If you have ever considered painting on paper with with acrylics you may have wondered if it needs to be prepared in a special manner. The answer is simple. You can paint with acrylics directly on paper with or without preparation. The paper you choose depends on your painting style and personal preferences. Paper made for specifically for acrylics is the easiest solution.  Watercolor paper and fine art paper are also acceptable. Painting on paper can be more enjoyable than working on canvas because it’s faster, less expensive, easier to store, and the paper textures provide variety.

Paper Made for Acrylic Painting

An acrylic painting of leaves on paper
“Leaves” Acrylic on Strathmore acrylic paper. 8″x10″

Acrylic paper is available in pads and sheets. The most obvious difference is that it’s thicker than most fine art papers. The acrylic paper made by Canson is 185 lbs or 400 gsm. It’s much thicker than regular sketchbook paper, even thicker than card stock. Watercolor paper is generally 140 lbs or 300 gsm.

The surface of acrylic paper is heavily coated with sizing which prevents the paper from buckling.  Gelatin is often used as sizing for art papers, it’s clear and allows the color of the paper to show through.

Most acrylic papers are available in a canvas texture or a traditional cold press watercolor paper texture. The cold pressed varieties I tried have a surface  that’s identical to watercolor paper. The canvas paper texture often looks a little bit artificial but it’s acceptable. I painted the leaf painting on Strathmore acrylic paper. Some of the canvas texture can be seen in the top left corner. It’s not a very pronounced. Experiment with different papers to  see what works best for your technique.

Watercolor Techniques

Acrylic paint is available in a variety of consistencies. Fluid acrylics and various forms of acrylic ink can be thinned with water and used in a manner similar to watercolors. The difference is the paint won’t lift or dissolve when it dries so you paint over existing layers without disturbing them.

Acrylic paint manufacturers warn artists not to add too much water to the paint because it may weaken the paint film. The binder is what holds the pigment particles together. If you start with an acrylic that’s already thin, this shouldn’t be a problem because you won’t need to add as much water to thin it out. Avoid heavy body acrylics with this technique.

If you need to add some medium to your paint and find that most of the acrylic mediums are too thick, you can try using Golden Airbrush Transparent Extender. It has a similar consistency to their high flow acrylics. It will allow you to achieve transparent effects and still maintain an ink like consistency.

Watercolor Paper Textures

Some of the watercolor papers that I enjoy using are Arches and Fabriano. Both papers come in a variety of sizes and finishes. Hot press paper has a smooth surface similar to a bristol board. Hot press watercolor paper is good for sketching with pencil or pen and ink. I often use it for the “line and wash” technique that incorporates watercolor with an inked line drawing. The ink should be a waterproof ink so it doesn’t smear when applying watercolor.

Cold press watercolor paper is the most common watercolor paper in art supply stores. It has pebbly texture that’s a good all-around surface for painting. It will allow you to achieve some dry brushing effects but it’s not as pronounced as rough watercolor paper.

Rough watercolor paper has the roughest texture, it is great for dry brushing. Each watercolor paper manufacturer has their own unique textures. The rough watercolor paper made by Fabriano has a texture similar to the dimples on a golf ball whereas Arches rough has more organic texture. Much of painting is based upon personal preferences so buy a few sheets and see which surface works best for you.

Acrylic painting in sketchbook.
Acrylic can be used in sketchbooks. Keep the layers thin so the pages don’t stick together. This is the “Mix Media” sketchbook made by Canson. I use it mostly for experimenting with color.

Acrylic Painting on Drawing Paper and in Sketchbooks

It’s acceptable to paint directly on drawing paper but it will probably buckle. Acrylic paints can to stick to things when the surface has been in contact for extended periods, such as the facing pages of sketchbook.  If you apply the paint too thickly the pages can stick together. Thin layers seem to work fine.

I have used the mixed-media sketchbook  made by Canson for color studies and it doesn’t seem to buckle too much unless you use a lot of water. I haven’t had problems with the pages sticking together because I used thin applications of paint.

How to Prepare Paper for Acrylic Paints

Painting directly on paper without preparing is entirely acceptable. It’s archival because there’s nothing in acrylic paints that will destroy the paper fibers whereas the oil from traditional oil paints will cause it to break down over time.

