When I first began learning how to use the pointed pen a decade ago, it never occurred to me that specific papers for calligraphy might exist. My logic: you can write on any type of paper with a regular pen, so why couldn’t you write on any paper with a dip pen, too? After several months of watching my ink feather and having my nib catch on paper fibers, it clicked for me that paper makes all the difference. After years of writing, painting, and professionally printing my creations, I’m sharing this guide to help you navigate the world of paper.
Understanding Paper Weights
If you’re purchasing paper for art/calligraphy purposes, it’s important to get a high-quality paper weight. Unfortunately, paper weight can be confusing, especially if you live in the US. Nearly everywhere else in the world, paper weight is expressed in grams per square meter (GSM). In the US, paper weight is expressed in pounds. The illustration below shows how pounds are determined, and an explanation follows.
- 500 sheets of a certain size — in this case, 20″ x 26″ — of paper are weighed. These 500 sheets are referred to as a “ream”. The weight of our example ream is 140 lbs.
- This is an individual piece of 20″ x 26″ paper from the ream.
- Paper from the ream is cut into individual standard sizes such as 11″ x 14″.
- The cut-out paper is labeled according to the weight of the original ream. The two sheets of 11″ x 14″ paper here, then, are classified as 140 lb. paper.
Different Categories of Paper
There are different categories of paper, and each of those categories has a different standard ream size that determines weight. For example, card stock (officially classified as “cover” paper) is weighed as a 20″ x 26″ ream. However, the paper you use in your printer (classified as “bond” or “writing” paper) is weighed as a 17″ x 22″ ream. As a result, comparing different types of paper based on their weight is like comparing apples to oranges! For example, 90 lb. watercolor paper will feel completely different than 90 lb. card stock.
If you visit an art store and you’re presented with a few different choices of paper, you’ll know to look at each paper’s weight. This is especially important if the paper is wrapped in plastic and you’re unable to examine a single sheet.
Choosing Papers for Calligraphy Practice
Now that you understand paper weights, let’s talk about the best papers for calligraphy. In general, it’s best to write on smooth papers that have dense fibers. If the paper is too rough, your nib will catch on it, causing ink to spatter. If the paper’s fibers aren’t tightly woven, your ink will spiderweb out.
Sometimes, figuring out what works for your calligraphy practice can be a trial-and-error thing, and ink bleed mostly depends on the fiber structure of the paper. For specific brand recommendations, see this article. If you’re new to calligraphy, good paper and quality instruction are equally important! You can start your calligraphy journey by watching this video and printing its accompanying worksheet off on 32# laserjet paper. Then, if you want to dive deeper, enroll in the Beginner’s Modern Calligraphy Online Course.
Choosing Papers for Professional Calligraphy
If you’re writing out wedding vows, a quote, or another calligraphy-focused piece for someone to frame, you’ll want to write on a nice, sturdy paper. Not only will the paper have a high-quality feel to it, but the ink will dry very crisp because of the high fiber density. You shouldn’t have any problems with ink bleeding, regardless of which ink you choose to use.
The main papers I gravitate to for professional calligraphy work are:
- Strathmore 400 Series 80 lb. drawing paper
- Strathmore 400 Series 140 lb. watercolor paper
- Indian Cotton Paper Co. handmade paper
Note that beginners might have problems with nibs catching on all of the papers I’ve listed above. For that reason, it’s good to get in plenty of practice on smoother papers before you take on a project!
For more information and to develop the skills that you need in order to create professional calligraphy projects, check out the Intermediate Modern Calligraphy Online Course. There, we’ll talk more about paper types in addition to inks, pens, and advanced techniques.
Whether you want to make envelope calligraphy or mail art, it’s important to choose high-quality, heavy envelopes. If it feels flimsy, don’t use it! Flimsy envelopes tend to facilitate ink bleed. Generally, envelopes available in craft stores like Michael’s/Hobby Lobby are made from thin, low-quality papers. Not only does ink feather when you try to write on them, but you can see through the envelope.
I have five go-to sources for envelopes, which I expound on in this article. In a nutshell, I usually buy envelopes from:
- Cards & Pockets (my top pick)
- Indian Cotton Paper Co. (tied for my top pick)
- Crane & Co.
- Paper Source
- Envelopes.com (but be sure to check the paper weight before buying!)
The Best Papers for Recreational Drawing
Your drawing paper choice will depend completely on which mediums you plan on using, and whether they are wet mediums or dry mediums. If you’re not sure, it’s best to err on the side of good-quality paper! I’d recommend a sketchbook that contains at least 70 lb. paper. The better the paper, the less chance you’ll have ink spiderweb out or bleed through the paper. My top pick is the Shinola sketchbook, which contains 100 lb. paper.
Best Papers for Professional Illustrations
If you’re creating illustrations on a professional level, you know your medium best. It’s important to try out a variety of different high-quality, heavyweight papers to know which one works the best for you! I tend to gravitate toward two mediums: pencil and watercolor. For pencil drawings, it’s nice to work on paper with plenty of tooth and weight, like Strathmore 400 Series 80 lb. drawing paper.
For watercolor, you’ll want a high-quality paper that’s specifically for watercolors. 140 lb. cold press paper has good absorbency and a nice texture. That said, there are three different types of watercolor paper: hot press is smooth, cold press is toothy, and rough looks and feels like a stiff handmade paper. I like cold press because its texture complements paint. The paint tends to pool in the paper’s valleys and will be thinner at its peaks, which gives colors a variegated quality.
Best Papers for Professional Printing
I’m not experienced in printing professional pieces off at home, so I always send my work to a professional printer. For digital printing, I love GSB Digital and Printing for Less. For letterpress, Boxcar Press is great. The trick to ordering from professional printers is to get paper samples first. All reputable printers will be happy to send you examples of their paper range or the paper that they think will be good for your project.
When I print invitations, I usually order them printed on a 110 lb. matte stock. If I’m doing letterpress, 110 lb. is usually the route I go as well. For business cards, a slightly lighter weight (100 lb.) has been fine! Your best bet is to explain the effect you’re going for, then ask your chosen printing company for recommendations and samples.
My last piece of advice is to always try to write calligraphy or create illustrations on acid-free paper. Then, spray an archival fixative on it. Basically, you’ll just mist the fixative on the piece, wait for it to dry, and your artwork or calligraphy will look vibrant for years to come.
Phew — we learned a lot today! If you have any other questions about papers for calligraphy and art, please feel free to ask. This article exists to help you, so I want to make sure you get the most knowledge that you can out of it. Happy creating!