Busting the Myths of Oil Painting: Supports

An oil painting should be done on canvas, right? Wrong. It can be painted on a whole host of supports and the choice can be baffling. What are the differences between types of canvas? What should a beginner use? What do you use?

I quite like experimenting and reading up about various materials and techniques. So I do spend time asking my fellow artists about their materials, read technical forums about the longevity of a primer or the difference between types of canvas. Of course you don’t always need professional materials. For studies and other stuff that won’t end up on a gallery wall there is as much (perhaps even more) choice in supports. Where do you start?

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Looking Back, oil on stretched linen, 60x50cm

The choice of supports is incredibly large and growing all the time. Which one you choose depends on quite a few things. You might prefer the ‘feel’ of one support over another one.  And that might well depend on how you paint. Some might work with big brushes and heavy paint applications. Others, like me, might work very detailed and with small brushes. Some love the bounce of a stretched canvas, others prefer less movement.

Different brands produce differently canvases, not only in quality and weight but also in texture and priming.

Budget is an important factor of course. Professional linen can be hugely expensive. But there is a vast amount of choice in the student range as well as the professional range so it doesn’t have to be costly if you don’t want it to be. Adding a bit of DIY into the mix will also reduce costs dramatically (stretching your own canvas can save you around 20% of costs). If you can prepare your own support you can save yourself a lot of money. However you prefer to work, the choice of supports is endless. I hope you will find this (by no means comprehensive) list useful.

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Canvas

The word canvas usually refers to primed fabric, stretched onto stretcher bars. The stretcher bars are usually made of wood. The quality of the wood is important as nobody wants their stretched canvas to warp, shrink or expand. Aluminium stretchers are available too which has the advantage that it will not react to the environment.

The fabric used for canvas is often cotton or linen, but can also be jute or polyester.  Priming and stretching can be done in your studio fairly easily but to save yourself time and hassle you could opt for ready-made primed and stretched canvas from an art materials store.

Many shops not only sell stretched canvas direct from the manufacturer but they also offer a stretching service. I find the stretching services from good professional art materials shops much better than the pre-stretched ready-made ones.

Cotton or Linen

Much has been said in the past about the difference between linen and cotton canvas. For a long time people thought that linen is of a better quality and longer lasting than cotton, but most artists would now agree that this is not true.

Linen and cotton are simply different. Cotton is more widely produced so it is cheaper, but by no means is it of less quality for a canvas. The choice between the two is a matter of personal preference. ​

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Two ‘extra fine linen’ canvases from different manufacturers: Claessens on top and Belle Arti below.

Linen canvas has an irregular, natural weave. Cotton has a regular, more bobbly weave. You can buy either in various degrees of coarseness. A coarse or heavy canvas is usually heavier in weight than a fine canvas. A fine canvas has minimal texture and can be almost smooth, while a rough canvas has a very pronounced weave.

The choice of texture in a canvas is partly prescribed by how you paint and which brushes you use. I like to use a lot of very small sable brushes. These brushes are delicate and on a coarse textured canvas they would wear in no time at all. For a coarse canvas you need to use strong brushes.

Linen is more expensive than cotton, but this has little to do with the quality. There is much more cotton canvas on the market than linen, and cheaper student grade canvas is usually cotton. But there is some wonderful, professional quality cotton out there as well.

Cotton is more elastic than linen and so will stretch more beautifully. It is bouncy and will not sag or wave once stretched. Linen, on the other hand, is a bit stiffer and less elastic. It is therefore harder to stretch and if the stretcher or the linen expands or shrinks a tiny bit, the linen will sag or wave and will need re-tightening.  Good stretching methods are vital when working with linen.

Some artists prefer the qualities of linen, others prefer cotton. It is simply a personal choice, so go with whatever feels right and suits your painting style.

