Surfaces & Mediums and which to choose by Murray Marvel

Surfaces, where do we start? I have been asked to write a blog on what different surfaces do for all mediums. Hopefully, I will break down each surface. I have used a lot of different papers and different mediums as an artist but I am always still learning. Experimenting and finding my own journey through art.

As a multi-media artist, I use a vast array of different surfaces, some for multiple different mediums. Not just to suit the medium I may be using, but also it depends on what effects and end results I want.

I plan on breaking it down in sections of mediums and the options available.

Choosing the right surface for you

Firstly, before I explain my choices of surfaces I use for each medium and why, let’s look at how I approach the decision, as there are many factors to consider.

This can be very confusing and may create indecisiveness in choosing what’s best to spend my hard-earned cash on. Maybe, more importantly, ensuring I gain my requirements after hours spent creating.

A medium to suit a surface

Each medium has its own distinctive make up and properties of certain materials used in creating and producing it. Application of that medium to a surface will create results specific to that medium.

Dry mediums like graphite, coloured pencil, pastels and charcoal will sit on the surface without soaking through, more commonly known as bleeding. It will also not distort or buckle the surface.

However wet mediums such as watercolours, acrylics, inks and even fibre pens, will bleed through. They tend to distort, buckle or degrade a surface resulting in a breakdown of the incorrectly chosen surface. Potentially resulting in a whole load of wasted time and money.

So choosing the right surface for the right medium is of the utmost importance, and as you can see, it is just as important as choosing your medium itself.

There’s also the requirement of ensuring the medium will stay fixed to the surface. I may require the ability to apply layers or simply want a textured or grainy effect to my finished artwork. This will require a textured or rougher surface and is referred to as “tooth”.

This is an important factor for many artists using mediums such as coloured pencil and pastels.

– Texture

These mediums require a certain texture of surface to allow the gradual build up of layers of colour. For coloured pencils, this would be the mixing and blending of colour directly on the surface. A textured surface is required to ensure the pastel gains a permanent hold/fixture and doesn’t fall away from the surface. This refers to immediately or over time. The same would also apply to oil paints.

There’s also the weight (thickness) of the surface to take into consideration. This is important due to factors such as the intensity and number of medium applications and how much manipulation of your medium you will do on the surface, such as mixing and blending.

– Light fast

An important factor to take into consideration is longevity of my artwork. “Archival Proof” is another term for it. You’ll often see mediums given a ‘Lightfast rating’. This is a rating given to the medium, based on how long it will retain its longevity of colour without fade when subjected to sunlight/UV over a given period of time.

The ratings are based upon official testings, carried out as per ASTM 6901 and/or The Blue Wool Scale ISO 105 over a period of 100 years. These measure and collaborate the permanence of colours.

With this in mind, I need to ensure that my chosen surface will also compliment and meet these requirements. I want them to stand up to the test of time. A key factor in this instance is ensuring that the surface is acid-free. This means that during its manufacturing & pulping process, all evidence of acids that may have been used are extracted, providing a surface fit for archival requirements.

– Smooth

If I’m looking to gain a smooth unblemished consistent finish providing a nice easy balance of blending and shading, then I use tools such as blending stumps, tortillon or blending brushes. For these, I may choose a smooth surface. Especially if I’m going to produce prints of the artwork.

With this in mind, I would choose something that’s not too heavy (surface thickness). I have a few that I like to use, such as the Winsor & Newton Bristol Board. This provides a very smooth and easy to work surface, unblemished consistent resuls and is available in a variety of weights/thicknesses.

Winsor & Newton Cartridge Sketch Pads are also a firm favourite. I’ve got this in the A2 size 110gsm White. This gives me the option of larger projects if I wish. It has a very slight tooth, which is good for charcoal, but I’m still able to gain a consistent smooth finish with very little effort. Though it’s not very heavy and therefore I need to be aware of how much I work my chosen medium upon it.

Coloured Pencil Wax, Oil or Hybrid

These mediums have a very varied surface requirement for many reasons, from the choice of medium to how the artist uses it and their own preferences. Therefore there are quite a few different options I would use for different reasons.

For a plain white surface, that I don’t intend on applying too many layers or working too much, I would choose Royal Talens Van Gogh Mixed Media Paper. This is available at a very reasonable price and will take up to around 6 to 10 layers of pencil, allowing for blending and colour depth building.

