Acrylic Surfaces

Of course, before you can start painting, you need something to paint on! We’ll be going over the various types of surfaces you can paint on with acrylic paints.

Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:



Which Is Better: Canvas Or Panel?

Surface Size: Big Or Small?

Other Surfaces

Exercise 1: Paint An Alternative Surface

Exercise 2: Visit A Museum



There are a lot of surfaces out there to paint on! The most typical support is canvas. You can buy canvases ready to go at most art stores. This means the canvas has already been stretched over stretcher bars and primed with acrylic gesso. Gesso (jess-oh) is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these. It is used in artwork as a preparation for any number of substrates such as wood panels, canvas and sculpture as a base for paint and other materials that are applied over it.

When you’re talking about the size of your canvas, it’s typical among galleries to refer to them as height by width. For example:


Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862, oil on canvas, 30” x 46.5”

Edouard Manet, Music in the Tuileries Garden, 1862, oil on canvas, 30” x 46.5”

You can see that this is described height by width because it is a landscape-oriented painting and the smaller number (30 inches) is stated first.

When you’re first starting out painting, you’ll burn through a lot of canvases. You’ll be experimenting a lot and making little studies as you learn more about paint and get comfortable with your skills. To stay in budget and still have a lot of surfaces to paint on, you may want to consider the following two canvas “alternatives”:

          Canvas Panel

canvas panel

This is a sheet of wood that has been covered in canvas and gessoed. They are very sturdy and inexpensive (I just found a pack of 12 on Amazon for $13) and most often will fit in a standard picture frame if you want to frame your work when it’s finished.

          Canvas Paper

Canvas paper is a thick, heavyweight paper with a coated textured surface that replicates the feeling of canvas. It’s very inexpensive (a book of ten 12” x 16” sheets is $8 on so you don’t have to feel bad about making mistakes (they will happen!) and tossing them aside.

canvas paper

Okay, now on to traditional canvases.

The cheapest canvases are stapled on the side like this:
If you’re going to frame the canvas, then this won’t really matter because the staples will be hidden by the frame.

The next level up is canvas that’s stapled on the back:
These are still pretty inexpensive, depending on the size you want.

And lastly, the gallery wrap canvas:
These tend to have thicker edges and it is acceptable to show these in a gallery setting without a frame.

If you want to build your own canvas, see the article Building Your Own Canvas in the SRC.

Can I reuse my canvas once it’s already been painted?

Yes! The great thing with acrylic paint is that it can be covered over with gesso for a clean start. One caveat is that you will lose the original texture of the canvas or board and may have lumps leftover from your last painting so you won’t have that perfect, smooth finish.

Another way to reuse your old canvases is what I call “rip and re-stretch.” This is a good method if you want to keep the painting but need a new canvas to work on. Take out the staples from the back of the canvas using a flat head screwdriver and a pair of pliers and remove the painting from the stretcher bars. You can now roll the painting up (with the painting on the outside) and keep it to re-stretch later (or as many of mine are, stashed in my parents’ attic for memory sake) and stretch fresh, new canvas over the stretcher bars. I use this method generally with larger size (36” and above) canvas frames that are more expensive to make or purchase. With smaller paintings, it’s easier and cheaper to just buy new.



This means wood. Here are some different types of panel:

Birch Plywood Panel is economical and can be purchased at a local lumber yard. It can be cut into a variety of sizes and shapes, and if you buy 1/8” thick birch plywood, you can cut it with a utility knife and a straight edge (no heavy tools required). Because you don’t need to use gesso, the color of the wood adds a nice warmth and depth to your painting. The wood can be absorbent, so if you’re using a lot of water in your paint, it may bleed as it soaks into the wood. If you like the look of the wood but don’t want your paint soaking in, you can prime it with a clear gesso or acrylic matte medium (2-3 coats, sand lightly in between layers).


Artist Panel: is MDF (medium-density fiberboard) coated with acrylic gesso. It comes in a range of textures, from very smooth (no tooth) to the same texture as canvas to very rough.

It also comes unprimed, which means the wood grain shows. This is a very nice, warm ground to start on, but it is also very absorbent. If you like the look of the wood but don’t want your paint soaking in, you can prime it with a clear gesso (2-3 coats, sand in between layers).

Clay board: This is a hard board covered in a super absorbent clay-based acrylic gesso. It is very smooth and is good for artists who want a very finished look with no brushstrokes.

Gesso board: This is a pre-gessoed wood panel with a fine grain, similar to the claybord but not as absorbent.

Hard board: This is an unprimed dark wood panel. You will need to prime it before you use it, either with white acrylic gesso or clear gesso (if you want the dark wood to show through).

Which Is Better: Canvas Or Panel?

This depends on you. The biggest difference between canvas and panel is the amount of give in the surface. As you’re painting on canvas, the fabric will bow slightly under your brush and spring back when you’re not touching it.

Pros: Canvas has a certain texture to it that panel just doesn’t have. It will help grab on to your paint better and allows for softer lines when you’re painting.

If you’re moving the work and can’t fit it in your car/suitcase/travel box, you can always take the painting off the stretcher bars, roll it up, and restretch it when you arrive at your destination. This can save a lot of money in shipping costs when you get to the point of needing to ship your work to galleries.

