Can you Paint on Paper? The Do’s and Don’ts for all Mediums

Painting on paper is a very convenient way to get started with your art. It is much easier to store than canvases, and it is also easier to transport if you like to paint outdoors. Whether you’re painting at home, in the studio or outside, paper can make a great support for your paintings.

Paints can be used on paper. Watercolour paint is specifically intended for use on paper and acrylic paints can also be used paper too. Oil paint can be used on paper, however it will first need priming or alternatively specialist oil paper must be used instead.

There are some potential downsides to painting on paper, some of which can be minimised or prevented. If you’re just starting out here are some important things to keep in mind.

What is the Best Type of Paper to Paint on?

The exact paper you choose will depend on the medium you work with. However, there are some common features that all good quality papers share. These papers are:

  • Heavyweight
  • Have sufficient texture or ‘tooth’
  • Acid-free

Heavy-weight papers are the most durable, so they are the least vulnerable to tearing or other accidental damage. Heavy papers are also less prone to buckling when the paint is applied, which is especially important when using mediums like watercolours where a lot of moisture is added.

The surface texture is also important, and the right one will depend on how you work. Smooth ‘hot-pressed’ papers will likely suit artists who wish to include a lot of detail in their work, whereas ‘cold-pressed’ or ‘rough’ papers may be ideal for artists who work in a looser style.

Whether or not a paper is acid-free is a major factor in determining if a paper is artist-quality. Acidic papers will yellow and deteriorate with age, and are not considered suitable for art. However, acid-free papers can be preserved for generations to come. Most paper manufactures will state if their paper is acid-free and archival.

Can you Paint on Normal Printer Paper?

Normal copy/printer paper is very thin and absorbent, so it does not make a good surface to paint on. It could be fun to practice with, but it is unlikely to produce the results you want.

Because printer paper is so thin it will most likely crinkle and curl as the paint is applied, especially if your paint contains a lot of water.  For this reason most beginner and professional artists use heavy fine art quality papers to achieve the results they want.

There are several grades of artist papers available at various prices, and even the lowest-grade artist papers will be better than normal printer paper.

Watercolour and Gouache Paints

The vast majority of watercolour artists paint on paper, as this is the traditional support for this medium.

Types of watercolour paper can be split into three main categories: ‘Hot-pressed’, ‘Cold-Pressed (NOT)’ and ‘Rough’.

Finding the right paper for your style of art is something you may need to experiment with, but if you are just starting your journey with this medium any of these types will be workable.

Hot-pressed paper is less-absorbent and smoother than cold-pressed watercolour paper, making it ideal for those who want to include a lot of detail in their work.

Cold-pressed paper has more of a rough texture or ‘tooth’. As it is more absorbent you will have less time to adjust or remove paint before the paint sinks into the paper.  

Gouache painting on watercolour paper by Amber Tyldesley

Rough paper is the most textured paper, ideal for artists who want to work loosely without a lot of detail. The way the paint pools on the surface can make some very interesting effects and is popular with landscape artists.

Most recommend a beginner watercolour artist should start by using cold-pressed paper. The tooth and texture will be there (but not as prominently as rough paper), and this will make the watercolour paints easier to control.

Acrylic Paints

You can use acrylics to paint on paper, as long as the paper you choose is heavy-weight and artist quality. Paper is weighed in ‘grams per square metre’ (gsm), so if you are looking to purchase paper to use with acrylics make sure to choose one that it atleast 300gsm.

The heavier the paper, the more moisture it can withstand, which will keep any buckling of the paper to a minimum.

Heavyweight paper is also more durable, which means it will be more resistant to damage from the paintbrush bristles.

One way to reduce the chance of the paper buckling is to tape the paper to a worksurface, and keep the tape in place when you paint and until the painting is completely dry. Ensure the tape you use is low-tack, and be careful when removing it at the end, as this process could damage the surface of the paper.

To reduce the absorbency of the paper, you can also apply an acrylic gesso before starting work with your acrylic paints.

Acrylic painting on paper by Daniel Wilson

Oil Paints

Whilst it is possible, oil paints are perhaps one of the least compatible mediums to use with paper.

Oils from the paint can soak into the paper, causing it to degrade the paper fibres over time. This is only really an issue if you want the painting to have a long lifespan. If the painting is just for fun or practice, this may not be a problem.

As paper remains flexible once painted, any bending of the paper could risk cracking the layers of oil paint on the surface, particularly as the paint becomes harder over time.

There are some papers designed especially for use with oil paints, and it is also possible to prime other high-quality papers for this use.

Unless your paper is designed for oil based mediums, it is recommended to apply at least one coat of acrylic gesso to the paper beforehand. This will create a barrier between the oils and solvents used in the painting process and the paper’s surface, preventing them from damaging the fibres of the paper.

Conclusion

Paper can be an excellent surface to paint on, if you use the right type! It’s a great option if you are looking to use materials that are relatively low-cost, and the resulting artwork will be easy to store. Paints such as watercolours were designed for use on paper, and paints such as acrylics are also versatile enough to be used in this way.

Extra-care and thought needs to be taken with oil paints, but there is now the means to paint oils on paper with excellent immediate and long-term results.