Unlike watercolor, there’s a huge array of surfaces you can use for oil paintings.
Anything you can slap a coat or two of gesso on is a likely target for a starving artist.
Extreme Painting Surfaces are a topic we’ll discuss later, but for now we’ll discuss the typical types of supports that are used by most artists.
A Little Art History
Historically, many famous oil paintings were created on wood panels. In 1434, Jan Van Eck painted the 32.3 × 23.4 inch ‘The Arnolfini Wedding’ on a wooden panel.
‘The Raising of the Cross,’ by Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens is a triptych painted on wooden panels and completed in 1611. This commanding work is 182 × 134 inches.
The famous Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, is a modest 30 x 20 inches in diameter and was completed in 1519.
One of America’s most famous paintings, ‘American Gothic’ by Grant Wood, was painted on beaverboard in 1930. This celebrated painting is a mere 29¼ × 24½ inches.
Although you may not realize it, wood was probably the more prevalent painting support, and many of the works you thought were painted on stretched canvas are very possibly painted on a wooden panel.
Traditionally, we think of oil paintings on canvas, and today this is probably the most popular and accepted support for an oil painting. Linen, cotton and polyester are all used to create canvases, which are available in an almost unlimited number of sizes, shapes and varieties.
Technology has come along with some alternatives to wooden panels and stretched canvas. Canvas board and canvas pads are available at art supply sources and are inexpensive, highly portable and available in many sizes.
Since wood was historically the first support used for oil paintings, we’ll begin our discussion with wooden panels. However, we’ll discuss current trends and methods of using wooden panels and leave past practices to the art historians.
Several types of panels are convenient and easy to use for oil paint supports. Masonite, clear plywood and hardwoods are all useful supports. Art supply sources have ready-to-use varieties, or you can construct your own. These products come in lots of standard sizes, including round and oval shapes. They are available in a wide range of prices and qualities.
Natural Maple Panels
Maple hardwood panels are engineered for strength that far surpasses that of a solid piece of wood. Furniture grade maple is laminated over a hardwood core. This method of construction ensures minimal warping and cracking. There are three styles of this product available.
Uncradled panels are ½-inch thick with a keyhole slot for hanging. These panels hang flush to the wall.
Cradled panels have a one-inch thick framework mounted to the back. This provides for stability for larger size panels and minimizes warping. The added depth also allows easy mounting in a standard frame, or gives a thicker, more substantial look to pieces hung without frames.
Rounds are 3/4-inch thick panels that are cut into perfect circles for specialty and novelty paintings. They have a keyhole slot on the back for hanging.
Prepared gessoed panels are available in lots of sizes and take the mundane work out of preparing a panel for painting. These 1/8-inch thick hardwood panels are acid and formaldehyde free, so your work is there, in all its glory, for generations.
Exotic Hardwood Panels
If the material used to create art impresses your clientele, you can purchase laminated panels made of exotic hardwoods. An MDF core is laminated with a veneer of zebra wood, mahogany, lacewood, bamboo or purple heart. This product is costly, so put it on your bucket list for a time when you garner clients that are willing to pay the big bucks for your masterpieces.
Technically, bamboo is a grass. However, this wood-like product is a rapidly renewable product that has a dense grain and is environmentally friendly. The adhesive used to construct this panel is archival quality, PH-neutral and acid-free.
The panels are cradled and vary in thickness according to size. Again, this is a pricey support, but going green is not always the cheapest route to environmentally friendly art.
Build Your Own Panels
If you decide to paint on wooden panels, preparing your own supports is certainly the most inexpensive method. You can purchase tempered or untempered Masonite at any home improvement store and have it cut to size, or use a power saw to cut it yourself. Although it is more costly, furniture grade plywood is also available.
Tempered wood is created with oil to keep it from warping. This oil can leach into your painting, so it’s very important to properly gesso and prime the wood. Untempered wood is a little less dense and more absorbent, but it does not have additives that would damage your painting. The panels are available in 1/8-inch and ¼-inch thicknesses.
If you’re creating a really large painting, you may need to secure the back with bracing to prevent warping. For smaller works, you can gesso and seal both sides of the panel to maintain a flat profile.
You should use three good coats of gesso or primer on your wood panel. This ensures that you have a bright, white surface on which to paint. Lightly sand between the coats of gesso if you want a glass-like surface or add texture to your support by leaving the gesso unsanded.
Most of us have imagined standing in front an easel. A warm beam of light illuminates the gleaming white expanse of canvas as we let fly our paints in a flurry of artistic fervor. However, in the real world, you may just put a cloth tarp on the kitchen floor so you won’t make a mess before the cook needs the kitchen to start supper. Either way, painting on a stretched canvas makes you feel like you’re a ‘Real Artist.’
