I have been thinking about translucent papers recently. I went to an art exhibit called Can you See the Trees Through the Forest where much of the work had been drawn on vellum and then hung from the ceiling so the light could come through. When I looked up the artist, Phyllis Obst, it turned out that she was an engineer so it made sense that she was used to working with vellum as it is commonly used for things like technical drawings and blueprints.
In ancient times (this goes back more than a thousand years) vellum was made of calfskin that was split and treated so it became somewhat translucent. Modern vellum is paper that has been plasticized to obtain a similar smooth, translucent quality but you really could not confuse the two. Unfortunately, the word vellum gets used quite loosely so sometimes just ordinary writing paper is labelled vellum to connote smoothness or quality. I have an old pad of Zellers writing paper that purports to have a “vellum finish” but the only connection I can see is that the paper is so thin that you can almost see through it.
My Canson paper sample book has a couple of examples of translucent paper. The first is the Canson Vidalon Vellum. It is a smooth, translucent paper that has a sturdy feel to it. I tried out pencil, pen, marker and pencil crayon. It was very easy to erase the pencil and all of the writing tools just glided over the paper. It is so translucent that I had to put a piece of plain paper underneath it to take the pictures otherwise you could see the writing from the next section.
The second paper that I think fits this category is the Canson Pro Layout Marker paper. It is not quite as translucent as the vellum but is not completely opaque either. As the name implies, it is designed for markers but it also works with pen and pencil. There is no bleed through with any of the markers or pens I tried but because it is so smooth there was a lot of smudging.
While none of the Canson paper samples are called tracing paper, the company has a place in tracing paper history. In 1809 while Napoleon waged war all over Europe, in the Beaujolais region of France, Barthélémy de Canson peacefully continued to experiment and improve the paper mill he inherited through his wife’s family. His innovative refining of paper pulp led to the invention of tracing paper.
I recently bought a pad of Strathmore tracing paper to help me in my efforts to learn calligraphy by using it over practice sheets. While not quite as old as the Canson paper company, the Strathmore Paper Company of the US goes back to 1892. They too have a wide range of papers, including a very nice transparent parchment tracing paper. Tracing paper has the benefit of not only being translucent but also very smooth so there is little bleeding or feathering of ink. If you have any concerns that since ancient vellum was made of animal skin that the modern equivalents have any animal by-products, fear not. According to Strathmore’s Frequently Asked Questions page, all Strathmore products are vegan, except for their Gemini Watercolor paper which is made with traditional sizing.
If translucent papers were people, they would be a bit hard to figure out. Smooth but not slick, they can be very useful but you can’t clearly see what is going on with them.