There are a variety of surfaces you can work on when painting with oils. Keep in mind that oil paint will eat through raw canvas, so while you can paint on raw (unprimed) canvas, it will eventually deteriorate and fall apart. We’ll discuss how to prime your surface later on in this lesson.
Here are the topics we’ll be discussing:
Which Is Better: Canvas Or Panel?
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 (surfaces) 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:
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 go 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”:
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 is a thick, heavyweight paper with a coated textured surface that replicates the feeling of canvas. It’s very inexpensive (I just found a book of ten 12” x 16” sheets online for $8) so you don’t have to feel bad about making mistakes (they will happen!) and tossing them aside.
Okay, now on to traditional canvases.
The most traditional surface in oil painting 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 (so you don’t have to prime your surface before you start painting). The cheaper 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 Student Resource Center.
This means wood. If you want to see what paintings on wood look like, check out the medieval tempera paintings in Art History: Painting 101. Most of those were done on panel/wood. In this section, I’ll describe some of the different types of panels available at most art stores in case you’d like to try painting on panel instead of canvas. We recommend canvas on our Recommendation List, but if you prefer a more solid surface, you can try panel. Here are some different types of panel:
This 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. This is the most common type of panel and our recommendation if you’d like to try panel instead of canvas.
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). Clear gesso costs about $10 depending on the amount you purchase. See Priming Your Surface near the end of this lesson for more details on how to use gesso.
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. One flat 8″ x 10″ board is about $5 online.
This is a pre-gessoed wood panel with a fine grain, similar to the claybord but not as absorbent. One flat 8″ x 10″ board is about $6 online.
This is an unprimed dark wood panel. You will need to prime it before you use it, either with white acrylic gesso or clear (if you want the dark wood to show through). One flat 8″ x 10″ board is about $3 online.
All these come in varying depths too, so you can buy them without edges (flat) or with deep sides (like the gallery wrap canvas).
Can I Reuse My Canvas?
Yes, although it’s not going to be as nice as using a fresh canvas. Because oil paint is so viscous (has a lot of body or texture to it), 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 even after you’ve applied gesso.
Another way to reuse your old canvases/stretcher bars 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. Once your painting is completely dry, 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–this keeps the dried paint from cracking) 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.
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 onto your paint better and allows for softer lines when you’re painting.
If you’re moving the work and can’t sit 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.
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 back side of the canvas with a little water (you can only do this 5 times before it doesn’t work anymore).
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.
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. Panel is inflexible and can give you more control over hard lines.
Cons: The edges are easily chipped, so be careful when handling your panel pieces. A chipped edge is hard to fix!
Pro Tip: If you like the tooth of canvas but the stiffness of panel, you can stretch canvas (for a rougher texture) or muslin (for a finer texture) over panel. Just gesso as you would any canvas and you’ve got the best of both worlds!
Surface Size: Big Or Small?
You may be concerned over the size of your surface. The most typical sizes for canvas are 18 inches x 24 inches or 24 inches x 36 inches. 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:
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. When used in oil painting, linen is traditionally primed not with acrylic gesso, but with an oil prime such as rabbit skin glue.
I know I said earlier that this was not a viable option since oil paint will eat through cotton. It will. But—if you insist on keeping that “raw canvas” look, you can prime your canvas with PVA size first (available at any art store), but I can’t guarantee that it will last forever. PVA size is essentially Elmer’s Glue—it will provide a barrier between the oil paint and the cotton, but how much of a barrier is uncertain. Since PVA size was only invented recently, we don’t have 200+-year-old examples to look at to see if it works well or not.
On the other hand, you could also prime your canvas with clear gesso. You’ll retain the warmth of raw canvas while still protecting it fully from the oil paint.
This is kind of a secret. If you like the feeling of linen (super fine weave, little to no texture) but can’t afford it, then take a canvas, stretch regular muslin (99 cents a yard at the fabric store) over the top, then prime both with gesso. It’s a miracle if you want that super smooth texture.
