Welcome to our third installment for Choosing Paper. Today we will be discussing the differences in the types of papers available.

Bristol Board:

If you are using acrylic paints, a Bristol Board may be your best bet. With Bristol, it does have a waxy finish or top coat. This usually repels water based paints such as watercolor paint and gouache. Watercolor and gouache both use Gum Arabic as a binding agent. Gum Arabic doesn’t always stick to the waxy surface, and if the page twisted even a little bit after the paint is totally dry, the paint can simply pop off the page. Acrylics have a sticky, plastic-y binder which allows it to stick to the Bristol Board. These two were truly made for each other. A marriage in artsy-fartsy heaven if I ever saw one!

Hot Press Watercolor Paper:

If you are using gouache paints, hot press watercolor paper, which is a rag paper, works well. Rag paper is made from “rags” or fabric fibers, usually cotton. Smooth, 140 lb Hot Pres Watercolor Paper is my paper of choice (smooth is an important classification to look for on the label). Hot Press has a smooth surface which is wonderful for painting with gouache, and is also good for smooth, even calligraphy. Watercolor paper does not have the waxy surface that Bristol Board does, and thus allows the watercolor and gouache to be absorbed a little into the paper. That makes the paint stick and not pop off. Scraping a mistake off of Hot Press is a little more difficult than if you are working on Pergamenata, but it can be done with a lighter, gentler touch and some patience. Just wait until the ink or paint is completely dry before scraping anything. If Hot Press is not for you, don’t use it, that just leaves more of it for me.

C&I on Hot Press Watercolor Paper


If you are doing calligraphy only, or if you paint with a dry technique, Pergamenata, an Italian pressed pulp (wood fibers, that is pressed between 2 metal weights) paper, works well. Because it is a pressed pulp paper, if “Perg” gets wet, it buckles, blisters, and becomes misshapen. These puckers do not generally come out, no matter how long you leave it pressed under heavy books on a flat surface. Not only that, but it can also separate as if it was 2 pieces stuck together if the entire sheet gets soaking wet. The big pro for “Perg” is that is scrapes easily, and mistakes (especially in calligraphy) can be quickly banished from the page. If you haven’t guessed by now, “Perg” is not my favorite paper to work with as an illuminator. Again, it may work really well for you, and that is wonderful for your art. If it works for you, please use it to your heart’s content.


Handmade Papers:

If you want an earthier look, try a handmade paper. Aaaaah! Handmade paper… My second favorite paper to work with. *Warning! Handmade papers are notoriously stringy. When you put calligraphy on them the pen or quill can catch the fine fibers in the paper and blob or run strings of ink in places you don’t want them.* I really like the look of handmade papers with pristine calligraphy and illumination. The juxtaposition just makes me happy. I like the challenge of getting the design on a rough, stringy page. I like seeing if I can get the paint to look smooth. I like the look the gold takes on a textured paper. I love to conquer the stringiness with my calligraphy pen (pens being mightier than swords and all). Working on a “standard” art paper is challenging enough some days, but there is just something about a handmade paper that the industrially made papers don’t have. If you haven’t guessed it by now, I do get called crazy (in a good way) quite a bit.


Cold Press Watercolor Paper:

A few quick words on Cold Press Watercolor Paper. Bumpy! Rough! Stiff! If you like the challenge of working with those conditions, definitely try Cold Press. I actually do scrolls on Cold Press, and enjoy it. I need to feel up for a challenge to do so. I do not recommend this for any beginning scribe! I recommend trying it, of course, but maybe not right out of the gate. Then again, if it works for you, use it!


Paper Called “Vellum”:

Paper in the art stores that is labeled “vellum” is not animal skin vellum. These are modern transparent papers used for drafting and tracing. They are not made for painting or calligraphy. They are light weight, and a good portion of them are not archival.

Other Art Papers, Not Suitable for the Scribal Arts:

There are also Drawing, Sketching, Charcoal, Newsprint, and other art papers that are not meant to be painted or inked heavily on: these papers will disintegrate quickly when any wet solution is placed on them. These are not good for any calligraphy and illumination. They are great for getting preliminary sketches and studies done, and even some patterns made for larger works. I have some of each of these papers in my studio, but I never use them for illumination or calligraphy.

When you go paper shopping, remember the words “Archival”, pH balanced”, and “Acid Free”. Also remember, to get paper that is a good weight and can stand up to being painted and inked on.

Last, but most important, try lots of papers and choose what works best for you.

Hopefully Helpful,