The downside to painting directly on paper is the paper behaves like a sponge and sucks the moisture out of the paint causing it to dry rapidly. This makes it difficult to create smooth blends or work the paint after you lay it down. The first layer of paint also has a tendency to dry with a matte surface.

The quick drying times can be beneficial if you work quickly in layers and consider the first layer as an “underpainting” which is the first layer of a painting that establishes the basic shapes. In that case, the rapid drying is a benefit because you can immediately proceed to the next stage of the painting without having to wait for it to dry. The underpainting also acts like a sizing that will seal the paper and prevent it from buckling when additional layers are applied.

Prepare the Paper with Gesso

If you prefer a prepared surface that prevents the paint from drying too quickly then there are a number of simple solutions. Gesso is a primer for canvas and paper. It has a matte finish that accepts pencil marks and encourages the paint to adhere to the substrate. Gesso can be applied direct from the container or you can dilute it with a small amount of water to eliminate brushmarks. One or two coats are enough. Allow each coat to dry before applying additional coats.

Tone the Paper with a Color

Many artists prefer to tone the paper or canvas with a solid color before starting a painting, and this can also help to seal the surface. The finish will be smoother than gesso and pencil won’t take to it very well. This won’t matter if you like to sketch with a small brush instead of a pencil. Many artists prefer toning the surface with color because it will eliminate the stark white of the canvas so it’s easier to judge the values of the colors. Values are the relative lightness darkness of a color.

Prepare the Paper with Acrylic Mediums

Some papers have a pleasant off white color to them and many artists prefer having that show in the final painting. In this case the you’re best option may be to use a watercolor or acrylic paper because it’s already coated with a sizing.

If you want to seal the surface of the paper without adding a color or you dislike the opaque white acrylic gesso, you can use a clear acrylic medium to coat the paper before you begin painting. Matte medium is a good choice because it’s a fluid medium that makes it easy to smooth out. Gloss medium is a little too slick and shiny. The surface is slippery and thin washes of acrylic may bead up on the surface.

Stretching Paper

One way to keep paper from buckling when painting on it is to stretch it. This is a technique that watercolor painters frequently use. First, the paper has to soak in a large sink or  you can sponge it down with water on a table. The paper will expand after a few minutes of soaking. Remove the paper from the sink and allow the excess water to drip off into the sink.

Lay the paper down on a board and sponge off the excess water. Tape the edges of down with gum lined paper tape.  Use a wet sponge to activate the adhesive and then tape the paper down to the board. Regular masking tape wouldn’t work because it doesn’t adhere well to wet surfaces. When the paper dries it shrinks and becomes taught. The paper may buckle slightly as you paint on but it should flatten out again as it dries. Cut the edges off when it’s dry to free the paper from the board.

The disadvantage of this technique is the tape permanently adheres to the paper and board. Plan the size of your painting accordingly.

Thick Impasto Paintings on Paper

Impasto painting is a style of painting where you apply paint in thick layers. The Apple dictionary states that Impasto translates roughly translates to “upon a paste” from Italian.

If your painting style consists of thick textures and heavy applications of paint you may want to consider painting on a wood panel or canvas instead of paper. The paper may not be thick enough to support extra heavy applications of paint and it could buckle from the added weight.

Framing a painting on paper with thick textures would be another challenge. Most artists display works on paper in a frame behind glass with a matboard. Thick applications of paint along the edge would cause the matboard to float on top of it, which may look odd. Most professional picture framers use archival acid free adhesives which aren’t as aggressive as household tapes. With time the adhesive could give out and the painting will slip down inside the frame.

I wouldn’t rule out using impasto on paper, just don’t over do it.

If you have any further questions about painting with acrylics on paper, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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  1. Shirley Mcneil says:

    Thankyou for these genuinely helpful tips and advice. I don’t want to keep wasting my canvasses as I am learning just now and as I am confined to the house I’m worried I will run out of them! thank you again.

    1. Thanks for the comment Shirley! If you’re stuck inside you can also practice drawing. You’ll never run out of things to draw on. I’ve practiced drawing on notebook paper, junk mail, dry erase boards, sidewalks (chalk), etc. There are also painting and drawing apps that you can download to your phone, tablet, or computer. I use these apps for color and value studies. Stay safe!

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