you can go back and look at your sketches and use them to inspire and guide you. 

Since sketches aren't meant to be finished pieces of art, you can produce them on scrap paper, notebook paper, or anything else that is inexpensive that you happen to have on hand. On the other hand, finished drawings require an archival paper that has a surface that is designed for the medium you are working in. If you plan to have a drawing that can be shown for years, you'll need a high-quality paper. So, sketch on cheap paper to save money, and draw on expensive paper to get better results that are archival. Simple right?

Different Kinds of Drawing Paper

What kind of drawing paper should you buy? That depends on what type of drawing you plan on doing, and on what kind of medium you plan on working with. You wouldn't usually use the same type of drawing paper for a pen and ink drawing as you would use for a charcoal drawing. Again, this is art, and there are no rules that you can't break, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't use some common sense when planning out your drawing. 

For example, while you can draw with pen and ink on charcoal paper, it will tend to bleed, making detailed work impossible. On top of that, the grid-like pattern of the paper, which works very well for providing tooth for pastel or charcoal, won't be covered up with ink, making it a distraction.

There are essentially two kinds of drawing paper, smooth paper, and paper with more tooth. There are different grades of tooth and smoothness, so you may have to experiment a little to figure out what works best for your style of drawing. If you are planning to do a detailed drawing using ink or graphite, then a smooth surface such as bristol paper is ideal. 

If you use charcoal or pastel to draw with, then more tooth is necessary to give these materials something to grip when applied to paper. You can also use cold press watercolor paper since it has some tooth. Cold press watercolor paper is also ideal for any drawing that you are planning to add paint to.

Sketching Paper

What type of paper should you use for sketching? The possibilities here really are endless. Feel like sketching in a spiral notebook with lined paper? Go for it? What about scrap paper or post-it notes? Or computer printer paper? Anything goes when you are sketching because you aren't trying to complete a finished drawing that you intend to show or sell. 

The one thing that you don't want to do is use expensive paper. Not only is this a waste of good paper, but it's also going to end up making a dent in your bank account. So, pick an inexpensive piece of paper and start sketching. Always keep in mind that one of the key ways you will improve as an artist is through practice. If you want to get better, you need to draw, which means sketching regularly.

Watercolor and Printmaking Paper

Watercolor and printmaking paper are very similar in that they are both thick, heavy papers that hold up well when wet. Why would you want to use these types of papers when you draw? For one thing, they are high-quality, which means that they are archival. 

There are also weighty papers that you can work and rework without having to worry about damaging the surface of the paper. If you are the type of artist that erases a lot, then using a heavier paper like this is a great option. Another reason to use watercolor or printmaking paper is if you plan to introduce water or paint to your drawing.

A great way to add a unique look to a drawing is by introducing some ink, watercolor, gouache, or even acrylic paint to the mix. If you like drawing with watercolor pencils, then watercolor or printmaking paper will give you the flexibility to either turn your artwork into a drawing by adding water or keeping it as a drawing by not adding water. If you try to introduce water or paint to a thin paper-like charcoal paper, the paper is going to end up tearing and warping since it wasn't designed to be exposed to water. The point here is that watercolor and printmaking paper are both excellent choices whether you plan to draw, paint, or combine the two.

Graphite or Charcoal Paper

What kind of paper should you use when drawing with graphite or charcoal? That depends on what type of look you are trying to achieve. Both graphite and charcoal can be used on smooth paper such as bristol paper, or on rough and toothy paper such as charcoal paper. 

Which option you choose will come down to what you are trying to achieve in your drawing. If you want a cleaner looking and more detailed drawing, then you want to use a smooth surface. If you plan to build up layers of graphite or charcoal or want an overall rougher look to your drawing, then selecting a paper with a heavier tooth is the best option for you. 

For anyone concerned that drawing with charcoal on a smooth paper such as bristol will lead to a smeared mess, that's a valid concern. But, if you are careful, and use a lot of fixative, you can get a very detailed drawing that takes advantage of the full range of values that charcoal can produce.

The Difference Between Tooth and Weight

Many people just starting their artistic journey get confused when talking about the tooth and weight of a paper. Tooth and weight are different, and understanding each of them and how they will affect your drawing, is the key to being able to get the look that you are going for. What is tooth? Tooth describes the surface of a paper. Papers with more tooth have a rougher surface, papers with less tooth have a smoother surface. 

Cold press paper has a fair amount of tooth, hot press paper has little or no tooth, and charcoal or pastel paper have a lot of tooth. If you prefer working with a lot of tooth, another option is to use a pastel ground. A pastel ground is a silicate mix that is suspended in a clear acrylic medium. Basically, it's a clear acrylic paint that has sand in it. You can use this to paint over an acrylic painting, then it will have enough tooth to hold charcoal and other dry mediums. The weight of a paper describes it's thickness. 

