Grounds, Oil, Oil Painting Tutorials

How to Choose the Right Oil Paper

Oil Painting Papers offer an accessible, affordable surface that has some of the familiarity of canvas but without its weight and bulk. Even better – these papers come ready primed, so you don’t need to spend time prepping them before painting. They’re perfect for quick studies as well as finished paintings. Here we take a look at our oil painting paper range, see how they differ from other art papers and discuss how to prep other papers so they are ready for oil painting.

A tube of Winsor & Newton Artists Oil Colour next to a stroke of oil paint on oil painting paper

When you think of oil paint and paper your first reaction will probably be that the two don’t mix. It may surprise new oil painters in particular to hear that oil painting on paper is totally feasible. While it’s true that most paper will absorb oil and steadily degrade over time, oil papers are specially treated to dramatically reduce this happening. In fact, Winsor & Newton dispel any myths that paper isn’t suitable for oils:

Oil paint is completely stable when painted on properly prepared paper; any weakness of oil on paper would be due to the lack of rigidity in the sheet versus a board or canvas.

So providing your paper is properly treated, there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t use oil paint on it. Its only weakness will come from its lack of rigidity. Historically, canvas and panel have been much more popular than paper – but today’s oil painting papers provide artists with a reliable, permanent surface that requires little to no preparation. It’s also comparably more easy to store, transport and ship. There are even options for artists looking to prep other types of paper they already own to make them suitable for use with oil paints. Find out more about our oil painting papers and prepping other papers for oil painting by using the links below or continue reading for a full overview.

What is Oil Painting Paper

Oil painting papers are specially treated to bring out the best performance of your oil paints. Oil paint is essentially made up from two key components – the pigment and the oil binder. The oil binder is the part that poses the problem for paintings made on paper. In an untreated paper, the oil content of the paint would quickly absorb into the paper fibres. Not only will this make your paper rot over time, it will also cause your paints to become dull and flat. As the paint loses its binder it will also begin developing adhesion problems. In the worst case scenario you will find that your oil paint begins crumbling away. The good news is that any oil painting paper contains size to prevent this happening.

Oil staining on the reverse of unprimed paper painted with oils.

Sizing to control absorption

Size is essentially a sealant that acts as a barrier between the paper and whatever paints and mediums you apply to it. It dramatically reduces the amount of oil that absorbs into the paper, so you needn’t worry about the long-term longevity or integrity of your paints. While no paper is 100% resistant to oil absorption, oil papers reduce it to a point where you needn’t think too much it affecting your painting. This sizing ensures your paint will sit radiantly on the paper’s surface, retaining its brightness and gloss.

Which oil paints should you use on oil painting paper?

A stroke of Viridian green oil paint painted onto oil painting paper with a hog bristle brush

Oil Painting Papers are suitable for use with any oil paints – whether you prefer working with traditional oils, fast-drying alkyds, water-mixable oils or oil sticks. If you thin your water-mixable oil paints with water alone you may notice that the paint beads up a little, especially with very dilute applications. Working with fast-drying alkyd oil paints will further reduce the seepage of oil into your paper.

Texture and Composition

All oil papers have some degree of tooth and texture to them. The majority are pressed with a linen-like pattern that mimics the tooth and drag you’d experience on genuine canvas. Two notable exceptions are Arches Huile and Fabriano Pittura. Both these papers have an irregular texture to them, that is more akin to a NOT watercolour paper. Colour wise, oil painting papers range from almost white to a creamy off-white.

Comparison of texture between Fabriano Tela (top) and Arches Huile (bottom)

Most of our oil painting papers are made from acid-free wood pulp. This pulp is free from lignin to ensure that it is archival. The only exception is Arches Huile, which is made from 100% cotton. Cotton is the purest form of cellulose available for paper making, and imparts exceptional strength and resilience on this surface.

Why Should I use Oil Painting Paper instead of Canvas?

Paper offers many benefits over traditional stretched canvases, canvas boards and painting panels. For beginners, the price of paper is a lot more accessible. It’s great for testing out new mediums and you will have fewer inhibitions or worries about ‘wasting’ expensive art supplies. This makes it much easier to practice and learn the ropes of a new medium. If you find you really enjoy it there will always be the option of canvas and panels should you require them.

Artists canvas and frames in storage

It also makes a fantastic surface for artists who like the idea of painting on paper, but who are reluctant to spend the time and money on priming other papers. These papers can be painted on as soon as they are in your hands – so you’re ready to create as soon as inspiration strikes!

Oil paper is also much easier to store, transport and ship. This makes it ideal for artists who go to classes or paint outdoors. Carrying a pad of paper is much easier than lugging about bulky canvases or heavy boards. Paintings on paper can also be stored and shipped flat, with comparatively few materials and space required to ship them.

However, there are some downsides to using paper. Generally, paper isn’t advised for very thick applications of paint. It is much more flexible and fragile, and therefore more susceptible to damage than either canvas or panel. Humidity will cause your paper to expand and contract – a phenomenon that becomes more visible with age. Some artists choose to combat this deterioration by adhering their oil paintings on paper to board for extra support, with some also framed behind glass.

