Choosing a surface for oil painting
It’s a good idea to think of the kind of surface you’ll be using your oil colors on before you start to put the colors on. Stretched, prepared canvas is the most popular surface for oil colors, and it has been used for decades. Wood panels and medium density fiberboard (MDF) are two alternatives that last a long time and do not flex. Canvas boards might be a good investment if you plan on living in the great outdoors. For sketching and outdoor painting, Winton Oil Color Pads are a common option.
What kind material canvas is suitable for the oil painting
In general, you want to paint on a nonporous surface. The surface of the canvas or linen was ‘primed’ with rabbit glue and then whitened with gesso to create a non porous surface that would make paint adhesion but not soak the canvas. There are Acrylic Gessos that can complete the task in only one move.
We used to slap on the cheapest white house paint we could buy as a mediocre Fine Art student. There are also brands like Fredrix, who sell ready-to-paint canvas.
Practically speaking, with enough priming, you could paint on any cotton, linen, or canvas paper. Thick canvas has the advantage of being sturdy enough to survive folding on a stretcher while still providing a flat surface for drawing.
How to Choose a Surface for Oil Painting
When it comes to selecting an oil painting board, there are several choices. Beyond the traditional cotton canvas, there’s a whole new world to discover.
You will get high-quality painting supports for a fantastic price. You should also be imaginative and come up with a way to make your job stand out.
Many surfaces have enough protection for the painting film which can last as long as the surface is adequately prepared for proper paint adhesion.
I’ll go through the various types of surfaces available to oil painters, their durability, and the various materials available. I’ll also discuss how the surface you want will influence the painting process and the final product’s appearance.
Canvas has been used by artists for over 300 years, so it is highly recommended. The cloth’s weave, in combination with the spring of the stretched fiber, makes it ideal for oil painting. Cotton or linen are commonly used to make canvas. Despite its difficulty in priming and stretching, linen provides the smoothest and stiffest painting surface. It lasts a long time and is still held in high esteem by classically trained musicians. Cotton, on the other hand, is less expensive and easier to spread than linen. For more detail, see our guide to the differences between cotton and linen canvas.
Canvas boards have long been a common alternative for outdoor painting because they take up less space than spread canvases and are less easily broken. Winsor & Newton canvas boards are superior in quality to coated sketching boards because they are made of substantial board and high-quality fabric. Framing boards is therefore less expensive than framing canvases.
About what you might have read, oil painting on paper is perfectly possible. Winsor & Newton oil paper is designed to withstand dense, layered paint applications and arrives ready to use, with no priming or planning needed. A hard watercolour paper that has been thinly primed with an acrylic gesso primer is another choice.
Medium density fiberboard (MDF) and priming
If you prefer to prepare your own supplies, MDF may be the way to go. MDF is made from wood fibers that have been packed under high pressure with adhesive. It’s inexpensive, which might encourage you to paint even more, and it’s readily available at most home improvement shops. A word of caution: if you’re cutting MDF, wear a mask because the dust can be dangerous if inhaled.
Until painting the MDF, remember to prime it. The texture, absorbency, and color of your surface are all regulated by primers. Both acrylic and oil painting primers are available from Winsor and Newton, and both can be used under oil painting. You’re well on your way to making something special if you have the surface perfect. Making a mistake will lead to irritation and delays. By monitoring shape, absorbency, and color, Winsor & Newton primers and ready-made surfaces will give you fantastic results.
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Paper and cardboard
Richard Whadcock photographed Coastal Break, an oil on paper painting. If you prime these surfaces first, paper and cardboard perform even easier for oil painting than you would think.
For short and simple sketches, you’ll probably use paper and cardboard, taking advantage of the slightly absorbent properties of the paper that enable the paint to dry quickly.
However, given how quickly thin paper will buckle when prepared, you shouldn’t use just any old paper for the job. As a result, I recommend purchasing a good-quality, heavy watercolour paper, or even dedicated oil sketching paper that has already been specially prepared and is normally sold in pads.
This is a good example.