However above that then I find the paper looses its tooth and any further application becomes impossible. Unless I’m prepared to start using what are known as Touch Up Texture or Texture Fixatives. These are costly, require additional time and can potentially result in a slight change in final results when compared to areas it hasn’t been applied.

Pastel Papers

Although intended originally for pastel artists, the textured tooth surface these papers have mean they are ideal for a sensible level of multi layer coloured pencil art and provide great results.

Some of my favourites are:

They are a touch more expensive than the Royal Talens Van Gogh option, but they are, in my opinion, far better quality. Though always be cautious not to over work the mediums on the surface, so as not to destroy it.

If I’m intending to produce a highly coloured and detailed project using coloured pencils, then I need a surface that can take many layers and a high level of workload, sometimes as many as 15 or more layers. In this instance, there is only one surface I find that meets my requirements, the Claire Fontaine Pastelmat.

It’s available in many different sizes and colours. It was originally produced for pastel artists and has a lightly sanded surface. However because of this surface, coloured pencil artists ascertained it was an amazing option due to it’s ability to accept many layers and the blending of colours, like a painter would do on their pallette. For this reason it is quite possibly the go to and mostly used surface by many coloured pencil artists (including myself!).

Watercolour Coloured Pencils and Pastels

As they have a slight to medium texture and are meant for watercolour mediums, watercolour papers are also ideal for watercolour pencils. It allows for a generous number of layers of coloured pencils and pastels, with or without the application of water or solvent for blending. This style of art is truly endless and pushes the boundaries of your creative imagination.

If I want to produce a piece of artwork that has the effects of both the wash and transparency of watercolours, and the mix of the vibrant opaque and detailing of coloured pencils, then to save using too many mediums for my surface, I may use watercolour pencils. For this I’ll require a surface that can accept water and give a degree of texture and tooth to accept the coloured pencils and pastels as well.

My prefered surfaces for this are:

A word of advice: If you intend to apply more than a light wash of water, these surfaces will require your chosen sheet to be removed from the pad and securely taped to your workstation surface. This needs to be done prior to the application of your preparation wash to stretch and prepare your surface for the application of water. This wll stop the paper from distorting and buckling when apply water and will retain the structure and form of your finished art.

If I’m prepared to spend a bit more money on a high-quality surface, made from 100% Pure Cotton and that will not need stretching or removing from the pad prior to me starting to work, then I would use Arches Watercolour Block Hot Pressed

Soft Pastel Coloured Pencils/Cubes/Sticks

There’s a number of options of surfaces for this medium that I use. Again it’s down to how many layers I intend applying and how much I want to pay for the surface. If I’m going to apply a sensible number of layers, in which I mean between 5 – 10, I would use the following:

If I intend to apply a higher number of layers with an extreme level of detailing and working, I need a surface that can handle and hold those numbers of layers. For that i would need a sanded surface such as Claire Fontaine Pastelmat

Watercolour Paint

Whether I’m using half/full pans or tubes, the surface requirements are the same. However, my requirements do change depending on the results I intend to gain and the amount of money I wish to pay. If I’m intending to use a selection of surfaces that aren’t going to break the bank, but will give me an option of either smooth or textured surfaces, then I would use either
Caran d’Ache Drawing and Watercolour Paper or Daler Rowney The Langton Watercolour Paper. These surfaces will also require the sheet to be removed and prepared prior to wash and painting

Hot-pressed watercolour paper has a finer-grained and smoother surface, with almost no tooth. Paint dries very quickly on it. This makes it ideal for large, even washes of one or two colours. It is not as good for multiple layers of washes, because the more paint on the surface means it can get overloaded quickly. Arches Watercolour paper is some of the best out there.

Cold-pressed watercolor paper has a slightly textured surface and more tooth than Hot Pressed. It is the paper used by many Watercolor Artists as it’s good for large areas of wash and also as fine detail work.

Rough Watercolour Paper has a highly textured surface or high tooth. This creates a grainy effect as the applied watercolour collects in the grain of the paper. It can be very difficult to control the brush marks on this paper, as I myself soon found out. My personal advice is to only use this paper if you have a good degree of experience with the Medium.

Art Pens

Pick wisely! Artists Pens, Brush Pens, Paint Pens, Graphic Pens, Manga Pens, Marker Pens, Fineliner Pens, Colouring Pens, Gel Pens, Calligraphy and Ink. Whether they be waterbased, alcohol, India Ink to name but a few of the options available, a badly chosen surface will lead to disastrous results. The most common issues are the pigments bleeding through the surface, as well as breaking down the fibres of the surface, creating ugly small ink sodden marble like balls of wet degrading paper across your artwork and potentially holes in the surface, due to multiple applications over the same area.

