How do You Paint Cardboard?

By Mandy Moss

The beauty of being an artist lies in the fact that the world is my canvas. With a little bit of artistic ingenuity, commonly discarded items become the ingredients for a work of beauty. Did you know, that one of the most useful items in art, that can be found around us is free? Have you tried to paint cardboard?

How do I Paint Cardboard?

Nearly every business and person gathers cardboard boxes that they intend to throw away. With a little bit of modification, it can be turned into a surplus of canvases for artistic needs.

I want to take some time to break down just how useful cardboard is. There are a variety of mediums that can be applied to its surface to create beautiful works of art. This article will be an easy read guide to how primers and paints act on cardboard.

What kind of paint can I use on Cardboard?

A large arsenal of pigments no doubt begs the question “which ones can I use?” Luckily, cardboard is a versatile surface for art projects. Spray paints, oil-based paints, some water-based paints, pastels, and even charcoal can be used for cardboard canvas art projects.

With so many options available, I want to hone in on just a few specific popular paints that you are likely to already have in your toolbox. Let’s take a quick look into the different mediums and discuss a few tips:

Do I need to use Primer on cardboard?

When painting on cardboard, primer is an essential component for achieving the desired effects. It will be mostly determined by the primer quality used and the priming technique. In the end, deciding between liquid latex primer and gesso comes down to personal preference. Neither is superior to the other, yet they have slightly different outcomes.

These products are widely available in readymade mixtures at online shops and hobby stores. There are even a few different ways to replace purchasing these items for homemade solutions. I won’t go into making your own materials in this guide but you should still know that it is an option.

Liquid Latex Primer

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Almost any store-bought liquid latex primer meant for all surface purposes will do well as a primer for cardboard. It is important to make sure that the chosen primer is not water-based.

Cardboard’s greatest weakness is water. Sticking to solvent-based primers will ensure a solid surface and prevent warping.

The one downside to using liquid latex primer is that the darker tone of the cardboard will still come through after treatment. This can be mitigated by performing additional coating layers until you are satisfied. Be careful not to overdo it and damage the cardboard. While cardboard is not an expensive material to use for experimentation, primer costs a little bit more.

PRO TIP: Applying RabbitSkin glue to the cardboard before priming will help to seal the surface tight and provide a smoother surface to work with.


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Gesso has become a very popular priming material. It is a thinned-out acrylic paint that dries hard. You can purchase it in white, black, clear, or colored readymade variants. It is inexpensive and widely available.

The only downside to priming with gesso is the twenty-four-hour drying period needed after application.

NOTE: Using gesso to prime cardboard is a solid choice. The primed surface will come out much more even and cover up the natural tone of the cardboard.

Can I use Spray Paints to paint on Cardboard?

Using spray paint to paint cardboard is a great idea. It is easy to learn as it can be applied directly to the cardboard without any other assistance. All that’s needed is the paint colors for the artwork’s chosen theme and a well-ventilated space to spray in.

While priming cardboard to apply spray paint isn’t required, using gesso, a spray primer, or solid white or black paint as a base layer is a good way to improve the finished quality.

NOTE: Cardboard can have folds and impressions from accidental pressure placed on it. The thicker the priming layer, the less noticeable those imperfections in the canvas will be.

Can I paint on Cardboard with Oil-based Paints?

Oil paints are a perfect marriage for cardboard artwork. They are thicker than water-based paints and apply better to the surface cardboard rather than being absorbed into it.

PRO TIP: You can paint the cardboard with oil paints in practice and try and test out ideas without wasting expensive canvas sheets.

Priming for Oil-based Paints

I recommend priming cardboard with an acrylic gesso for using oil paints and pastels. While oils don’t absorb into cardboard the same way as water, when it does it can cause buckling and surface damage. Even if the risk is relatively low, a thin layer of gesso will prevent the need to worry about it either way.

Remember, priming isn’t required for cardboard prep before painting cardboard with oil but it will make the end product more durable and longer-lasting.

PRO TIP: I would also size the cardboard by applying a coat of resin or glue to the front and back of the cardboard.

Can I use Water-based Paints on Cardboard?

It is possible to paint the cardboard with acrylic paint. This medium is harder to work with when used on cardboard due to the need for water. Even with primer, water-based paints can seep into the cardboard and soften the surface enough that it can lead to warps when it dries. It can even cause damage by weakening the structure of the cardboard and making it easily possible for a brush to punch through it.

I would recommend using dry brushes or dry sponges and as little water as possible to apply acrylic to cardboard. Even if it is more difficult, acrylic paints can be an incredibly successful medium on cardboard.

Priming for Water-based Paints

This is another situation that I recommend using gesso for. Even though acrylic paint isn’t nearly as wet as watercolors, the cardboard still needs to have a solid seal to keep the acrylic from soaking into it.

