How to make tone paper

Almost a year ago, in the Historical Techniques of Drawing course at Atelier de Brésoles, I’ve learned how to tone paper for a variety of techniques using both traditional ingredients and modern day equivalent – The traditional ingredients consisted of raw pigments added to rabbit skin glue – The modern day equivalent consisted of raw pigments added to an acrylic based gesso and water.

Pastel tone papers (A & B), Watercolour Wet-on-wet (C) and wet-on-dry (D), Coffee tone paper one coat (E), two coats (F), Coffee & Gesso (G), Coffee, Gesso & Pastel (H), Gesso & watercolour one coat (I), Gesso & dark pastels (J), One coat of Gesso & light pastels over one coat of Gesso & watercolour (K) and One coat of Gesso & light pastels over one coat of Gesso & dark pastels (L).

The ingredients


Home ingredients for toning paper: Bristol paper, acrylic gesso, pastels, watercolours and a pot of coffee!

Although I could easily buy some, since I didn’t have rabbit skin glue or raw pigments readily at hand, I decided to experiment with some material that I already had in my possession. While gathering the ingredients, I saw there was a pot of yesterday’s coffee on the kitchen counter – I paused for a second and thought: “Why not?” before grabbing the pot with me to my experiment table.

For my paper toning experiment, I chose some Bristol “vellum” finish paper by Strathmore, which is good for dry media such as pastel and charcoal because it has more tooth than the “Smooth” finish, but the heavy weight paper can equally be used for wet techniques like pen and ink or watercolour.


Dry Pastels (A-B)

The most obvious way to tone paper would be to crumble some dry pastels with the help of a piece of sandpaper or a small knife and spread the dust all over the paper with some Kleenex tissue. You can use a single colour or have fun mixing your own using different pastel colours.

Spreading pastel dust is an easy way to tone paper and is ideal for dry media that involve the addition of lights by subtraction of pigments.

Since the pastel dust does not set, this tone paper is ideal for dry drawing media such as charcoal, chalk or Conté crayon and techniques that involve the addition of lights by removing pigments with a chamois and/or a kneaded eraser.

Watercolours (C-D)

Using watercolour is another easy and intuitive way to tone paper. There are two different ways you can do this:

  • “Wet-on-wet” consists on wetting the paper with clear water and adding pigments while it is still wet – This method gives a non-uniform wash as it allows for happy random accidents :)
  • “Wet-on-dry” technique simply consists of a thin wash of watercolour directly on dry paper with a large brush.

Two different ways to tone paper with watercolour using the wet-in-wet technique (1) and wet-on-dry (2) – These watercolour tone papers work best for wet-on-dry techniques and dry media alike.

You may wait for the watercolour to dry if you wish to add another coat. Use the same colour to make it more intense – or use a different one if you’re feeling funky – This tone paper can be used for wet-on-dry techniques and dry media.

Yesterday’s coffee (E-F-G-H)

I couldn’t wait to try the coffee – I confess that’s what I tried first – Same as wet-on-dry watercolour; I added a wash of coffee using a large 2½ inche hog bristle brush. I toned one-piece paper with just one coat of coffee and I toned another with a second coat. That is, after the previous coat was dry.

I tried toning with coffee in three different ways: First, coffee leftover was simply applied wet-on-dry on the paper (1). Later, acrylic gesso was added to the coffee (2). Yet later again, a bit of pastel dust was added to the coffee and gesso mixture to enhance its colour (3).

I really like the colour of these coffee tone papers :) Same as above, the coffee tone paper can be used for wet-on-dry techniques and dry media. However, I can really see this work well with pen and ink, especially if you are using sepia or sienna ink colour. For spectacular results, heighten the lights using in Titanum white gouache.

Acrylic Gesso (G-H-I-J-K-L)
I like the way that gesso add more tooth (roughness) to tone paper making it ideal for pastels and other dry media, but also some inks adhere better to paper with a little extra tooth. I tried different combinations, but each of the following tone papers will work for a variety of wet and dry media, providing a neutral ground to start with. If you are using dry media you can go darker with charcoal for instance, and work the lights with a white chalk or pencil. Using wet media, go darker with ink washes and heighten with white gouache.

Some of the other toning paper combinations included mixing watercolour with acrylic gesso (1) and dry pastel with gesso (2) Different colours and textures can be achieved applying two or more coats. Materials can also be combined such as adding a coat of gesso and pastels over a previous coat of gesso and watercolour or vice versa.

Here are the different combinations that I tried:

  • Adding watercolour to the gesso + a little water to achieve the consistency or 35% cream – I like the nice peach colour of that one :)
  • Mixing pastel dust to the gesso and add water to achieve the same creamy consistency –  Pastel and gesso is what gave the toothiest surface and the gesso acts as a binder so the pastel dust is perfectly set in.
  • At last, coffee and gesso mixed to obtain the same consistency – no need for extra water since the coffee contains plenty – Mixed with white gesso, we get a really pale café-au-lait colour (G) – not bad – but I tried it again adding a little bit of ochre and orange pastel pigments to enhance the mixture’s colour a little bit (H).

All paper toned with coffee, watercolour or acrylic gesso will tend to wrap a little. To remedy this problem, lay the paper to dry flat and once the toning is dry, press them under some heavy books overnight.

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