Our Range of Oil Painting Papers

We have a wide range of oil painting papers from well established art brands. Each of the papers below comes pre-primed so you don’t have to worry about prepping when your paper arrives. You can put paint to paper as soon as they’re in your hands! Our oil painting paper range includes:

Oil paper sheets and pads (from left to right) – Fabriano Pittura, Fabriano Tela, Arches Huile, Georgian, Winsor & Newton Oil and Acrylic, Winsor & Newton Oil, Cobra.

These papers vary slightly in their colour and texture. Most of them are pressed with a canvas-like texture, however the Arches and Pittura both have a surface similar to NOT watercolour paper. Although it isn’t strictly a canvas ‘paper’, Canvas Pads offer the familiarity of painting on genuine canvas, but without the bulk of a stretcher. These pads include sheets of genuine canvas, that are pre-primed so you don’t have to worry about prep. Like paper, these pads will warp with heavy applications of paint.

Loxley and Fredrix Canvas Pads showing genuine canvas texture
Both Loxley and Fredrix Canvas Pads are made with genuine primed canvas.

Do I have to paint on Oil Painting Paper?

The short answer to this question is ‘no’ – you don’t have to use an oil painting paper if you are working in oils. However, if you choose to work on a non oil painting paper you’ll need to do a bit more preparation and priming of the surface. Without this you’ll find the oil binder will leach into your paper meaning your paints won’t adhere and will dull over time. In the worst case scenario your paint could crumble from the surface. Some artists feel that the time spent prepping and priming isn’t worth the hassle. Whereas for others, the extra work helps them achieve a surface that perfectly suits their painting process.

Two tubes of oil paint on paper painted with strokes of oil

For many artists, working with a non oil painting paper offers them more choice in both weight and texture. For example, you’ll find few oil painting papers that exceed 300gsm (Pittura is our heaviest at 400gsm). If you work in oil, and don’t mind a bit of extra work you could choose to work on a heavy weight watercolour paper up to 640gsm. Our best quality, 100% cotton watercolour papers will offer the best stability and longevity, and externally sized papers will mean the paper absorbs less oil. You’ll also have the choice of working on a smooth (Hot Pressed), moderately textured (NOT) or highly textured (Rough) surface. These textures will remain even after you apply size and primer, which can bring interesting properties to your paintings. While its worth investing in a heavy paper for your finished paintings, a lighter weight paper would be perfect for quick studies.

Preparing your paper for use with oil paints

You can prepare most papers so they are suitable for oil painting. It breaks down to just two processes – sizing the paper and priming the paper. Size is a substance added to paper to control its absorption. Priming coats your paper in a substance (usually an acrylic-based Gesso or Oil Primer) that provides a bit of ‘tooth’ for your paints to adhere to.

Using oil paint on paper really highlights the importance of appropriate surface preparation. Poor preparation not only leaves your painting vulnerable to deterioration, but also creates lots of extra work for those who look after your artwork in the future.

Sizing your paper

Priming paper for oil painting with Golden Fluid Matte Medium.

Size is essentially a sealant that controls absorption and reduces the amount of oil that leeches into your paper. You can also use acrylic mediums to size paper ready for oil painting. In the examples shown below we used two different mediums – Golden Fluid Matte Acrylic Medium and Golden Matte Acrylic Medium – to size the paper. One thin layer of size should be sufficient – although if you are using an oil-based primer rather than acrylic gesso you may need to apply more layers.

Priming your paper

Primer sits between the size and the paint you apply. It has ‘tooth’ which means that it will stick to your paper better than paint alone, and will also add texture for your paint to adhere to. If you’re working on paper then you can use either acrylic gesso or oil based primer. Apply Gesso or primer in thin layers, only adding successive layers if the previous layer is completely dry. You should brush each layer on in the opposite direction to the layer before. The final layer will form the ground that your paint can properly adhere to. This final layer will have a natural tooth. The act of applying your gesso in different directions will also add to its texture.

Applying gesso to primed paper for oil painting

It’s worth noting that your paper does need to be reasonably heavy to withstand the application of size and primer without warping. The main challenge will be keeping your paper flat. If you find your paper is cockling, you can tape down the edges of your paper to reduce it. Once dry you can also run the paper over a table’s edge to counteract the warping. Once size and primer are on the paper you should leave it to dry for 3 days before you apply your paint.

Other Papers Suitable for Oil Painting

You can prep almost any paper for painting with oils – but you’ll need to think about what you want from your painting in order to select an appropriate paper.

If you’re just looking to create quick sketches or colour studies then you’ll probably find that a fairly lightweight cartridge or watercolour paper is suitable. You could also get away with simply treating the paper with a few layers of gesso and forgoing the altogether if longevity isn’t a concern.

Watercolour Paper

Watercolour Paper is available in a good range of weights and textures. Investing in a high quality paper also gives you the opportunity to work on a 100% cotton surface – perfect if you’re looking to add to the longevity of your artwork. However costs can soon mount if you choose to opt for the heaviest, 100% cotton papers.

