Acrylic painting papers either have an embossed texture that replicates a canvas weave, or a cold pressed surface identical to watercolour paper. The texture provides resistance, so when you drag a brush loaded with paint across its surface, the paint adheres to the texture and is held in place. This article, taken from our Paper Guide, explains everything you need to know.
Acrylic painting paper takes up less room, is lighter and is less expensive than stretched canvas, making it easier to store, carry and post. It is a great surface on which to experiment with techniques and produce quick sketches. It’s also possible to make notes on the reverse of each sheet.
Acrylic papers are made of woodfree cellulose paper – this is paper derived from wood that has been boiled to remove lignins, which contain acid (which if left in the pulp would cause the paper to yellow and become brittle in under UV exposure at a rapid rate). The linen texture is embossed into the surface of the paper during production, and some papers, such as Canson Figueras, then have a special coating applied to reduce absorption.
Acrylic papers are available at a variety of weights, ranging from 230gsm – 450gsm. The lighter weight papers may become slightly wavy if thick applications of acrylic paint are applied – however this can be avoided if you tape the paper to a board and keep it taped until the painting has fully dried. However none of the papers will wrinkle significantly when loaded with paint.
Papers are available in a variety of shades of white, from bright white to pale cream. Transparent colours may appear marginally brighter on whiter papers as they are more reflective, while creamier papers won’t optically ‘jump’ out as much in the gaps between brush marks.
What Papers Can I Paint on?
The short answer is that acrylic paints can be applied to any surface. The longer answer is that factors such as paper absorbency and thickness of the paint you are working with will affect how the paint dries. In order to gain a firm understanding of what happens when acrylic paint dries on paper we need to understand how it dries at all in the first place.
How Acrylics Dry
Acrylics dry when all the water content in the wet paint moves away from the paint; it either seeps into the support that the paint has been applied to, or it evaporates into the air. What remains is the acrylic polymer binder; tiny solid transparent particles that move closer together, causing the layer of paint to contract and form a solid ‘film’. When acrylic paint moves from its wet to dry state it also changes from being water-soluble to being water-resistant. This process happens fastest at the top of the layer – where the paint can easily evaporate into the air. Next fastest is at the bottom of the layer, where the absorbency of the surface to which it has been applied pulls the water out of the paint. This explains why acrylic paint dries faster on absorbent paper. The paint between the top and bottom layers dries slowest as it is encased with no where to immediately evaporate to. This is why thick layers of paint dry slower than thin layers.
What Other Papers Can I Use?
Aside from acrylic painting papers, there are a variety of options, the most suitable of which will depend on the kind of acrylics you are working with.
Papers that can take fluid and heavy-body acrylic paint:
Watercolour paper is made of cotton, woodfree cellulose, linen, or a mix. Linen and cotton papers are more robust – you can scrub and scratch into the surface without necessarily making a hole, while woodfree cellulose papers are less forgiving of rough treatment, because the fibres that they are made of are shorter, resulting in a comparatively less resilient paper. Watercolour paper that is 200lb in weight or more will take a thin layer of acrylic primer without buckling. This will make the paper more robust to heavy treatment and also form a barrier over the absorbency of the paper, allowing paint to sit on its surface without sinking into the paper fibres. Illustration board is a term used to describe two types of surface by varying paper makers. Illustration board can be a warp free surface made from watercolour paper mounted onto a rigid lightweight board, but it can also be a compressed heavyweight paper with a light texture that may buckle when saturated with heavy applications of acrylic paint. Illustration boards and watercolour paper are available in three textures – hot press (completely smooth), not surface (slight tooth) and rough (heavy tooth).
Mixed media and art board pads are heavier weight drawing papers that have additional sizing to enable them to take wet and dry media:
Yupo is a 100% polypropylene surface that will not buckle, resists tearing and is non-absorbent. Painting on this surface is a completely different experience to working on a cotton or woodfree cellulose paper. Work in wet or dry media should be given a coat of spray varnish to hold them in place.
Acrylic marker pen papers that will buckle if wet acrylic paint is applied to it:
Cartridge paper is made for drawing and is an ideal surface for acrylic marker pens. The bottom line is if you work with acrylics on cartridge paper, your applications of paint need to be low in water content and relatively thin. Cartridge papers are made from either cotton or woodfree cellulose, can be any colour from white – cream, and tends to have a slight texture (referred to as grain or tooth) which optimises the colour and depth of the marks applied to it.
Bristol paper is another good surface for acrylic based drawing work. The name derives from the early days of European papermaking when mills would send their finest papers to Bristol, England to be pasted together. It is a wood cellulose, multi-ply, bright white paper that is glued together under pressure to form multi-ply sheets, with a completely smooth or vellum texture. The smoothest varieties of Bristol are ideal for pen and ink work, mechanical pencil drawings, airbrush and marker pens. These are often bright white and reflective, and allow pen marks to appear their most crisp. The subtle tooth of the vellum surface varieties are better suited to graphite, coloured pencil, charcoal and pastel work.
Marker pad paper is another woodfree cellulose paper. Similarly to Bristol paper, marker pen marks appear crisp and bright on this flat white surface. It is coated to minimise bleed-through, despite being a light weight paper of only 70gsm. There are heavier papers called ‘marker pen paper’, which are better suited to layers of colour, but have very different properties to these lightweight papers.
Layout paper is even thinner, only 45 – 50gsm. It is semi-transparent and also designed to minimise bleed-through. It is the white, lightweight paper that is often used in illustration and design sketches.
Heavy use of marker pens on lightweight tracing paper may cause it to wrinkle.
Should I Varnish My Acrylic Painting on Paper?
Varnishing your work on paper will offer a protective coating, and help keep it safe from dust and surface damage. Some varnishes also have UV light resistors which will help to prevent colour fade. We recommend applying an isolation coat over your painting prior to varnishing – a soft gloss gel medium would be ideal for this. This will allow for the varnish to be removed in future, if necessary, with no damage risk to the painting itself.
All work on paper needs to be kept flat to avoid the paint cracking, however this is especially true of varnished paintings, which will be even less flexible.
Acrylic Paper Comparison Table
Our table compares the content, texture, formats, absorption and surface strength of acrylic painting papers. Click the image below to enlarge, or download our PDF version here to print.