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Priming

Most primed canvas comes with a universal primer applied in numerous coats. This primer is an acrylic base which is suitable for painting on in oils and acrylics. It has a varying degree of absorbency which you will notice while painting. Usually it is a little absorbent, which means it will soak up a little bit of the paint, making the paint adhere very well to the support but limiting its ‘spreadability’ (is that even a word?).

Some canvas is available with an oil primer applied, but you can buy oil primers in tins as well, which you can apply over an acrylic universal primer (but not the other way round!) if you like. As the name suggests, oil primers are meant for oil painting only. They create a very smooth and slippery surface to paint on with almost no absorbency whatsoever. This takes some getting used to for some but I personally love it. The paint sits on top of the canvas (while still adhering sufficiently) and it can really bring colours out in their full glory. It is also much easier to move paint around on the canvas on such a smooth surface, which is something that is much harder on an acrylic surface where the canvas is immediately stained by the paint once it is applied. Oil primer or acrylic primer – many brands have their own characteristics and it is a matter of trial and error to find the one you like best.

Alternatively you can buy clear primed canvas – which will show the pale brown canvas through it-  black primed canvas or unprimed canvas. Unprimed canvas must be primed before being painted on as the oil in oil paint will eventually rot the canvas fibres away. So the paint and the fabric must be kept separated by a good size and primer if you want your painting to last at all. You can buy acrylic primers and oil primers in pots and tins. I have used Golden Acrylic Gesso ( a confusing name as it isn’t actually gesso but an acrylic primer) and Roberson’s Oil Primer for many of my paintings. I can’t really go into  sizing and priming as I tend to opt for the time-saving-but-expensive option of the bespoke and ready-made and I only have experience applying primers to already primed stretched canvas. Perhaps one of my readers can give us some details or links to the topic of sizing and priming.

Rigid Surfaces

To avoid oil paint cracking over time it would help if the painting is painted on a rigid surface. Common sense tells us that this goes withouth saying: an oil painting on stretched canvas will undoubtedly move somewhat, either by the slight bounce that a stretched fabric gives, or else by the potential expanding and shrinking of the materials in various circumstances. If we paint on a rigid surface that will not move or react we can remove a very large risk of cracked paint in works of art. Rigid surfaces like alumium or wood therefore are much preferred if longevity is important to you.

​MDF

Many artists love MDF. It is cheap, lightweight, easy to cut and smooth. And generally it is fine to work on primed MDF. Something to keep in mind is the chemical formaldehyde which is present in the resin that keeps the wood fibre together. This chemical is damaging to health and art. However, EU regulations specify that only a very small amount of it is allowed in wood products. From December 2018 the US is also introducing tighter rules on the use of formaldehyde in wood products. Since artists are only using small panels to work on, contrary to being surrounded by the stuff, I do not think we have an awful lot to worry about. Many art shops sell canvas MDF panels ready to paint on.

Wood Panels

Many art shops supply wood panels, often made of plywood or hardwood. Some are unprimed, others are primed with an acrylic primer.  Of course you can make your own easily, but brands like Belle Arti and Ampersand sell wonderful boards with a high quality primer that makes them a pleasure to work on. The gesso boards by Belle Arti are made from poplar panels with a gesso primer. They are very absorbent, but have a decent thickness and are beautifully smooth. Ampersand does gesso boards, made from hardboard with their own special coating. It has a hint of a texture but is pretty smooth. The absorbency is medium and I have only recently discovered this wonderful material. Ampersand claims the boards are completely archival (meaning they will stand the test of time) but the high price might put many artists off.

Metal

How to Prepare A Copper PlateFor Oil Painting
Read this article on Jackson’s Blog

The latest kid on the block in the world of oil painting supports is aluminium. Many artists have found a particular sandwiched panel of aluminium, which is generally used for road signs, to be particularly good for painting on. Dibond is a brand name that makes these panels in huge sheets. They are easily cut to size, fairly lightweight, thin and rigid. To be able to use them as an oil painting support you need to sand the surface with a fine sandpaper, clean it and prime it. I have tested painting on the surface directly, with an oil primer, and with an acrylic primer, and the acrylic primer was by far the best choice. Other artists have found the same results. The adherence is incredibly good.

