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How do I identify paper that's good for charcoal? By "good", I'm referring to characteristics like how charcoal behaves on it, how fixative applies to the paper, durability, yellowing, etc.

I'm a teenager, so currently I have no money; good "budget" paper is more relevant right now than expensive "best" paper. I'm using these big sheets of paper, the brand is "Soho Studio". I've heard reviews of good brands that turned out not to be that good, so it would be valuable to get input based on people's actual experience (along with some context of what were the objectives/expectations, and what made the recommended paper particularly good for that purpose).

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I have done a lot of charcoal drawings, and I mostly used paper by Canson (XL, Academy) and Fabriano (large sheets or rolls of the Accademia variety). They create several ranges of papers, and both include very affordable ones.
I have not had problems with yellowing of paper, despite some of these works being almost twenty years old, but admittedly most are stored dry and dark.

A few basic remarks on the characteristics of the paper you're looking for:

  • Make sure it is acid-free (which also means it is lignin- and sulfur-free1), as the lignin will yellow, and the acids will react to light and heat and deteriorate.
  • Alternatively, make sure it's made of cotton instead of wood (see this answer).
  • When it comes to using charcoal, you'll need quite sturdy paper (≥ ± 95 gr/m2), with at least a little bit of tooth/grain to allow for the charcoal to erode (see also this answer).
    You can check for cold-pressed paper, which usually has a rougher surface.
  • Be sure to try different weights, grains, sizes, and colours, to see where your preferences lie.

Additional notes:

  • Keep the drawings out of sunlight.
  • Store properly (dry, dark, cool) or display properly (behind UV resistant glass, in dim places, &c.).
  • You might even want to go as far as to prevent rubbing in residual acids from your hands by washing your hands before drawing, or wearing light gloves. I don't think this will have a huge impact, but it is good to take into consideration.
  • Don't use hairspray! :)

1: https://web.archive.org/web/20000914045052/http://www.history.pcusa.org/cong/acidpaper.html
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    I edited the question to make it on-topic. There's nothing wrong with recommending a product in the answer if you explain why it's a good solution. In this case, I'm not sure how valuable just generic advice is as a solution. It narrows the endless list of papers to try on no budget. Adding a relevant example paper or two would make this a better answer IMHO. :-)
    – fixer1234
    Jan 17 at 19:17
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Joachim's answer provides very good info focused on the archival aspect to what makes a "good paper" in your question.

But he just touches upon the two most critical aspects of what makes a good paper as far as drawing on it is concerned: the weight and the tooth of the paper. Weight being a combination of thickness and durability, tooth being the amount of texture and/or roughness of the paper's surface.

When drawing in charcoal (or pastels, or pencil for that matter) the texture of the surface plays a huge part in the final work. A light broad stroke of the stylus brings out the texture which can add great dynamic to your shaded tones. Tooth also serves to grab the charcoal so that the drawing is easier to put down and also less likely to smear away.

The weight of the paper provides resistance to wearing away or tearing. The heavier the paper the more vigorous you can be when working, giving you more range and flexibility in your style. Dry media can build up quickly, heavier paper allows you to put down more pigment before the paper becomes overloaded. Weight of the paper is shown in pounds (per 500 uncut sheets -- 17" x 22" for regular paper, 20" x 26" for cover stock) and ~65lbs. would probably be the minimum you would want to go for charcoal/pastel work. If you were to be working on >150lbs. paper you could start to do things like scratch away pigmented areas without destroying the paper.

At this point in your drawing career experimentation is critical. So focus less on permanence and more on expression. Find things to draw on that are not what you would consider paper at all: Canvas, bark, shopping bags, cardboard. Different textures can result in a very different look to the drawings. The idea is to do a lot of different works without worrying about anything beyond the moment of their creation.

Then take that experience with you when picking out the nicer drawing papers at the art store. Even then keep experimenting, like with Japanese washi papers, watercolor paper, etc... But then you will know what you are looking for in the paper. As far as keeping it going on a budget many times there is a bin of slightly damaged papers, a good way to try out the more expensive ones.

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