Oil Painting Surfaces: How to choose the best surface to paint on

Oil Painting Surfaces

Oil Painting Surfaces: How to choose the best surface to paint on

With plentiful options, picking an oil painting surface to create that next masterpiece can be tricky. Today we figure out the best surface for oil painting depending on your own artistic needs and capabilities.

Perhaps you’ve heard an artwork described as “oil painting on linen” or “oil on panel”. These phrases that usually accompany artwork as they hang on the walls of museums and galleries describe the surface the oil painting is painted upon. This surface is sometimes referred to the “support”.

Consequently there are tons of surfaces you can paint on. While some surfaces are more suitable than others it’s up to each artist to decide what the proper oil painting surface is for her needs. I’ll touch on a wee bit of conservation concerns throughout and towards the end of this article. But as always, if you’ve read my articles before you know I’m a huge fan of not getting caught up in the minutia and simply getting started.

Types of Oil Painting Surfaces

Out of all the many options for oil painting surfaces we can generally categorize these surfaces as either rigid or flexible. The following are some of the more common painting supports you’ll encounter.

Flexible Painting Surfaces:

  • Cotton canvas
  • Linen canvas
  • Paper

Rigid Painting Surfaces:

  • Wood panel
  • Composite Panel
  • Metal

This is of course not an exhaustive list. Some of these materials can even be combined.

Oil Painting Panels

There are many rigid panels on which you can paint upon with oil paints. The most popular would be the readymade wood panels that are available at your art store.

These oil painting boards are typically a wood composite made from pulp and glue. They are sometimes referred to as “hardboard” and can be quite hard indeed. If buying these panels from the art store they are usually coated with a thin layer or acrylic gesso (acrylic dispersion ground).

This ground or provides an important barrier between the wood panel and the oil paints. Its main purpose is to prevent parts of the panel from leaching into the painting. This could be the glues used in the fabrication of the panel or materials from the wood itself.

Either way, conservatives agree that preventing contaminants from leaching into a painting is a good practice to prevent premature damage to a painting’s overall stability.

The ground also makes a nice, consistent surface on which to lay your paint strokes down.

Canvas Boards

If you are looking for an inexpensive oil painting board you can might want to try painting on a canvas board. These painting supports consist of canvas wrapped around and glued to a piece of cardboard.

canvas board

Canvas boards are quite inexpensive and don’t puncture as easily as a stretched canvas. For this reason they make good surfaces to paint on for beginners looking to travel and paint or paint outdoors.

Canvas boards are subject to warping however, so once your gain some experience you’ll want to consider working on a higher quality painting surface.

Over time a canvas board standing upright tends to bow and sag. Don’t believe me? stand up a canvas board against a wall somewhere and leave it alone for a year…

For this reason I would never do any serious oil painting on canvas board made from cardboard.

Oil Painting on Metal Surfaces

Besides wood, artists have also been known to paint on metal. Oil paintings created on copper were more prevalent in the mid sixteenth century in Italy and Northern Europe but their popularity faded with time.

This self portrait by Rembrandt was painted using oil paints on a copper panel.

Recently I’ve noticed a resurgence of artists turning to copper panels as their oil painting supports. Some painters are forgoing the priming altogether and using the copper color as part of their painting’s composition.

Another popular oil painting panel made from metal is known as “ACM”. Aluminum Composite Material was designed for signmaking purposes. However, many fine artists have adopted it as their panel of choice.

Many artists glue canvas to the ACM and create their oil paintings on this combination.

Oil Painting Canvas

In the last several hundred years canvas has been the most popular oil painting surface. The main reasons being economical both in space and money. Paintings made on top of canvas are very light and can be transported very easily. They can even be rolled up for easy storage and shipment.

This benefit becomes more and more apparent the larger the painting.

The overwhelming majority of paintings on canvas that you’ll encounter are of the stretched canvas variety. The canvas is stretched like a drum around four stretcher bars that form the outer rectangular shape. Painting with oil paints on canvas on ready made surfaces is a great way to get started with oil paints.

stretched canvas (back showing stretcher bars)
The back of a stretched canvas

Types of canvas

Canvas is a general term painters use to describe the flexible fabric they are painting on. As one might guess the actual material of canvas can vary.

Traditionally, artists have used canvas that was available to them in their region of the world. Not surprisingly you’ll find many American artists using cotton as their canvas painting surface and Europeans using linen as their respective canvas painting surfaces.

linen vs. cotton (closeup showing color and texture)

Both of these natural fabrics (cotton & linen) have been used extensively around the world and come in a variety of thicknesses and thread counts. Having stretched both fabrics for decades I can attest to the fact that cotton canvas is much easier to stretch. It is more elastic making the stretching process easier.

For this reason along with it’s lower cost it is definitely the recommended choice for beginners looking to oil paint on canvas. Oil paintings on linen seem to have a certain cachet in certain circles but as a beginner you are best staying away.

Like most industries technology keeps moving forward and oil painting is no exception. Some manufacturers have begun to prepare artist’s canvas from synthetic materials such as polyester. These newer types of canvas are far less popular than the tradition cotton and linen varieties.