Another metal that has been used by painters for centuries is copper. It is a beautiful surface to work on and requires next to no preparation as you can paint on it without priming it first (although you may choose to do this, but you will lose the beautiful colour and shine of the material). Copper is quite soft so your panel might need some rigid backing first. All the surface needs is a bit of sanding to create some tooth, a clean and you are ready to go.

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Copper, aluminium and Dibond

If you want to use a rigid support you can opt for primed wood or aluminium. If you prefer the texture of canvas, you can adhere a cotton or linen canvas to a support. This way you can benefit from the rigidity that the support offers as well as enjoy the weave, feel and look of canvas. To apply canvas to a wooden panel always use an archival PVA glue or gel, smear it out with a spatula or brush so that every inch is covered, and place your canvas on it, smoothing out any remaining air bubbles. Turn it upside down and put some heavy books on top and let it dry. When dry, trim the sides of the canvas off with a knife.

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Gluing a piece of hardboard, ready for applying canvas

Large Paintings

Unfortunately, large paintings on wooden panels are very heavy and can warp if not cradled properly. Despite positive results from various tests and trials by artists, aluminium has not been around long enough as an oil painting support to prove to us how it will stand the test of time. So stretched canvas remains the only lightweight option for large paintings that has shown us how it will behave in the future. It might not be ideal, but at least we know what will happen to it. Many artists and collectors also still prefer the traditional texture of canvas, despite its drawbacks.

​My Choice

Most of my paintings are on stretched linen. I do not really like cotton because of its incredibly regular and fairly coarse texture. I do like cottons’ elasticity as stretched cotton rarely sags or waves, a problem that happens with stretched linen much more often.  I prefer a very fine, almost smooth-but-not-quite, linen texture. It must be fine enough for me to paint extremely small details, but I prefer it to have enough texture to give the painting some life and character. I must admit I missed this when I worked on aluminium where every brushstroke from the priming to the final stroke remains visible on the super smooth surface.

​I like the wooden panels made by Ampersand a lot. They are very smooth but do have a very slight texture to it and the absorbency is not too bad. I love oil primed linen as the paint just dances around on top of the canvas, in all its full-colour glory. But I have found oil primed stretched linen to be stiff and have a tendency to sag over time. So I have now settled on an acrylic primed extra fine French linen which I enjoy working on very much. For smaller pieces I use Ampersand Gessobord or linen on MDF/hardboard.

I hope this overview of supports that are generally available here in the UK can be useful to you. Do let me know if you can add anything to the list, if you have experience with a particular support or just want to add some pleasant comment. I look forward to hear about your experiences in the world of painting supports!

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My Self Portrait with Lace Collar was painted on a wooden panel.
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Brabant Lace was painted on a linen canvas with clear priming, I left the linen visible in parts of the painting.
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My painting Red Bride was painted on Dibond aluminium.

Some recommended reading:

33 thoughts on “Busting the Myths of Oil Painting: Supports

  1. A lot of great information…thanks for sharing. I haven’t tried the dibond yet but plan to this year.

  2. Great blog with lots of information – has inspired me to finally try linen. I’ve been buying birch plywood from a timber place, sealing both sides with shellac, and then sanding and priming it. I enjoy the slight texture of the grain and also the rigidity, allowing me to rub back – also want to also try the shop-bought panels now too.

