Urban sketching on toned paper

Urban Sketching on Toned Paper

Have you seen urban sketches on toned paper? How great do they look? 

I tend to see urban sketchers use tan or grey coloured paper, a minimal colour palette and some form of opaque white medium, such as a gel pen to make certain parts pop.

I absolutely love the look of these sketches so I thought we could take a look together at some examples of sketches on toned paper, the best types of materials to use and how to actually get started creating your own sketches on toned paper.

Why sketch on toned paper?

There are a few good reasons for why you may wish to sketch on toned paper. My intention for writing this post is actually purely because I love experimenting with different mediums, so that is a very good first reason.

Some other benefits to sketching on toned paper are:

  • Less strain on your eyes when sketching in direct sunlight
  • Play with both highlights and shadows
  • Increases our skill as an artist because we get to use a wider spectrum of tonal values than we would on white paper
  • Sketch quicker as the page is already providing the mid-tones, you only need to indicate shade and some highlights 

Obviously, as urban sketchers, the ability to sketch quicker by simply using toned paper is highly appealing as well as the point about avoiding the strain of bright with paper on our eyes when we are out in the direct sunlight.

If these well-selected reasons for sketching on toned paper have not tempted you enough, let’s look at some of my favourite examples I found recently of sketches on toned paper. After this section, I reckon you’ll be hooked. 

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Examples of sketches on toned paper

This is a great example of a quick landscape sketch and what you can achieve with just a black ink pen and a white ink pen, leaving most of the toned paper to do the rest.

Paul Heaston is undoubtedly the master when it comes to these curvilinear sketches of interiors, usually done on toned paper. Check out how his use of white lines in selected areas of the sketch really make it pop. I believe Paul uses a Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook. We shall discuss materials in more detail in the section below.

Miguel Herranz is another of my favourite urban sketchers who uses toned paper a lot (or certainly used to). Notice how the grey paper does most of the work in this sketch (meaning it’s left untouched) while Miguel executes a fantastic line sketch with black ink and picks out certain areas with a white gel pen, like the light outside the window and how it hits the wall inside. It’s so effective.

Marie Silver’s entire Instagram feed is of her sketches in a toned sketchbook, it’s beautifully presented and her artwork is gorgeous. I highly recommend scrolling through for some serious inspiration. Unlike the examples I have shown so far, Marie wholeheartedly uses colour in her illustrations on toned paper. I believe she also uses the Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook for her work.

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I really love Pat Southern-Pearce’s use of vivid colours on the grey tone paper she uses. Pat uses a mixture of ink, watercolour pencils, coloured pencils and a white gel pen.

Don Colley is one of my favourite people sketchers. He regularly sketches with toned paper, both tan and grey. His sketch below is in a Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook, sketched with a fountain pen and shaded with Faber-Castell Pitt pens.

Juan Linares has a fantastic flip-through of a sketchbook of his urban sketches around Spain and also from the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Porto. He is using The Grey Book by Hahnemuhle. When asked what medium he is using in the book, Juan said water-based markers. I was intrigued as the paper in this sketchbook is not suitable for watercolour paint.

Materials for sketching on toned paper


Watercolour Sketchbooks with toned paper

Most sketchbooks with toned paper probably won’t be all that thick or be able to handle too much watercolour. However, if you are looking for a sketchbook that can handle a decent amount of water, then check out the Stillman & Birn Nova sketchbook. The sketchbook comes with either beige paper or grey paper. If you really like to experiment then the Stillman & Birn Nova Trio sketchbook features beige, grey and black paper all within one book!

Hahnemuhle also has a watercolour sketchbook with toned paper, either grey or tan. It comes in a square format as well as A5 or A6 landscape. 

Strathmore has a range of sketchpads with mixed media paper available in either tan or grey as well as a hardbound journal available with either colour paper too.

Sketchbooks with toned paper for dry media

Of course, you do not need to get a sketchbook to use with watercolours if you simply intend on using pen, pencils or even charcoal. This opens up the choice of sketchbook a great deal more (and reduces the price). I have used the Hahnemuhle Cappuccino (tan colour) sketchbook with ink and alcohol markers which worked well. The paper is silky smooth, you can almost feel the quality of it. They have a version with grey paper too.

