Although it’s definitely the most common, stretched canvas isn’t the only surface that works well for oil paints. Here are some alternative surfaces that I have enjoyed using over the years:
100% cotton rag museum board can be used for oils without further preparation, but its absorbency sure makes painting on it. . . different. I have used museum board this way, and I like some of the effects. However, generally I prefer to size the museum board with Liquitex Soluvar to cut the absorbency and protect the paper fibers.
Soluvar, by the way, is an acrylic resin that is dissolved in a solvent. One coat of Soluvar will soak into the museum board and surround the paper fibers with acrylic resin, having little effect on the color or surface characteristics of the board, yet significantly reducing the absorbency.
I particularly like to use a combination of pencil and oil paints on this surface.
One final note: since Soluvar is solvent based, it will not cause the museum board to warp, like acrylic gesso will sometimes do (because of its water base).
Cartón is a high falutin’ name for cardboard. Many painters around the turn of the 20th Century, like Vuilard and Toulouse-Lautrec, painted on cardboard, guaranteeing full employment to several generations of art restorers.
The high lignin content of cheap papers like cardboard causes them to self-destruct in a few years, and it happens even faster with the addition of oil paints.
The cartón that I use is a very thin (1/32”) cardboard impregnated with epoxy resin, which renders it stable but somewhat brittle. I have been painting on this material for many years and am reasonably confident of its archival properties if properly handled.
I’ve actually tested its archival qualities by taping a piece to the roof of my greenhouse. After a full year in direct sunlight its color had faded a little, but for my purposes it survived the test quite well.
Because of the epoxy, this cartón will not warp, so you can use water-based materials to prime it, like acrylic gesso or acrylic gel medium. I like the beautiful warm brown color and texture of the cardboard, so I prefer the transparency of acrylic gel medium.
To protect the brittle cartón from breaking, I usually mount it to museum board.
Birch and Mahogany
I think that there are few good reasons to paint on wood and many good reasons not to—unless you want the color and grain of the wood to show through the painting.
If that’s the case, there are few surfaces to rival birch or mahogany primed with linseed oil or alkyd resin. I prefer to use an alkyd resin (like Liquin or Galkyd) because it dries much faster than linseed oil. A couple of coats with a light sanding in between will leave a nice surface for painting.
The beautiful honey color of birch or the deep red-brown of the mahogany make spectacular surfaces that can be used to great effect. You can purchase either plywood or, my preference, veneer on medium density fiberboard (“MDF”).
And even though birch plywood has become fashionable for making canvas panels, it is my opinion that wood is an inherently unstable material and that it is best not to use it unless there are good aesthetic reasons to do so.
Hardboard (or “Masonite”) in my opinion, is a better, more stable choice for making your own canvas or traditional gesso panels.