    1. Hi Samantha. Thank you for reading and commenting! I am glad my post made you think about trying out linen. Do try lots of different brands, because they are all so very different!
      I have never worked with shellac but for anyone wondering I found this hopefully helpful link:
      http://www.naturalpigments.com/art-supply-education/shellac-use-art/
      Good luck with trying alternatives. You might well find you like your own the best! I have stuck to shop bought materials. It saves me so much time.
      Thanks again! Sophie

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for stopping by!
      Ah, yes…oil priming is not to everyone’s taste…its like rollerskating with brushes – that’s how slippery it is. MDF is just so incredibly practical. I must admit I am a tad concerned about the formaldehyde in it but on the other hand so many art materials manufacturers and artists use it, so perhaps… ugh. dunno. 😉

  3. Thank you for this – so much helpful information.
    I too am worried about MDF, but do use it now an d again. Some time ago I read about Golden GAC 100 which I suppose is almost the acrylic version of rabbit skin glue. I now use it to coat both sides of the MDF before priming it with Golden primer.
    Here is the information about GAC 100 from the Golden website –
    GAC 100 Multi-Purpose Acrylic Polymer is a sealer that helps prevent Support Induced Discoloration (SID) caused by impurities that are drawn up through a substrate as the acrylic paint dries. GAC 100 is also useful for diluting and extending colors, increasing flexibility and film integrity, sizing for fabric and sealing for wood. GAC 100 will wet out solids, including pigments, more readily than other polymers and is useful for artists formulating their own paints

  4. I have gone through many articles, but your way of changing the myth of oil-painting is very impressive. I must say excellent information provided which will be beneficial to all art lovers. Thank You for posting.

  5. Hi Sophie
    Great article.
    I use arches oil paper, it’s a fantastic surface, inexpensive and fully archival and I have had great success with it.However I felt that I needed to experience a broad range of surfaces.
    After trying oil primed linen I was frustrated with the slippery surface. New layers of paint would lift the underlayers. I paint many layers very thinly. I even experienced this on boards primed and then triple coated with golden gesso.
    Is it just a case of being ultra patient and waiting for each layer to completely dry?
    Thank you!

    1. Hi Donna, thank you for adding your comments. I am not sure I even mentioned oil paper! Great addition! I must admit I have never tried it. I should really do some time.
      Yes, oil primed linen is very slippery indeed and it takes some getting used to. I loved it, but it is not for everyone. I personally do not like absorbent surfaces while you might love that. On oil priming I love the fact you can move the paint around and it keeps it oily glow. I use a hatching technique with a small brush and the wet paint blends and mixes a little on the canvas. Whether you wait for layers to dry (if you have the patience) or not – using it will tell you whether its for you.
      You might prefer a gesso style or universal priming!
      Thanks again for stopping by!

  6. Thanks for the article Sophie. I normally paint “en plein air” quite a bit and make my own painting panels. I adhere alkyd primed linen which I buy from a supplier in New York City to birch plywood with a glue called “Miracle Muck”, or BEVA 357 using a heat press. Miracle Muck claims their glue creates a barrier, so you don’t need to prime the wood first- but I prime/seal it sometimes anyway. If the panels are larger over 16″, I will seal both sides of the wood, to keep it from warping. I have a heat press such as was used to mount photos years back, and the BEVA film adheres the linen to the plywood with heat. It’s a bit pricey to use the BEVA though.
    I became accustomed to working on rigid supports, so for larger studio paintings I have purchased or built cradled plywood panels and I either glue or stretch the linen over the plywood.
    For oil paper, my favorite is Canva-paper, made by Canson. It has a linen texture and is nice for studies. I can take a sheet of canvapaper and mount it to hardboard or plywood with double sided tape in a jiffy, and can be off painting without the normal time it takes to make a linen panel.
    Have you tried the paints from Natural Pigments? How do they perform?
    Thanks, Matthew Lee
    http://matthewleestudio.com

    1. Hi Matthew, sorry for the late reply! I didn’t find a notification. But better late than never I hope! Thanks for your input, it is really interesting. I am surprised you go for plywood for your larger work. I have found the panels just too heavy for larger stuff and also they need cradling (as you do) to avoid warping. I do agree with you in liking a rigid surface. I just haven’t found the perfect one yet for larger paintings!
      Great to hear about oil paper. I must admit I have never tried it. Must be great for quick sketches etc. It is on my list!! 😉
      No, never tried NP paints, but I hear they are very good. They are not very common here in the UK though.
      Thanks again for your contribution. Great stuff. Sophie