If you don’t paint a great deal or have the wherewithal to build your own, commercially prepared canvases are a simple way to jump right into painting. Canvases are made of cotton, linen or synthetic material and can be purchased in primed or unprimed versions.
These supports are available in different weights of cloth, a wide variety of sizes and can have depths from 5/8-inch to 2-3/8-inches. There is a considerable price range, which is dependent on the manufacturer and individual features. Make sure to figure shipping costs if you are not buying your canvas locally.
Build Your Own Canvases
Constructing your own canvas support is a fair amount of work, you need some woodworking skills, and it takes time away from painting. Building your own canvases is far more economical than buying commercially made supports, and if you plan to do a lot of painting, it’s worthwhile your effort to learn the craft.
The supplies aren’t costly, so you don’t have a big investment tied up in your project. You’ll need primed or unprimed canvas, stretcher bars, staple gun, rubber mallet, carpenter’s square and canvas pliers. Start out with smaller sized canvases to learn and master your new skill.
Once you’ve built your stretched canvas, it’s time to prepare it for painting. Canvas needs both sizing and ground before it’s ready to paint. Sizing isolates the canvas from the ground and paint. It protects the cloth fibers from the absorption of the acidic oils in the paint, which can erode and rot the fibers. The ground is the layer on which the artist paints. Ground is also known as primer or gesso.
Traditionally, sizing was made of rabbit skin glue. Today, many artists opt for Poly Vinyl Acetate glue, which is commonly known as PVA sizing. This is a superior product and has none of the problems associated with rabbit skin glue, which can absorb moisture, swell or shrink.
Once you’ve sized your canvas, you will complete your preparation with the application of a ground. Gesso is an acrylic-based product that is non-acidic and Ph neutral. An artist should apply several coats of gesso to give the support an absorbent surface with sufficient tooth to ensure maximum bonding of the paint.
You may sand the gesso between coats to create a smooth, texture-free painting surface. If you want to start your painting with a textured surface, you can skip sanding between layers. Gesso can be tinted to create a pre-colored painting surface.
Alternative Canvas-Covered Supports
Canvas Pads are simply sheets of linen or cotton cloth that have been primed, cut to a uniform size, made into a pad similar to a notepad and are ready to paint. This is great for beginners, as they are very inexpensive. Pads are also useful for on-the-go artists. Successful paintings can be permanently glued to a wooden panel for mounting. The canvas sheets should be stapled or tacked to a surface for painting.
Canvas boards are also very inexpensive. They are made from canvas glued to cardboard, which is then primed and ready to paint. These boards are perfect for a student, as they are easy to transport to class, come in many standard sizes and are easy to frame. They do tend to buckle and warp, so completed paintings should be well mounted in a frame.
Extreme Painting Surfaces
If you envision your paintings lasting for generations, you should stick to tried-and-true supports with proper preparation to ensure longevity. However, if you’re into experimenting with the effects of paint on non-standard supports, you may be interested in trying a few unusual materials.
Now let’s look at different types of Metal Supports…
If you want to paint on sheet metal, the surface needs proper preparation. It needs to be clean and rust free. The surface also needs to be primed with a rust inhibitor to prevent future rust ruining the surface of the painting.
Although aluminum doesn’t rust, it does form an oxide layer when exposed to the atmosphere. It should be primed to create a good bonding between the metal and the paint layers.
Copper has been used for hundreds of years as an oil paint support. If prepared properly, it is certainly an archival surface on which to paint.
Glue a sheet of copper to MDF board, which will give it a rigid support. Sand the surface with fine-grade sandpaper. Wear gloves so your skin oils do not come in contact with the copper. Clean the surface with denatured alcohol.
Now the interesting part begins. Use freshly sliced cloves of garlic to etch the surface of the copper. The garlic juice makes a chemical bond possible between the copper and the lead-based paint or primer you will use.
You may choose to prime your panel with lead-based primer or paint directly on the copper. If you choose to paint without primer, use lead-based paint in the early stages of the painting to allow the chemical interaction to take place. This ensures the paint will permanently adhere to the support.
Marble And Slate
Both marble and slate make interesting and unique supports for painting. After cleaning the surfaces thoroughly and removing any oils with denatured alcohol, prime the painting surface with acrylic gesso.
Paintings on oddly shaped stone surfaces may be suspended from a cord or leather strap looped through holes drilled near the top of the rock slab. Straight-cut square or rectangular slabs can be mounted in standard framing.
As you can see, there are many alternatives for oil painting supports. If you are doing studies, practicing or doing paintings that are to be used for a short time period, feel free to use any flat surface.
However, when you’re wringing blood, sweat and tears from your psyche in an attempt to create a masterpiece, it pays to use a support that will stand the test of time.
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