Strathmore has many sketchpads and hardback sketch journals with tanned or grey drawing paper in all kinds of sizes and orientations, Amazon has quite a wide selection of them.

Pens & Pencils

You can use any pens or pencils you wish to toned paper:

  • Fineliners
  • Ballpoint pen
  • Fountain pen
  • Graphite pencils
  • Charcoal pencils
  • Coloured pencils
  • Watercolour pencils

If you intend on using watercolour paint or pencils on your toned paper, test how the paper handles the water first, this is particularly necessary for lower weight paper. If using water-based mediums on top of ink lines, make sure you are using a pen with waterproof ink!

When using colour, make sure to test how the colours appear on the toned paper as the colours will look different than on white paper. If you use graphite pencils or charcoal consider ‘fixing’ the sketch after you do it, especially if you are carrying the sketchbook around, otherwise the pages will rub together and your sketch will end up very smudged!

Experiment and see which medium you prefer to use with you toned paper, this may vary depending on whether you use beige or grey paper.


A few choice markers can be a great way to add colour or value to your sketch. I find using a few shades of grey very effective. You can use alcohol markers but test how they behave on your paper first as they may bleed through the page and even through to the next page too depending on the weight of your paper.

A good alternative I have discovered through the work of Don Colley (mentioned in the example section above) are Faber-Castell Pitt pens. They are filled with india ink and therefore will not bleed through your sketchbook page and are odourless too (unlike alcohol-based markers). You can buy them in sets or individually. My recommendation would be this set of 6 markers in shades of grey which you can find on Amazon.

Adding White

One of the most exciting parts of using toned paper is adding those pops of white highlights. You can do this by using any white opaque medium such as a white gel pen, a white paint marker, white gouache or white acrylic or drawing ink.

I would suggest checking out the following items to add white to your sketch and see which method appeals to you, or if you have the opportunity, experiment with a few:

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How to get started

It’s a good idea to experiment with your art supplies and how they appear on the toned paper you have chosen to work with. If you have a pad or sketchbook which has a variety of toned paper in it, you should do this on each different shade. A marker or watercolour hue will look very different on white paper to tan paper and from tan paper to grey paper. Once you understand the values you can achieve with your supplies you can strata sketching. 

The benefit of sketching on toned paper is that the entire page is already covered with a mid-tone, so instead of starting with a surface covered with bright white and always working in values darker than this, with toned paper, you get to experiment with adding highlights as well as shadows. It’s almost as though you can sculpt your sketch from the page, it’s definitely a different way of working!

As we have an entire page of mid-tone at our disposal, make sure to actually take advantage of this, otherwise, the magic of the paper is lost. Avoid sketching and then covering the entire thing in values and colours. Keep areas of the paper untouched and let your sketch breathe. It’s easy to get carried away, I know!

If you are using the paper to sketch a person, for instance, most of their skin can be kept as the colour of the paper, then just add shading where necessary and a few pops of white highlights to make the sketch pop.

In the sketch above Don Colley has used Faber Castell Pitt pens in Hahnemuhle Cappuccino sketchbook. He loosely blocks in shapes with a very light grey Pitt pen and then refines the figure by adding ink lines on top, followed by darker shades of grey where necessary to achieve depth.

You may also be able to see his fingerprints all over this drawing (in the texture of the jeans, the skin and the bag). This is one of Don’s signature techniques where he will lift the ink from the pen and apply it to his sketch with his finger. He finds this a super-effective way of achieving textures quickly and simply.

For a completely opposite approach to using toned paper, check out the work of Pat Southern-Pearce. She uses vibrant colours on top of her toned paper. Pat seems to have a wealth of different mediums she could use in a sketch. I think her approach to sketching on toned paper is important to consider, it’s not all about monochromatic tones, you can add incredible colour too.

In the video below, from the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Chicago 2017, Pat talks through some of the supplies she uses and how she went about creating a certain sketch.

Final Thoughts

I hope this post has inspired you to try something a bit different if you haven’t ventured into the world of toned paper yet.

If you do try some sketches on toned paper and happen to share them on Instagram, make sure you tag @urbansketchingworld so I can see!

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