Paper comes in a bewildering range. Quality and characteristics vary with price. You must purchase acid-free paper. This is because normal paper as you might use in a printer reacts with light. The manufacturing process is tuned for profit and to produce a product fit for the purpose and copy-paper does not need to have archival properties. Neutralising acid during the manufacturing process is an extra expense. As a result, normal paper has a small amount of acid in it which reacts over time with the environment and turns yellow. Artists' paper is nearly acid-free and this is a big advantage for long term exhibition. Not only must your paper be acid free, but so too the mat board used to frame your work.
Paper comes in different shades. Most white paper is only white to your eye in isolation to a comparison. You will find that there are many shades, some 'whiter' than others. Some are beige, some slightly yellow and so on.
Paper also comes in different smoothness. Very smooth paper is good for high detail, while you may prefer a rougher tooth for a different look. You can burnish parts of the paper to simulate a smooth paper. Sometimes the paper is smooth on one side, and rough on the other. In that case, it's best to mark the paper with a small cross in the top right corner on the side that you choose to use. Especially if you are doing a series, or a triptic, it's important to be consistent. Paper comes in different thicknesses also called weight. See weight [sub:Weight - paper] Obviously, the higher the weight, the thicker, and more robust is the paper. Very thin paper might be smooth, but easily creased.
Another overlooked characteristic of paper is how easily it allows an eraser to work. Different paper reacts differently to moisture. Some will crinckle and stain, while specialist water-colour papers are more stable. Finally, different surfaces take pencil differently so that the blackest black you can get on one paper might be considerably darker than on another.
The diagram below details the microscopically rough surface of paper, the size of graphite deposits, and why the paper still shines through even when covered in a layer of graphite.
For these reasons, there is a need for experimentation. Only your own preference and experience can help you ultimately to choose the right paper for a given style and subject.
If paper was perfectly smooth, you would not be able to make a mark on it with graphite because it would not be abrasive enough to tear away graphite from the pencil. Each paper type has its own roughness. We call this tooth.
Since the size of flakes of graphite varies with different grades of pencil, the combination of pencil-choice and tooth is significant. Soft graphite has quite big flakes, and will therefore sit on top of the paper's tooth, not in the valleys. You can use a harder pencil over the top of a soft layer to try and force the soft graphite into the valleys. A hard pencil will be able to fill the valleys, but will not be particularly dark of course. You can get different effects by choosing the order of layering. Here is the reasoning: Soft big graphite flakes are slippy (and shiny) but soft. So a hard pencil on a soft layer will break up the flakes, force them into the valleys, and the peaks will shave off the harder graphite. Hard over soft works well. In the opposite, if you lay down a hard layer, then because it fills the valleys and covers the peaks, and is still slippy, a soft grade is less likely to go on top. Contrary to some of my readings where it is said that you should only apply hard over soft, I think each is a legitimate technique. If you lay down soft lightly first, then some paper will still show through, leaving a grainy appearance. The harder pencil on top will therefore enhance the grainy appearance because it will adhere less to the flakes of graphite that are already there, and stick well to the exposed parts of the tooth. You should try this and note the result. Compare this with putting down a light but complete layer of hard pencil, and then applying soft over the top. In this case, you don't get the grainy appearance, and instead get a nice smooth result. This technique will not get it as dark. When you make a transition from very dark to light, and would like to do so with a smooth result, the very dark areas need to be done with soft:layer-blend-layer-blend-layer while the lighter areas with hard then soft. Blending is optional depending on the look that you want. In the transition area where it is not the darkest, and not into the 'hard then soft' area, you need to mix the technique.
Any experiment you do using a given set of pencils will have a different effect on different paper. Each paper has a tooth-size, and there will be some grade of pencil which just nicely fills the valleys of the tooth. It's useful for any given type of paper to find out what grade of pencil does this because a flake-size which just fills the tooth is like a benchmark for that paper. It will give you an easy convincing dark without too much shine, and if used lightly, is less likely to give a grainy effect. Use a very soft pencil for a deliberate grainy effect, and a hard one to prepare the paper for a controlled layering of softer pencil on top.
Like many other products, paper is manufactured. It is made from wood pulp, and other additives. The quality of the pulp, and the quality of the tools and processes and cleanliness of the environment is important. Cheap paper will be made in an inferior way, often with hard bits, contaminants, and sometimes holes. These inconsistencies might not show up until you try to put a layer of graphite on it. More expensive paper is worth the price because the chance of getting a poor spot is reduced. It is still possible to get bad paper that is sold as good quality, but the event is rare. I've read anecdotal reports which claim that paper sold in a block-pad is more consistent than loose sheets. Why this should be so is a mystery to me, but worth mentioning as the information has come from several sources.
If you burnish paper, it will take the pencil marks differently to untouched paper. However, you should be in the position to choose when to do this. Don't do it accidentally, and avoid poor quality paper which might have burnished spots. See also [sub:Oils-(In-skin)].
(C) Jeremy Lee 2010, all rights reserved.
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spOOk's art is owned by Jeremy. He has practiced drawing and painting for about 40 years, and might get good at it one day. spOOk's art is focused on graphite portraits.