Painting On Metal

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Using an alternative support for painting can be an inventive experience and one that can open up creative doors.

Using a new support takes research to determine what type of materials will work best. There may be issues of permanence, chemical interaction or bonding ability.

Using metal as a support is an option a number of artists are using to expand their work into new avenues.

What Metal To Choose

Consider the final use of the piece. If it will remain indoors, there are few problems using any metal. However, if the piece will be exposed to the elements, steel will be a challenge. Rusting is a normal process of ferrous metal, and it should be sealed to prevent rust from damaging or destroying the artwork.

Other metals, such as brass or copper, tarnish with exposure to oxygen. Consider physical properties when selecting a metal surface.

Preparing The Surface

Metal must be thoroughly cleaned before painting. Sand or use a wire brush to remove loose materials. Clean the surface to remove any dirt, oil or grease, and thoroughly dry.

After cleaning, the surface may need further attention. The artist can sand the piece, roughening the surface for better paint adhesion. The surface could also be wiped with a mild acidic solution of vinegar and water, which acts to etch the surface to prepare it for paint. There are also self-etching primers available that can be applied before painting the surface.

Golden Paints

Golden Paints, as well as several other manufacturers produce priming medium specifically formulated for non-porous surfaces such as metals. These products will improve the permanence of the artist’s work, and ensure the metal substrate will not alter the paint’s appearance.

After applying metal primer, apply two coats of gesso. Although non-ferrous metals can be coated with only gesso, it is advisable to use a primer on all metals to make them more receptive to the gesso and paint.

Non-ferrous metals are metals that do not contain iron. They can be coated with gesso directly, but it is not recommended. Non-ferrous metals include tin, brass, aluminum and copper. Use two coats of gesso before painting.

Ferrous metals contain iron. These metals include stainless steel and wrought iron. They require a protective primer between the metal and gesso for rust prevention. The primer should contain rust inhibitors to prevent rust forming under the surface of the artwork, as this would cause paint bubbling.

Paints And Metal Surfaces

Below are some Brands and Types of Paint that work best on Metal Surfaces.

Artist’s Oil Paint

Artist’s Oil Paints work well with metal. Make sure the surface is well cleaned and primed. Oil is a good choice for steel, as it does not add to the rusting problem that is characteristic of ferrous materials.

Acrylic Paints

Acrylic Paints can also be used successfully with many metal paints. It should not be used on steel or other ferrous metals unless the surface is primed and gessoed. Since it is water based, the water will cause rusting to those surfaces.


Hammerite Paints and other manufacturers produce rust encapsulating paints, which may be used over rusted areas. These types of paints are available in both liquid and spray formulations.

The artist may use tube paints and standard artist’s brushes, spray paints or airbrush. If spray paint or airbrush paints are used, there should be adequate ventilation in the studio, as the chemicals and odors can be not only noxious, but toxic as well. When working with any kind of spray, it is important to protect the painting from over-spray. Mask off any area not being painted to prevent any paint mist or drops falling on unwanted spaces. Freckles may not be the look the artist is going for.

Topcoat Or Not

Some painted metallic surfaces may need an additional coating to preserve the paint. Consider clear waterproof finishes for those pieces that may be exposed to the elements. Two coats of acrylic or polyurethane topcoat will seal the finish. Paintings that are not exposed to weather will be less likely to become damaged, but a top coat or sealer is always a good idea to maximize the life of the artwork.

Acrylic and polyurethane top coats are available in different finishes, so the artist can have a choice of the amount of sheen or gloss he prefers for his painting.

Whichever medium the artist chooses, he will be painting on a non-porous surface. That is the only real caveat. Treat the process more like a work on Masonite, rather than on paper or canvas. Aside from the preparation, the work should progress just as the artist normally paints.

Painting on metal can take many paths. It can be decorative painting on household objects, or artistic endeavors on found objects from a junkyard or garage. A metal sculptor may wish to embellish his piece with paint.

An artist is always in search of new and inspiring methods and mediums, and painting on metal may be the start of a new journey.

2 thoughts on “Painting On Metal

  1. Thank you for this article. Absolute novice but the Junior Church have created a logo and we are going to attempt to paint it on a metal backing and attach to the Church Wall outside. Much of your info. will be a great help to us.

    In His Love, Rev. Jennie w. & Junior Church Gang

  2. Awesome article,. I would have gone ahead and painted on steel without primer if it wasn’t for reading this! Will be getting some Hammerite primer and Gesso.

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