The intention of these synthetic canvases being that canvas made from polyester is not as affected by atmospheric conditions such as moisture and temperature changes. Both of which contribute to the longterm damage of paintings painted on flexible supports.

Canvas Selection

Canvas fabric for painting can vary greatly in its texture. Depending on the weave and thread count the canvas you choose to paint on can be very rough and bumpy or quite smooth.

If you are painting small paintings that are especially detailed you are going to want to paint on a smooth canvas. Many manufacturers call their finest canvas fabric “portrait grade”. Don’t be fooled, you don’t have to be painting a portrait for this canvas to work!

Most smooth canvases are thinner material. For this reason they cannot be stretched for large paintings very well.

As you stretch larger and larger canvas fabrics for painting you’ll have to resort to tougher, thicker canvas. This is one of the tradeoffs of working with stretched canvas.

If buying raw canvas to prime yourself make sure you get your canvas from a roll and not a blanket.

canvas blanket vs. roll

It can be really difficult if not impossible to remove the folds from a canvas blanket. I’ve tried everything to remove some of the folds and wrinkles from some of my old canvas blankets. I’ve tried washing and drying it, ironing, steaming… nothing worked for either cotton or linen canvas.

Lesson learned… never buy canvas by the “blanket”. Only get it on a roll and always store it rolled as well!

unprimed cotton canvas

Can Oil painting Be Done on Paper?

Oil painting can be accomplished on paper, but you should be aware of its shortcomings before investing a great amount of time.

Oil paint has the tendency to soak into it’s surface and this can cause some problems later on. Without creating a proper barrier between the paper and the oil paint your painting will surely deteriorate prematurely. This may take decades but is worth noting.

Paper is one of the least stable surfaces you’ll encounter as a painter.

If you must used it you can prepare the paper for oil painting by applying several coats of acrylic polymer such as GAC 200. This will provide some protection and prolong the life of your oil painting on paper.

If you are serious about the painting and would like to see it last past your lifetime you ought to paint on something other than paper. It’s the least suitable painting surface for oil painting conservation!

Due to the efforts you’d have to go through to prepare paper you’re better off working on another surface. If you are going to spend any significant amount of time on an oil painting you probably want to make sure it stays intact for a while. It’s also more complicated to frame a painting on paper. All of which are considerations when making a final painting you are proud to showcase!

Canvas Paper for Oil Painting

You can buy a pad of canvas paper and use the convenient sheets for oil painting studies. Actually, most of these pads are not paper at all but real cotton canvas. Read the labels closely and stick to the canvas pads that are made from real canvas… not “canvas like texture”.

canvas pads for oil painting practice

They are pressed flat and primed with acrylic gesso. These inexpensive pads of canvas are great for practicing and experimenting on.

This is the canvas pad I use for all my quick painting demonstrations.

pad of canvas paper
Stack of canvas from pad

The Best Surface for Oil Paints

Determining the best surface on which to oil paint is based on many factors:

  • Budget
  • Painting Experience
  • Scope of Project
  • Size

Rigid surfaces when properly prepared have the potential to make your paintings last the longest. Oil paint has some trouble when it gets on in age. Most notably it tends to harden and become brittle. For this reason, extremely flexible supports usually lead to a premature breakdown of one’s painting. While these are very important concerns of the professional artist this is not something I recommend you worry too much about if you are just starting out.

If you are new to oil painting you should stick to using pre-made canvases or oil painting panels that you buy right from your art supplier. Try each one and see which one tickles your fancy. Use that painting surface for a few years and then after a couple dozen paintings try a different painting surface.

As a beginner please don’t waste you time in long winded discussions about the merits of painting on expensive, complicated painting supports. It’s a waste of your precious time which is better spent actually getting better at painting.

If I have to hear one more amateur or intermediate oil painter talk in great depth about using lead-primed, Belgian linen mounted to ACM using a heat press I think my head is going to explode.

When starting out worry most about making better paintings. Don’t get paralyzed by the online, best-practices rhetoric.

If you desire to paint extremely detailed paintings, you will like painting on a smooth surface such as a panel or lightweight, tightly woven canvas.

If you are interested in plein air painting outdoors panels will be easier to transport because they don’t dent and puncture easily. These rigid surfaces also block the sun from coming through your painting which can prevent a plein air painter from judging their colors accurately.

If the pre-primed canvases you buy are too absorbent for comfortable oil paint blending you can always re-prime them with oil paint. This makes them slightly less absorbent which is usually desired by oil painters looking to push the paint around into complex gradations.

The optimal surface for oil paints is the one that allows you to get the results you are after.

If you are a beginner at oil painting my advice is always the same. Don’t worry so much about fancy paint recipes, techniques and online discussions… worry more about staying in your studio and putting in the hours to actually become a better painter.

3 Comments

  1. Thomas Wayne says:

    Amazing post …Appreciate the way you have shared your knowledge on the usage of oil painting. Very useful tips provided for the artists community.

  2. Olga C. Vina says:

    Thank you for share such important and useful art painting lesson.

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