Cotton, linen, board, and other painting supports and surfaces

The Surface Itself

"What do you paint on?" I am asked this question quite regularly, and I am afraid my response usually sounds a bit vague. The truth is that I used to be very close-minded about my painting surface. Over time I have become excited about a variety of experiments on many surfaces. This is due in part to discovering Gamblin Oil Painting Ground.

This "yum in a can" is how I re-coat old panels and canvas so they can be reused. Applied very thinly with either a palette knife, brush, or old credit card, it provides an interesting surface that I really like.

"Arched Angel" 8x6

It is slightly slick, but not absorbent as the slick surface marble-dust boards. (Yes, I use those sometimes too.) On either surface, I can lay on thinned paint in an almost "scratchy" manner, and leave those underneath layers peeping through in spots. It provides a lot of dimension in the work. Plus, I have recovered probably thousands of dollars worth of old panels. It has become a running joke that these are "magic panels" and when I having a painting that 'fails' I get excited that it will become a re-coat! If the panel or canvas has some texture from an old painting, all the better. 


So why, you ask, don't I just coat everything with this stuff and build up a nice texture to begin with? That brings me to my next painting surface that I enjoy... linen.

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Woven from flax, linen weave can show throughout many layers of paint, and there are times when I just want the feel and look that linen will provide. For me, it is strictly a personal thing and I really cannot put my finger on why I choose this sometimes and not others. It has to do with some aesthetic – some finished picture I have in my mind of the painting before I ever even start it. Linen, as well as cotton, yarka, and a handful of other types, come with different types of gesso applied. Mine is a single-primed-alkyd, but you may also want to try double-primed surfaces, oil primed or lead primed surfaces.  Until you personally feel the difference, it is hard to know what you might enjoy. Many artists apply their own priming to achieve a personalized surface.

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For several years, I only used a single-primed-alkyd cotton canvas. I still use it sometimes. All I can say here is that it gives a different finished look. One that is a bit softer than the linen where I can achieve nice crisp edges more easily.

Being one who loves to experiment, I also enjoy painting on prepared boards. I'll not go into great detail here, but will provide you this link to an article on preventing warping and surfacing boards for oil paint. Because of a recent request from a museum exhibition, I am also working with oil on paper right now. It's all quite exciting and fun!

When I have painted a study en plein air using one type of surface and then get to the studio and decide to paint a larger painting on a different surface, I need to consider what problems, if any, this will cause in the final product. Sometimes there are none, but sometimes I may need to go the extra length to make certain I have the proper surface to say what I want to say. Taking a few days or weeks to prepare the right support is always worth the time and effort.

What is the difference between Sizing and Priming?

Size is a glue barrier that prohibits the ground and paint from contact with and penetration into the fabric. In the case of rabbit skin glue sizing, it adheres all the fibers to each other so that they expand and contract together and react to environmental changes as one unit rather than each thread acting independently. When different areas of the painting react separately to the environment, you would get cracking of the paint film, and similar problems.

Priming, also known as the 'ground' or 'gesso' is an absorbent coating which provides the paint a porous, reflective surface to adhere itself to. The gesso is not a size and will not seal or create a barrier: just the opposite, it is absorbent. (link to this article)

Panels vs Stretched Canvas

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When I paint en plein air, I always use a "panel" of some sort. These are typically cotton or linen that has been mounted with archival glue on an acid-free backing such as gatorboard or Sintra. I have also used panels with dibond, birch, or multimedia board as the mounting surface. I truly love painting on panels, and the fact that they are so thin and lightweight means I can pack dozens of them in my suitcase. There is nothing at all "less impressive" about having a painting that is on a panel as opposed to having a painting on stretched canvas. Some of the most highly paid artists I know use ONLY panels, even for their large studio work. Just be certain they are prepared properly with non-acid glue and backing. There are many panels that are commercially made, and you will find dozens of links to companies online. A few popular places to order online include RayMar, SourceTek, or Windriver Arts. Or, you can make panels yourself. Follow this link to see how to make your own panels.

In the studio I usually work on stretched canvas. Its response to my brush is very different than working on panels. This is something I don't think about much anymore, but I remember when it was an obstacle for me. I find large canvases are easier than large panels for me to handle in the studio. That probably has more to do with the cumbersome nature of something over 36 or 48 inches than anything else. Follow this link to see how to stretch your own canvas.

So much more could be said here. I have literally just "scratched the surface" LOL. Hopefully this will give you some incentive to do a little research and experiment on your own.  There is no better way than discovering for yourself!