Can you use acrylic paint on paper?

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I can still remember the smell of the cheap acrylic paint I was using and the exact sketchbook with the blue cover. I sat at the kitchen table, painting a picture with painstakingly meticulous details for a school project and left it to dry.

The next morning before school, I found a wrinkled piece of paper where I had left my finished painting, and when I tried to smooth it out, the paint started to crumble and fall off the paper. All that work for nothing!

Can you use acrylic paint on paper

Maybe you’ve run into similar issues while using acrylic paint on paper, or maybe you’ve been told to avoid using it altogether.

YOU WILL LEARN: Problems with painting on paper are so easy to overcome when you have the right information. I love to paint this way mainly because of the convenience. 

Can you use acrylic paint on paper?

You can use acrylic paint on paper but it’s important to know how it interacts with different types of surfaces to avoid frustrations like buckled paper and cracked paint.

These problems will occur in most cases because the paper is too thin and not absorbent enough.

What paper can you use acrylic paint on?

The reason these problems arise when painting on paper is because as paint dries, it shrinks in size. Acrylic paint is more suited to heavier papers.

Thicker paper will be sturdier, and one with a rougher texture will be more absorbent. Thin, less absorbent paper, like notebook or printer paper, isn’t as strong, which is why it tears and ripples easily when paint is applied.

If you’ve never shopped for paper in an art supply store, you might not be familiar with the different “weights”; this refers to the thickness and absorbency. “Heavier” paper will feel thicker and will be more difficult to crease or tear.

TIP: I would recommend you to search for 300lb or heavier artist paper. This is a safe bet, and will resist buckling, tearing, and bleed from the moisture in the paint. It will also prevent the paint from pooling on top of the paper. 

What is the best paper for acrylic paint?

The simplest answer is canvas paper (producers like to call this paper books: acrylic paper pads). It is heavy with a rough paper surface made specifically to mimic canvas, and is usually sold in rolls or in a bound book. Watercolor paper heavier than 300lb also works well and is sometimes easier to find.

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Hot vs Cold press artist paper

Same as choosing right type of painting medium, Texture on paper plays one of the most important roles, artist needs to think about. Difference in texture between papers of the same weight depending on whether the paper was made with a hot or cold press.

A hot press means the paper will be rougher and more textured; this is also referred to as having more “tooth”. Paper made with a cold press process will be smoother and less absorbent- it will have less tooth.

More tooth is better for a looser style, while less tooth is better for more detailed and precise work.

There is no single brand or type of paper that will be the best for everyone- you have to experiment with different types to see what suits your style the best. 

THINGS YOU SHOULD AVOID: Glossy paper, or paper with an oily finish will make painting more challenging. Avoid paper with high acid content- look for paper that is ph neutral so it lasts as long as possible. 

Is painting with acrylics always better on canvas than on paper? 

That depends. Techniques that work easily on canvas, like blending or impasto, might not translate the same on paper. Colors might not be as vibrant, and not all paper is well-suited to gesso application if that is something you prefer.

There are positives to using paper; it is usually more affordable than canvas, it is much more portable, and doesn’t need a stretcher. If you enjoy painting cityscapes on location, for example, but dislike the idea of carrying a canvas and easel on the train and through busy city streets, then a pad of paper would be much better suited to your needs.

Paper is also efficient- if you have a lot of ideas come to you at once, you can quickly get them all onto paper with minimal effort. Storing and displaying paper is also easier than canvas. It is even possible to do large scale paintings if you buy paper in large rolls.

How do you use acrylic paint on paper?

To prevent worse case scenarios and get best possible outcome, there are three tips or tricks you should consider:

Stretching

To minimize the risk of buckling as much as possible, you can stretch the paper. The simplest way this can be done is by dampening (not too much- apply the water with a clean brush or a wet cloth) and then attach it to another hard surface.

Example: you can pin it to foam board, or even place it on a flat surface and weigh down the edges.

Stretching is not a necessary step, and is impractical if your main reason for painting on paper is because it is portable and convenient, although if you really wanted to, you could stretch and prime it in advance and transport once it dries. 

Priming

There is no need to prime paper before painting on it, but it is important to note that unprimed one will be more absorbent and have a rougher texture.

If you prefer a smoother texture and want your paint to sit closer to the surface, then you can prime your paper with a few coats of gesso; binding mediums and gels also work as primers.

If you have a drawing paper with a high acid content, this will help seal the surface so it lasts longer.  Priming will also stiffen it, and once it dries, may help prevent future buckling.

One or two coats of primer will suffice, but you can apply more if you prefer. You can apply primer to one or both sides. If your paper starts to curve or curl, try priming both sides to even out the shape, or weigh down the edges as the primer dries.

TIP: Make sure you apply primer coats as thin as possible to avoid any unnecessary buckling. If you aren’t sure whether or not to prime your paper, cut a test strip and apply several coats. 

Painting

If you are used to painting on canvas, you might find that you need to adapt your usual painting techniques when you first start using paper.

It might take a little bit of experimentation to get the same effects and full coverage, but don’t get discouraged- this is a good opportunity to broaden your painting skills.

Because of the texture and absorbency of the paper, the paint won’t glide along the surface as smoothly. Un-primed paper is the most unforgiving for mistakes; once you put down paint, lifting it or thinning it out is much more difficult than on canvas.

What type of artist are you?

  • If you have a bold and energetic style, you might find that this quality of painting on paper is beneficial rather than something to be cautious about.
  • If you have a style that is detail-oriented and you are apprehensive about making mistakes on paper, experiment with priming and stick to cold-press paper.

It is important to work with the paper instead of trying to fight against it. Don’t get discouraged with the learning curve- as with any skill, the only way to get better is to practice. 

PRO TIP: One way to avoid the common frustrations of painting on paper is to start by thinning out your paint with water or thinning medium. The more transparent the layer is, the more forgiving it will be if you make mistakes. Try thinking of it more like watercolor in terms of application, especially if you decide not to prime your paper at all. 

How do you seal acrylic paint on paper?

In general, you can seal your acrylic paintings with the same sealant on both canvas and paper. Make sure the sealant is water-based, not oil-based, and make sure your painting is completely dry.

You can also use a wax as a sealant if you prefer. When sealing works on paper, make sure the layer of sealant is thin; a spray-on or wax sealant will probably work best for paper to make sure the protective coat isn’t too thick.

NOTE: Because paper is thin and flexible, it’s important to not apply a thick layer of varnish unless the paper is mounted to a hard surface to ensure it won’t bend and crack. Brush on sealant will work just fine, but it’s a bit more challenging to apply a thin, even coat with a brush. 

Can you use mixed media paper for acrylic paint?

Yes; most mixed media paper is heavy enough to support acrylics, but it is always good to check the weight to make sure it is above 300lb. You can even use printmaking paper or vellum.

Do you need to stretch paper for acrylic painting?

No, that is up to you. If you’re still having problems with buckling, even with paper over 300lb, then stretching is one way to troubleshoot this issue. Paper isn’t usually stretched on a wooden frame the way canvas is because it isn’t as durable. If you prefer the appearance of a stretched canvas, you can mount your finished paper on a wood block or frame.

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