Oil painting papers have a special coating that prevents the paper from absorbing the oil content of the paint. They usually have an embossed linen texture on their surface, although Arches Huile, which is a specially treated watercolour paper, has a cold-pressed surface. It’s important that paper for oil painting is sealed to prevent the paint from being absorbed by the paper, which would eventually embrittle the natural fibres of the paper and if enough oil is absorbed from the paint, the pigment can become under-bound, making it look matt and crumbly, and can in some cases cause the pigment to come away from the surface. Using properly sealed (sized) paper for oil painting means that your colours remain brighter and more glossy. Additionally, when using un-sealed paper, unsightly oil rings may appear around the paint if there are areas of the paper left unpainted.
Why Would You Paint on Paper Instead of Canvas?
Oil painting paper takes up less room and is lighter in weight than stretched canvas or even canvas panels, which makes it easier to store, carry and post. Because it is less expensive you may feel less precious about wasting a surface and therefore perform more learning exercises. It is a great surface on which to experiment with techniques, make colour charts, and produce quick sketches. Working on paper also allows you to write notes on the front or the back, like the palette that you used or some information for a future larger painting. Perhaps notes on the weather and lighting conditions like Constable did when he painted in oils on paper in the field. Painting on paper also has a different ‘feel’ to painting on canvas or a wooden surface. Depending on the sizing, primer, and type of paper, it may be smoother or more ridged, easier to wipe back to white, or it may be more absorbent.
You can purchase ready-prepared oil papers in a variety of weights, textures, colours and formats. Shown in the photo above are – from the top: Daler-Rowney Georgian, Canson Figueres, Hahnemuhle, Clairefontaine, Jackson’s, Arches Huile, Fabriano Tela, Clairefontaine linen colour, Strathmore black, and Rembrandt. The various characteristics of all of these papers are listed in the table below. You can also prepare oil paper yourself by sealing and priming other papers, which is explained further in this article.
Arches is the only oil painting paper that is sized in the traditional way with animal gelatine; all the others are free of animal derived products. Because they have been specially sized for oil painting, oil papers significantly reduce the amount of oil absorbed into the fibres of the paper, compared to other fine art papers that have not been prepared for oil painting. However, none of the oil papers are 100% resistant to having some oil seep through to the back as a result of oil absorption. Those that are externally sized absorb the least amount of oil, but even the papers that are not externally sized will still give the fibres enough protection from the oil because of the internal sizing. But, if you wish to guarantee your finished work will be on a substrate that does not absorb any oil we recommend applying a layer of acrylic gesso or medium to the surface of the oil paper, or sizing your own paper, or using fast drying oil painting mediums which also minimise oil seepage.
Fine art oil painting papers are acid-free, with the majority being made of wood-free cellulose pulp. Arches Huile paper is the exception, being made of 100% cotton. As a result it is considered a professional grade paper, with a longer lifespan than wood pulp paper because it can better withstand changes in humidity and temperature. The long fibres of cotton also give the paper strength and the ability to withstand rough handling and wiping without easily tearing.
Weight and Formats
Oil painting paper is available as sheets, rolls, pads that are glue-bound on one edge only, and blocks which are pads glued on all four sides. A block will hold the paper flat so you can paint vigorously without the paper moving and it keeps it from flapping about in a breeze, making it ideal for painting outdoors. Oil painting papers vary in weight from 187 – 300 gsm. The heavier paper is better able to hold thicker applications of oil paint without folding under the weight when picked up.
Oil painting papers are available in various shades of white, as well as a natural, light linen colour and black. While the lightest colour papers optimise the reflective properties of the paper allowing colours to appear bright and luminous, a black surface can effectively allow you to build up light tones. Opaque or metallic pigments are particularly well suited to painting on black paper.
Preparing Other Papers for Oil Painting
It’s possible to prepare most papers over 300 gsm for oil painting. This opens up the choice you have for what you’d like your oil painting substrate to be made of, how much it weighs and what kind of texture it has. Preparing paper for oil painting usually involves two steps – sizing and priming. Sizing prevents the oil from the the paint absorbing into the paper and priming is the final layer of preparation, usually a chalky ground that gives the surface its colour, tooth, texture, absorbency and sheen. You can add texture to your surface by how you apply your primer. Mount board offcuts and any excess paper have potential as oil painting surfaces, allowing you to practice economy and minimise waste.
The best paper for longevity is all-cotton or cotton & linen rag paper, which is essentially the same material used to make artist canvas. 140 lb/300 gsm watercolour paper works well as it is heavy enough to take the weight of layers of primer and will not easily cockle from the moisture in the sizing. If you work with cold pressed or rough watercolour paper the surface texture will most likely still be apparent even after a couple of coats of primer. Whereas hot-pressed paper or mountboard can give a very smooth surface.
