Oil Painting Surface

How to Choose a Surface for Oil Painting

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There are lots of options when it comes to choosing an oil painting surface. There’s a whole world beyond the classic cotton canvas.

You can find high quality painting supports at amazing value. Or you can get creative by choosing something to make your work stand out. 

Many surfaces provide a decent guard for the painting film and they will last, as long as you prepare the surface so the paint binds properly. 

I’ll run through the different types of surfaces available to oil painters, how durable they are and different products you can buy. I’ll also delve into how your choice of surface can affect the painting process and the look of the finished piece.

Paper

Paper is great for oil sketches. Many artists use it to plan larger works or experiment with colour and composition.

Paper is a good option for beginners who are just getting to grips with how to use oil, as it’s the cheapest surface you can find for oil painting and therefore the best to practise on.

Although paper isn’t the most hardy oil painting surface you could choose, paper specifically made for oil paint is different to other papers. It’s incredibly thick, like card and tough. 

Oil painting paper is designed to absorb binder and solvent evenly, leaving pigment at the surface. No surface preparation is required if you use oil painting paper.

If you paint on paper that isn’t designed for oils without preparing the surface properly first, the paper will become dark and the fibres brittle. It will begin to deteriorate as the oil oxidises on the surface. Normal paper is way too absorbent for painting with oils, most of the oil and pigment will become lost beneath the surface, creating a dull effect. Oil paint can also flake straight off the surface if the oil has been absorbed and there is not enough binder left.

You can paint on other paper, for example watercolour with oils, just make sure the paper is thick enough and prime it (both sides) first.

Paper is one of the least durable surfaces, but you can change this by preserving your work and keeping it properly.

If you’re concerned with the longevity of the work you produce on paper, it is possible to varnish it and mount it beneath glass to make it archival. This is the best varnish for the job. Wait until your painting is dry and firm, then apply the varnish with a brush.

Our product picks

High Quality Option: Arches paper, is good quality and therefore on the expensive side. The paper is thick and made from cotton. The paper fibres are protected against the oxidisation of the drying oils. The absorbency is good—so you don’t have to worry about paint running if you’re using thin turpentine washes, for example. 

Good Value Option: If you’re looking to minimise costs but want relative quality from your oil painting surface, this Daler Rowney pad is a good option. It’s double primed, has a texture like linen and is relatively inexpensive. It’s not as thick as the Arches option, however.

Canvas

Canvases can be bought in different formats and in an array of fabrics.

The ready-made ‘stretched and primed’ format, is most artists’ preferred way of buying a canvas. Getting a canvas that has been prepared in a factory saves a lot of time and hassle—it means you can pretty much just paint straight onto it.

Many artists opt to stretch and prime their canvas themselves, however, as it gives them more control over their final product—they can make their canvases any size they want and be sure that the quality of the stretching and priming is as good as they can make it.

The two main fibre types that are used to make artists’ canvases are cotton and linen (which is made from flax). 

Cotton 

This fabric is inexpensive and flexible. The flexibility makes it easy to stretch, but it can work against you if you are painting on a larger scale, as the surface won’t be taut enough to apply pressure without the fabric moving. 

Cotton has a noticeable weave and is quite thick, so if you paint on without extra priming and sanding of the surface, your painting will have a textured appearance to it and you’ll have to use bristle brushes to work the colour into the surface.

Our product picks

High Quality Option: If you’re looking to sell your work, it’s best to get archival quality materials. These Winsor and Newton professional canvases. The frames are tested for warp resistance and you can adjust the tension of the cotton yourself.

Best Value Option: Arteza provide a huge range of sizes of cotton canvas that are good quality despite the price point. See here.

Linen

If you want to paint on a fabric that provides the most stable surface, then linen is the best option. 

Linen has better archival properties than cotton. With changes in temperature and humidity, cotton will expand and contract a lot more than linen, which can cause paint on the surface to crack. 

Linen canvases are more expensive than cotton, as they are considered the golden standard for artists to paint on. They are also more expensive because there are more steps involved in processing the flax fibres and weaving the fibres into a fabric.

Just look at the paintings by the Dutch painters in the 17th century, they are mostly painted on linen and their works have stood the test of time. 

Because linen is pretty rigid, this is the fabric to go with if you are working on a large scale.

Our product pick

High Quality and Great Value: Winsor and Newton canvases are made from premium flax and are incredibly sturdy. Outstanding care has gone into producing these canvases—and their price point is low considering.

Wood

Oil painters around the world have been painting on wood for centuries. It was the go-to surface for many of the old masters.

