Canvas (requires a coating of Gesso)
Painting on canvas is simply convention and was initiated around the 16th century because it was cheaper to produce than traditional wood panels, and also easier to transport. One of the reasons some artists continue to paint on canvas is simply because the art buying public has an embedded mythology as to what constitutes a real painting that they would be willing to purchase. And if isn’t on canvas it must not be a real painting. It makes sense in terms of sales but not in terms of product durability. A fashionable term among the elite artists is ‘achievability’ (shelf life). Will time eventually erode the product? The longevity of canvas is affected by many variables. To begin with canvas is cloth made of cotton or linen. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that plain old cloth without some sort of treatment, such as the application of Gesso, is not going to withstand the ravages of time. However, It will not prevent insects from eating away at the canvas from the backside of the painting.
Purchasing canvas can be an expensive part of painting if you insist on buying it in an art supply store. Go to Wal Mart…lots of size selection in their arts and crafts section and very reasonably priced. It comes pre-framed and is coated with an acrylic based Gesso. Gesso is necessary on all porous painting surfaces to prevent the paint from leaching through the material.
Wood framed canvas can easily warp but it is readily available in just about any art or craft store and just about any size you want.
Hard Board (requires a coating of Gesso)
You can purchase this in precut sizes online such as Dick Blick or Mr. Art or you can buy a large sheet from any large building supply store such as Home Depot or Lowes and cut the sizes you want. Like canvas it must be coated with Gesso prior to use. Hard board is very susceptible to warping. One trick to prevent warping from the application of Gesso (Gesso is wet and soaks into the board) is to apply it to both the front and back. Hard board has an advantage over canvas in that it is a smooth surface whereas the weave of canvas makes it rough (you can get it in very smooth grade but still rough compared to hardboard).
You can purchase pre Gessod hard board on line at Dick Blicks
An excellent discussion of using hardboard can be found at
Note on Gesso: Gesso comes in various grits and color. It is very messy and requires a bit of practice in getting an even coat. A smooth sponge roller is a must for applying Gesso. No beginner should be attempting this process. If you use Canvas or Hardboard get it pre Gessoed.
Acrylic Panel (Does not require Gesso)
Most people recognize the trade name of acrylic panels as Plexiglas. An acrylic (transparent thermoplastic) panel is impervious to warping resulting from changes of humidity and temperature and has a shelf life that is beyond measurement. It comes in thin gauge of .080 and .093 . I have found that the .093 gauge is a better choice because it will not buckle if you lean the painting against a wall. Acrylic if dropped on its edge on a hard surface will crack. It will not break if it falls flat on its surface. There is a product that looks similar to acrylic with a trade name of Lexan. It is three times the cost of acrylic but nearly indestructible no matter how you drop it.
I have painted on wood panels, hardboard and canvas and now paint exclusively on acrylic panels. It does not require gesso, can be purchased in any hardware store, is light weight compared to wood panels or hardboard (it is heavier than canvas), and will not warp such as the wood framing for holding canvas. And the surface is smooth which allows for greater clarity and detail in the painting. The major advantage of an acrylic panel is that it is easy to correct errors. Trying to scrape paint off of canvas can be a nightmare and often results in damage to the canvas.
Oil paint does not have a chemical bond with an acrylic base and therefore does have a risk of pealing. I have never had this happen. The simple fact is that if you use commercial Gesso it is acrylic based, therefore most artists doing oil painting are putting oil paint on an acrylic base.
Painting on top of the acrylic Primer requires a bit of patience. If you just slam thick paint onto the primer you really are weakening any mechanical bond. Build your painting up slowly with Lean paint first. Each layer of lean should be thoroughly dry before applying the next layer. The painting must be well planned. Once a solid foundation is built up of a few layers of lean paint you can then start using paint directly out of the tube or mixing a media into the paint. A simple approach is to prep the panel with a few layers of one light color (such as Payne’s Grey mixed with Zinc White) of lean and paint. Use a cross hatch in applying the paint (making 3 to 4 inch X’s instead of horizontal or vertical strokes).
How to prepare the Acrylic Panel:
- Remove plastic cover sheet off of both sides
- Gently sand both sides with a 120 grit paper (use circular motion using a sanding block or orbital sander).
- You can cover the panel with Gesso if you want a rough surface but it is not necessary. Since Gesso is acrylic based it will have no problem bonding to the panel.
- Paint one side with Rust-Oleum 2x Flat White Primer (acrylic based)
- Paint one side with Rust-Oleum Flat Dark (red etc.) color Primer (acrylic based). The dark color on one side is necessary to eliminate any transparency.
- When completely dried (24 hours) VERY LIGHTLY sand the white primer with 120 grit paper
- Prep the panel with a few layers of very lean paint . Mix a light color such as Payne’s Grey mixed with Zinc White and a liberal amount of mineral spirits (it should look vey pale..nearly an off white and have a sort of soupy consistency) . And apply with a # 10 Grumbacher Goldenedge Flat brush. What you want to do is use a cross hatch in applying the paint (making 3 to 4 inch X’s instead of horizontal or vertical strokes). What you want to do is have only very fine barely perceptible brush lines.
- It is now ready for painting.
Example of painting on an Acrylic Panel 18x 24
Red’s Rest by S. Rocco Campanella 2012
If you are a professional artist with many paintings sold and in process then Archivability becomes an important issue. The primary reason being that the ‘art community’ has developed standards which are considered useful for maintaining the integrity of canvas over time. The standards have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of decay. For starters canvas is cloth: yep and cloth is a prime food source for some insects. But doesn’t Gesso save a painting from that demise? Nope: insects will eat trough the back of the canvas. The only way to actually test archivability of a painting is to wait 500 years and see what happens to it. So why all the fuss over this? It’s a money issue. Professional artists are in fierce completion with each other for the limited funds available from individuals willing to purchase a painting. In order to keep out the rift raft standards are devised which are costly and consequently keep a lot of people out of the game. It really is that simple.
For the beginner, chasing after the mythical concept of archivavility (not even a real word) is a pointless pursuit. You may have visions of your work hanging in the Louvre after you are dead but the chances of that happening are astronomical. Forget archivability and just paint. Hell, paint on a rock if it makes you happy.
A common problem for the beginner is selection of size of the painting. Well the simple truth is that smaller is better for the beginner. I usually paint on an acrylic panel 18″ x 24″ because it is the common size found in hardware stores and also fits perfectly into an inexpensive plastic 18″ x 24″ poster frame.
Note on poster frames: do not attempt to hang a painting using the hanging clips that are attached to the cardboard on the back of the poster. They will tear lose! Thread picture wire through the cardboard. Mark two spots with a pencil…push the point of the pencil through the cardboard. Run a wire all the way around the holes. Twist the ends together on the outside and not the side against the panel.