The Right Pen with the Right Paper?

March 13, 2020
Sakura Pigma Professional Brush Pen on a Nideggen paper in a handmade journal. (Approx. 7 inches square.)

I have spent years telling students that there is no perfect paper. There is no perfect pen.

That’s still true!

Why write today that there is a right pen with the right paper?

Because sketching, if you’re going to do it all the time, should be, in fact needs to be, fun. And one of the most fun things about sketching is the movement of the pen across the surface of a paper.

What factors play into these two “tools” having a happy marriage, or even casual, happy affair from which you move on quickly?

For Ink and Pens

For ink it’s about how the ink flows out of the pen; the shape of the nib; the material the nib is made of and how scratchy or smooth it feels on the paper.

Some artists want inks that are pigmented and at least water-resistant so they can paint over them. Others want inks that are water-soluble so that the inks can be diluted with water to create a value scale.

Working with pens for many people is also about the balance of the pen in their hand.

I like small, lightweight pens. I like pens that aren’t tip or barrel heavy. Because of that I rarely put the pen cap on the back of a pen. (Also I work in a lot of areas where if I drop a cap some animal might eat it out of curiosity that would be deadly. I always put my pen caps in my pocket.)

I have friends who enjoy working with large, bulky, weighty pens. It’s all personal. But it’s all something to consider. 

Others don’t like to use disposable pens because they don’t want to create more landfill. There’s no amount of fun that can take their minds off that goal.

Here’s a sketch of the same person made to look slightly more angry (done a month later). It’s angrier in part because I used different media (paint markers, watercolor, and a gesso coated paper). Color also emphasizes the anger. I happened to have just as much fun as I did in the first one, but if you just saw this and recognized some of the media but didn’t know it was gessoed you might get this paper and be frustrated. You’d also wonder what the heck is that running through his beard horizontally if you didn’t know about my Piecemeal portraits. My point in showing you both sketches, however, is to let you know I had fun doing both. The brush pen on the Nideggen is a standard favorite that never fails to make me happy. The pen used in the watercolor portrait is less “fun” in general, but once I brought gesso into the equation they became more fun. (I love slick surfaces.) Know what you like and have more fun.

For Paper

These days I don’t know what other people want from paper because I see a lot of people putting up with using papers that they have used since college or art school EVEN THOUGH those papers have changed!

If the papers have changed why aren’t they looking for something that is more fun again!?

But I am not the paper police. I can only tell you that there are a lot of factors that go into making a paper attractive to an artist.


There is of course the sizing added to the paper to make that paper useable for writing and also in some cases painting. The sizing, added in the fiber slurry when the paper is made (for internally sized papers) and after the sheet is formed (sheet sized or externally sized papers) keeps inks, and for some art papers, paints, from seeping through the paper.

Sizing may add drag to a paper. Test it for yourself. Take a sheet of vegetable sized Fabriano (yes they have used vegetable sizing since around 2000 which is why you’ve been fighting with it), anything by Hahnemühle, Cheap Joe’s Kilimanjaro and just about every other paper on the market these days. Make some watercolor strokes on the paper and pay attention to how the paint moves and how the brush feels. 

Now get a sheet of Fluid 100 (that’s their cotton paper, not their lower grade paper) or Th Saunders/Waterford and do the same test. The brush glides on this paper in a different way from the others.

Using a paper that has the action you prefer will, over the thousands of hours you paint, improve your happiness level.

Texture and Tooth

Every paper has a texture, typically designated as hot press, cold press, and rough in watercolor papers (for smooth, slightly textured, and highly textured); and with other designations such as smooth and plate for smooth finished papers, and vellum for paper that has a bit more surface texture.

In drawing papers we think of papers as having “tooth.” A paper with tooth has a surface which has not be compressed flat. Instead the the fibers of the paper on only slightly compressed and dry media in particular can catch on to these fibers as you move your tool across the paper. There are printing papers like Magnani Pescia which have a smooth surface which is toothy. So that paper doesn’t have noticeable hills and valleys of texture like a cold press watercolor paper would, but it isn’t totally compressed, and if you choose to draw on it (and I suggest you do) you’ll find that your dry media catches in lovely-build-up-able ways on the paper.

Some papers have what is called a “laid” texture. Before 1757 all paper was made made with this texture as all paper was made in a screen with channels that left this texture imprint in the final sheets. Nideggen from today’s post is a laid paper—unusual because not only can you see the channels when you hold it up to the light, but you can see a wavy pattern, also from the screen, moving across the paper. Why would this matter to you? Well when you apply media to a laid paper the paper texture, depending on your application technique, may show prominently in your finished piece.

Wove paper, made with a screen that was “woven” gives a uniform texture across the sheet and other textures a paper might have like cold-press, hot-press, or rough, come from the pressure and the felts that are impressed into the paper during the process. This uniform texture is something that allows watercolorists the ability to make smooth, undisturbed washes across a sheet. There’s a reason that there are letters from a young Turner begging for some more of the “wove” paper from TH Saunders.

You can read about paper making and modern mechanized ways to make paper with a Google search. What has survived in modern papers is the use of different surfaces and sizing, resulting in a different texture and feel as you work on a paper.


This is another aspect of paper. The fibers and the sizing all have an aroma. When I write about this people think I’m crazy so just go discover it for yourself. You’re going to respond differently to different smells anyway, because you aren’t me. 

Why Does Any of This Matter?

If you are sketching with a pen someone recommended, on a paper someone recommended, and you aren’t getting something to look the way you want it’s time to think about what you like, and what you want.

If you want unbroken pen and brush pen lines, use a smoother paper. Broken lines—find textured papers you like to sketch on.

Same thing with other dry media.

If you want paper that lets your washes really flow get a paper that has been gelatin sized. 

If you want a draggier feel to your brush, get something with vegetable sizing.

And so on.

Don’t Expect Love at First Touch

When you find a paper you want to test, don’t expect your pen or brush and the paper to fall in love immediately. Spend some time DAILY working on that paper, for at least a couple of weeks (a month would be better). 

In 30 days you’ll know what you like and don’t like about that paper and that pen, or that paper and watercolor. Then you can start to test it for other media you might want to use on it. You’ll be in a position to judge whether it works for you, and for which media you like to use on it.

That’s what I mean when I say “the right pen for the right paper.”

When you have that your hand moves magically across the paper. The lines have just enough speed or drag. They are as solid or broken up as you wanted, and drawing isn’t something you’re laboring over. You’re simply having fun.

What Other People Get Out of a Paper

While you’re testing papers put your blinkers on. There are lots of people in art groups jumping from paper to paper. Maybe they even get fabulous results with the different papers. That’s them. They have their working preferences which might be totally different from yours. Or maybe you don’t even know your preferences yet.

By all means listen to someone who uses a certain paper talk or write about the working characteristics of a paper. If it makes sense to you that you want a smoother or more textured paper, add the paper they are recommending to your test list. 

But just because someone you know or see on the internet is creating beautiful art on a specific paper with a specific pen don’t go all in for those recommended items. (They might be using them in unusual ways that aren’t disclosed, such as adding a special sizing or gesso to a given paper.)

To simply accept their word or their recommendation and then stick with it while not listening to your own experience would mean that you would never meet the paper and pen you were meant to use.

Should that idea scare you?

Yes, just enough that you jump out of complacency and start thinking about what you’re using and whether or not it makes you happy. Try something else. 

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