Bristol board is a multi-ply sheet comprised of paper. It’s a bit different from illustration board, which can be made of cotton fibers. Also, Bristol allows for illustrations on both sides of the sheet, which is ideal for beginning artists.
Most brand boards come in a range of weights or “plies,” which indicates the stiffness of the paper. Higher plies mean a thicker, stiffer board. Any of them are best for working on a flat or solid slanted surface.
Finish choices are smooth or vellum. In the smooth category, you’ll find “plate” finishing which provides a glass-like surface. This smooth surface is excellent for markers, pen and ink, and even acrylic paints or airbrushing. Vellum surfaces have a heavier tooth that can range from light to rough. These surfaces are wonderful for colored pencils or leaded pencils (but smooth surfaces are also useful for some illustration pieces, too).
Bristol board sheets come in pads with typical sizes ranging from 9x12 to 19x24. Strathmore and Bienfang are popular brands, but you can find specialty names that also include student to professional and archival grade. Some sheets are also made with recycled components.
While these are guidelines for the types of media you can use with Bristol board, it’s still a matter of preference. Sometimes, I like the results of pencil work on smooth surfaces and I often get surprising results working with watercolors on vellum sheets. Bristol is just a fun way to experiment and can lead to some beautiful pieces.
Photo copyright Karen Kennedy