How to Prepare Wood Panels – for Painting with Acrylic, Oil and Other Artist Mediums

by | Mar 14, 2017 | Blog | 179 comments

Why Use Wood Panels for Painting

There are many types of surfaces that painters can use for fine art painting. Canvas attached to wood stretcher bars have been used for a long time, and wood panels even longer. Wood is stronger and more durable than the fabric of canvas or linen, and is therefore more archival. Contemporary painting techniques such as pouring paint (i.e. Jackson Pollock) and gluing collage-style are much easier with a sturdy level surface such as wood. (By the way, Pollock did not use wood for his paintings).
Proper preparation of an artist support is essential for producing long-lasting artwork. Raw wood panels need to be sealed prior to priming and painting, to keep moisture from getting to the wood which causes warping and other damage. So once you purchase a wood panel you need to do two important steps before painting: seal to keep out moisture, and then prime to strengthen adhesion between the paint and wood panel.

 

What’s the difference between hardboard and Masonite

I get asked all the time about the difference between these two terms for wood panels. Click here for a great article that clears up any confusion between the two.

 

Where to Get Wood Panels

If you are lucky enough to have wood working machinery, you can make wood panels yourself, or hire a carpenter to make them for you. You can also go to any store that sells wood, purchase a sheet of hardboard (they come in sheets 4′ x 8′) and pay them to cut it up for you into custom sizes. The sheets runs about $20 and the charge for cutting will usually be an addional $15 (depends on how many cuts). For a reasonable price, then, you can get a stack of wood panels. Otherwise you can purchase commercially made wood panels from art stores and online artist supply sites. Ampersand makes great panels of good quality. They are the only commercial panel company that I know of that properly seals and primes their panels called Gessobord.  Less expensive versions are available through Dick Blick and other online sites. Commercial panels can come with or without cradled sides (separate wood applied to the panel to add depth to the sides), and with or without coatings (such as gesso or other primers).

I have two issues with commercially made wood panels. I like to work large and in sizes that are not standard. Commercial panels only come in standard sizes, with maximum lengths around 40″ per side. If you want a non-standard size or something larger than 40″ there are not many options. Some commercial companies offer custom panels, but these may take up to six months (no kidding) to get it to you. Commercial panels mostly use hardboard for the painting surface which can get very heavy in large sizes.

 

Why is it Important to Prepare A Wood Panel

Oil painters must seal wood to stop any acidic oil in the paint from penetrating into the wood support, which can cause wood fibers to rot. While acrylic painters do not have this same issue, sealing is still an important step for using acrylic paint on wood, to eliminate Support Induced Discoloration (SID). SID is a phenomenon that occurs uniquely with acrylic paints. Supports naturally contain impurities that can cause an amber yellow discoloring to any light colored or clear acrylic layer that is applied to the wood unless the support is sealed properly. More about SID on GOLDEN’s website.

Sealing (sometimes called sizing) reduces chances for the wood to warp due to shifts in humidity, and therefore adds an important archival process to your artwork regardless of which painting medium you choose. Sealing also provides an easier surface to apply subsequent paint layers.

Sealers are often confused with primers. A sealer protects the underlying layer or material. It usually needs to be glossy (or non-absorbent) to properly protect the surface by creating a barrier. A primer is a foundation layer that strengthens paint adhesion onto the support. Generally a primer refers to a coating that prepares the surface for the acceptance of paint. Gesso is a primer and not a sealer. