Many artists and crafters choose to use acrylic paint on wood as their go-to medium and surface combination. This is because acrylic paint works wonderfully on wooden surfaces.
Wood feels amazing to paint onto and the results can be pretty striking. Acrylic paint on wood not only looks great, but stands the test of time when applied properly.
There are a variety of types of wooden surfaces you can choose to paint on with acrylic. In this guide I will go through the different types of wooden surfaces you can paint on, which types of acrylic paint you can use with wood, how to prepare and treat your materials so that your artwork lasts and give some other essential pointers so that you can feel equipped before starting your artwork.
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What are the benefits of painting on wood?
Wood is a naturally smooth surface with very little texture, if you sand the wood first and prepare it properly.
This means that you can work in ultra fine detail if you choose. With a lack of surface texture, your brush won’t drag. In contrast, achieving fine detail on a textured cotton canvas can be tricky, when a fine detail brush can often get obscured by the weave of threads. For many artists who enjoy painting realism, wood is their surface of choice.
Another great thing about wood is that it is relatively inexpensive. It comes in different shapes, forms and sizes and types. Different types of wood will come at different price points. For example, if you get a custom made, large, museum quality hard wood panel that has been cradled, it will likely be quite expensive. But getting a smaller hardboard panel will come cheaper than canvas.
Acrylic paint is completely compatible with wood. Paint adheres to the surface and cannot be removed easily, meaning that your artwork won’t degrade, peel or crack. Acrylic paint on wood appears vibrant and doesn’t change its appearance over time.
It improves the appearance and quality of the artwork too. Many people prefer the look and feel of wood over other surfaces.
What types of wooden surfaces can you use with acrylic paint?
You can paint with acrylics on pretty much all types of wood. I’ll give you some more details about pre-made artist grade surfaces so you know how to spot better quality surfaces for your artwork.
If you want to go down the route of making your own painting panels (or having them custom made by a woodworker), I’ll give you some tips on the types of wood to select to get the best results.
For hobby artists and crafters, I’ll give some advice for painting on alternative surfaces like furniture and other accessories.
Artists' wooden panels
Pre-made artists’ wooden panels are those that are cut and treated by a manufacturer. Some come primed and ready to paint onto. This is convenient for most artists who don’t want to spend the extra time or money on getting their panels made themselves.
One thing to note is that the manufacturers most often make their panels in plywood, MDF or hardboard. So if you want to paint on solid wood, it’s best to go to your local woodworker, carpenter or hardware store to get that done to your specifications.
Pre-made wooden panels you can get from brands in an art store will be gallery quality and come in a huge range of sizes to choose from. There aren’t any drawbacks in painting on hardboard, plywood or MDF compared to solid wood, it’s really just down to personal preference.
Primed wooden panels
These are also called Gesso panels. Check that the panels have been primed with an acrylic or ‘universal’ primer. A very small number of panels will be ‘oil primed’. These are made for oil painters and cannot be used with acrylic paint. The information will be on the product listing or the label of the product.
The great thing about primed panels, aside from the fact that you can start painting on them straight away, is that they are usually sprayed with gesso. A spray coating gives an incredibly even finish. Sometimes when you brush gesso on yourself, some brush marks may be visible when you start painting if you haven’t sanded it thoroughly.
There are many types of primed wooden panels available to artists, here are our top product picks.
Ampersand Gessobord Panels
Ampersand Gessobord are archival quality surfaces made with artist grade hardboard and primed with a quality gesso ground. The surfaces feel smooth as they have been lightly sanded, giving the artist ultimate brush control.
These panels come in a range of different sizes and in cradled and uncradled formats. Cradled panels have a wooden frame attached to the back, which gives them more depth and means that you can hang them straight away without the need for framing. Uncradled panels are flat with no backing.
Ampersand Smooth Primed Panels
These affordable panels come primed with an ultra smooth texture. They also come in cradled and uncradled varieties. The panel itself is made from artist grade MDF and the cradles are made from solid pine.
Unprimed wooden panels
Ampersand stock unprimed panels so you can go and apply gesso yourself. You might buy unprimed panels because they are slightly cheaper or if you want to apply a coloured or colourless gesso. Gesso comes in a clear variety, so if you want the colour and grain of the wood to show through you can buy this and apply it yourself.
Custom made painting panels
You can just pick up a slice of wood and start painting on it, as long as you seal and prime it first. Bear in mind that wood that hasn’t been cut or treated in the correct way can warp and weather over time and will react to different humidities, temperatures and environments. This isn’t too much of a problem when painting with acrylic however, as acrylic paint is flexible so it won’t crack if the surface beneath is expanding and contracting slightly.
However, if you are aiming to create artworks that you want to sell at higher prices, that you also want to stand the test of time, then opt for solid hardwood like oak, poplar, cedar wood, basswood, mahogany or walnut.
You can be specific about the thickness and size of your cut. Wood that has been seasoned and kiln dried is best because it is less reactive to moisture. Ask your woodworker for quarter sawn wood so the grain on the front and back is the same. To my knowledge, there aren’t any art stores that offer this kind of service, you might be able to get wood cut like this at your local hardware store. Or you might have to do an extra search to find a local woodworker who can do this for you. It won’t be cheap getting your wooden panels prepared like this—some artists who sell in the high end luxury art market get their panels made in this way.
When painting on raw or unprimed wood, you will have to seal and gesso it yourself before you can start painting. I’ll teach you how to do that in the following section.
