Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tools of the Trade #3 -- Toned Paper

watercolor, color pencils, and gold acrylic paint on Arches Cover buff

Paper -- without a doubt the most popular working surface for artists the world over. And, for most people, white is by far the most common color/tone of artist’s paper. However, ask anyone who has spent much time doing tonal drawings on white paper and they will certainly tell you that the majority of time involved in any drawing is spent getting rid of the white of the paper. But there is a faster alternative -- toned paper.

Pros --

Of course, we all know that in a tonal drawing we generally need three tones to convey volume and space -- light, dark, and middle tone. And we also know that the predominant tone in most drawings is middle tone. So, if we begin with middle tone before we even start drawing (i.e., in the paper itself) it stands to reason that the drawing will go much faster and that time tediously spent on white paper in hiding its “whiteness” can be focused on observation, rendering, and the creative process.

Con --

Since the majority of most artists‘ drawing experience has been with white paper, many of us have a tendency to “work from the tone of the paper (usually white) toward our darkest darks.” If this happens when working on toned paper we “overwork” the drawing. The tone of the paper ends up representing our highlights and we have once again drawn in both the middle and dark tones.

Solution --

First, begin with two mark-making tools instead of the usual one -- one light or white, and one dark or black.

toned papers come in a wide range of colors, values & temperatures, and your light/dark tools can be pencils, pens, crayons, pastels, or paints - there's something for everyone

Next, using your dark or black drawing instrument, carefully draw the outline of your subject. (Using a light pressure will make it easier to erase any errors at this stage and reserves the boldest, darkest darks for the end of the drawing, when your observational focus is usually keenest.)

Sakura Pigma Brush Pen on Canson Mi Teintes paper

Now (and THIS is where drawing on toned paper departs from the routine you may have developed working on white paper), put down your dark pencil or pen! Switch to you white/light mark-maker (pen, pencil, crayon, etc.) and begin placing your highlights, working from those areas that most closely resemble the middle tone of the paper toward the brightest highlights -- again, saving the boldest marks (which are generally the hardest to erase) until the end (when your observations are normally most focused and most accurate.)

Sakura Gelly Roll white pen & Prismacolor white pencil

Once you have “mapped out” the highlights with a light-pressured mark from your white pencil you can begin alternating between your light and dark mark-makers -- gradually moving from the tone of the paper toward both your lightest lights and darkest darks -- with greater confidence that you will not “overwork” your drawing.

Sakura Pigma color pens, watercolor & Prismacolor pencils

Important Technical Tip -- DON'T blend your light with your dark! Mixing the two produces middle tones and, of course, middle tones are your paper’s responsibility. (If you’re mixing middle tones, your overworking your drawing.) 

Where to Begin --

OK, you’ve read my article, you’re intrigued (I hope), and you want to give it a try. So, your next question is likely, “What paper do I use?” Fortunately, there are several brands available and I’ll share three of my personal favorites with you today (and one to be avoided.) 

First, the paper type to be avoided, DON’T buy that brightly colored construction paper sold by the ream. It doesn’t have enough sizing to make the surface very receptive to most drawing media. It’s not archival. (In fact, to reduce the cost of manufacturing, this paper may actually be acidic.) And the dyes used to color the paper are usually fugitive and will fade rapidly with exposure to most light sources.

Prismacolor pencils on Arches Cover black paper

For many of us, the most readily available professional quality toned paper will be the exceptional line manufactured by the Canson Paper Company at paper mills that have been located in Annonay, France, since 1557. Canson papers come in two weights -- the heavier Mi Teintes line (with one smooth side, and one mechanically “dimpled” side to give you a choice of working surfaces), and the lighter Ingres line (developed for, and named after, the artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres) with it’s pronounced, and much duplicated, chain or laid pattern (which it picks up from the screen during the paper-making process.) Even their muted earth-toned papers sparkle due to the presence of small brightly colored fibers dispersed throughout the gray or tanned sheets.

pen & ink with ink wash and acrylic highlights on Canson Mi Teintes Moonstone paper

Ebony pencil, watercolor to create pictorial space, and a little white color pencil on a warmer Canson Mi Teintes 

