Half-tone Paper in Art

Why is brown paper great for drawing on?

Half-tone, mid-tone or simply coloured paper, call it what you will, has been used in the art world for centuries as a base for some of the most famous artworks. Many artists start a painting with a basic wash of coloured paint whereas some pastel artists choose to work on brown or grey pastel paper to get the most contrast possible.

Over the last year I have become addicted to drawing on “kraft”, half-tone paper (which is basically a brown card-stock), even carrying round a sketchbook of brown paper. Using a darker base surface is something I picked up while doing my GCSE Art course, and I ended up enjoying this way of working so much that I painted my final piece on a kraft card stock. Many people rarely think twice before picking up a standard white, cartridge paper sketchbook, yet I have personally found more satisfaction in sketching on a mid-tone surface.

If you have never tried drawing and painting on a non-white surface, I highly recommend it; it can feel like a different way of approaching sketching but I truly believe it is a great surface to experiment on once in a while, as is canvas or wood.

My main reason for drawing on half-tone paper is the increased amount of contrast you can get. For example, you can create both positive shading (e.g. using a graphite pencil to add shadows) and negative shading (e.g. using a white pastel pencil to add highlights), and so it’s possible to rework into sketches again and again, adding more and more contrast between the tones and shades.

In my opinion, drawing on a white surface gives less versatility since you are limited to only adding shading (with the exception of using an eraser, although you lose some of that lovely graphite texture and definition by using one). A non-white surface forces one to look at both the shadows in an image AND the highlights, which is a really important skill for an artist to have.

Similarly to my last point, a mid-tone surface helps prevent overworking when adding shading since the artist is adding highlights at the same time. I always struggle with watercolours and inks as I tend to overwork the shading, meaning the piece lacks contrast, especially when comparing to the bright white background of the paper. When working on a mid-tone background, one also must consider the highlights at the same time as the shadows, so it’s easier to get that spectrum of shades and tones.

Personally, I also like to map out my highlights before going in with colourful paints, so I use white watercolour paint on the half tone paper to block out these areas. It feels a lot easier than blocking out shadows on white paper since you rarely find pure black areas in a photo (shadows and darker areas often feature an array of hues), yet there is often a lot of white (or light) areas in a photo to paint.

In this painting I did as part of my 10 hour GCSE exam, I really liked the how my Kuretake Gansai Tambi watercolours popped on the card stock. The really opaque watercolours contrast so well with the kraft card, especially with such tonal variation.

Finally, I personally love half-tone paper as it brings an extra flair to sketches and paintings, especially those that would otherwise be monotone. The mid-tone colour helps bring out the highlights as well as the shadows, as well as adding a dash colour to otherwise grey-scale artworks.

One can also more easily accentuate sketches that they like in a sketchbook, by adding a white border or only adding highlights to their favourite sketches. This is partly why I changed my preferred sketchbook to a half tone paper one. Even when painting, I find that that having a mid tone background really helps the opaque colours pop as one completely paints over the surface of the paper.

Do you want to get into sketching on half tone paper? Here are some must have supplies:

  1. A4 Kraft Cardstock (200gm)
  2. Pentel Hybrid White Gel Pen
  3. Palomino Blackwing 602

I hope this has inspired you to try and branch beyond the standard cartridge paper sketchbook and look into some less common surfaces to work on. I always love finding new weird and wonderful art supplies to try out, such as my favourite pencil eraser, my prized collection of white gel pens and of course, my kraft paper sketchbook –it is all about exploring and finding what suits you as an artist.