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Q & A : Can you use acrylic paint on bristol paper?

©2005 by aisling d'art

QUESTION: Can you use acrylic artist's paints on bristol paper?

ANSWER: Generally, yes.

It depends upon the weight of the bristol paper or board, and the finish. Generally, you should have no problem with it. However, if the "shine" on the surface is at all oily, acrylic paint may want to peel off or not stick at all.

That said, if watercolor works on it, other water-based art media should, too. If there isn't enough "tooth" to the surface, you can use a thin wash of water-based gesso to improve the texture of the paper. (Gesso is sold in the art section of any arts & crafts shop.)

    Note: "Tooth" means the amount of texture on a surface. A paper or other surface needs some "tooth" to grab and hold heavier art media. If the paint runs off the surface too easily, it doesn't have enough tooth.

The weight makes a difference because acrylic paint can crackle (or actually crack) if it's on any surface that will be flexed or folded a lot. I wouldn't use thick acrylic paint on any surface that will be flexed regularly, unless you use a painting medium that will enhance the paint's flexibility.

But, I use bristol paper and bristol board for a variety of projects, happily.

WHAT IS BRISTOL PAPER?

Bristol paper--sometimes called bristol board if it's a heavy weight--has a different surface than other kinds of paper used in art.

Almost all paper is made with sizing. "Sizing" is a starch, sort of like a glue, that is mixed into paper pulp so that the finished paper is somewhat stiff.

Bristol paper has an additional coating of that sizing on the surface, to make it ultra-smooth. It's sometimes called a "laminated" paper, because of this added smooth surface.

(Watercolor paper often has extra sizing on the surface, too, but for different reasons.)

Bristol paper was first made in Bristol, England, by pasting two or more layers of paper together.

Today, bristol paper and bristol board can vary widely in quality. To be called "bristol" the paper must be at least .006" thick and have a smooth, almost slick surface.

ADVANTAGES OF BRISTOL PAPER FOR YOUR ART

I'm a huge fan of bristol paper's very smooth surface for a variety of art media. I especially like it for pen & ink artwork which I will later paint with watercolor.

I also like bristol paper for lightweight art collages. If the paper support will show around the edges of the art--especially a collage of magazine photos--the elegance of bristol adds a nice contrast without being too jarring.

And, I also like bristol paper because it generally dries flat. However, when you're working on bristol paper with any water-based art media, you may be alarmed by how much it curls.

Finally, if you're constructing small models that don't need to be too sturdy, bristol paper stiffens nicely if you use spray paint on it. Many theatre designers use bristol paper and bristol board to create small models of sets that they plan to build for the stage.

BRISTOL PAPER, CURLING AND BUCKLING

One thing about bristol paper: It can curl up when you paint on it. Do NOT try to flatten it out; that will only stretch the paper and leave it permanently buckled.

If the bristol curls or buckles when it's wet, ignore that. Generally, it flattens as it dries, to about 95% of its original flatness.

Some artists tape paper to a stiff board when they work on it, to keep it flat. You can use a special tape for that--sold at Michael's and other arts/crafts shops--or go to Wal-Mart for the cheapo blue masking tape sold in their hardware/paint section. I use the latter when I'm working on some art projects.

But generally, I let the bristol paper curl up when it's wet, knowing that it will probably flatten down just fine as it dries.

PROBLEMS WITH BRISTOL PAPER AND ART PROJECTS

People who like to sketch on art paper with "tooth" probably won't like bristol paper. It also compresses easily under pressure, so those who draw with a heavy hand and use a hard pencil lead, may be unhappy with the results.

Also, cheap bristol paper can absorb paint irregularly. If yours does this, figure that it's just part of the artistic process. Whatever you do, do NOT "scrub" the paint with your brush, trying to even the color across the paper.

The one way to get into trouble with bristol paper is to scrub it or stretch it when wet. If you do, the finished art may be warped, bubbled, or buckled when it dries.

SUMMARY

In general, bristol paper is one of my favorite surfaces to work on when I'm creating art. And, Michael's often sells inexpensive pads of bristol paper, if you'd like to experiment with it.

The key points of bristol paper and bristol board are:

    • smooth surface (very little "tooth" to grab some art media)
    • takes pen & in, and light waterbased media very well
    • usually heavy enough for lightweight acrylic, collage, etc.
    • paper flattens (mostly) when it dries

When I'm not sure which paper to use, I often choose bristol because it offers the smoothest, most elegant surface when the paper may show in the finished art.



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