Oh, the pain of painting and drawing on thin paper and the paper warps or you tear a hole through it. Imagine how many people just got fed up and quit their art careers because of this. If only they knew about illustration board; the magical material that holds your charcoal and paints without a warp or a tear. I’m fascinated by the stuff, and the first time I painted on illustration board, it felt like heaven. But before you take out your watercolor set, there’s a whole of a lot to learn about illustration boards, from the sizes, thickness, media to use, brands, how to cut, frame it and even just differentiating it from other types of paper at the art supply store. Here’s everything you’ll need to know about illustration boards.
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What is illustration board?
Illustration board is a type of thick board that’s made by fixing textured absorbent paper on a rigid backing like cardboard or poster board. It’s a stiff somewhat weighty board and only one surface is meant for use. Because of the high quality, cost and stiffness of the board, it’s meant for producing complete works and for display rather than rough sketching or doodling.
One advantage with painting and drawing on illustration board is you don’t need a drawing board since the material is already rigid enough. There’s also no need for mounting since the backing offers good support. Illustration board is also often used to create artwork that will go on to be scanned and reprinted onto other materials. If you are creating art for archival purposes, be careful about which illustration board you choose. Some illustration boards are not archival (not 100% rag or acid-free). If you need the best board possible for your work, get one made up of 100% rag/cotton content. Acidic paper will yellow over time.
There are two major types of illustration board; cold press and hot press.
Cold press has a textured surface that’s more suitable for use with charcoal, acrylic paint, tempera, watercolor, pastels and other media that require a tooth to hold thick and coarse media to the paper. Manufacturers will often refer to this surface as “vellum”. You can get cold press illustration board by Strathmore here.
Hot press illustration board has a smooth surface that allows your media to glide over the paper. This is best used for inking, markers, pencil drawing, color pencils and airbrushing. The smooth texture allows you to work with smooth gradients, fine details and continuous thin lines. Manufacturers will often refer to this surface as “Plate”. However, the different types of illustration board can be used with whichever media the artist prefers if they want to achieve a certain unique look. For instance, an artist may prefer to use charcoal on the smoother surface to achieve their desired style. As long as they don’t care about being too clean of course. Hot press illustration board is available here.
Difference between illustration board, Bristol board, and poster board
Bristol board is lighter in weight and both front and back surfaces are usable unlike illustration board. Bristol boards are of higher quality than illustration board and are therefore made for longer term preservation and archival use. However, the difference between them isn’t too significant and is often overlooked and the two materials are usually used interchangeably. Bristol board also comes in varying textures.
Posterboard is cheaper and of lower quality than illustration board and Bristol board. It’s mostly used for signs and displays and also for kids to paint, draw on and make sticky colorful messes. You can find posterboard in a wide range of colors, unlike illustration board and Bristol that generally come in different shades of white.
What sizes is illustration board available in?
The smallest illustration board size most brands sell is 10×15 inches (1/8), while the largest size is 30×40 Inches (1 whole). Other popular sizes are 15×20 (1/4) and 20×30 inches (1/2).
The sizes are often sold as 1/8, ¼, ½, or 1 whole. The 1 whole being 30×40 inches and the other sizes being the respective fractions of that. Note that the brands may sell these with different dimensions. Don’t mistake the fractions for the thickness. All this sizes each come in different thicknesses.
Thicknesses and which one is best for you
The thickness of an illustration board depends on the brand and the media it is made to be used for. The thickness ranges from 1mm to 3mm. The thicker board is better suited for wetter media, like watercolor washes. The thicker layer of paper will absorb the wet paint better and keep it from running or warping the paper. Note that the thickness is not equivalent to the ply of the board.
What Media to use and on which type of illustration board
Is it good for watercolor? Yes. Virtually all media can be used on illustration board. However, the type of illustration board you use can give you better results for your media.