Illustration board: Everything you need to know

illustration board

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.

disclaimer: this article contains affiliate links that I may earn a commission from. I don’t recommend products that I don’t use or would not buy.

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.

You’ll also find illustration board with different types of paper, crafted for the best experience with a specific type of media. For example, you can find boards with watercolor paper for super absorbency with your washes like the Strathmore Illustration Board for Wet Media.

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.

watercolor painting of eye on illustration board
watercolor Cold press illustration board (vellum) is best used for graphite pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, sketching stick, pen & ink, marker, soft pastel, mixed media, oil pastel, light wash watercolor and collage.

Hot press illustration board (Plate) is best used for graphite pencil, colored pencil, pen & ink, marker, mixed media and collage.

I’d advise you try out different boards, from different manufacturers to find out what best suits your style and medium.

How to cut illustration board

There are two common situations in which you may need to cut illustration board. One, when you need to trim your final work to size or clean up the edges. And two, when you’ve bought the large 30×40 inches whole board to save on cost (if it’s cheaper) and divide it into your desired sizes, cause you’re a smart cookie. Illustration board is thick and strong and may be hard to cut, especially with a shaky hand.

To cut illustration board, you’ll need:

  • a cutting mat or cardboard to place underneath as you cut
  • box cutter or x-acto knife
  • a t-square or steel ruler
  • a pencil
  • sandpaper

Steps:

  1. Close to the edge of the sturdy table, place your illustration board over the cutting board or cardboard. You can tape down the cardboard so it doesn’t slip.
  2. Place your t-square on the illustration board so that the “T” is resting flush over the edge of the table. Place it along the line you want to cut. Draw a line along the t-square/ruler with your pencil and make marks on where your cut should end.
  3. Holding the box cutter firmly, and with your other hand pressing down on the t-square/ruler for steadiness, cut along the line/ruler edge with a continuous straight cut. If it doesn’t cut all the way through, pass the knife over again, still using the ruler for a clean cut.
  4. Do the same for the other edge you need to make a cut along.
  5. If the edge is rough or ragged, you can smoothen it out by rubbing a piece of sandpaper gently along it.
  6. If you make a mess of it, don’t worry, you’ll get better with practice. It’s a skill!

How to frame illustration board

Another great essential skill for an artist is framing their work. A properly mounted and/or framed artwork looks good, whether hanging on a wall or sitting on a side-table. Your artwork is also more likely to lead to a sale if that’s the intention.

Mounting is an important first step to framing. It’s also not just for aesthetic purposes. Mounting prevents your artwork from touching the glass of a frame, and if your work is charcoal or loose graphite, that could be a messy problem. You put so much effort into creating your art, you don’t want it to end up smudged on the glass. Mounting also prevents the edges of your paper/board from rubbing on the frame’s sides from being moved around. That rubbing may frail up or tear the edge of your precious art.

To mount your illustration board you’ll need:

Steps:

  1. Choose your mounting board/foam board. Mounting board comes in different types, depending on your budget, the quality, thickness and color you need. In terms of quality, you can get museum grade (highest quality), conservative grade (medium quality) and standard grade (cheapest and lower quality). The standard grade is best for practicing your mounting and framing, for using as a cutting mat and it’s also good for your personal artworks. You can also get different color variations such as white, cream or black. This depends on what you prefer or goes well with your artwork, it’s not a strict science. Different thicknesses are also available. Usually, there’s standard (1.4/1.5mm thick), thick (2/2.2mm thick) and extra thick (3mm)
  2. Wash your hands and make sure your table, surface and tools are clean and dry. Very important to keep your white surfaces clean and avoid getting fingerprints and oil on your paper.
  3. Measure your artwork and cut your illustration board that has your art to size if you need to by following the process above under How to cut illustration board.
  4. Determine what margin you will need your mounting board to have around your artwork. This also depends on your artistic eye. Add that margin to the width and height of your artwork and add another inch to both sides. The resulting dimensions will be the outer width and height you’ll use cut your mounting board.
  5. With a pencil and t-square or steel rule, draw the widths and heights on the mounting board and mark the intersections. Make sure they meet at right angles to form a perfect triangle.
  6. Then draw the inner rectangle that will form the ‘window” for your artwork. To do this, measure the margin and mark it on the widths of your mounting board. Then draw straight lines to connect both ends. Do the same for your heights.
  7. With your steel rule and box cutter, cut out the outer rectangle of the mounting board. Flip the board on the other side to make sure the cut has gone all the way through. If it hasn’t, pass the box cutter through again whilst using your ruler. Then cut out the inner rectangle to form the ‘window”. You now have what looks like a frame.
  8. Place your art (illustration board) under the mount. You may not necessarily need a backing board because the illustration board is stiff enough to hold itself upright. Make sure the side of the mount with pencil marks is facing inside so that the clean side is on display. Flip the artwork and the mount over, keeping them aligned and tape the back of the illustration board to the mount on the four corners. Use short pieces of masking tape to do this and press firmly.
  9. If you’re happy with the mount, place it in your frame and confirm the glass is not touching the artwork. Then step back, smile at your work and display it where you like.

Where to buy and options available?

You can check if your local art store has illustration board in stock and choose the type, quality and thickness available. You can also browse online for specific brands such as Canson, Strathmore and crescent.

Conclusion

Illustration boards come in a variety of options. From sizes, thickness, quality, brand, type of paper and color. It’s upon the artist to try out what fits them and works best with their media of choice. Cold press illustration board (vellum) is best used for graphite pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, sketching stick, pen & ink, marker, soft pastel, mixed media, oil pastel, light wash watercolor and collage. Hot press illustration board (Plate) is best used for graphite pencil, colored pencil, pen & ink, marker, mixed media and collage. The best way to get acquainted to the material is to use it.

Good luck with the painting and drawing!

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