Paper Trails | The Search for the Perfect Toned Paper

Here at LARA a core part of our curriculum involves working from casts of classical sculpture. These exercises give a fantastic opportunity to study proportion, value and form. Cast drawing introduces the student to the grammar of drawing without the added difficulties of colour. Our students begin with drawings in charcoal on white paper and progress to working in chalk and charcoal on toned paper.

Traditionally, ateliers used a high quality, handmade paper called ‘Roma’ produced by the renowned Italian paper mill Fabriano. Roma paper is extremely robust and nicely textured, which makes it ideal for extended cast drawings, since it is tough enough to take multiple corrections without the paper
surface breaking down. Unfortunately, Fabriano have recently ceased production of its toned papers and so we have been carrying out some research into suitable toned alternatives.

In our investigations we’ve been focusing on what might be termed the Three Ts: tone, toughness and texture. We’re looking for a paper that has a pleasant mid-grey tone and has a good texture (or ‘tooth’) in order to accept enough charcoal to get rich dark values within the shaded side of the cast. The most crucial of all of these, though, is toughness. The majority of the papers we tried simply we’re strong enough to stand up to the repeated revisions needed to produce a serious cast study. Here’s the kind of fluffing up that happens when you work on a paper that’s too weak:

Here the surface of the paper has quickly rubbed away from the abrasion of the charcoal. One reason that Roma paper does not do this is that it is sized (that is, treated, with a natural sealant) both internally and externally. The other factor is that it is manufactured with a high ‘rag’ (i.e. cotton) content, which gives it additional durability. The alternatives are risky: clearly its not great if you’re a month into an extended cast drawing and the drawing surface begins to fluff up like this. In extreme circumstances it may mean having to abandon the project altogether.

We’ve been though a huge number of toned papers in our search for alternatives, including these front-runners:

  • Hahnemuhle Bugra Butten 130 gsm
  • Fabriano Ingres 160 gsm
  • Bockingford 300 gsm
  • Somerset Velvet Newsprint 280 gsm
  • Landor 350 gsm
  • BFK Rives 280 gsm
  • Zerkal Ingres 90 gsm rough

Each of these comes in a range of tones but all had their drawbacks. The Bugra Butten, for example, gave good darks but was extremely fragile. The Fabriano Ingres, on the other hand, would be a reasonable choice for a figure drawing, but did not give the range of darks needed for a full value cast study.The Bockingford 300 gsm seemed to be relatively robust, but did not stand up to the same degree of working as Roma.

So far, the best alternative we have found for charcoal and chalk studies on toned Roma paper, is to take white Aquarelle Arches watercolour paper (we like the 185 gsm cold pressed kind), stretch it with gumstrip (as you would for a watercolour painting) and tone it by hand with a mixture of Indian ink and water. This gives a good strong surface and seems to be better than anything else we’ve experimented with. It gives lovely deep darks even though the texture is somewhat ‘bobbly’ and less uniform than the Roma paper.

We’ve looked into toning white Roma (which is still available) and during our search have also come across the following two papers which do not come in toned sheets but are worthy of further experimentation for figure studies: Ingres MBM Arches and Fabriano Artistico. Of these two, the Artistico seems to be the more robust and give richer darks than the MBM.

Have you tried out different papers for extended drawing projects? What are your favourites? Get in touch with us.

Article by Ben Smith


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