Tuesday, July 22, 2014

White Paper is So Overrated

During my second year of teaching, I helped to open a new school. I was given a rather large budget in order to stock and supply an art room with both consumables and equipment. This was prior to the days of heavy social media usage, and I was not well-connected to other teachers of Art. I used my wits and spent most of the budget on large items like a kiln, potter’s wheel, easels, paper-cutter, scissors, lino cutters, etc. etc. It was actually very hard to spend all of that money (oh those glorious halcyon days!), but if I didn’t spend all of it by a specific date the funds would be allocated elsewhere. So, in the end, I defaulted to what I thought was practicality and bought a wide variety of white paper.
18x24 oil pastel on black paper. 6th grader

But, ugh, white paper is overrated.

It is as if we are taught that our default way of being and creating is to start off “white.”  Consider, when someone says, “start with a blank slate” we often think of an empty sheet of white paper. But, uh, last I checked, slates are dark grey or green. There are some social discourses we could have about the fact our societal default setting seems to be white (ahem), but that is a discussion for another time.  When we were little, we were given white paper on which to create. Colored paper was for cutting and gluing; not writing or drawing. And, yeah, I get that white paper might be the best for writing - what with contrast being important for legibility. . .But, why the heck as artists and creatives do we default to white? Well, it is probably because we remember that little sheet of white paper we were given as kids or the white paper of our coloring books.
18x24 chalk pastel and glue on black paper. 7th grader
One of the most asked questions I get is, “How do you get the kids to color so fully?”  The short answer is that I trick them; I rarely use white paper.  In Art school my professors (and yours too) made me use colored papers and conte crayons to draw. They taught me that I could use paper as a value AND that I could also use the paper to manipulate value. I got tired of my students doing (what I call) wimpy “social studies map coloring” in my Art class. It seemed to me that they were phoning-in when it came to coloring, and I was spending a ridiculous amount of time engaged in cajoling (and explaining to them) them to color more fully. So, I just thought to myself, “Enough! Enough with wasting this time. Let’s give the kids colored paper.”
9x12 colored pencil on blue paper. 7th grader. 
So, I did. I still do. And, their work is so much stronger for it. I find them actually thinking about how the colors they put down will interact with the color of the paper. I often give them five to six different colored paper choices and I am fascinated with what they pick and how they pick it. It brings diversity to their work. . .And, yes, they do color more fully which lends their work a more sophisticated polish and finish.
18x24 colored pencil on black paper. 8th grader.

Now, I order more colored paper than I do white paper. In fact, I ran out of white paper in November of the last school year and I never re-ordered it. I decided to see just how far we could push the colored paper. I haven’t yet found the boundary.
18x24 oil pastel and tempera paint stick on black paper. 6th grader.

What about you? Do you use colored paper for drawing?
24x24 tempera resist on black roofing felt. 8th grader.
18x24 oil pastel on black paper. 7th grader.
18x24 chalk pastel on black paper. 7th grader.


  1. My elementary kids start with colored paper a good bit of the time, especially if the lesson calls for setting a mood or a time of day. It's a great way to use or reuse old, faded paper because it's going to be mostly covered with paint or pastel anyway.

  2. I always use colored construction paper for oil pastel and colored pencil. Like you, I find the color of media used looks much richer on a surface with color already there. Thanks for the reminder to order more for this year.

  3. Great post Amy! Our artworks always look better on either a dark (blue/purple/black) or neutral (tan/kraft/manilla) colored paper background.

  4. I particularly love black paper, and also that ugly gray 'bogus' paper. Good post!

  5. This is great! I'm brand spanking new to teaching (I jumped in with both feet as a long-term sub at my first subbing assigment). Bless your heart for all you do and for putting out all this valuable information, for I don't know where I'd be without the blogosphere. I certainly was not trained in any way for this position, outside of my graphic design degree from 16 years ago. I love this idea of using colored paper, especially since i have so much more of it than white paper.