Another fine line of professional quality toned papers are made by the Italian firm Fabriano, which has been in operation since the late 13th century and include no less than Michelangelo Buonarroti among their satisfied artist customers. While perhaps not as universally available as their French counterpart, Fabriano’s Tiziano line of colored papers are particularly renowned for the use of fade-resistant pigments (instead of more fugitive dyes) as coloring agents and are definitely worth trying.

pen & ink with color pencils on Fabriano Tiziano paper

B&W color pencil over pen & ink on Fabriano Ingres paper 

watercolor over Sakura Micron Pigma color pens on Fabriano Ingres paper  

I take a little liberty as the "third company" in my list isn’t a company at all but a separate (and VERY special) range of papers manufactured by Fabriano -- the Roma line. Roma is unique because it is handmade, heavily sized (hold a sheet by one corner and shake it -- it will rumble like thunder!), with four deckled edges, a pronounced Laid texture imparted by the paper-making screens, and a huge watermark. This remarkable paper is a delight to draw on with pencil, pen, color pencil, or brush. It can be used as stand-alone sheets or crafted into unique, one-of-a-kind books. And (unfortunately), due to its being hand-made, it is the most expensive paper I use ($13.60 from New York Central Art Supplies.)

quarter sheet of Fabriano Roma backlit to show screen pattern and watermark

watermark closeup 

fude brush pen, watercolor, white highlight, and Chinese vermilion on Roma paper

OK, I’ll admit that Roma is not a paper most of us are going to rush out and stock up on. In fact, it can be downright hard to find at times. So, in fairness (and to avoid getting lynched) I’ll add one other company and two toned paper lines to the list. The company is Magnani (which has been hand-crafting premium quality papers since the 15th century and has built a reputation for producing unique paper products for illustrious customers -- from Napoleon Bonaparte to the Bank of Italy), and the papers are Firenze (hmm, do I sense an inter-city rivalry here?) and Pescia. The hand-made Firenza has many of the attributes of Fabriano Roma plus a velvety surface and an ever-so-slightly-less-shocking price tag. But don’t let me fool you. Hand-made papers are labor-intensive and are made by highly skilled laborers. That can’t come cheap -- unless you learn to make your own (or marry someone who will make paper for you. ;-D) 

And the Pescia? There are five colors in this paper range, but the only one I regularly use is their unique (and truly beautiful!) pale blue. Originally developed as a printmaking paper, Pescia is a “waterleaf” (i.e., no sizing.) So, don’t use watercolor or ink washes on this paper. But, when used with Prismacolor Indigo and white color pencils, this paper is a one-of-a-kind delight to work with.

Should you decide that you want to explore the creative potential of toned paper, don't be hesitant to experiment. Can't find a stockist in your community? Think about making your own paper. Your local art supply shop doesn't have the color that's right for you? Try toning your own paper. (Hot Press watercolor blocks are perfect for this, by the way. And the toning wash will raise the tooth of the paper ever so slightly -- which I find enhances its drawing quality.) Working on a tight budget? That's not a problem. That's "the Mother of Invention"!

hand-made paper (the color and texture options here are limitless)

Here are four examples of toned paper which may convey some of the creative options you might want to explore. The pale blue is the Magnani Pescia mentioned earlier. The sheet on top of the Pescia is Arches HP watercolor paper that was toned with strongly brewed tea. (I favor PG Tips or Trader Joe's Irish Breakfast.) The next paper up is another piece of Fabriano Roma -- this one was one of their creme-colored sheets before I poured tea on it too. (Notice that different papers will react differently to the same toning agent. Bottom line: experiment!) And the final sheet is another piece of HP watercolor paper that was first toned a pale tan and then spackled with thinned acrylic ink.

extreme close-up of the toned and spackled w/c sheet (magnified larger than life to make it easier to convey here) 

Well, hopefully I’ve wet your artistic appetite for the creative possibilities of toned paper and given you a few more options for ways to further deplete your bank account (like any artist has a shortage of those! ;-D) So, now all you have to do is run down to your local art supply shop and pick up a few sheets of Canson Mi Teintes in the color(s) of your choice. If that's not practical, or if you don't like the color choices, not to worry. You can create your own toned paper by mixing up the color of your choosing in water-based paints (watercolor if you will be working in pencil or pen & ink, a very fluid acrylic if you in ten to overpaint with ink or watercolor washes) and using it to "stain" a sheet of Hot Press watercolor paper. 

paper scraps can be a great excuse for experimentation. here it's a new apricot-colored toning on HP w/c paper, silverpoint (with silver wire in a vintage mechanical pencil) and gouache highlights. the results are delightfully subtle (though perhaps a bit difficult to convey digitally)

toned paper can be an excellent alternative to the usual white paper in nature 
studies field work, frequently producing much bolder results in far less time

So, ladies and gentlemen, let the fun begin!

