Painting on Cardboard

When I first wondered about painting on cardboard myself, I of course googled it…and now Google is sending some of you to *this* entry for info on ‘painting on cardboard.’ So here’s what I’ve learned from my experience with cardboard so far:

Artists have been painting on cardboard for over 100 years (e.g. this Picasso, 1900).

Cardboard’s main advantages in my opinion:

— It is non-precious. I find I paint more freely on corrugated cardboard than any other substrate. Even before I make the first brushstroke I feel like “this is an experiment.”

— It’s free! It’s abundant!

— I can work on an oversize piece of cardboard, and “crop” my painting with a knife after the fact.

— It’s already manufactured. I’m repurposing something that would otherwise be recycled or discarded. Zero carbon footprint.

— It’s immediate. Cut, paint.

— I like the way it takes paint. (I use heavy body, artist’s grade acrylics.)

— It’s fun to see what graphics may already be printed on it (see this painting for example) that I can leave visible.

— It’s lightweight.

— If it gets beat up a little on the edges or corners, who cares?!?

The best cardboard for painting is double thick; two corrugated layers sandwiched together. To find the best stuff, think of large/fragile/expensive items, and go to stores that sell them — electronics, bicycles, appliances. I’ve found that local bike shops are happy to save me their bicycle cartons.

Take a box cutter along to cut down the cartons for easier transport (as a courtesy I also haul away the leftover scraps and recycle them myself, so I don’t leave a mess for the shop owner).

Large Home Depot-type stores tend to bale their cardboard immediately, unfortunately, although I did score a refrigerator box at Lowes by being there at precisely the right time once.

Keep your cardboard stash dry, don’t store in a shed or humid environment. Avoid cheap pulpy cardboard (such as cartons for tools from Harbor Freight ).

For relatively temporary works (years, not decades) just paint right on the cardboard. It will be absorbent, which can be annoying or useful depending on your medium and intentions. Bare areas will be subject to fading, especially if displayed where sunlight strikes it.

To make it much less absorbent but still retain its cardboardy look, apply thinned down acrylic medium before painting on it; do both sides equally to minimize warping.

For more permanence, prime both sides with house primer, gesso, or acrylic medium. Give both sides an equal number of coats to minimize warping.

For grunge appeal, you can purposely tear off the top layer here and there to expose underlying corrugations, and/or leave some of the arrows, ‘this side up’ labeling, hand hold holes, big copper staples, UPC codes, and other original artifacts intact or partially painted over.

Tip for hanging  cardboard paintings: 

Easy hanging method: glue scrap on back, insert picture wire down through one corrugation and back up through another, twist wires.

Cut scrap of cardboard and glue onto back of painting as anchor for a hanging wire or string. It’s surprisingly strong, and is in keeping with the cardboard theme. You can also make hang tags, title placards, portfolios to transport your cardboard masterpieces in, and so on, all from cardboard. Once you have large sheets of it laying around, all kinds of uses start popping up.

You can “reverse engineer” how to make a cardboard box by looking at an already-made one, draw a layout on a big panel, cut/score it, paint it, then fold/glue/staple it into a sturdy decorated box that will last for years with reasonable care.

I painted the self portrait (below) on cardboard, as well as the following paintings:

That’s it for now…I’ll add more if I think of something else.

Good luck!



Following is my original entry under the heading “Painting on Cardboard” :

Self Portrait February 24 2011, freehand from a b/w photo I took yesterday

Acrylic on corrugated cardboard, slightly smaller than life size (area shown is 13 x 15, panel is 19 x 27)

Using just two colors of paint: Burnt Sienna and Unbleached Titanium White

We had a “snow day” today, many Portlanders stayed home from work. This painting is what I did with my snow day. No my hair doesn’t have snow on it, that’s just the color it has decided to be now that it’s grown up.

I enjoyed the process.

The product, however, is way more conservative than I’d like…it’s a baby step along the path of moving stylistically to where I’d rather be.

This is the  most recent practice project in my current fling with attempting likenesses. I think the painting probably looks better than the subject, but since it’s a self portrait I’m not keen on posting the reference photo just to prove the subject looks worse than the painting.

33 thoughts on “Painting on Cardboard”

  1. Thank you so much for this article, I’ve just started painting and want to work with the lightest and cheapest materials possible. I love your self-portrait as well!

  2. You’re welcome, Jrome. Regarding cheap: cheap bristle brushes are great, free cardboard is great, but cheap paint can be discouraging to try to paint with… I use high quality Utrecht artist grade paints, buying them by the pint to keep the per ounce cost lower (vs tubes). Have fun learning to paint!