Copper has been used as an oil painting surface for centuries. It has a very nice gloss to it and the paintings tend to look jewel-like when complete. One caveat with copper is that it is very thin and flexible and if not handled with extreme care, the cured painting is susceptible to cracking. If you were to use copper, you’d want to roughen the surface slightly with sandpaper and clean it with mineral spirits, denatured alcohol, or acetone (only use one—do not mix). You may want to adhere the copper to a wood substrate to prevent bending. For more about this, check out this article on the artistsnetwork.com: http://www.artistsnetwork.com/articles/art-demos-techniques/how-to-paint-on-copper-preparing-copper-plate
Some paper brands like Arches make paper that is specifically produced to work with oil paints. You can’t just use regular paper. For one, the oil in oil paint will bleed and stain your paper (imagine a grease stain). Secondly, there’s no real information on the archivability (i.e. how long it will last) of oil on paper because there are so many factors involved—the primer you use, the application of paint, display and storage accommodations, etc.—so it’s best to stay away from regular paper when working with oil paints. If you do decide to try it, do so at your own risk. You can try priming the paper first with several coats of acrylic gesso or shellac to provide a barrier against the damaging effects of oil paint. It’s best to use a paper that is designed to work with oil paints if you go this route. It is also possible to stretch paper over stretcher bars the way you would with canvas. See Building Your Own Canvas for more about this.
Yes, it’s inexpensive and it’s possible to put paint on it. The problem with cardboard is the high acid content of the cardboard. 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).
You can also paint on unstretched canvas! You can tack it up to a wall using push pins or nails, or if you want to, you can grommet around the edges like this:
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 drop cloth made of canvas. This is an inexpensive alternative to artist’s canvas.
Oil paint won’t stick to glass, so we don’t recommend this as a surface.
Priming Your Surface
If you decide to build your own canvas, you’ll need to prime it before you start painting with oils. The ingredients in oil paints will deteriorate unprimed canvas or linen, leaving you with a painting that’s falling apart. Priming your canvas will also give you a nice surface to work on and will stop the fabric from absorbing all your paint.
There are two basic types of primer: acrylic and oil. The most common is acrylic primer, or Gesso (pronounced jess-oh). This can be purchased from an art store and usually comes in white, clear, and black and all cost about the same amount of money. Bob Ross was a fan of black gesso and used it quite a bit.
White gesso is the standard for most artists. If you’re painting on a surface that is colored (printed fabric or raw wood are two options), you would use a clear gesso to protect the surface but retain the look. Gesso can also be tinted. Tint using acrylic paint if you want to work on a colored ground.
You will need a large brush of a good quality so the bristles don’t fall out while you’re priming. A house painting brush from a hardware store will work or a painting pad (I tend to prefer painting pads because they don’t have any bristles to worry about and they’re much less expensive than brushes–about $1-$2 for a painting pad versus $7-$10 for a brush).
Lay out your unprimed canvas on a flat surface that can get paint on it (priming your canvas can be a messy exercise!). I think it helps to wet your canvas slightly before adding the gesso, so using a spray bottle or dipping your brush/pad into clean water, add a light coat of water to your canvas.
Apply your gesso in a thin layer with all your brushstrokes going one direction. When this layer dries in about 30 minutes, lightly sand it with a fine grit sandpaper and apply another layer, this time with all the brush strokes going in the opposite direction of the first layer (for example, if your first brushstrokes were North and South, the next brushstrokes will be East and West). This will make sure all the holes in the canvas get filled in. After the second layer dries, sand again and if you want, you can add a third coat of gesso, but it may not be necessary. Adding more coats of gesso will make your painting surface smoother by covering up the tooth of the canvas.
Don’t forget to gesso the sides of your canvas!
If you want information on oil priming your canvas, see that article here in the Student Resource Center.
Exercise One: 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.
If you aren’t able to physically go to a museum, try looking at artwork online at the Google Art Project. There are hundreds of museums listed on the site and you can view artwork from any one of them!
Key Lesson Learning: You’ve learned about the many different surfaces one can use oil paint on—particularly canvas and panel–and the pros and cons of each. You’ve also been taught how to prime your selected surface.
Next Lesson: Oil Paintbrushes