It could be said that paper is the bread and butter of traditional art making. It’s the surface most artists turn to when laying down their ideas, sketching out preliminary drafts, and documenting inspiration. For some artists—such as those working in pencil, watercolour, and acrylics, paper is also the go-to medium for completing their final pieces. But did you know, with the right paper and preparation, that it can also be used with oil paint? Whilst canvas is a more common surface for oils, there are many advantages to trying your hand with oil on paper. Here, we’ll outline some of those benefits, which paper to use, and our top tips for oil painting on this versatile and accessible medium.
Main advantages of working on paper
Flexibility: Because paper can be easily rolled up and transported, it is easier, and more cost-effective to store and ship. It also allows for working en plein air, giving artists the freedom of cutting to size on location.
Cost effective: As paper is much cheaper than traditional mediums such as canvas and board, it offers a certain freedom.
Time saving: Though most paper options still require priming, it’s a much quicker process than stretching your own canvas from scratch.
Style and technique: Oil paint blends differently on different surfaces. Whilst canvas allows for very smooth gradients when the paint is wet, its pitted surface can prevent fine details, especially in small-scale work. Paper can be much better in this regard, allowing for finer strokes upon your first layer of paint.
Best paper for oil painting
Traditionally, oil painters have avoided paper because solvents cause the paper to degrade easily, and it can become prone to cracking when subjected to changes in humidity. However, there are multiple ways around this. We’ve written previously on how to prime any paper and cardboard for oil painting, but there are certain types of paper that are more suited to oil paint than others. Let’s look at a few of these options:
Oil painting paper
On properly prepared paper, oil paint should be completely stable. That’s exactly what you get with pre-prepared oil painting paper—a durable and time-saving solution for those who want to get straight to work without the hassle of sizing and priming. Specifically produced for use with oil, this type of paper is an excellent option due to its rigidity and absorption properties.
Oil painting paper comes most frequently in pads, and at a fairly reasonable price. Rolls of this paper can also be sourced in most well-stocked craft shops, a great option for larger-scale work, though it does come with a hefty price tag. Nevertheless, this paper is reliable, creating an effective barrier to absorb solvents, water and binders whilst allowing the pigment to remain on the surface. As opposed to watercolour paper, works done on oil paper are also able to be framed without glass, as the surface can be varnished.
Try: Arches Oil Paper
This paper, made from 100% cotton, is a popular choice with artists looking to try their hand at oil on paper. With a slight texture, this it boasts a brightness of surface, and great absorbency. The paper is 300 gsm (140 lbs) and comes in pads of 9×12 inches and 12×16 inches.
Another fantastic option for oils on paper is a good-quality watercolour paper due to its thickness, rough surface, and high-absorption. However, it still requires priming before use to help stabilise the surface for oil. To this end, cold-pressed watercolour paper may be slightly better than a hot-pressed version, but either can be used provided they are adequately prepared. Slightly cheaper than specially made oil painting paper, watercolour paper is a popular and economic choice for artists on a budget.
Try: Hahnemuhle Leonardo Watercolour Paper
I really like this paper for its smooth surface which ensures brightness and excellent colour flow. It is a natural, white, acid-free paper, again made from 100% cotton with surface sizing. Available in pads or blocks of varying sizes.
Similarly to watercolour paper, printmaking paper is another suitable option due to its acid-free properties and thickness.
Try: BFK Rives Printmaking Paper
Available in sheets up to 280 gsm, or rolls of 300 gsm, it comes with a matte white surface and is known for its archival integrity.
Note: There are so many types of paper available, the above-mentioned ones are simply suggestions, so don’t worry if your local art shop doesn’t stock the exact product. Ultimately, any paper will do if primed correctly, especially for experiments and studies. Lower-quality paper may not last for centuries, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from painting!
Tips for oil painting on paper
Paper, especially when primed with a gesso-based primer, can be ultra-absorbing, which can reduce the smoothness of application. To combat this, go over the acrylic gesso, when dry, with an oil-based primer. This will give you a great non-absorbent surface which will allow for much more transparency with your paint.
Due to the consistency of paper, each brush stroke is defined and visible. This makes it an ideal medium for achieving a rough, painterly look. However, to achieve a gradient more in line with that of canvas, try mixing a variety of ‘in between’ colours and applying them next to one another, allowing every coat of paint to mix with the previous. Do this whilst wet, and use a flat brush for optimal results. Repeat once dry to maximise results.
Learn to let go of your inner perfectionist
The great thing about oil painting on paper is the freedom it offers, financially, yes, but also psychologically! Canvas can feel daunting, especially for those new to painting. Often, we come to the canvas with high expectations, as we deem it somehow more official or important than other mediums. Working with paper is a way to trick your brain into loosening up, forgetting perfects and approach your painting in a playful and confident manner which is always the key to yielding the best results.
For more general tips on oil painting, be sure to check out our brief guide to all things oil.