Craft based/ furniture decoration projects
It’s possible to use acrylic paint on wooden items or furniture for craft projects. You might want to customise a table, a bench, a wooden model, or even some outdoor furniture like a birdhouse or garden decoration.
For the best results working on these kinds of wooden surfaces, you should sand the wood first and seal it. I’ll walk through how to do this in the next section. Acrylic paint is a very forgiving medium, titanium white pigment is opaque, so if you make a mistake, you can cover it up. If you’re keeping your craft project outside, you’ll need to seal the artwork with a weatherproof varnish like this one.
How to seal wood before applying acrylic paint
Preparing a wooden panel for acrylic paint is really easy and you will only need a few supplies to do it.
This extra preparation step is only necessary if you are working on raw or unprimed wood. If you’ve bought a primed panel, you won’t have to do this.
Supplies you need to prepare a panel for acrylic paint
Steps to prepare a surface for acrylic paint
Step 1: Seal the wood
Lightly sand the wood first making circular motions. Wipe away the dust with a damp cloth or paper towel.
Brush on a coat of Gac-100 so that the whole piece is covered. Wash your brush in water as it dries quickly. After around 30 minutes it should be dry. Sand the wood, wipe away the dust and apply another layer of Gac-100. Repeat the sanding process so that you have two layers of smooth sealant.
Step 2: Apply Gesso
Once the sealant is dry and sanded, you can start to apply the gesso. Gesso is like a foundation for your painting. It improves adhesion of the paint layers and helps to protect the surface beneath.
Coat your sealed panel with gesso. It takes around 30-40 minutes to dry. When it’s dry, just as you did with the sealant, you should sand it so it’s smooth. You should paint three coats of the gesso on, so just repeat this process twice more. For the final two coats, optionally you can add a small amount of water (a few drops will do) to thin the gesso.
Leave the freshly primed panel for 24 hours to dry properly before applying acrylic paint.
Which acrylic paint is best for working on wood?
As long as your surface has been prepared properly, you can use any type of acrylic paint on wood. I’ve written a more thorough guide reviewing different brands of acrylic paint. However I’ll go over some of the most popular brands here at different qualities and price points.
Broadly, there are two types of acrylic paint, heavy body and soft body. Heavy body paint is thick and viscous in texture. Soft body is runnier, so is better for detail work.
Best budget friendly, student grade acrylic paints
Cheaper acrylic paint is the obvious option for beginner painters and hobbyists. However, manufacturers are only able to make paint at lower price points if they reduce the quality somewhat.
This could mean lower pigment content, or that more expensive pigments are substituted, or that the paint is bulked out with fillers.
When comparing student and professional quality paint, differences in the intensity of colours can be noticeable. However, there are some brands, like Winsor & Newton that make their ‘student grade’, affordable paint range with a relatively high pigment content.
Winsor & Newton Galeria
Compared to other student grade acrylic paint, this range by Winsor & Newton has a high pigment content and starts at £3.20 for a tube. Buying a multipack of paint often brings the price of each individual tube down to much less than that.
Best professional acrylic paint brands
I’ll run through several different options here as professional paint can vary in price and type.
Budget friendly professional paint
Winsor and Newton’s professional range isn’t the highest quality professional acrylic paint, but it is one of the cheapest. The pigment load is high and the drying time is slightly slower than most other brands of acrylic.
Slow drying professional acrylic paint
Golden have formulated Open Acrylics, that have a similar open working time to oils. Paint can take around a day to dry when applied thickly to the canvas. Use this to your advantage to blend the colours for longer.
Heavy body professional acrylic paint
Soft body professional acrylic paint
How does acrylic paint behave on wood?
Here I’ll just go into some of the details about the working properties of acrylic and if they differ when used on wood.
Is the acrylic paint absorbed by the wood?
Acrylic paint won’t be absorbed by wood if you prepare it properly using sealant then gesso.
The sealant creates a barrier between the surface and the paint, making it waterproof. It prevents discolouration of the wood and warping. Gesso provides the wood with better surface adhesion so the paint will stick better.
After you’ve sealed and gessoed the wood, you can layer water thinned acrylic onto the wood without worrying about the surface being damaged beneath.
What is the drying time of acrylic paint on wood?
The ‘open time’ or time that the paint is workable on wood may be ever so slightly longer than paper or even canvas. This is due to the smooth texture and because you’ve created a non-absorbent barrier with the sealant. When painting on paper, some binder and water will be absorbed into the fibres causing it to dry much more quickly.
Depending on the type of acrylic paint you’ve used (some brands dry faster than others), the paint will dry within an hour. Open acrylics will of course take a lot longer to dry.
The benefits of working on a smooth surface
Wood has a smooth surface to it. So you’re much more likely to be able to create long uninterrupted brushstrokes than on canvas or another more textured surface. On canvas with a prominent weave, lines could be obscured by the texture. If you love painting in detail, wood could be your new favourite surface to paint on!
What are some acrylic painting techniques you can use on wood?
There is lots of flexibility with the kinds of techniques you can use when painting on wood.
Choose to apply paint thickly, without the addition of any mediums. Try the impasto technique and use a palette knife to thickly apply paint to your wooden surface.
You could also choose to thin your paint with a runny, transparent acrylic medium and layer thin, transparent glazes on top of one another to achieve fine details.
Another idea is to get a slow drying medium like a fluid retarder, or invest in Golden’s Open Acrylics that slow the drying time of paint so they remain workable for hours at a time. By slowing the drying time, you can blend your paint and create seamless gradients.
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