ROUGH vs. SMOOTH?
The results you get from colored pencils will change dramatically based on the support you use
(or, in layman's terms, the paper you work on). The main quality you need to be concerned
about with colored pencils is texture. How can I reduce the whole decision-making process of
supports down to texture? Quite simply, no other factor impacts the end result as
dramatically as the paper's texture.
Colored pencil is applied when the surface files the
pigmented wax off the pencil and leaves the filed wax as a deposit on the support.
Too smooth of a surface (say, glass or metal) and the colored
pencil will not leave a usable mark. The surface has to have some "tooth." In essence, the paper
acts like very fine sandpaper. As you color over a section of paper, the tooth in that area is
pushed down, smoothed out and coated with wax.
Texture options come in a full spectrum, but for now let's say that we have three basic options-
smooth, medium and rough. Medium (such as a vellum surface) simply provides a compromise between
the two ends of the spectrum discussed below.
On the smooth end of the spectrum, the smoothest option being what's called a "plate" finish,
the surface offers great detail. Without the small surface variation, the paper receives the line exactly
as you apply it. You can create very thin yet clean lines, especially if you keep your colored
pencil sharp. If detail is your number one concern, you want to work with a smooth surface.
Working smooth has its price, however. Smooth paper has enough tooth to take the fine detail
of an initial layer or two, but it will not receive a lot of pigment. And if it will not
receive a lot of pigment, you can't make either the dark darks or bold colors needed to create
a picture with punch. You can't easily create strong contrast or saturation. In fact, pictures
executed on a smooth surface can often look washed out if you aren't careful. And once you've
burnished the surface, you can make very few new marks. The new marks you do make will appear
weak and inconsistent.
If you want saturated colors and high contrast, you need to work with a support that will take
a lot of pigment. This is where the rough papers are useful. They are abrasive enough to make
the colored pencil deposit a lot more waxy pigment, creating a much richer color. You can
achieve startlingly bold colors with a rough surface. The rougher surfaces also have enough
tooth that, once you've applied several layers (including a burnishing layers), the paper will
still take more.
You probably already see the downside. With a rough surface, you have a hard time getting
fine detail because the hills and valleys of the surface take the colored pencil in a spotty,
inconsistent manner that doesn't allow for high detail. White flecks of paper show through
and break up the lines. Getting rid of these white flecks, if you so desire, means a lot of
work applying consecutive layers and pressure.
Because of its strong tooth, rough paper also wears down colored pencils much more quickly.
You will have to sharpen and replace your pencils more often.
Fortunately, all is not lost. Once you have applied several thick layers (or a burnishing layer)
to a rough surface, it is usually ready to receive higher detail. By burnishing those areas
that demand either high detail or a very smooth feel (such as human skin), you can go back and
add the detail. It requires more work, but does allow for brighter colors and high detail at the
Another option is to work larger. You get the bright colors and, relatively speaking, gain
A final note on rough surfaces- on a smooth surface, applying a light color over a dark color is
almost completely futile. On a rough surface, you can often lighten up an area a good amount by
applying a light color on top of a dark color. You can't return the area back to white by any
stretch in this manner, but you can add in details like reflected light fairly effectively.
How smooth or rough you work depends on your preference, of course. Do you want extremely high
detail, or are you more concerned about dark blacks and vibrant colors? Are you patient enough
to smooth out the surface with multiple layers before applying the detail?
You may decide that different surfaces are needed at different times. The complicated, busy piece
Happy Hour needed a lot of detail, so I worked on a
plate finish illustration board. The Summons needed
strong color, so I worked on some cold press watercolor paper. I then worked hard to get in the
detail I wanted on the face. In general, though, I am moving towards working more and more on
vellum surface Bristol board for most pictures. This allows me to work with fairly bright colors
and fairly good detail. When I need to, I can change to a rougher or smoother surface to fit my
To give a final summary, working on a smooth surface provides very high detail but does not allow
for really rich colors and the piece can end up looking washed out. Working on a rough surface
provides really rich colors and allows more layering (even, at times, light colors over darker
colors). Working on a rough surface does allow for a high level of detail IF you put in the
effort and understand that you still won't get the extreme (obsessive?) detail of a smooth surface.