This is another perfect use case for RabbitSkin glue. While RabbitSkin glue is an ingredient in gesso, an extra layer underneath gesso to seal the cardboard more can provide a better surface for acrylics.

Are Water-colors ok to paint on Cardboard?

Unfortunately, watercolors damage the cardboard. While it is possible to find a creative way to apply it, watercolors require a good amount of water to run and create their iconic effects. As much as you prime the cardboard, the heavy water use is just too much for it.

Can You Use Charcoal on Cardboard?

Charcoals are another great medium to use on cardboard. Unprimed cardboard can take damage from hard rubs, so it is important to take care and make soft, smooth strokes. Primed cardboard, however, is a great surface for charcoal.

NOTE: While it is not as great as charcoal-specific paper, it is a great cheap solution.

Priming for Charcoals

For charcoal, I would use liquid latex primer on top of a RabbitSkin glue coat or a solid black gesso. However, there are pastel primers and grounds that can be applied to create a toothy, rough surface for the charcoal and other dry mediums to grab and hold onto.

While the pastel primers can work for cardboard, it has to be applied over a longer period process to let the primer dry after each application to prevent water damaging the cardboard.

Which medium should I choose?

Choosing the medium for an art project is all in personal preference. I would recommend picking the most familiar to you and starting there. A master artist will have experimented with just about everything. So give it all of them a go and see which one you have the most fun with.

How to Paint Cardboard?

Now that we’ve spent the time exploring some options, it’s time to get to work. To paint cardboard, we first want to prepare the material to be the canvas. This is usually a short process to perform but requires a decent amount of drying time.

Our choice of paint will help to dictate which primers to use, if any. Your vision is what dictates the size the canvas should be. Sometimes the size of the canvas will just be based on what’s available.

Rescued cardboard may not be all 100% useable material. With damaged cardboard, just cut out the unusable sections and evenly divide the remaining surface to create cardboard painting surfaces.

PRO TIP: You can save a lot of prep time if with corrugated cardboard. It may not be free but it’s still cheap. This cardboard is stronger than standard box cardboard and comes in conveniently sized precut options.
How to prime and prepare Cardboard?

How to Prime and Prepare Cardboard?

It’s time to get down to business. We’ve got the primer. We’ve got the cardboard, scissors, paint, and glue. We are ready for anything that comes our way!

1. Clean cut Prep

Take time to clean up the cardboard surface you’ve chosen. Cut off the frills along the edges and any scraggly surface blemishes. This is also the time to create unique cut designs if your project requires them.

2. Apply the Primer

I’m going to break this into two sections. The first one is the steps to applying gesso primer and the second is the RabbitSkin glue and liquid latex primer method.

For the Gesso Primer:

  • With a large, flat brush, sponge, or foam brush apply the gesso acrylic across the surface evenly. Use two layers. The first one should be vertical stroke coverage and the second layer should be applied with a horizontal stroke, or vice-versa.
  • After applying the gesso layers, let the cardboard surface dry for about twenty-four hours.
  • If there are any rough spots or bubbles, sand them out lightly. Only do this after the gesso is 100% dry.

For the RabbitSkin glue and liquid latex priming method:

  • Prepare the RabbitSkin glue by mixing one part granules with twelve parts water. When cooled it should have a firm jelly consistency. This can be modified to work with thinner or thicker cardboard by lower the water ratio to as low as eight parts or as high as 14 parts.
  • Leave the mixture overnight for the glue pellets to swell.
  • Boil some water and place it in a container large enough to place the glue container in.
  • Place the glue-filled mixture container into the hot water container.
  • Once the glue is lukewarm, stir and it should slowly melt into liquid glue.
  • Coat the cardboard in an even layer of the glue mixture with a wide, flat rubber brush.
  • Let the glue dry for a couple of hours. You can speed this process up by using a hairdryer or hot air gun.
  • Once the sizing layer is dry, apply the liquid latex across the cardboard surface with one to three layers.
  • Leave dry time between each application

It’s Ready to Paint

Congratulations! It’s time to paint. The cardboard is sturdy and ready to hold the paint you’ve chosen to its’ surface. Whether you paint your cardboard with acrylic or oil, preparation work is complete.

Related Questions

The short answer is no. The long answer is that the effects of applying paint with and without priming are different. Both methods can be used to create unique artwork. While leaving the cardboard unprimed will end with a less durable piece, the tone created by soaking more of the color of each paint and the effect of dense layering can be used in creative ways.

Primed cardboard leads to a more traditional surface that can be used for a wide variety of artworks with consistency that lasts.

Most definitely. Many famous artists throughout history have utilized cardboard to create masterpieces. There’s no limit to a great creative mind. Resourceful use of the materials at hand is a true sign of artistic creativity.

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