A badly chosen surface will also show brush and pen strokes. It will also show irregular distributed ink across the surface. This can foul and clog up the nib of some pens. Resulting in unpleasant and unsightly results and even the requirement of replacing some pens if you’re unable to free fine nibs of blockages. As with every other medium, the correct surface choice is important.

The following surfaces I find are ideal Winsor and Newton Bristol Board
It allows me to manipulate the inks and gain texture, but I need to be cautious and not overdo any applications, as there’s a limit to what the surface will accept. Daler Rowney Calligraphy Pad is also very good.
If I want to practice and play around with ideas, I’ll use Manuscript Calligraphy Practice Pad as it’s an extremely cost-effective pad to practive with


I’m kind of a novice in Acrylics. I own a fair range of products within this medium but I’ve not really had the opportunity to dabble as much as I’d like. I originally used it purely for extreme highlighting of detailed areas. Due to its strong bold colours for complimenting projects created predominantly using other mediums.

However, due to my fiancé taking a shine to it, this opened my eyes further as to how enjoyable, versatile, easy and forgiving it can be. There are various paper based surfaces we both use, which are as follows;

As most acrylic artists, we also use canvases. There are a wide range of options out there. We prefer to use ones that are pre-stretched onto a wooden frame. These have been coated with an acrylic primer or gesso, rendering them immediately ready to use.

Draughting Film for Coloured Pencil & Ink

Due to my past career within Construction Design & Engineering and Architecture I used this surface for the preparation of Design Engineering and Planning Drawings. It wasn’t until I joined an amazing and very informative Facebook Group called Artists on Drafting Film, that I realised and learned how versatile it can also be for artists.

Due to its properties, it can accept a wide range of mediums. It’s made from 100% Polyester. It is transparent, doesn’t discolour, it’s very stable under a wide variation of temperatures and importantly its archival.

Your chosen medium can be applied to both sides, therefore intensifying the depth of colour and potentially giving your Artwork a 3D effect. You can also mount your artwork onto different coloured background sheets to gain a variety of presentations.

Research and personal preference

There are many different options of fraughting film available to choose from. Though I’d strongly suggest you do some research prior to making any purchases. Maybe also try and obtain some free samples to test out. I’ve just started investigating the surface myself for the use within my artwork. So far I’ve gathered information and some samples of Grafix Dura-Lar Drafting Film.

This is available in different weights and sold in a variation of sizes, in single sheets, pads and rolls. It’s available in a matt finish, which I’d advise if you intend to use it for Pencils and Pastels. It will allow the application of more layers. If you intend to use Pens and Inks, then the smoother more translucent option may be of interest.

Athough I haven’t seen or tried it myself, Polydraw Drafting Film is also very good. Like Grafix, this is available in different weights, sizes, pads, rolls and in different surface finishes.

I’ve no experience of vellum, but have been given advice on the product from a very reliable and experienced artist within the use of draughting film.

Vellum is not quite the same as draughting film (drafting film). It looks and feels the same, but it isn’t. True draughting film is manufactured using 100% Polyester. Vellum however is, from what I can gather, manufactured using plasticised cotton. It doesn’t act the same way as draughting film due to its properties.

Wet mediums will sit on the surface of draughting film, vellum is quite absorbent and may buckle under the application of wet mediums.

Surfaces for the “Travelling Artist”

Like many artists, I’ll attempt to take at least a few essentials if the opportunity arises. Allowing me to indulge if I’m out visiting a place of interest or away from home for any lengthy period of time. As I’ll try to vary my options of mediums I can use. This poses the question of which surface to pack that will allow the application of my chosen variety of mediums.

I’ve tried taking a few pads along, but this at times isn’t possible and can add to the weight and size of my travel pack. Therefore I choose a Multimedia Surface. I also prefer a hardback padas this provides a firm surface to work upon while on the go.


Well I hope I have been able to offer some help, advice and guidance from my own experiences. There are many other options out there, which I’ll never cease to explore.

This is of course reliant on the fact that I have the advantage of having an amazing and reliable supplier, with a team of knowledgeable, helpful and happy staff, backed up with an enormous warehouse full of amazing products and that if they don’t have products in stock that I’m requiring, they’ll endeavour to get them for me. Of course, who else could I be talking about but Crafty Arts.

Take care, and I’ll see you next time.


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