Heavier weight paper will stand up to reworking better, and it also stands up to water and paint better. If you've ever seen different weights of paper and been confused, that's normal. Unless you've spent time learning about paper and the different weights available, it can be very confusing. Fortunately, this quick guide found below will simplify the process for you, so you can choose the right weight of paper for your next project.

  • 190 lb. Paper is a student-grade paper, which is ideal for sketching.
  • 140 lb. Paper is a medium weight paper that holds up reasonably well when wet and is moderately priced.
  • 300 lb. paper is very thick and heavy, it's almost like a piece of cardboard, it holds up very well when wet, and is quite pricey.

The Advantages of Drawing onto Rougher Surfaces

What are the advantages of drawing on a rougher surface, such as a paper with a lot of tooth? There are several, in fact. The most significant advantage has to do with the ability of the paper to hold a lot of pigment. Charcoal and pastel are both mediums that require a lot of tooth to work with. While charcoal drawings can be done on a smooth surface, if you really want to get a lot of pigment down on the surface of your paper, you'll need something with tooth to grab it. 

Pastel, on the other hand, won't work at all on a smooth surface, you'll definitely need a paper with a lot of tooth if you want to draw with pastels. As an artist, if you like to put down a lot of pigment on your paper, and you like to draw with different layers, then using a paper with a lot of tooth will give you an ideal surface to work on.

Drawing with graphite, colored pencil, or even ink on a rougher surface can also give you a different look for your art. It may seem odd at first to draw with ink or anything else that is typically used on a smooth surface, but once you get past your initial doubts and start experimenting, you may find that you really like the unique look that you get. Drawing on a rougher surface gives you texture and can add a level of spontaneity to your artwork.

The Benefits of Sketching onto a Smoother Surface

On the opposite end of the spectrum from rough paper is smooth paper or a smoothe drawing surface. Why would you want to draw on a smoother surface? The main reason would be to maintain a high degree of control. While drawing on a rougher surface can add some interesting texture to your drawings, it does take away some of the control that you have. 

Drawing on a rougher surface causes the marks you make to look messier since you are drawing on a bumpy, uneven surface. But, when you draw on a smooth surface, this isn't an issue. With a smoother surface, you can control the intensity of the marks that you make while also ensuring a nice, even, unbroken line. Achieving subtle changes in value is also easier with a smoother paper since blending graphite, charcoal, and other types of dry media on smoother paper is easier.

When drawing with smoother paper, there are a lot of advantages, but there are some challenges that you are going to face as well. The biggest challenge is going to be the fact that smoother paper is less forgiving. While you have more control when you draw on smoother paper, you also have to worry about mistakes. Drawing on a rougher surface adds texture to your drawing, so any imperfections look intentional. 

But, on a smoother surface, any mistakes that you make are going to stand out. Smoother papers also tend to be more difficult in terms of erasing errors. Smoother papers make erasing more difficult, and they are usually worn out more quickly than rougher papers. This is another instance where a smoother paper is less forgiving because mistakes that you make are going to stand out more than they would on a rougher paper.

The Importance of Sizing and Absorbency

Why would it be important to have a paper that absorbs liquid? It would be vital if you are planning to work with watercolor, ink, or any other type of paint. Many artists experiment with combining wet and dry media together and get great results. If you are interested in adding color to your drawings, then you must size your paper first. What is sizing your paper? It's pre-stretching your paper by wetting it before you paint on it. Why is sizing your paper important? It's crucial because paper buckles and warps when it gets wet. This can quickly ruin a drawing. 

When you size a paper before painting on it, you can prevent this from happening, giving you more control over your painting. Before learning how to size paper, it's important to remember that only certain types of paper can be sized. For example, if you put the charcoal paper in water, then it's going to fall apart on you. So, how do you size paper?

  1. Cut 4 strips of gummed brown tape. Two strips need to be longer than the width; the other two strips need to be longer than the height of the paper.
  2. Soak your sheet of paper in cold water for a few minutes so that the fibers can expand. Make sure that the entire article is submerged.
  3. Remove the paper from the water and gently shake off any excess water.
  4. Place your paper on a smooth flat surface.
  5. Use a clean sponge to carefully smooth out the watercolor paper. Make sure that you get the paper completely flat, if you don't get it completely flat, then it will warp as it dries.
  6. Moisten the gummed tape and use it to tape down the edges of your paper. Make sure that the tape strips that you use are long enough to attach firmly to the surface you placed your paper on to dry.
  7. Leave your paper to dry for several hours at room temperature.

My Recommended Brands of Drawing Paper


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of improvedrawing.com and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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