Roberts Gallery Blog
Roberts Gallery Blog

Work on Paper Terms

by Franklin Carmichael
8.5 x 10.5 in.

Because the mediums of work on paper are numerous and sometimes confusing, we asked our very own Kapil Harnal to arrange a list of some of the most common terms and definitions:

Acid free  describes a paper that contains none of the harmful compounds found in common paper that cause deterioration and discoloration over time. The term PH neutral is also used, and is technically more accurate.

Archival  is a term that applies to any material created to withstand the test of time and environment in accordance with the highest industry standards.

Bloom  is a visual effect common in watercolour where the paint migrates across a paper’s surface through capillary action to produce a subtly graded and unpredictable transition in tone which cannot be produced by other means.

Charcoal  is one of the oldest known drawing mediums. It is used in the form of burnt twigs of vine or willow, pulverized into a powder, or compressed and bound into a stick. Compressed charcoal can also be made into a pencil. Charcoal makes an intense black chalky line.   

Cold pressed  refers to the surface texture of a paper having a medium degree of roughness in its finish. The most popular watercolour papers have this finish.

Collage  is the technique of gluing items, usually paper, to an artwork.

Conté  is a pencil, stick or crayon composed of a combination of pigment (usually black carbon or red iron oxide) and clay, rather than the conventional graphite. The name comes from its creator Nicolas-Jacques Conté, one of the primary creators of the modern pencil. Lines are very dark, like those made with charcoal.

Crosshatching  is a shading technique in drawing involving the use of overlapping layers of parallel lines or squiggles to produce  successively darker tones.

Deckle  or “Deckle Edge” refers to the natural uneven paper edge produced by the wooden frame (called the Deckle) bordering a mould used in papermaking. It is considered more visually pleasing than a cut edge, and is why fine art papers are usually torn when trimmed, producing a similarly natural edge.

Drybrush  is a painting technique where a brush having very little paint is dragged across a surface to leave a trace amount of paint, or broken up brush-mark. This works better on a surface that isn’t too smooth.  It is uncommon for a painting to be executed using only this technique. However, celebrated American artist, Andrew Wyeth, did this using watercolour. Aptly, he called these Drybrush paintings, rather than watercolours.

Fixative  sprays are used by artists working in pastel, charcoal, or other materials that are in danger of smearing or dusting off, and need to be “fixed” to the paper when drawings are finished.

Gouache  is a water based paint resembling watercolour in composition, though having much more body and opacity. This makes for a very straightforward paint, and was the medium of choice for many commercial illustrators.

Graphite  is the predominant form of carbon used in pencils.  Its unique properties allow it to transfer marks to most surfaces in its natural form, and was originally cut into leads for pencils. The modern process, which requires much less graphite, involves combining powdered graphite with clay, and then firing the shaped lead in a kiln. Wax is added later to improve smoothness.

Handmade paper  is the gold standard in premium art papers.  Producers will only use the best materials in composing the pulp, and the time honoured method of using a screened mould (resembling a sieve) to lift and form the paper creates a natural random pattern in its fibres. In most modern machine made papers, fibres run in one direction (called the grain), giving a less natural appearance and greater tendency to warp. Click here to view John Gould’s short documentary on handmade paper.

Hot pressed  refers to the surface finish on a very smooth piece of watercolour paper. Pressure and heat are used during the manufacture of the paper to remove any existing roughness. While suitable for fine detailed techniques in watercolour or ink, its surface lacks character and other properties desired by most painters.

India ink  is produced with a suspension of black carbon particles in water, often having a resin (commonly shellac) added to make the dried ink waterproof and enduring.  Sometimes called Chinese ink.

Japanese paper  or Washi paper (Wa = Japanese, Shi = paper) is produced much like western handmade paper, but using bark from plants native to the region, such as the Gampi tree, and mulberry plant.

Laid paper  will have a characteristic rib and groove pattern impressed by the screen of the mould used in its manufacture. This was common to most papers until methods were devised to make a much fine screen and produce a smoother paper referred to as Wove paper. Laid paper is still very popular for drawing, especially in charcoal and pastels because of the charming way these drawing tools perform on the textured surface. A perfect example are the drawings of Georges Seurat.

Mould made paper  is produced in a mechanized process that is designed to approximate the resulting qualities of handmade paper as closely as possible. Most premium art papers are produced this way.

NOT  is another term used to describe the surface texture of Cold pressed watercolour paper.

Paper weight  is expressed in grams per square metre (gsm), or pounds per ream (lb); usually both. A good standard watercolour paper is 300 gsm (140 lb), or heavier.  A heavier paper is usually thicker and more robust. Papers for other applications are typically much lighter, the average drawing paper being around 190 gsm (90 lb).

Pastel  pencils or crayons can be either soft (chalk like) or of the oil variety. Soft pastels offer a great degree of control and versatility, behaving much like charcoal or conté, but in a greater range of colours. Oil pastels are essentially wax crayons produced with an oil, and well pigmented for intense colour. They are very bold, and marks are easily smeared or diluted into a wash with paint thinner.

Pulp  is the substance that, when laid out and dried, becomes paper. Various fibers and glues compose the pulp, depending on the paper one is making. Paper made from wood pulp is considered inferior because its residual impurities compromise the paper’s longevity and strength.

Rag  content of a paper is usually expressed as a percentage; 100% being optimal, and describing a paper having no inferior wood pulp fibres. Cotton or linen rags were typically used to create the pulp, with a certain amount of glue necessary to bind the fibres of the paper. Before it was technologically possible to render a tree into a pulp, most paper was made from rags and similar fibre sources.

Rough  refers to the surface texture on a paper (usually watercolour paper) having a high degree of roughness in its finish. This paper is useful for very bold painting.

Sepia  ink is reddish brown in tone and was traditionally made from the ink of the cuttlefish. Modern producers approximate this colour with more permanent materials.

Size  is the internal glue and surface coating of a paper. The degree to which a paper is “sized” determines much of its performance and absorbency, which is very important to watercolour painters and artists working with ink. Painters need to find the paper with the correct level of absorbency for their manner of painting, and those using ink prefer a good surface coating that prevents the soaking of ink into their paper.

Sumi ink  is very similar to India ink in composition and behavior, though it may appear more subtle and cooler in tone. The black carbon used in its pigmentation traditionally comes from soot.

Toned paper  is useful where at least two colours are employed in a drawing, such as black and white. An artist will then use the base colour of the paper to help produce a full range of tones.

Tooth  as it relates to a paper’s surface, is meant to describe its specific degree of roughness. A conventional paper might be described as having a “medium tooth”, while an exceptionally smooth paper (a plate or “vellum” finish) would have no tooth at all.

 Wash  is the technique of brushing on an extremely diluted passage of paint or ink. Useful in subtle transitions and for covering large areas.

Watercolour is the most common form of painting on paper. Pigments, water, and a natural resin are the primary ingredients. Other substances like honey or glycerin are occasionally added to modify the paint’s performance. Watercolour characteristically produces fluid, transparent tones, though appearance varies widely depending on the painter and their chosen surface.

Completed by Kapil Harnal