This latter form of paper isn’t for everybody, as it can be almost as unpleasant to deal with as the less expensive canvas boards I described earlier. Others, on the other hand, are freed by a surface that does not make them feel obligated to preserve it in the highest possible state.
Canvases and Panels I’ve Painted On
To explain my thinking and see how you can recognise, let’s begin with a brief history of my painting surfaces – and some of their benefits and drawbacks.
I worked on canvas – both cotton and linen – through most of the 1980s and 1990s.
My father is the most professional stretcher and preparer of lead primed linen I’ve ever seen. I have two canvases from the 1980s that I have yet to see. They traveled from Montana to Idaho, Utah, California, Colorado, and finally Indiana. They’ve never sagged or wrinkled in the corners for any reason. They’re still as strong as a drum.
He stretched this canvas in 1989. With rabbit skin scaling, he followed the Ralph Meyer method. Once the lead primer had dried out, he painted a wash of color over the ground to prepare the canvas for painting.
A linen canvas that has been historically primed with lead. Preparing canvases was something I hated because it took time away from drawing.
I was miserable stretching the canvas, packing rabbit skin glue and lead primer, and then waiting for it to dry (experts often recommend waiting 6 months to a year to let a lead primed canvas dry). Then I double-checked that nothing was leaning against the canvas that could cause dents or tears.
I used an oil primer to get around the long drying time. Rabbit skin glue was also used to cover the canvas, but it dried in about a week. The gases were the real issue here. During a session to prime some months’ worth of canvases, I had to wear a respirator for two or three days.
You know how much I despise having to deal with poisonous gases!
It was possible to buy the canvases ready-made, but I never saw any that were as well-made as my father’s or my own. To get the corners of commercial canvases close, those wooden pegs (keys) still seemed to be needed.
Then two things happened in the mid-’90s.
First, I read an article in which a museum conservator said that acrylic emulsion ‘gesso’ is superior to oil primer for oil paints because it is lightweight and does not require moisture-absorbing rabbit skin glue. It’s also non-toxic, since there are no fumes.
Second, for smaller plein air experiments, I experimented with several wooden panels. As compared to stretched canvas, I fell in love with the ease and sturdy feel.
12 inch Baltic birch plywood appeared to be the perfect option after reading books and speaking with other artists. Because of the oils that were used early in Masonite’s development, many artists were hesitant to use it. It was also so smooth that the gesso didn’t really stick well.
I do have a few sketches that were drawn on plywood in the 1990s and early 2000s. They’re all in excellent condition.
The drawing below was completed entirely in Rye, Colorado. It’s not a brilliant painting, which is why I still have it, but it’s kept up well over time.
Bill Inman’s oil painting plein air research Greenhorn Creek 810 was completed in the mid-1990s.
The Baltic birch plywood had one significant flaw. When I used a table saw to cut it, the edges would always crack. I tried everything my carpenter friends suggested, including putting masking tape on the place I wanted to carve. Nothing seemed to help.
The drawing below was originally larger, but I wanted to scale it down. It had chipped all the way to the top of the lip. It was a decent choice for playing with because it wasn’t a keeper drawing. I didn’t do that in any of my valuable paintings.
Painting on 12 inch Baltic birch plywood that chipped after table saw cutting.
I’m sure there are simple solutions for the chipping dilemma that can be found on YouTube now, but it was a massive failure at the moment.
Then, in the early 2000s, lumberyards began importing Baltic birch plywood from China instead of Russia. The plywood’s resins had degraded to the point that the panels were warping wildly. Painting panels made of Baltic birch were no longer available.
Someone suggested MDF at that stage.
Which surfaces have given you the best results, or that you would like to try?
Whatever your preferences are when looking over the help solutions above, there’s only one way to find out which one is better for you: consider them all, or at least a decent percentage of them.
Even then, multiple oil paintings will almost certainly need different supports, so there is unlikely to be a single surface that will always be the best option in any case.
What are your opinions on the right oil painting surfaces? Do you have any personal favorites or ones that you are really excited to try? If that’s the case, please tell me more about it in the comments section below.