5 Reasons Cardboard Should Be an Essential Art Room Material

Are you taking advantage of cardboard in your art classes? Cardboard is one of my secrets to art teaching success. In these times of diminishing art supply budgets and overwhelming class sizes, cardboard can become your best friend. Not only is cardboard abundant, it is resilient and versatile.

Here are my top 5 reasons cardboard can help art educators with their classes.

1. Cardboard Is Cheap or Free

All it takes to get free cardboard is a little extra effort when you are out and about. Cardboard is found just about everywhere, from restaurants to paint stores. Most establishments recycle their cardboard, and they are eager to give it away or donate it to your classroom. Pizza parlors will often donate a stack of fifty pizza boxes to my art program. Paint stores are constantly giving away their cardboard paint flats. Grocery stores have heaps of cardboard waiting to be crushed in the baler. All you need to do is to politely ask to take some cardboard off an establishment’s hands, and often you will receive a substantial amount.

If you are not lucky enough to acquire all the donated cardboard you need for a given project, it is relatively cheap to purchase. For example, a set of fifty flat pizza boxes can be as little as $20 (plus delivery). Cutting that amount of cardboard can easily provide enough material for an entire class project.

piles of cardboard

2. Cardboard Holds Supplies

Markers, colored pencils, paint tubes, water cans, and most art media can be stored in cardboard boxes. I use cardboard flats from paint stores as portable trays that hold paint tubes and palette knives for students to take to their tables. Those same flats are great for holding cans, markers, primer, and any other set of materials that needs to be organized. Cardboard flats allow smaller table groups to easily retrieve sets of materials instead of having a free-for-all storage area somewhere in your room.

cardboard trays

3. Cardboard Makes a Great Painting Surface

The pizza box makes a wonderful painting surface. One full pizza box can be cut down into two to four pieces. Cardboard also stimulates student interests. For some reason, when I bring out stacks of sliced cardboard to distribute as the next project surface, students treat it more seriously than paper.

Cardboard usually absorbs paint pretty well, but it can have a tendency to curl at the corners. The curling effect happens from only painting on one side. The first step with students when painting on cardboard is to paint a giant “X” on the back side. I like to use primer for this activity, but any type of paint should work fine. Have students apply a generous amount of paint from corner to corner and allow it to dry. The next day, have students put primer on the front side of the box and it should flatten out and remain flat for the most part. If it curls after that, I have students repaint the back side of the cardboard and place a heavy object on top of it to weigh it down. Once that dries, it is usually quite flat.

4. Cardboard Makes Perfect Palettes

The palettes I use with students are simply rectangular pieces of cardboard. Students mix their paint colors on the cardboard and then scrape all the unused paint flat at the end of class. The paint dries and we reapply paint on top of the dry layer the next day. When using acrylic-based paint, this is an effective palette that can be used for years. The key to making this work is to make sure scraping the palette becomes an important procedure of cleanup time. The smoother the surface of the cardboard, the longer it remains effective as a palette.

cardboard palette

5. Cardboard is a Perfect Sculpture Material

When my students are making three-dimensional art, often scraps of cardboard are essential to their work. I like to save all the leftover scraps of cardboard I have from cutting down surfaces for painting and encourage students to use those later on to form sculptures. Cardboard is malleable and easily glued or taped together. Students can use cardboard to help create the form underneath a mask, or as the structure for a sculptural artifact. Building forms from cardboard parts is easy for students and accessible for educators.

As art educators, we are always searching for ways to minimize our supply budgets. Cardboard can be completely free, or at least very cheap. I use cardboard for painting surfaces, palettes, sculptural building blocks, and to house classroom materials. The amount of money I save from buying plastics and papers is enough to put toward other essential materials. Cardboard is one of my secrets to art teaching success. I hope you take advantage of this resource too!

How do you use cardboard in your art classes?

What other secrets do you have for your own art teaching success?

Matt Christenson


Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.


  • Leah

    I couldn’t agree more! When it’s the end of the year and I find myself running out of certain supplies I turn to cardboard. #cardboardlove

    • Matt Christenson

      Hey Leah! Cardboard love it right…I think for me it might even be #cardboarddependency

  • Laurie Doran

    I start the year with cardboard. Breaking down all the boxes that the new materials came in, gives students plenty of options for mixed media opening challenge, to “show what you know.”

    • Matt Christenson

      That’s how it goes for me too, Laurie!

  • Michelle Mathias

    How do you go about cutting cardboard into usable rectangles?

    • Matt Christenson

      Howdy Michelle! I use a box cutter and a yard stick…and go to town. Or that is fun task for my TA to work on. It takes a little bit of elbow grease, but is definitely worth it.

    • amberkanescarves

      I’ve also found that if you have a giant papercutter, it can do some of the cutting for you. Also if you make friends with your tech dept, they may have saws that can cut it down quickly.

  • It also makes a great base for a printmaking. You can add even more cardboard to the top and get an interesting print.

  • Denise August

    My son used to work at a bike shop. Many high end bikes come completely assembled in a box. It’s thicker cardboard. My husband used a box cutter to cut it into squares.

  • B Doherty

    These are genius! I just read the palette idea to my class ( palettes are an ordeal for us) and they all got super excited. Thanks!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi B Doherty! I’m so glad this was useful…I love using cardboard for palettes! Changed my life.

  • Erin Hatfield

    I like to use small scraps for scraping paint across paper or printing with the edges. I also love cardboard for collagraph printing and making looms.

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  • Sandra Valimberti

    I really like the way you’ve presented these very useful ideas!

  • Gladys Pasapera

    We use cardboard and a large binder clip as clipboards when we do gallery walks in the hallway, sketching, and taking notes while on a trip. Also use it for sculptures as a form base and then add plaster strips.

  • Frances Louise Rice

    Costco is my go to cardboard source. They have big sheets of cardboard which are used between layers of items such as toilet paper. This year I used it to create portfolios for my students to save work in. The kids love individualizing their portfolios with Sharpie markers which show up better on cardboard than watercolor markers. I also used the big sheets to create a temporary display space for drawings and paintings at an end of semester art show. And I have used it to build diorama boxes.

  • Jeremy Creecy

    Cardboard can be much closer than you think. Since I have no more than 15 students in my class, I can get cardboard and tin cans from the cook, which is more than enough to use.

  • Heather Royer

    Cardboard is by far my favorite classroom material. Recently, I taught the students about the architectural movement Deconstructivism. You can identify the style by the famous American architect Frank Gehry. Basically, they learn about the style, broken into teams, and have to “deconstruct” a box into a new sculptural form inspired by Frank Gehry’s style.

    • Melissa Gilbertsen

      What a cool idea…hmmmm

  • Melissa Gilbertsen

    There is something seriously seductive about painting on a brown surface for my students. It’s been amazing to see them let loose and just paint without freaking out that it’s not “right” (which drives me nuts!) Which white paper can even freeze up some of my more talented artists.

    I use a big bread knife with a serrated edge to cut faster and with more control than the box cutters bease I have Grover from Sesame Street arms! My other secret weapon for cutting out much more complicated shapes in cardboard prior to the kids painting is using a rotozip. Sucker makes a fair amount of noise but works well and fast. I used to have an excellent source for thick honeycombed cardboard – a kayak shop. Check that out if you can. The stuff is amazingly lightweight but with paper tape over edges simulates deep cradled supports. Awww, love me that cardboard! Thanks for more great ideas?

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