Drawing Techniques: a Guide
Supports: Paper  

Although less apparent to the viewer than chalk, ink, and wash, the primary material of drawings is in fact the support, the two dimensional surface on which the artist works. The drawn image consists of the intermingling and contrast of the support and the applied medium. Often artists indicate light or convex surfaces with the reserved blank paper alone. The texture and density of the drawing is determined as much by the underlying surface as the characteristics of the drawing medium.

Since the fifteenth century paper has been the drawing support of choice. It replaced wax tablets for ephemeral sketches and parchment (vellum) for more permanent drawings. Since it combined the erasability of one with the clarity of the other, and was also less expensive and easier to produce, it changed the way artists drew. They could execute preparatory sketches with more fullness and precision and could repeat their attempts side by side on loose sheets, which could be juxtaposed, cut and pasted, and incised or pricked for transfer to another support. When, in the early Renaissance the emergence of new working methods required an expansion of the functions of drawing, the character of paper as a support encouraged flexibility and inventiveness.

Paper consists of matted fibers of cloth, and (after the late nineteenth century) wood pulp. The texture and absorbency of its surface is controlled by sizing the paper with a gelatinous substance like animal glue. Rags are macerated in water, until they are reduced to a pulp. This slurry is then lifted from the water on a grid consisting of wires closely spaced in one direction and widely spaced in the other. The damp paper is then partially dried between felt mats. When the sheet is sufficiently dry it is hung by its central axis on a wire. This process leaves characteristic marks on the paper. The narrow wires leave laid lines and the widely spaced wires chain lines. The fibers of the felt leave their impression on one side of the paper, and the drying wire leaves a distinct fold across the middle. Skillful artists often took advantage of these variations in texture as they worked. Old papers also exhibit a great range of color. Never pure white, their natural color varied from brown to cream, and artists generally used it as a middle tone in drawing, adding the highlights with liquid white heightening or chalk. In Venice a cheap blue wrapping paper made from discarded work clothes was especially prized by artists, and its use spread all over Italy and northern Europe. Artists also liked to tone cream or tan paper with washes of ground red chalk or brown ink to create a rich, warm background. Paper was also treated with an opaque, abrasive coat of ground bone or chalk in a liquid binding medium that was tinted a variety of colors. This provided an ideal support for delicate metalpoint drawings.

Wove paper, the most common variety today, is produced on wire meshes so fine that the laid lines and chain lines are not visible. The paper appears to be uniformly woven, hence its name. Wove paper was first produced in the 1750's in England, by James Whatman of Kent for the 1757 Baskerville edition of the works of Vergil.

The wood pulp paper introduced in the late nineteenth century for cheap mass production is highly acidic, and with time exposure to air and light causes it to turn brown, become brittle, and disintegrate. This accounts for the poor condition of many modern drawings.



Hunter, Dard, Papermaking, The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 2nd ed., revised and enlarged, New York, 1947, repr. 1978.

Lunning, Elizabeth, and Perkinson, Roy, The Print Council of America Paper Sample Book: a Practical Guide to the description of Paper, Boston, 1996.

Parchment and vellum