    (less than $1 apiece cheap brushes I like: Loew Cornell 1801 12-Piece Brush Set, Bristle, Flat)

  3. been painting on CB for about a year-you can check my paintings at etsy-site name is rokk art. iam having a difficult time trying to price my work. your thoughts. havent found too many CB painters so if you have some links/email address i would be most appreciative.i find your self portrait inspiring..

  4. Thank you so much for the tips and experience you share on painting on cardboard. I pain a lot on bookbinding cardboards, they are thinner and more even, and most of the time they only need a layer of primer and they are good. Mostly they are 3mm and 2.5mm thick. Cardboards are what I paint on the most because I never liked the thick frames on most stretched canvases, and they are a steal for the price!

  5. you’re welcome, ingrid —

    your own work is what art is all about, IMHO…a universal language that can help us express “bigger” topics/emotions/concepts than words could ever do, as with your powerful piece “DrossierKeen.”

    best to you in your artistic pursuits!


  6. Anonymous

    I always had a desire to paint. Recently, I saw paintings that a co-worker did on cardboard and I was impressed. Today I decided to Google this, and came across your article. Even though I do not know what you look like, your self portrait is in opinion “Great Job!” I hope I can accomplish something this good!


  7. Awesome helped a great deal! Are you aware that Edvard Munchs original painting “The Scream” is painted on cardboard? It has lasted the test of time (of course due to careful preservation) but nonetheless it’s still alive!

  8. thanks for your note, jorengp! i’m glad you found the info helpful.

    no, i had not realized that one of munch’s four versions of ‘the scream’ was painted on cardboard. thanks for telling me.

    wikipedia says it was oil, tempera and pastel on cardboard, painted in 1893.

    a friend recently gave me a cool birthday gift — a bicycle carton in good shape 😉

  9. Everett Abbott

    Steve, I was indeed searching for tips on prepping cardboard for Acrylics. A friend and I went to Ikea a few days ago and I noticed that they have these awesome 3/4 to 1 inch thick cardboard “mats” between the boxes of furniture on the pallets. We purchased some book shelves and I scored two 5′ X 3.5′ cardboard mats that each have at least one good face on them.

    I like the idea of prepping with latex/house primer. That’s what I’ll go with. I’ll probably run with the cheapest paints and primer. Thanks for the ideas!

    Also, great art work.

  10. Aloha, Steve
    Someone gave me 3 cartons of 8 1/2×11 CB and I figured I would use them for acrylic painting. I googled my question and there you were, an answer from heaven, where the CB came from! Yeah, really! I love to recycle! Do you suggest diluted gesso or buy a quart of flat paint? My CB is light weight, brown one side and white on the other, one thickness. Since I have around 200 pieces, I could glue 2 pieces together for serious painting. I have more coming that some company is trashing. Thanks so much!

  11. Philadelphia

    Thanks this site has helped me a lot with my homework

  12. I didn’t use gesso, because I always wanted the cardboard to show in the final paintings. If you do use gesso, apply it to both sides equally to minimize warping.

  13. I’m so glad to find out others are doing this, and how cool to find out some old masters used this method! I’m painting portraits and having trouble with the flesh tones, (mixing pinks, browns, and yellow). Am copying an old painting on the back of old discarded political signs – the backs are white. (I have a bunch of these old signs lying around and trying to make use of them). It is slightly slick on the white side and my paint is not going on the faces well. I am using acrylics and/or water color for lightness of texture, rather than oil. I forgot to use Gesso because I was so anxious to start painting. I am mainly doing this for practice and to make use of the materials – but the paint is not adhering well to the faces and of course, the watercolor drips if you aren’t careful. Also can see the corrugated lines underneath – but it adds an interesting dimension (as in your example above) to the painting up close. You said you use heavy body acrylics and no Gesso) I had to wipe off the faces and start the color over again a couple times. Still not right though. (However, the good thing about using cardboard of this type is it wipes clean if you mess up.). I love that someone else is doing this! Your portrait is impressive! Thanks for any tips. : )

  14. Jean, I haven’t painted on corrugated plastic, but I’ve worked with it before and think it’s cool stuff! I don’t blame you for trying to figure out a second use for it. ‘A solution looking for a problem’ as I like to call such things 😉

    Some options:
    — Find spray paint made for plastic gutters & downspouts at your local home center, and try it as a primer (don’t inhale).
    — Thoroughly sand the plastic surface with about 60 grit sandpaper until you can see no glossiness left when viewing it at a low angle. Test paint with acrylics. See if that’s permanent enough for you.
    — Maybe re-think how to use your plastic sheets — perhaps use them as support for cardboard paintings by attaching a cardboard sheet to your plastic sheet around the edges with rivets or something.
    — Experiment with graffiti paints, which are made to not come off anything!

