Can You Use Oil Paint on Paper? Yes: Plus Tips and Tricks

You can use oil paint on paper, but there are important considerations. Properly prime the paper with a primer or gesso layer to seal the surface and prevent damage.

Use heavyweight or high-quality paper designed for oil painting.

Avoid applying heavy applications of oil paint, as it can cause the paper to degrade over time.

While oil painting on paper is possible, it’s important to be mindful of the paper’s longevity and take precautions such as framing or using spray fixative for protection.

It is not recommended to varnish oil paintings on paper.

Can You Use Oil Paint on Paper?

As a visual artist with years of experience, I have frequently been asked whether oil paint can be used on paper.

The answer is yes but with some important caveats. In this section, I will discuss what types of paper can be used with oil paints, the effects of using oil paint on watercolor paper, oil paint on paper without gesso, and how to prime paper for oil painting.

What Types Of Paper Can You Use Oil Paints On?

When it comes to using oil paint on paper, you must choose the right type of paper if you want your artwork to last a long time.

You should use heavyweight and acid-free paper that is specifically manufactured for oil painting, plainly called oil paper.

The weight of most paper is measured in grams per square meter (GSM), and you should aim for a minimum of 300 GSM. This size of paper is thick and sturdy enough to take even impasto. 

It’s also important to note that the paper should be primed or gessoed before painting to ensure that the oil paint adheres properly.

Some popular brands are Arches oil paper or Canson oil paper or Strathmore oil paper. Some oil papers even have a surface what looks like raw canvas (canvas paper) and it can handle taking wet paint without warping.

Here’s a table of papers that can handle oil paints, showing the paper weight in grams per square meter (GSM), estimated corresponding paper weight in pounds (lbs), and whether the paper is suitable for oil painting:

Paper Weight (GSM)Bristol/Paper Weight (lbs)Oil Paint Suitability
90-12024-32 (Paper)No
140-20067-90 (Bristol)Yes
220-250100-140 (Bristol)Yes
300-307140-160 (Bristol)Yes
400+250+Yes

Please note: this table provides general weight ranges, and there may be variations among different paper brands and manufacturers. It’s always a good idea to check the specific recommendations and instructions provided by the paper manufacturer before using oil paints on a particular paper.

When it comes to oil paints, I don’t usually recommend using oils directly on cartridge paper or office paper. 

Oil paints contain pigments suspended in oil, which can cause the paper to become weak, translucent, or even degrade over time.

In many cases, you will see the paper absorb the oils from the paint, which then spreads throughout the paper instead of oxidizing as it is meant to, leaving you with pigment struggling to stick to the surface.

Not only that but you typically use solvents such as Gamsol or turpentine as you paint and most papers will start to deteriorate once exposed to these.

But if you still wish to use oil paints on paper, there are a few options available:

Oil Painting Paper: There are specially designed papers available for oil painting that have a coating or treatment to withstand the oil paints.

These papers are usually heavyweight and have a textured surface to hold the paint effectively. Most come already primed with an acrylic gesso so you can start to paint on the right away.

The good thing about oil painting paper is that you can also use it for acrylic painting and it can deal with all types of oil painting techniques just as a canvas would.

Canvas Paper: Canvas paper is a relatively heavyweight paper with a texture similar to canvas as it has cotton pressed into it. It is primed to accept different types of paints, including oil paints.

While it might not provide the same level of durability as traditional canvas, it can be a suitable option for experimenting or creating studies.

I have quite a bit of canvas paper around that I use for pastels to oil paintings. It works just like a stretched canvas but not as sturdy to paint on. You will need to use a backing board to keep it flat and still. I have found many oil painters like working on it.

Mixed Media Paper: Mixed media paper is a heavier weight paper that is designed to handle a variety of mediums, that includes wet media like watercolors and acrylics.

Some mixed media papers may be able to withstand the application of oil paints, but it’s still advisable to prime the paper before using oil paints on it.

Remember that when working with oil paints on paper, it’s important to be mindful of the paper’s longevity.

Acid-free and archival-quality papers are generally recommended to minimize the risk of deterioration over time. Additionally, consider framing the finished artwork behind glass or perspex for added protection.

Oil Paint on Watercolor Paper

While it is possible to use oil paint on watercolor paper, it is not recommended. Watercolor paper is not designed to handle oil paint, and the oil can seep through the paper and cause it to deteriorate over time.

Additionally, the absorbency of the paper can cause the oil paint to dry more slowly, which can lead to issues with cracking and yellowing.

Oil Paint on Paper Without Gesso

Using oil paint on paper without gesso is possible, but it is not recommended. Gesso is a traditional primer used to prepare surfaces for painting, and it helps to create a barrier between the oil paint and the paper.

Without gesso, the oil paint can seep into the paper and cause it to deteriorate over time. Additionally, the oil paint may not adhere properly to the paper, which can lead to issues with cracking and peeling.

How to Prime Paper for Oil Painting

While the majority of commercial papers designed to work with oil paints will come pre-primed there might be a case now and then to prime the paper for oil painting.

To prime paper for oil painting, you will need to apply a layer of gesso or acrylic primer to the surface of the paper.

Gesso or acrylic primer can be applied with a brush or a roller, and it should be allowed to dry completely before painting.

Once the gesso is dry, you can sketch the composition with a pencil or charcoal and then begin to build up the layers of oil paint. 

While using oil paint on paper is technically possible, you need to carefully consider the type of paper you’re going to use and what priming techniques you will use.

By following these guidelines, you can create long lasting oil paintings on paper that will stand the test of time once they are a finished painting.

Pros and Cons of Using Oil Paints on Paper

When it comes to painting with oils, most artists prefer to use canvas as their surface. However, paper can be a great alternative for those of us who are on a tight budget or want to experiment with a different medium.