The image below shows two strokes of oil paint – traditional oil (the darker blue) and water mixable oil (lighter blue) – tested on patches of paper prepped and primed in different ways. The samples have been left to dry for over 12 months. It’s clear from looking at the oil staining on the back of the sheet that proper preparation reduces oil seepage.

Blue oil paint tested on Watercolour Paper with and without primer
Top Left – unprimed. Top Right – primed with 1 Gesso layer. Bottom Left – sized with one layer of fluid matte medium and three layers of Gesso. Bottom Right – sized with one layer of matte medium and three layers of Gesso

Cartridge Paper

Cartridge Paper is fairly inexpensive, and is available in a range of weights – however, you won’t get as heavy a paper as you would in our watercolour paper ranges. Lighter weights are prone to cockling when sized and primed, but are still useful for making quick studies. The samples below were painted in the same way as the watercolour paper above, however they have been left to dry for only six months.

Blue oil paint tested on Snowdon Cartridge papers with and without primer
Top Left – unprimed. Top Right – primed with 1 Gesso layer. Bottom Left – sized with one layer of fluid matte medium and three layers of Gesso. Bottom Right – sized with one layer of matte medium and three layers of Gesso

Varnishing Oil Paintings on Paper

You should varnish your oil paintings on paper as you would any other oil painting. The application of varnish will not only protect against dust and grime, but will also unify the sheen, protect against UV damage and allows for easy cleaning. The general rule of thumb is that an oil painting shouldn’t be varnished for at least 6 months after it is completed. For thicker applications drying will take even longer – although if you are using paper your applications won’t be this thick.

Artist painting a layer of gloss varnish onto an oil painting on panel

If you’re not sure whether your painting is dry or not you can test it with a rag. Dip a lint-free rag in solvent and rub it gently on the surface of your painting. Lift the cloth and check it for colour. If it lifts any colour then you’ll need to wait longer for your painting to dry. If there’s no colour on the rag then you can varnish your painting.

Some artists find they can’t wait the 6 months or more for their paintings to dry fully. If you’re in this position and need to give it some temporary protection then you could use retouching varnish. Retouching varnish adds a little durability to a recently finished painting while still allowing it to ‘breathe’ and dry thoroughly. Once your painting is completely dry you can apply your final varnish.

Displaying Oil Paintings on Paper

Oil paintings on paper are susceptible to damage. Because of this it’s advisable to frame them behind glass. Paper is also more vulnerable to deterioration because of its flexibility. You can reduce this flexibility by adhering it to a panel. You can do this using a good quality acrylic medium as an adhesive.

Discover our full range of oil painting papers online, as well as oil paints, oil brushes and oil mediums.

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Tanith is a Fine Art Graduate with a passion for drawing and watercolour. Her love of art extends beyond her own practice, as she regularly researches and tests new materials for the Bromleys blog. Through collaboration with suppliers, she gains the technical know-how to help troubleshoot artistic challenges, aiding fellow artists in refining their craft. While she specializes in watercolour, her articles span various topics, inspiring artists of every skill level to explore the world of art.
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4 thoughts on “How to Choose the Right Oil Paper

  1. Hi! I use Hahnemuhle (German u) Leonardo 600 g/m2, cold pressed, grain fine.
    I use the following colors: W&N Cotman water colors – from a tube – almost without water. A little.
    On top of this – layer on layer – W&N water-mixable oil. Sometimes Thick to get a third dimension – for snow, Glaciers, birches.
    For me this works Very well. After a few days the surface is Daad (“Dry as a Desert”). Are there any long-time problems ?

    I also bought Hahnemuhle Oil/Acryl (230 g/m2). BUT the text says: “Colours do not get absorbed and can be smeared for a long time”. YES they do smear! How to paint layer on layer?
    Any comments?!

    /Br Anders Sköllermo – Skollermo in English – Ph.D.

    “Both my age and my IQ are 76+”

    1. Hi Anders. Thanks for sharing your painting process and experiences with different papers. Regarding your Hahnemuhle Leonardo, if you’re using an uncoated paper, like the Leonardo, you might be dealing with oil leeching into the support. This could lead to dry patches and potential issues down the line, like cracking, crumbling or dullness. Paper is delicate and absorbed oil may make it more brittle over time.

      As for the Hahnemuhle Oil/Acrylic paper, it seems like the coating might be causing the smearing you’ve observed. We don’t stock it but reviews seem to suggest it’s less porous, making oils feel a little slippery and also meaning they take longer to dry. You might want to explore a less glossy and more porous paper or consider using a fast-drying medium with your oils.

  2. I use water mixable oils with Artisan thinner and fast drying medium. How does this affect the recommended drying times before varnishing an oil-on-paper painting?

    1. Hi Tony. You shouldn’t varnish any oil painting, whether it is traditional or water mixable, until it is thoroughly dry. This can take up to 6 months or more, depending on the mediums used. The most effective way to check to see if the painting is fully dry by gently wiping a small area with a rag dipped in solvent. If any colour lifts then the painting isn’t ready for varnishing.

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