Fixing Paper to a Board
You can apply the size and ground completely over the surface of the paper or you can tape the paper to a board along all four sides, covering only about 5mm of the edge, and then size and prime it. You can then leave it on the board to paint on it because you can then prop it on an easel or easily move it around. The border that is created when you remove the tape will be covered by a mountboard if the work is ever framed. The tape that I find tears the paper least is our Yellow Lining Tape.
What Shall I Use to Size My Paper?
Any fluid acrylic medium can be used to size paper in preparation for oil painting. Matt medium tends to be better suited to this purpose than gloss medium because it is usually less absorbent. (It is usually considered more absorbent but in my tests it was less absorbent, perhaps it depends on the brand and if the matting agent is silica or wax.) It is best applied with a soft wide brush in thin layers. If you find that the paper is buckling in response to the water content of the size, then it is advisable to tape or clip the paper down to a board around the edges, covering as little of the paper as possible. If you find when the paper or board is dry that it has curved from the moisture you can size the back of the paper which will help to flatten it out.
An acrylic medium is more flexible and clearer than PVA which could also be used. Acrylic also requires fewer coats than PVA. Best practice with either is to allow the application to dry for two weeks, and then the dry film should be wiped with water, to remove the surfactant that has leached to the surface. But skipping this step doesn’t make a huge difference.
It usually just takes one coat of matt medium to seal (or size) the paper from oil paint absorption if you are adding a ground layer of acrylic primer or casein gesso primer as well. If you do not wish to add a ground because you want the colour of the paper to be visible or because you like to paint on the matt medium surface (which is smooth and makes it easy to wipe paint away), then it’s advisable to apply a second layer of matt medium. You could think of the first layer of matt medium as the sizing and the second as a transparent ground.
What Shall I Use to Prime My Paper?
You can prime your paper with either acrylic or oil based primer. Acrylic primer can be used without sizing the paper but I tested quite a few combinations and found that one coat of matt medium followed by one coat of acrylic primer was better at sealing the paper than two coats of acrylic primer. Sizing your paper is much more important when priming with oil based primer because it is essentially absorbent oil paint, and for this reason we advise applying both of the two coats of acrylic size and/or primer before applying oil primer. The more coats of primer you apply to your paper the more rigid it will become. Acrylic primers vary in their character; some become more absorbent the more layers you apply, and some become less absorbent, while oil primers tend to become smoother, allowing you to more easily wipe paint or move it around on the surface.
If you paint thinly with less oily paint then you may like a more non-absorbent surface. Jackson’s Acrylic Gesso Primer is moderately absorbent so there is moderate brush drag, you can wipe away fairly easily and there is enough absorbency for long-term adhesion. On the other hand you may like an absorbent surface because you paint with juicy, oily paint. If you prefer a more absorbent ground the Lascaux Gesso 2020 is a good choice.
The usual way to apply a priming ground is with a soft, wide brush in the opposite direction to the brush marks of your first sizing layer. This is to minimise furrows and give a more even surface. The cross hatching of the surface can mimic the weave of canvas somewhat. Applying two thin layers is better than one thick layer, as thinner layers will dry more quickly and evenly, minimising the risk of cracking. Applying gesso with a palette knife or a squeegee will create a smoother surface, see the earlier photo. Some primers/gessos can be made thinner by adding up to 10% water, this will be specified on the label.
Displaying an oil painting on paper
Many oil paintings on paper are preparatory sketches or colour charts so do not require framing but will be stored in a sketchbook, portfolio or box.
A finished oil painting on paper should be treated as any oil painting when it comes to varnishing. Oil paintings can be varnished with a retouching varnish as soon as they are touch-dry. This offers some protection while the painting finishes the drying process. When the painting is completely dry – six months for thinly painted work and many years for thick impasto paint – then a final picture varnish should be applied. The varnish does four things: it gives a protective surface to the painting to prevent scratching; it acts as a barrier to dirt and the dirty varnish can be removed at a later date if necessary; it seals the surface so that no more oxygen can be absorbed which prevents the paint from cracking; and it evens out the sheen of the surface (and you can choose the sheen – gloss, satin or matt).
Framing an oil painting on paper is similar to framing a watercolour or acrylic painting on paper, with a mount, behind glass. Because a painting on paper is flexible it is important to frame it on a rigid surface like a backing board. And even if varnished, it is best to frame it behind glass. As with any painting framed behind glass, a mount should be used to prevent the glass from touching the surface of the painting because condensation and temperature changes can cause the paper to wrinkle or stick to the glass. If you don’t wish a mount to be visible it can be very narrow and be hidden under the lip of the frame moulding. Alternatively you can use spacers under the moulding to raise the glass. If the painting is to the edge of the paper or the paper has a decorative edge then you may wish to float-mount the work.