It was during the Renaissance period when the first canvases were made, that artists began to stray away from wood. Canvases fast became a popular surface as they were more lightweight and easier to transport.

Regardless of this, wood is a great alternative to canvas. It’s rigid and smooth, it’s often less expensive and it just feels amazing to paint onto. There’s something about painting on wood that feels natural.

If you include a lot of fine detail in your paintings, wood is a good option. Its smooth surface means that soft brushes suited for detail work won’t get lost in the canvas weave.

The rigidity of the wood is a very important factor. If the surface can’t bend, the paint film won’t crack in the same way that it can with canvas. If you can anticipate your painting might be subjected to casual damage (i.e. you’re not storing it away somewhere and you’re displaying it in a high traffic area) then wood panel might be a better option.

That’s not to say it’s totally indestructible. It comes with its own disadvantages and these can vary depending on which wood you choose. It’s worth reading on so you can make an informed decision about what’s right for you.

Solid wood

A solid wood panel is pretty much unbeatable when it comes to painting.

Wood that is well seasoned and has been dried in a kiln will have a low equilibrium of moisture content. This is preferable for painters. It’s advised to leave your painting panel in your studio for a week or so before you start priming it. This way the wood can adjust to the temperature and humidity. of the room you are painting in.

Hardwoods are preferable for painting, as they hold the paint better. Woods such as poplar, oak, basswood, walnut, cedar.

Genuine mahogany is the best wood you can use for painting. Mahogany is resistant to rot, insect damage and is incredibly stable, it has a low T/R ratio and a unique structure of interlocking rings that makes it resistant to warping.

You can have wood specially cut for your paintings by a carpenter, ask for quarter-sawn wood as the grain on the front and back of the plank will be the same. 

Plywood

Plywood is easy to find in any hardware or art store and it is inexpensive. You will also find ‘cradled wood panels’ commercially sold as artist’s painting panels, these are usually made from baltic birch.

Plywood panels are made of multiple layers of wood veneer, thinly sliced and glued together, with the grain direction of each ply running perpendicular to the adjacent slice. This makes the surface resistant to volumetric shrinkage.

Our product picks

Ampersand Gessobord panels have been primed in the factory, saving you the job of gesso-ing yourself. 

These unprimed basswood panels from Ampersand provide a rigid support for oil paint. They are also cradled, so they give your painting depth.

Metal

Working on metal has advantages over wood panel and canvas. As well as providing a luminosity that can’t be achieved whilst painting on other surfaces, it provides a more durable painting support that doesn’t warp.

If you like to paint on a surface which is 100% smooth, with no absorbance, metal is a good choice. The paint flow will not be stopped by the weave of the canvas.

Copper

Copper has been used as a painting support since the Renaissance. The vibrancy and colours of these old works have not degraded over time.

Artists would even leave part of the metal exposed, so over time the metal would oxidise and show a patina.

When working on copper, it doesn’t matter which thickness you choose as you can mount it after painting.

It’s important to prepare copper properly before painting on it. Firstly sand it using very fine sandpaper. Then clean it using methylated spirit to wipe off the dust with a lint-free cloth. Make sure you wear gloves and ventilate the room before using methylated spirit as the fumes are toxic.

Our product pick

Copper etching plates make for brilliant oil painting supports, see here.

Aluminium

Just like copper, this surface is great for artists who like to paint on a hard, smooth, non-absorbent surfaces. It’s better for your brushes too, as it means you don’t have to scrub them to work on rough textures.

Rigid, lightweight and luminous, aluminium is a stable conservation quality surface. It doesn’t react to changes in the environment like wood or canvas do.

You don’t have to prime aluminium panels, as the paint will adhere to them just fine the way they are.

When painting on aluminium, make sure to work with lots of binder. Don’t apply paint that has been thinned with turpentine. This is to give the paint the best chance of adhering to the surface.

Aluminium suits very fluid paint, find out how to alter the consistency of your paint with a medium.

Our product pick

Jackson’s stock their own brand of aluminium panels in various sizes. 

Have you found your perfect oil painting surface?

If you’ve found a surface that you think will suit your style of oil painting, then try it out. You will have a completely different experience painting on wood than you will metal or canvas. Just make sure you’re properly equipped with the mediums and brushes that best suit the surface you have chosen.

Finally

If you’re just beginning on your oil painting journey and you’re not quite sure what supplies to get, start with this beginner’s guide. It’ll teach you about all the tools and materials you need to start oil painting and give you valuable advice on how to use the supplies to get the best results.

If you’re looking to stock up on some painting supplies, check out our art store.

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