Best Painting Surfaces for Artists

by | Nov 6, 2014 | Blog | 15 comments

how to choose a painting surface

There are a wide variety of surface choices to use for painting art. First choose between the two most popular choices – canvas or wood. While these are the most common, there are other more unusual choices such as plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, leather, paper, vinyl and cardboard.

canvas vs wood

Canvas comes in cotton duct or linen, while wood choices range from hardboard to panel. Both are fine for painting, but how do we choose what is right for us and our work?


∙ It is lightweight, especially helpful if painting in large sizes.
Canvas has a wonderful absorbency and woven texture if that suits your style.
∙ It can be used stretched over wooden stretcher bars for a tight bounce, or left unstretched to paint on it pinned up on a wall or flat on a floor.
The canvas when stretched on stretchers will droop if you sand or pour, and therefore needs to be propped up underneath for these techniques. Also, it can’t be easily moved if it needs to dry on a level place for a long time. If you like to sand the painted surface, or pour acrylic mediums over it, then wood is a better choice because it provides a rigid level surface.


∙ As mentioned above, wood panel is sturdy and rigid. This makes it easy to transport and handle. A rigid surface is best for sanding and pouring techniques.
∙ Wood can cost less then stretched canvas. Canvas stretcher bars are wood, but made for reuse which include means to put together and take apart, and are therefore costly. Instead of stretcher bars and canvas, a local carpenter or wood worker can make several wood panels at a time, with cost savings to the artist. Carpenters will generally charge per hour plus cost of materials, and you can get these direct from them. Purchasing stretcher bars and canvas from a retailer have extra added retailer costs that are added onto the final price.
∙ Wood panels can be made with different woods and braced to minimize warping.
∙ They are more sturdy then canvas. This means they will last longer than canvas given similar environmental circumstances.
∙ If you want to paint over an old painting on wood panel, it is easily remedied by sanding off any old texture and paint. I don’t recommend repainting over old paintings on canvas. With stretched canvas it is difficult to properly sand the texture off, and canvas isn’t as strong as wood panel for the added weight when applying extra layers.
∙ Wood panels can be heavy especially when working with large size panels.

Important note

Wood panels require sealing and other steps to best prepare wood for painting.

Additional articles

Read more about masonite, hardboard, and how to choose the right wood for panels, with this article on hardboard, and this article on the history of wood supports for painters.


You can also combine wood with canvas, by gluing the canvas directly onto a wood panel. This way you get the strong wood support, along with the canvas weave texture. You can also paint on loose unstretched canvas, then later when your painting is finished, adhere the canvas onto wood panel.


Plastic is a bold new choice for use as a painting surface.

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  1. Millie Hue

    Thanks for helping me understand that canvas can easily be pinned up on the wall while working on it. I guess I will pick this when I start attending a painting workshop this year. I just wanted to try this out because I got interested in it when I saw some videos online which they used their works as the decorations in their own house.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Yes for some artists its a good solution to create your painting more easily on the wall or floor. I’ve also seen some great floor mats created by just painting with acrylic on heavy duty primed canvas. For these I recommend sealing both sides of the canvas when the painting is complete for more durability for floor use. Happy creating!

  2. Dorothy Wintle Saunders

    I heard something about stability issues using a thin coat of acrylic on a canvas ground. Do you know anything about this? Apparently this will cause lifting of the other layers of paint painted over this over the years.

    • Nancy Reyner

      This is absolutely not true, but is getting some bad press because some artists do not understand a few concepts about acrylic. High quality (fine art) materials in ANY medium (oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc) will not have stability issues when used correctly, while lower quality (hobby or craft) paints can have all types of stability issues. Commercially primed canvases often (almost always actually except for Ampersand panels) use low quality primers. These less quality primed surfaces are stable when used with oil paints (as oil seeps into layers deeply) but may cause delamination with other mediums, and especially if using lower quality pigments and paints over it. If you coat over a thin coat of low quality acrylic with a high quality gloss medium, it will stabilize that layer of paint. However, there is nothing you can do about a bad quality primer under everything, which can delaminate a painting right at that layer no matter what you apply over it. In summary, a thin or thick acrylic layer, whether diluted or undiluted, will be very stable when using a high quality paint AND a high quality primer. If you use lesser quality materials there is no guarantee.

