Introduction: Cardboard Canvas for Acrylic Paintings

About: Software geek, electronics enthusiast, musician, artist ... I enjoy making stuff, and discovering new things!

Art materials can be expensive. One of the advantages of working digitally is that the paint, brushes and canvas are free :)

However, sometimes you just want to use an actual brush and move some paint around in the real world.

Canvas and "art boards" can be quite expensive, especially if you are learning or experimenting.

Corrugated cardboard makes a great low budget canvas for painting in acrylics. It's durable enough to handle, and if the painting doesn't work out, you can abandon it and start again without worrying about the cost.

Best of all, you've probably got some around the place right now.

Inspired by

Materials (aka Big Brush, Little Brush, Cardboard Box) :-

  • Corrugated Cardboard (11"x14")
  • Solvent based wood primer (white)
  • 2-3" brush
  • Daler-Rowney Acrylics
  • 0.75" flat (nylon bristle?) brush
  • Daler No 4/0/000 synthetic brushes

Step 1: Pick a Card, Any Card

For this project, I used single-wall corrugated card. I had four pieces of 11"x14" card used as packaging stiffeners in a pair of curtains, which felt a good size for this. If you need to cut a larger box down, use a sharp box cutter/Stanley knife and a safety ruler or other metal guide. A dull blade will shred the edges of the card too much.

Double-wall corrugated card, from larger boxes, is even stiffer and more durable.

Thinner card stock (non corrugated) is a little too flexible, and would need attaching to wooden board (or similar) to keep it flat while painting.

Step 2: Surface Prep

Acrylic paints are water based. They dry really quickly, and even moreso if the surface absorbs water from the paints.

Also, corrugated card doesn't like being wet. So I used a solvent based wood primer to seal the surface.

With the board on a flat surface, I thinly brushed over the whole face with white primer, and left it to dry.

A water based primer may be more environmentally friendly, but may damage the cardboard, something we're trying to avoid!

Step 3: Guide Sketch

I usually work with a guide sketch before doing any painting, even with digital painting!

In this case, I ruled some faint 1" squares onto the canvas to guide me, using a black Conte pastel pencil.

After choosing a reference picture (in this case, made up from different parts of pictures), I chose the cropping to match the 11x14 shape of the canvas, and overlaid a square grid of 11 x 14 squares, again to match the canvas. The more detail in the original picture, the better, so use a high resolution picture if possible.

Transfer major features and proportions onto the canvas, using the guide squares. I used a blue Staedtler colouring pencil for this. Fine detail is not really needed: I used to put too much detail into the guide sketch, and then realised it would get lost under the painting! I don't bother including any shading, maybe indicating the edge of any hard shadows. That's all.

For those that can paint recognisable people/pets out of your imagination, and don't need reference pictures, good for you! But for me, painting/drawing is not a memory test. I would fail :(

How closely you follow the reference is up to you. What effect are you looking for? Realistic? Cariacture? Cartoon? Simplified and graphic?

Step 4: Painting First Pass

On the first pass, I used a "large" brush - about 0.75", to block in large areas of colour. The guide drawing and grid is still visible through this.

Backgrounds, and in this case, large areas of skin colour come first.

You can start trying to blend in some highlights/shadows, but they can easily be overlaid in later passes. Also edges will get neatened up later, so I work "just up to" the lines.

Step 5: Painting Second, Third Pass ...

Now it's just a case of sneaking up on the finished painting!

With each pass, I'm adding more paint to overlay shading, highlights, adding some red into areas of the skin to prevent it looking too flat. Also, using a smaller brush (No 4) to hone the edges and makes sure the guide sketch is being covered in with paint.

When painting eyes: I do both eyes in parallel. Don't complete one eye and then start the other. Everything you do to one eye, do to the other, so they come out looking the same!

When painting hair: Hair is difficult, as it's not a flat colour, but you can't hope to paint every single hair. In digital, I do about three layers for hair: Huge brush for base colour with dark/light areas, then blend out the paint along the direction of the hair flow.

On a separate layer, a medium brush to draw in strokes of hair, and blend along the hair direction.

And in a final layer, a tiny brush to repeat this.

These layers combine to give the appearance of depth and texture to the hair. I've tried to do something similar here.

Lastly: Finer details go in with a number 0 and 000 brush.

Step 6: Done!

Finished paintings! See the time-lapse videos below for the whole painting process.

Step 7: Upgrade!

If you find that painting is working out well, but still think canvas and artboards are too expensive: You can upgrade to using hardboard (Masonite), again primed and sealed, to paint with acrylics or oils.

It cuts fairly easily into custom sizes, and one 8' x 4' sheet is a LOT of space for paintings!