How to Choose the Right Paper for Every Subject


Felicity House, “Q is for Quince,” pastel with watercolour underpainting, 20 x 24 cm (8 x 10 in). Cool paper with warm subject matter.

Felicity House shares her tips for letting the paper work for you.

“If your subject has a dominant color then you could choose paper that is that same color and concentrate on pastelling the other areas in order to build the picture quite swiftly,” says Felicity House. “For example, if the subject is a warm stone building … choose that color of paper.

“Does a dark interior dominate? Then use dark paper.

“Conversely, you could choose a color of paper that’s opposite to the dominant subject color, which will result in a vibrant picture. For example, if you have blue objects, use yellow paper support.

Felicity House, “Tulip Cup and Saucer,” pastel, 18 x 18 cm (7 x 7 in). Green paper – Red subject.

“A warm color paper works well with a cool subject. Likewise, a cool colored paper works well with a warm colored subject.

“Using a mid-toned paper means you can work well in pastels with darker tones to begin with and finish with the light color highlights to obtain a painting with a full tonal range.

“A light color of paper enables you to concentrate on drawn marks if that is important to you.

Felicity House, “Garden at Hotel de L’Orange,” pastel, 54 x 40 cm (19 x 14 in). Buff building + warm buff paper

“Thinking about the color of the paper before you start can:

  • Save you time
  • Give cohesion to your picture 
  • Makes you think about whether line drawing or color impact is how you will be working 
  • Helps give you a useful warm/cool contrast
  • Provides a new challenge – it’s exciting to work on a different color – what will happen? How will your pastel picture develop on an unexpected color support?
Felicity House, “The Yellow Saucepan,” pastel and soft charcoal pencil, 30 x 22 cm (12 x 8 in). Use pale paper when the drawn line is important

“Lots of papers like Art Spectrum Colorfix can be wiped and re-used, which again gives you an interesting color, pattern, or shape which can work with a new subject.

“Of course, you can paint your own paper/support in watercolor or acrylic which gives you the opportunity to have a paper in a color that’s not manufactured. Or create graduated color washes as appropriate to your subject for working on in pastel.

“On location, I always carry a folder containing different color sheets of pastel paper so I can choose the most appropriate one for the subject. For the studio, I might buy some color papers I usually don’t consider. It’s good to take risks and try things out.”

It’s not too late to join top artists from around the world, including Sandra Burshell, Casey Klahn, Vianna Szabo, Peter Adams and many more, at Pastel Live, August 17-19, 2023, with an Essentials Techniques Day on August 16. (All from your own home or studio!)

Previous article9 Tips for Painting Hair
Next article5 Top Pastel Artists Share Their Best Tips and Tricks
PleinAir Magazine and American Watercolor Weekly Editor-in-Chief With more than 20 years experience in art publishing, Kelly Kane has served previously as Editor-in-Chief of Watercolor Artist magazine and Content Director for The Artist’s Magazine, Drawing, Acrylic Artist, and Pastel Journal. She has interviewed many of the preeminent artists of our time and written numerous articles about painting, drawing, art education and art history. She is now the Editor-in-Chief of PleinAir Magazine and the American Watercolor Weekly newsletter. Click here to send her an email.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here