Recently I’ve been investigating the many materials and surfaces suitable for oil painting. Here’s a quick guide to what I’ve found:
The most commonly used surface is canvas, since it is cheaper than linen and provides approximately the same texture. Canvas can be painted while stretched on stretcher bars, or on canvas panels. Panels are a ideal option for painting on location since they are light weight, and don’t allow sunlight to shine through the back. This combined with the more sensitive nature of canvas on stretcher bars is why panels are the most common choice for plein air painters.
Other fabrics are also available for oil painting purposes. Synthetic fabric blends, intended to capture the general quality and texture of linen, are one choice. These can be purchased through any major art supply store either gessoed or ungessoed.
Finally there is linen, the most esteemed oil painting support. Linen is popular because of its texture and durability. Linen’s texture has multiple levels: very fine, mostly used by portrait artists; medium, common for landscape artists; and rough. Linen provides an elasticity and strong weave that I still haven’t seen matched by any other fabrics or supports.
Aside from stretched fabrics, there are many other choices for painting surfaces. Masonite or hardboard is one common substitute. Masonite is produced from woodchips that have been blasted with steam. These wood chips then produce long fibers that are pressed into boards. The fibers provide masonite with increased flexibility compared to other commercially available boards. No glue is added during the manufacturing process. Another benefit of masonite (in comparison to other commercially available panels) is it is 100% formaldehyde-based resin free.
I have recently been experimenting with oil painting on watercolor paper. I know what you’re thinking—you just read a typo—but you did not. Earlier this year I purchased a roll of arches 140gsm cold press paper. At that time I was very into watercolor painting and invested in a roll of paper as opposed to buying individual sheets of paper.
I had been painting on watercolor paper that was already coated with one layer of acrylic medium. (I like a more absorbent surface to paint on so I chose matte, but to each his own.) I then applied three layers of studio gesso or a more watered down version of professional grade gesso. This created an interesting painting surface that was very smooth, however, not slippery. It picked up on the delicate details of brushwork to produce a very unique effect.
Later in the week I tried out something else with my trusty roll of arches paper. . . I decided to see how the paper would hold up on canvas stretchers. It stretched beautifully, and I’m looking forward to filling my brushes with paint and going at it.
If you are interested in trying out this approach for oil painting, I have included a simple set of directions. This is how I prepared my paper:
1. Wet the paper
Those of you who are accustomed to watercolor painting know the process, and for people who don’t it’s still pretty easy.
I find it easiest to hold the paper under the faucet. Use tepid water that isn’t overly hot or cool. Remove the paper from water after it is equally wet on all regions. To see whether it’s wet enough, use this simple test. Fold one of the corners, if you feel resistance then wet it until it folds easily. At that point it is ready to be stretched.
2. Stretch the paper
Dry the paper on both sides with a paper towel. Then start on one of the four sides and put one staple in the middle of the frame. Move to the opposite side and once again staple the middle. Go 90 degrees and do the same process for the two remaining sides. Continue your way around again, adding staples to each side in order, until it’s stapled securely around the entire frame.
3. Gesso the paper
After paper has dried, apply acrylic medium (whatever texture you prefer for your painting surface). Once medium has dried, apply the first coat of gesso. I recommend using a small paint roller since it ensures an even coat of paint on the entire paper. Apply two more layers of gesso.
Once the gesso is completely dry, it’s ready and you can get to work.