  3. Susan

    Does anyone know how to properly prime large 1/8″ craddled birch board panel for acrylic painting? I ordered a custom sized one rex’s art online and it said it was pre-sanded but after my first coat of liquitex white fluid matte medium, I am questioning whether or not it was really pre-sanded (Due to rough edges, wood splintering and snagging the paint brush). I’m waiting for this thin first coat to dry and believe my next step is sanding and then repeating again with either matte medium or gesso. I’ve researched this quite extensively and some websites suggest gesso for the second coat and others suggest matte medium again. Any thoughts or direction are greatly appreciated!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Susan,
      There is a ton of info on preparing panels for painting on Golden’s website:
      However, I will answer your question here. I am sure your panel was pre-sanded, but when you apply your first coat of anything that is fluid, it will raise the wood grain on the panel. So after applying your first coat of anything you need to lightly sand the grain back down to a smooth finish. You only need to lightly sand with a fine grit like 220. If you are painting with acrylic paints on the birch panel, you must first apply a stain sealer, like a gloss polymer. I like to use Golden’s GAC100 made especially for this purpose. I apply the gloss polymer over all exposed areas of wood to seal the wood. Often the wood soaks the first coat in, so I apply a second coat all over. Then I apply a white gesso primer. Then its ready to paint. I believe it is best to apply 2 coats of a clear medium (sealer) then if you like the look of the wood, apply a matte medium. If you don’t care about having the wood show through, then use a white primer such as gesso. There is more on Golden’s site if interested. Nancy

  4. sam cassidy

    What is difference in quality between the Fredrix Linen on cardboard canvas and other linen supports. There seems to be a great price difference among lenin products and I find it confusing. I have used linen on a gatorboard type product from Wind River and I like them but they are pricey. Is there a best product which is not over the top expensive. I use oils and paint andscapes. Thanks. sam

    • Nancy Reyner

      Linen comes in a range of quality. Generally the tighter the weave, the more expensive, but also the longer lasting and nicer texture for painting. Prices also vary according to weight of the linen fabric. If you are stretching it on supports, you will want something medium or heavy weight. The lightweight is less expensive but fine if its commercially adhered to a support such as cardboard. Having the linen on stretcher bars will always be more expensive then purchasing the linen already glued to a rigid support. So lots of variables. I usually find stretching linen (or canvas) onto stretcher bars the best deal. I can pick high quality fabric, and high quality stretcher bars, and save money by doing the labor.

  5. Holly Gornik

    Recently I saw some water color art done on a plastic surface….very brilliant by the way. The surface had a name which I don’t remember but it began I believe with a “Y”. Would you know what the surface might have been called?

    • Nancy Reyner

      I think you are referring to Yupo paper. It is very smooth, and creates wonderful effects when applying paint heavily diluted with water (either watercolor, inks or fluid acrylic paints).

    • Kathy Hiner

      actually works better when undiluted or slightly diluted. Works with oils too

  6. Rebekka

    So useful your blog. Thanks so much for sharing.
    I have 2 canvas backgrounded with oil paint. Can I put gesso on it and then go on with acrylic? Or just discard the canvas?


      It is not a good idea to apply acrylic gesso over oil paint. It’s better to remove the canvas from the stretcher bars, throw away the canvas, and save the stretcher bars to use again.

  7. Art Supplies


    I always use canvas. Plastic surface,combination of wood and canvas sounds interesting.

  8. Nancy Reyner

    I agree! Canvas is a wonderful painting surface. It is lightweight and can be easily rolled up for shipping. I choose to use panel because many of my painting techniques (such as pouring and sanding) cannot be accomplished on canvas. This is because the canvas is flexible and will collect any poured paint into the center. If I prop it up it can work, but still creates an effect that isn’t as good as panel. So both canvas and panel are great choices. It’s all about choices, right?



  1. Do Watercolor Pencils Work on Canvas? – Sustain The Art - […] One of the best painting surfaces available is the canvas.  […]

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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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