Acrylic Painting on Paper (or Cardboard) Good Idea?


Hi all! I thought I’d title this post “should you paint on paper with acrylics” instead of can you, because, after all, you most likely can. I think the real question is should you? I know we care the most about results, and I know you don’t want to waste time or precious resources doing something that may not pan out. However it’s always good to experiment.

And yes, I have, plenty of times, with varying kinds of paper at my disposal. Sometimes in the beginning it was just whatever I could get my hands on and if i had some cheap, entry level paints nearby, why not. Because I’m aware budding artists ponder this question, it aroused my curiosity enough to dig up the ‘ol portfolio from way back when. Yep, that’s my favorite metaphor for collection of artwork from my school days and just for fun.

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painting on paper

I did happen to see a good number of watercolor paintings, but as I combed through them carefully, I came across some that were clearly not.

Here is an example of a piece of work I did as a high school junior/senior. I have no idea what type of paper this is, It feels like moderate weight . As you can see on the outside there is definitely some semblance of ridges/ bulging on the outside.This painting has held up well in spite of that, though.

I kind of wish I had not folded it down the middle as the crease is showing…rookie mistake 🙁

acrylic painting on paper

Using Acrylics on Watercolor Paper

Now here is another painting I did, again,during my senior year of high school. At first I wasn’t sure if it was a tempera painting, since that was so long ago, but one little droplet of water I intentionally dropped did not smear it, so it checked out as acrylic.

One quick look at the back and I can see the slightly “toothed” surface – a hallmark of characteristic of watercolor paper. As you can see I went edge to edge with the scene and the curling on the edges is only slight.

acrylic painting on watercolor paper

One thing I can tell you, is that this is cold-pressed watercolor paper. I’ve heard some artists say that it does make a difference. I’ve inherited and collected quite a bit of paper pads over the years which has given me ample time to experiment on both. With regard to the “pressed” part – as long as we are on the subject let’s clarify that.

Cold vs Hot Pressed Paper:

During the manufacturing process, heated rollers with higher pressure are used in the production of “hot pressed” paper. This creates a smooth textured type of paper that is somewhat absorbent. Paint may take longer to dry, but the color pigments may take on a rich, vibrant look .

Cold pressed paper is produced by non-heated rollers with less pressure, which creates a more “toothy” surface. It will absorb water more readily. It is excellent if you prefer a more “natural” look than vibrant and vivid.

watercolor pad

If you “goof” a little, this kind of paper can handle it better, if you have to blot off a mistake. Since acrylic paint is water based, how tolerant it will be mainly has to do with what you’re planning to do, are you hoping to create intricate details, water washes, etc.?

Best to also look into the paper’s absorbency levels too. Ideally, look for a type that is at least 300 gsm, which is a medium thickness. Paper pads, like this one of mine, don’t always tell you that they are hot or cold pressed, nor do they state the gsm, you may see something like this “130 lb”.

They may, however, mention that they are “acid free” as does this one. This is an indication that it is “archival quality” meaning the paper should not turn yellow or become brittle over time.

Acrylic Painting on Canvas Paper

Personally, if I were you, I would check into canvas paper pad sheets. They are a very good and economically-friendly choice for students or hobbyists. I had one made by Fredrix (great brand by the way) to work on that kept me busy in small spaces. The pad has a series of canvas material sheets all bound together in a glue-bound style.

One example of a painting I did on canvas paper:

canvas sheet painting

Usually about 10 sheets total are included. You can work directly on a sheet without tearing it out or you can tear out a piece and affix it to a substrate (I like masonite boards) secured with clips, or tape on the corners so it won’t buckle while you’re working.

They do take some getting used to compared to prestretched canvases as you may have to be sure they are held in place firmly as you work. The second other issue is that of how do you display your work eventually, but I’ve found with some imagination and skill you can do this easily. You can frame them professionally, or consider what I did.

acrylic painting canvas sheet

Here is another small painting I did in the late 90s on one of these 11″ x 14″ sheets that I eventually retrofitted to a canvas stretcher framework. The framework is a smaller size like 9″ x 12″ so it wasn’t a perfect fit and you can see how I wrapped around part of the border showing. I used a staple gun to secure it in place.

canvas pad painting

Other Paper Types

Some other types of paper that you may find suitable include bristol board, which is mostly popular with pen and ink illustrating. It’s got a very smooth surface which means that all of the above that applies to hot pressed paper, would apply – vibrant colors, less absorption, ease in handling intricate details, but less tolerance for “goofs”.

Here is another paper pad that would pass muster, I think. It belonged to my late husband who was very much into comics, graphic novels and he must have gotten it for drawing practice.  Canson is a very good brand as far as art materials go. I didn’t see a gsm listed but I can tell you it can take the paint as evidenced by this demo here.

paper pad

You may also notice on the front that it has drawing paper and “tracing paper” included – huh? Well, the tracing sheets, which I think were included as a bonus, are located in the back.This is a great way to take your preliminary sketches, and transfer them on canvas afterward, do you can take it one step further!


Of course, the best thing to do is experiment, do tests on various surfaces to see how they perform. Take it from someone who has used paint on literally everything from the thinnest to straight-up cardboard. It will cost very little in terms of your time and resources with substrates you have on hand.

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