    Have fun! (And if painting on plastic stops being fun, don’t stop painting — just find some cardboard!)

  15. Hi Steve – and thanks for the feedback! I should have stressed that I was using cardboard signs we collected during local election season.. (They say “elect so and so” on one side, and are blank white on the other side which I paint on (they are pretty sturdy) – since they have to withstand being on side of the road at election time. My husband collects the 2 x 4s to use for building projects, and I have repurposed the signs because they can’t be used again. (Its all legal, we have permission). : ) I have been having some difficulty painting pale colors, like flesh tones on them though since its not real absorbent, and covering up my sketch lines underneath. But anyway, since you mentioned plastic, there are also sheets of some left-over building material we got from the home center for our remodeling project that is actually a plastic product, recycled from plastic bottles, etc. and is impervious to damage that wood is. I think its called polycarbonate but not sure. It has a slight wood grain look – though it is white – so I am planning on using these leftover pieces to paint on too – but it is a lot heavier than cardboard! I really like the idea of painting on different types of materials instead of the typical canvas, especially if its just lying around. In my eccentricity, I tend to collect all kinds of objects that I think I can turn into an art project, But I just love that other folks have discovered that cardboard is a handy surface to paint on.

    Thank you for the tips, and the encouragement! Jean .

  16. Brian O'Neill

    Steve: Great information and I do like the portrait. Thanks.


    Best place to get large cardboard (and even some boards – but pine) is from a Rural Outlet. Most chemicals are wrapped in serious cardboard. There is no issue about leakage, so go for it. They will be glad to be rid of the wrapping. Cheers Bruce

  18. Great portrait! Interesting to see how the board texture gives it a different life.

    I ran out of canvas board the other day and couldn’t get to a store so after reading about an American artist saying he often paints on cardboard, and he’s professional, I decided to give it a go. I was wondering how to prime it or gesso it and found a tin of 100% Acrylic primer in the shed, coincidentally, as I’m decorating an old house I moved into. I painted five sheets of cardboard cut to size, one left with a jagged edge, painting both sides equally a few times. I had fun! Now the challenge is to paint it with my acrylic paints!

    I love the idea of how to hang them, because framing is so expensive, it’s out of my reach right now.

    Thank you so much for the great information and blog post.

  19. Great article! I teach secondary-level art and I’ve completed a few paintings on cardboard…including a replica of Munch’s “The Scream” to exact scale. To hang it, I cut pine “stretcher bars” to size then used wood glue to adhere the wood bars to the cardboard. Works great and it also keeps the cardboard flat as it tends to curl over time. It also allows you to place it in a frame or floater frame.

  20. Love the article and all the comments. Your information is great and I will be using it for sure. Working on a project where we’re making over sized mask to hang for an auction (part of the theme) and the only thing I could think of to make them that large and cheap… CARDBOARD. I work at a shop that makes metal items and found we had a lot of LARGE cardboard pieces. All the company was doing with them (for the most part) was recycling them. So I got a bunch and now I’m getting ready to base coat them with silver latex paint (air compressed spray gun).

    But wanted to add to the comments, If you’re in an area where there is metal fabrication shops around, stop in and ask them if the have any large pieces. I’m sure if they do, they’ll let you have them. The ones I got as an example, 4′ x 18′, yes 4 feet by 18 feet, not inches. they’re massive.

    Thanks for all your suggestions and keep up the great art work. LOVE IT!


  21. Thank you (and you’re very welcome) the last several of you above who’ve left comments! I’ve been doing more 3D than 2D since I posted this entry, but I’m in the midst of experimenting with some non-representational sculptural forms on which I plan to paint with acrylics, so I’ll be brushing up on my painting skills again. The Munsell system has helped rescue me from analysis paralysis when it comes to color…maybe I’ll do a blog entry on it sometime.

  22. Thanks. You opened my eyes! Now I can do endless studies and plein air sketches on these.

  23. So I’m very late to this party, but really appreciate the article however I’m curious the archival ness of such practice. I feel like this is for personal/experimentation correct? I think I’d be unsure of selling a work to a customer on cardboard lol. But hey who knows. Anyone with experience here? Did you frame it?

  24. Thanks for dropping by, Amanda. Yes, to me, the main benefit of painting on cardboard was to help free me up artistically. I did, however, sell some of those experimental paintings–at low prices befitting the substrate. I’ve also given many of them away to family & friends…all unframed. Try a few and see what response you get; some customers may actually prefer the quirkiness and earth-friendliness of artwork on cardboard.

  25. David Reuter

    THANK YOU — I just started some drawings on Cardboard and found your page VERY Helpful … Thank You


  26. This is just what I needed! Great article. I have some transparent gesso. But I’m so excited to know the possibilities.

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