A Very Brief History of Paper --

Even in the Digital Age we still have a long way to go to become a “Paperless World” -- paper is everywhere. And (thankfully) it’s part of our daily life. But, in the west, it wasn’t always so. In early times wet clay tablets were frequently used to permanently record information. The fibers of a water plant called papyrus was soaked, beaten flat, and woven into thin mats, which -- when dry -- could be written or drawn on. And for centuries the prepared skins of goats (parchment) and calves (vellum) were the predominant surface for writing and drawing. (In fact, so valued were parchment and vellum that it was fairly common during the Middle Ages for writers of one era to scrape away the words of earlier writer’s in order to “recycle” a book structure.)

The Chinese revolutionized writing, printing, art-making (and, no doubt, the lives of untold numbers of future bureaucrats, bean couters, and other “paper shufflers”) in the early 2nd century AD with the invention of the modern paper-making process. And Cai Lun produced the earliest known illustrated guide to the “five seminal steps” of paper-making in 105 AD.

First paper and then paper-making made its way along the Silk Road to Samarkand, Baghdad, and Damascus. There Arab papermakers further refined the paper-making process. And, during the Crusades, at least one Christian (Jean Montgolfier) learned the paper-making techniques as a POW in Damascus -- techniques he took home to France after his release, and used to establish what is known today as the Canson Paper Mill.

Even so, for nearly three centuries, European law prohibited the use of paper for permanent records (vellum and parchment were stipulated) because the wheat paste sizing commonly used resulted in a rapid deterioration of the paper. It wasn’t until paper mills began using animal-based sizing during the Renaissance that the laws were finally changed -- and paper finally entered the lexicon of artists‘ materials.

An interesting little side note to end this week’s article with -- two of Jean Montgolfier’s descendants used paper produced by the family’s mill to coat the inside of a fabric bag (rendering the fabric airtight.) This sac was, in turn, filled with hot air, the hot air balloon flight in history was made, and the Age of Flight was born. (As a flight instructor, I shared the history of the Montgolfiers with my students for ten years. But it was years later before I learned that paper had been involved, and of the Canson Paper Mill connection.)



  1. Fabulous article. Thanks so much.

  2. A good read...thanks for this!

  3. Very timely; I was just thinking about trying toned paper, so the technical tips will be very helpful.

  4. Earnest, thank you so much for sharing your knowledge. I have used toned paper at times, but I have never really thought about how the method needs to be different to using white.

    And aren't we lucky that paper was there for the masters like Leonardo to create their superb drawings.

    1. Thanks for the very kind words Anne. Did you know that it's still possible to buy blank sheets of vintage paper that were actually manufactured during Leonardo's lifetime? Wouldn't THAT be fun?!? :-D

  5. Thank you Earnest, for a very readable and informative post, and one that is also a visual treat. I follwed the link that you had posted on WetCanvas and I am so glad that I did.

    1. Hello Belaji! Thank you for your very kind complements, and for popping over from WC to pay me a visit. (WetCanvas is, indeed, a delightful site filled with absolutely wonderful people.) I hope you will drop by again in the future -- and please feel free to bring some friends. Cheers! :-)

  6. Great post Earnest. I'll read again, and i want to try for sure.

  7. I adore seeing drawings on toned paper, but I often forget to do them myself. Thank you for the great article and the reminder to get out my toned papers! So simple, yet so effective.

  8. I love working on toned paper but i'd like to make my own, as it's too expensive to use for sketching and trying new techniques. I read your suggestions and I've tried doing similar things, but the paper always ends up wrinkled, buckled, anything but flat. Since I'm looking for 'practice' paper, I don't want to stretch expensive watercolor paper. I'd just use newsprint, but I live in France and newsprint pads simply don't exist here. Any ideas? Thanks.