  7. Hi Sophie,
    Thanks for providing detailed insight about various supports and grounds and getting rid of confusion. It has certainly helped me to decide what to paint on. I am thinking of using hardboard with acrylic primers (mostly due to easy availability and rigid surface quality).
    My only concern is regarding acrylic primers. I have read somewhere that it tends to suck oil. I have seen this on market available canvases but I am not sure if that is due to poor priming job or acrylic primer itself. Can you please let me know if you ever noticed any problems with acrylic primed canvases or boards over the years? I must mention that oil primers are not easily available in India and are very expensive online.
    Regards
    Kaustav

    1. Hi Kaustav, thanks for commenting! I am really pleased my blog post has helped you somewhat.
      As for acrylic primers: a lot of ready-made primed canvas has an acrylic primer over it. I have found that different brands use different materials and the absorbency varies enormously! Some painters like a high absorbency, others don’t. The least absorbency comes from oil primers. Acrylic primers will always have some absorbency and I am afraid you will have to try and see which ones you like the best. Over the years it will make no difference as the absorbency only affects you while you are painting. Once dry and done, it will stay at it is for years to come (other circumstances being equal of course). So if you are concerned about the future, then please don’t worry. Most good quality acrylic primers will last for ages and will not change or damage your painting whatsoever. Hope this helps! Happy Painting!

  8. I am working on stretched linen and cotton most of the time, but you have encouraged me to try Dibond. Thank you for sharing.

  9. A great read Sophie – really informative and so helpful. I’ve recently begun painting on aluminium – mainly because it feels very much like printmaking to me – I like that I can use the surface itself to show through. I’ve been working using oils on small 10 x 8 ins pieces from Jacksons Art Supplies. They’re lovely. I’m wondering about framing though?? I have explored all sorts of framing ideas with my canvas and paper pieces. But aluminium – float frame – don’t really know. Any ideas are welcome – Love your blogs.

    1. Hi Lesley, thanks for stopping by! Not sure about a float frame for aluminium. You would need some incredibly strong glue. I would not risk that as the aluminium is quite heavy. Perhaps ask a framer? Of course you can frame it in a traditional frame with a rebate just like any other board. Just use some clips to keep it in place. Hope you find the perfect solution for you. Sophie

    1. That’s great! Do let me know how you get on with it. I haven’t worked on Dibond for a while but still have a sheet in the cupboard.

    1. Hi, thanks for stopping by! I have no experience using acrylic or plastic panels I’m afraid. The nearest I’ve come to it is a nylon/linen mix canvas. I would imagine that a decent plastic support would be pretty archival and hardwearing but it is not a very common support, hence the lack of info online. Perhaps you can ask Jeffrey about it? Good luck!

  10. Hi Sophie, I really appreciate the information and the blog, very informative. I am an architect by training and professional practice since the early 80’s and I am now getting back into drawing and painting again. However, I prefer pencil and paper (heavy watercolor Arches) as a starting point, then lead Flake White oil paint over the granite. This is not a sustainable image due to rot and degrading of the paper over time. Can I apply an oil primer directly over my pencil drawing onto the Arches paper and paint oils on top of that? I will be trying Arches oil paper soon, but I wonder how they prime their paper at Arches for oil painting.

    1. Hi Gil, thanks for your comment.I must admit I am not sure but I think the safest bet would be to use pencil onto a primed surface, suitable for oil painting. So use canvas, board, oil paper or whatever is already suitable for oil painting, and do your initial sketch onto that. You can paint over the graphite without problems. I would hesitate with an oil primer on paper, unless it specifically says that is ok. Paper is flexible and most primers would not be suitable for it perhaps.

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