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Painting with Oils on Paper

For oil painters who find themselves eager to paint but reluctant to spend too much time or money on surface preparation, you might try working on paper. Paper can be reasonably priced, easy to prepare and less formal than panel or stretched canvas. If prepared properly and maintained with longevity in mind, paper can be a permanent substrate for sketches, studies and finished oil paintings.

Paper, like other natural fiber substrates such as linen or canvas, needs to be sized or primed before oil painting. Sizing protects the fibers from oil absorption, which can cause premature darkening, embrittlement and eventual degradation of natural fibers. The challenge of sizing paper is keeping it from warping. We have recently tested various ways to size paper, looking for products that both protect from oil absorption and cause the least warping. For this test, we used untaped and unstretched Arches® 140-pound, hard sized watercolor paper and Arches® Oil Paper. Oil Paper is specially formulated for use with oil-based media and requires no preparation before use. Since it is already sized, additional layers of acrylic product, Acrylic Gesso or Oil Ground can be used to reduce tooth or brush drag, but are not required to protect against oil absorption. The acrylic products we tested on Oil Paper caused very minimal to no warping and we saw no signs of oil absorption. Of the product we tested on the 140-pound watercolor paper, Fluid Matte Medium, Acrylic Gesso, Airbrush Transparent Extender and Matte Medium caused the least amount of warping. These products resisted oil penetration with two or three coats.

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Image 1: Best results with no oil penetration and minimal warping – Fluid Matte Medium and Acrylic Gesso on Oil Paper.

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Image 2: Good results with several coats – Fluid Matte Medium, Acrylic Gesso, Matte Medium and Airbrush Transparent Extender on 140-pound watercolor paper.

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Images 3 & 4: Oil Absorption Test on unsized 140# watercolor paper: front side (Left) shows 3 drops of Alkali refined linseed oil, brushed oil, King’s Blue neat and King’s Blue thinned with oil, back side (Right) shows oil penetration. Similar tests performed on Oil Paper, Oil Paper with acrylic product and 140# watercolor paper with two or more coats of acrylic product showed no oil penetration.

We recommend smoothing the paper as much as possible between coats so as to not reinforce the curling with additional layers of acrylic. We found that gently running the paper over a table edge to oppose the warping or pressing the paper left it relatively flat. The final layer of priming should ideally be matte for increased tooth and porosity. We recommend allowing at least three days for acrylic products to fully dry before painting on them with oils.

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Image 5: Running paper over the table’s edge to oppose warping

There are pros and cons about working on paper. Some positives are that paper can be shipped flat or gently rolled around a tube and can be stored in a flat portfolio. For exhibition, works on paper can be adhered to panel or matted and framed under glass. The negative for paper is that it is fragile and will expand and contract in response to changes in humidity. As oil paint becomes older and more rigid, this movement, as well as any flexing of the paper, can cause cracking. Paper can also tear and retain the memory of folds or creases. Heavy applications of oils are not recommended for paper without proper reinforcement.

All substrates have their strengths and weaknesses and paper is no exception. In the end, paper is a good choice for those who are looking for an economical substrate that is relatively easy to prepare. Paper is great for landscape painting or studies done outside the studio.

For another look at a previously published Just Paint article about Preparing Canvas for Oil Painting, visit: http://www.justpaint.org/preparing-a-canvas-for-oil-painting/

 

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12 Responses to Painting with Oils on Paper

  1. laura hussey March 28, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    I have some oil paintings I have done on shellaced mat board. Do you suggest I frame them under glass or can I varnish them and not use glass.

    • Greg Watson March 29, 2017 at 11:06 am #

      Hi Laura,

      You certainly have options based on your preferred aesthetic. It is good to know that shellac is brittle and becomes more brittle and darkens with time. We tested BIN® pigmented shellac on 140 pound watercolor paper for this article and found the results to be much more brittle than the paper sized with acrylic product or PVA. The paper sized with BIN readily cracked when bent. Framing with a backing board could support the matboard and help protect it from damage caused by bending. Framing under glass could help keep dust from the surface and offer some UV protection depending on the glass, but can be heavy and expensive depending on the size of the painting. Varnishing can offer UV protection and unify the sheen of the painting, but won’t protect the matboard from embrittlement. Adhering the Bristol to a rigid support could help mitigate issues associated with embrittlement.