Cons: If not stretched tight enough, the canvas can sag. At this point you will need to restretch it, or if the warping is slight, you can try misting the backside of the canvas with a little water (you can only do this 5 times before it doesn’t work any more).

Canvas can also be ripped. Don’t lean your painting against anything that touches the canvas directly. That can lead to dents in the painting or, worse yet, a tear. This can be very difficult to repair, so treat your paintings with respect! They (and you) deserve it.
Panel is inflexible and can give you more control over hard lines.

Pros: It’s less expensive than canvas or linen and the flat panels are easily cut into any shape. If you have old picture frames you want to use for your finished painting, panel is thin enough to fit a typical picture frame and can be cut to size.

Cons: The edges are easily chipped, so be careful when handling your panel pieces. A chipped edge is hard to fix!

Surface Size: Big Or Small?

You may be concerned over the size of your surface. The most typical sizes for canvas are 18” x 24” or 24” x 36”. The size of your canvas will be determined by the effect you’re going for. If you want something that is very intimate and makes the viewer have to get close to it, you’ll use a small canvas. If you want something intimidating or overwhelming to the viewer, you’ll want something very large. Take a look at some examples by famous artists here:


Damien Hirst, Amylamine, 1993, latex paint on canvas, 132” x 116.4” (that’s 11’ by 9’7”!)

Damien Hirst, Amylamine, 1993, latex paint on canvas, 132” x 116.4” (that’s 11’ by 9’7”!)


walter robertson abigail willing

Walter Robertson, Abigail Willing, 1795, watercolor on ivory, 3.75” x 2.87”


Other surfaces:

Linen: This is a very expensive, fine surface typically used in oil painting. If you’re just starting out, I would stay away from linen. It’s just too expensive and will make you nervous about painting on it instead of enjoying the process.


Paper: Paper can be good to paint on, but it will wrinkle if you don’t take certain precautions. Heavy watercolor paper can be soaked and stretched over stretcher bars much like canvas. Bristol paper can also be good to paint on and doesn’t wrinkle like light weight drawing paper. Yupo is also a very good paper—it runs a little more expensive, but it’s archival (acid-free) and doesn’t tear.

Canvas paper: This can be good to experiment on if you’re not comfortable using a big canvas yet or if you want to experiment with color mixing.

Cardboard: Yes, it’s inexpensive and it’s possible to put paint on it. The problem with cardboard though is the high acid content. Acid will literally eat through paint and your work will dissolve after a while. I’m not saying you can’t work on cardboard—just keep in mind that you get what you pay for. If you do go this route, make sure you prime it VERY well with acrylic gesso (I’m talking 5-6 coats).

Unstretched canvas: You can also paint on unstretched canvas! You can tack it up to a wall using pushpins or nails, or if you want to, you can grommet around the edges like this:

 Oscar Murillo, Touch Me With Your Greasy Hands, 2012, oil, oilstick, spray paint, dirt, steel grommets on canvas.

Oscar Murillo, Touch Me With Your Greasy Hands, 2012, oil, oilstick, spray paint, dirt, steel grommets on canvas. Source:


Painter’s Canvas: If you don’t really mind a rough texture (some might prefer it) you can go to a hardware store and buy a painter’s dropcloth made of canvas. This is an inexpensive ($10-20) alternative to artist’s canvas.

Clothing, shoes, elephants, dumpsters, walls, furniture, etc.:

One of the beautiful things about acrylic paint is its incredible versatility. You can paint on just about anything with it. Here are some examples:

You can still wash these—the paint won’t come out! I have several pairs of jeans I painted and wore for probably 5 years straight and although the color has faded, the painting is still there!


Shoes by Ashleigh Norman

Shoes by Ashleigh Norman

Same goes for the shoes. The acrylic paint will stay put even after wearing them. I suggest heat-setting the paint (put a clean cloth on top and iron for about a minute). These shoes wore out before the painting did.

ashleigh vans 2 ashleigh vans 3

 Elephant in the Room by Banksy from his Barely Legal show in 2006. The elephant (yes, it’s real) was fine, by the way. Acrylic paint is non-toxic.

Elephant in the Room by Banksy from his Barely Legal show in 2006. The elephant (yes, it’s real) was fine, by the way. Acrylic paint is non-toxic.

dumpster painting 2 dumpster painting 1
Dan Witz is a street artist and he painted these beautiful little boats on dumpsters.

Artist El Kitsch Tasso

This is a great idea for all those DIYers out there! Update that old dresser and make it interesting, using just a little acrylic paint. Image from

Exercise One: Paint An Alternative Surface

Paint something that you love onto some clothing, shoes, or furniture (only if you have permission, of course!). When you’re finished, share your creativity with us! Send a photo of your painted alternative surface using our submission form.

Exercise Two: Visit A Museum

Go to your local art museum and spend a few hours looking at the different surfaces artists have used to paint on. How many can you count? Keep a small book and a pencil (museums frown on pens and may ask you to put it away if you’re using one) and note the different surfaces you find and some of their key characteristics. Put a star next to surfaces you’d like to try to paint on. Keep track of some of the artists you like too for a later exercise.

Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the many different surfaces one can use acrylic paint on—particularly canvas and panel, and the pros and cons of each.

Next Lesson: Acrylic Paintbrushes

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