Painting on Paper with Acrylics

Abstract acrylic painting on paper
Acrylic paint on ungessoed watercolor paper. Lisa Marder

Acrylic paint is a popular medium for all levels of painters, ranging from the absolute beginner to the well-established professional. Part of what makes it so user-friendly is that it is a water-soluble paint made from a plastic polymer that can be painted on any surface that isn't too greasy or glossy and can be used in a variety of ways - thinly like watercolor, thickly like oil, or mixed with other media.

Paper provides an excellent flexible surface, also called support, to paint on with acrylics.  It is portable, light-weight, and relatively inexpensive compared to canvas, linen, and other prepared art boards. Paper is particularly good for small to medium-sized paintings or studies and can also be used for larger paintings when suitable heavyweight paper is chosen, or when used as part of a series, such as in a triptych. When prepared right, it can accept a wide range of acrylic and mixed media uses. 

What makes a good paper for painting?

Paper should be durable to resist tearing from erasure, heavy paint application, sanding, scrubbing, scraping, and other techniques. Paper made from cotton or linen pulp tends to be a stronger and more durable paper than that made from wood, which may contain acids.  You might see it labeled "100% cotton" or "100% linen" or "pure cotton rag."

Paper should be heavyweight.

You want to choose a heavier weight paper that will not buckle when you use a lot of water or medium with your paint (unless you are doing quick studies and don't care about buckling). I recommend using not less than 300 gsm (140 lb) to avoid buckling. Heavier weights are even sturdier and can be mounted to a board or canvas more easily.

 

Paper should be acid-free for longevity. The acidity of the paper is an indicator of its archival quality, or how long it will last. You want a pH neutral paper, which means that the cellulose pulp should be pH neutral and any primer used should be free of any chemicals that might cause acidity. High quality papers will indicate that they are acid-free. 

Paper should not discolor with age. Papers that contain acidic components are prone to yellowing, discoloration, and become brittle with age. These papers are less expensive papers such as regular copy paper, brown wrapping paper, newsprint paper, etc.  

Paper should not be glossy, oily, or too smooth. Paper comes in different textures. It needs to have enough tooth, or surface texture, to absorb the pigment. There are different roughnesses of paper available in watercolor papers - cold pressed watercolor paper is generally rougher and has more tooth while hot pressed paper is smoother.  Smooth paper allows your brush to glide easily along the surface, and is good for fine detailed work, but may not absorb the paint as well. Rougher, more textured paper is good for loose, expressive work and for "happy accidents" of textural detail.

 There are also papers that mimic the textures of canvas, such as Canson Foundation Canva-Paper Pads and Winsor & Newton Galeria Acrylic Colour Paper Pad.

Priming

As long as you've chosen a high quality, acid-free paper, you can paint acrylic directly onto the surface of the paper and be assured that your painting will be of archival quality. When painting with acrylic you do not need to prime the paper first since the paint, a plastic polymer, will not damage the paper. However the paper will still absorb some of the moisture and pigment from the initial layers of paint. (This is true even though most high quality paper is treated with surface sizing for water resistance) So if you want the paint to glide on more smoothly at first I recommend applying at least two coats of acrylic gesso before painting.

 

If you are using a paper that is not acid-free you should gesso both sides of the paper to seal it before beginning to paint. If you prefer a clear sealer you can also use a matte gel or medium to prime both sides.

Recommended Papers

  • Good quality heavy watercolor paper - This paper holds up to thick application of paint and the texture of the paper shows through when the paint is used thinly like watercolor. You can choose to prime it or leave it unprimed. Try Arches Watercolor Paper (at least 300 gsm).
  • Canson Montval Acrylic Paper - This high-quality paper is manufactured in France. and holds up to all uses of acrylic. It is an extra thick heavyweight (400 gsm, 185 lbs) textured paper, sturdy enough to hold up to all uses of acrylic, with a surface that accepts the paint beautifully.  
  • Strathmore 400 Series Acrylic Pads - This is a heavy paper (400 gsm) with a toothy surface made for the acrylic artist. The paper has a cream-colored linen finish. The pad is portable, easy to work in, and the sheets tear out cleanly and easily.  Very convenient for sketches and small studies.
  • Strathmore 300 Series Canvas Paper Pads - I would suggest using this for practice only. It is a lighter weight paper (187 gsm) that mimics the texture of canvas. I have found that the first coat of paint tends to bead on this paper, though, so most often prefer to apply a layer or two of gesso before painting on it. This pad comes in several different convenient sizes ranging from 6 x 6 inches to 16 x 20 inches.
  • Strathmore 400 Series Bristol Board Pads - If you like a bit of smoother surface to paint on, vellum bristol board is a good choice. This paper is acid-free. 

You can paint on many different surfaces with acrylic paint. While good quality acid-free papers are the best for archival purposes, don't be afraid to try out other papers as well. You never know what you might discover and enjoy.