      You can find more information on GOLDEN MSA Varnish or spray Archival Varnish in our Varnishing Resource: http://www.goldenpaints.com/technicalinfo_varnishresources

      For more assistance, contact the Materials Application Department at help@goldenpaints.com or by calling 800-959-6543

      Best Regards,
      Greg Watson

  2. Bruce Bundock March 28, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

    I work with acrylics on paper. I gesso the paper and when dry it curls, so I then put the paper in a dry mount press and when I remove it, it is flat. An an alternate strategy, I simply mount the paper to 4 ply rag board.

    • Greg Watson March 29, 2017 at 10:59 am #

      Hi Bruce,

      Thank you for sharing your successes with using the dry mount press to flatten your paper. We have not done testing with dry mount pressing. Our only reservations might be that gloss or thicker acrylic applications could flatten or distort under the pressure of the press.

      Best regards,
      Greg Watson

  3. Joseph Sundwall March 28, 2017 at 1:14 pm #

    I regularly use 4-ply Strathmore Bristol Plate, primed with Bullseye shellac. There is no warping. What do you think about longevity of this approach?

    • Greg Watson March 29, 2017 at 10:48 am #

      Hello Joseph,

      4 ply Bristol Plate made with 100% cotton fiber should be fine, but shellac is brittle and becomes more brittle and darkens with time. We tested BIN® pigmented shellac on 140 pound watercolor paper for this article and found the results to be much more brittle than the paper sized with acrylic product or PVA. The paper sized with BIN readily cracked when bent. You may consider testing the 4 ply Bristol for embrittlement by coating it with the shellac and then bending it to see if it is more brittle than uncoated Bristol or Bristol coated with Acrylic Gesso. Adhering the Bristol to a rigid support could help mitigate issues associated with embrittlement.

      Best Regards,
      Greg Watson

  4. Bob March 28, 2017 at 8:28 pm #

    Did u also test adhesion of acrylics to arches huile paper? When i apply yr hi flow acrylics it heads up which apparently is bad for long term

    • Greg Watson March 31, 2017 at 1:12 pm #

      Hello Bob,
      We have tested High Flow on Arches Oil Paper and haven’t seen any excessive beading or adhesion issues. After the paint dried on those tests, we peeled the paint from the surface and it removed the top layers of paper with it, so we have reason to believe there should be good adhesion between High Flow Acrylics and Oil Paper. We have also contacted Arches and asked if acrylics can be used on the Oil Paper, which they said should be fine. If you have other concerns or questions about adhesion of GOLDEN High Flow Acrylics, feel free to contact us at help@goldenpaints.com or at 800-959-6543.
      Best Regards,
      Greg

  5. Caitlin Albritton March 28, 2017 at 9:40 pm #

    It’s like you were reading my mind the past few weeks! Thanks for the great article, Greg, can’t wait to try this out soon!

    • Greg Watson March 29, 2017 at 10:49 am #

      Hello Caitlin,
      Thank you for your comment! If you have any questions or concerns as you move forward, do not hesitate to contact the Materials Application Department at help@goldenpaints.com or by calling 800-959-6543
      Best Regards,
      Greg

  6. Jenny Kyng April 1, 2017 at 7:41 pm #

    Thanks for another very useful article! I’m wondering, if, say, one is planning to ultimately glue the paper to a rigid board (should the painting prove successful) if it would make sense to use GAC 200, rather than the mediums mentioned here, in order to stiffen the paper? Of course I’d have to do tests to ensure sufficient number of coats to block oil penetration etc but just wondering what your opinion is?

    • Greg Watson April 6, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

      Hello Jenny,
      We are not sure stiffening the paper would offer any benefit especially if you plan to adhere the paper to a rigid support. In general, we do not recommend using GAC 200 on a flexible support such as paper. Two coats of Fluid Matte Medium or Acrylic Gesso should be fine. They are more flexible than GAC 200 but should match the flexibility of the young oil film painted on top.
      Here is a link to a video showing adhering watercolor paper to a panel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ggB1veQmwNU
      If you have other questions or concerns, please contact the Materials Application Department at help@goldenpaints.com or by calling 800-959-6543
      Best Regards,
      Greg

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