Here are some pros and cons to think about before you start painting with oils on paper.

Pros

  • Cost-effective – Paper is generally cheaper than canvas, making it an accessible option for artists who are just starting out or who want to save money.
  • Easy to transport and store – Paper is lightweight and easy to carry around. This makes it an easy choice for artists who like to work on location or who have limited storage space.
  • Versatile – Paper comes in a variety of textures and weights. This means you can choose the perfect surface for your painting. Some papers are smooth and glossy, while others have a rougher texture that can add depth and dimension to your work.
  • Quick-drying – Oil paints take a long time to dry on canvas, but they dry much faster on paper. This means you can work more quickly, which is great if you’re working to a deadline.

Cons

  • Durability – Paper is not as durable as canvas, and it can be prone to yellowing, warping, and cracking over time. To prevent this, you’ll need to properly seal and prepare your paper before you start painting.
  • Absorbency – Paper is more absorbent than canvas, which means it can soak up more paint and cause the colors to appear dull or muddy. To avoid this, you’ll need to use a primer or gesso to create a barrier between the paper and the paint.
  • Limited size – Paper comes in standard sizes, which means you may be limited in the size of your painting. If you want to create a large-scale work, you’ll need to use multiple sheets of paper and join them together.

Overall, painting with oils on paper can be a fun and rewarding experience, but it’s important to be aware of the pros and cons before you start.

By choosing the right paper, preparing it properly, and using the right techniques, you can create beautiful works of art that will last for years to come.

Tips for Using Oil Paint on Paper

Having worked with oil paints on paper for many years, I have picked up a thing or two that I would like to share with you. Here are some key things to keep in mind when using oil paint on paper:

Prime your paper – Before you start painting, you need to prime your paper with a gesso-based primer. This will help to seal the paper and prevent the oil paint from soaking into it. It will also give you a smooth surface to work on. Be sure to let the primer dry completely before you start painting.

Use the right paper – Not all paper is suitable for oil painting. Look for paper that is specifically designed for oil painting, or choose a heavyweight paper that can handle the weight of the paint. Avoid using thin or lightweight paper, as it may buckle or warp when you apply the paint.

Be careful with solvents – When working with oil paint on paper, you need to be careful with solvents. Too much solvent can damage the paper, causing it to wrinkle or even dissolve. Use solvents sparingly, and always test them on a small area of the paper first.

Use thicker paint – When painting with oils on paper, it’s a good idea to use thicker paint than you would on canvas. This will help to prevent the paint from soaking into the paper and creating a blotchy or uneven surface. Use a palette knife to mix your paint and apply it in thick, even strokes.

Let your painting dry completely – Oil paint takes a long time to dry, especially on paper. Be patient and let your painting dry completely before you try to move or frame it. This will help to minimize smudging and ensure that your painting looks its best.

Don’t varnish your oil painting on paper – I would not recommend varnishing oil paintings on paper. Varnishing is typically done to protect and enhance the appearance of oil paintings on rigid surfaces like canvas or wood panels. Varnishing paper presents a lot of challenges and risks that are just not worth it.

Applying varnish to paper may cause the paper to become saturated and potentially weaken or warp. The varnish can seep into the paper fibers, altering its appearance and potentially causing long-term damage. The texture of the paper might not be ideal for varnish application either, leading to an uneven or streaky finish.

If you want to protect your oil painting on paper, there are other ways you can do so:

Framing – One option is to frame the oil painting on a panel or foam core, behind glass. The glass acts as a protective barrier between the paint layer and the elements, shielding the artwork from dust, dirt, and potential damage. Make sure the artwork is properly secured and not in direct contact with the glass.

Spray Fixative – Another option is to use a spray fixative specifically designed for oil paintings on paper. This fixative helps seal and protect the surface of the painting, reducing the risk of smudging or damage. Keep in mind that a fixative may alter the appearance of the painting, so test it on a small area first.

Storing and Handling Proper storage and handling practices can go a long way in preserving oil paintings on paper. Store the artwork in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight, and handle it with clean hands or gloves to prevent the transfer of oils or dirt.

Don’t bother making your own oil paint paper – It is easier, faster and cheaper to buy paper for oil painting. While you can size some paper on a board with rabbit skin glue, rabbit skin glue is commonly used as a sizing material for preparing canvases, it is not typically used to make oil paint paper. 

Rabbit skin glue creates a rigid and absorbent surface when applied to canvas, which helps prevent the oil paint from seeping into the fabric.

On the other hand, paper is already absorbent, and applying rabbit skin glue to it may cause the paper to become too rigid and brittle. It can also alter the texture and handling properties of the paper.

If you are interested in preparing your own oil paint paper, there are alternative methods you can consider:

Priming with Acrylic Gesso – Acrylic gesso is a commonly used primer for preparing surfaces for oil painting. You can apply multiple layers of acrylic gesso to the paper to create a protective barrier that helps prevent the oil paint from directly interacting with the paper fibers. This method is often more suitable for paper than rabbit skin glue.

Using Oil Painting Grounds – There are specific oil painting grounds available in art supply stores that are designed for preparing paper surfaces for oil painting. These grounds are typically formulated to provide proper adhesion and protection for oil paint, and they can be applied directly to the paper.

It’s important to note that even with proper priming or using oil painting grounds, paper may still be more susceptible to damage and deterioration over time compared to canvas or other more rigid surfaces.

Therefore, if you are working on a significant or long-term project, it’s advisable to use dedicated oil painting surfaces such as canvas or wooden panels for better durability and archival quality.

By following these tips, you can paint oil paintings on paper that will last for years to come. Remember to be careful with solvents, use the right paper, and let your painting dry completely before you handle it. 

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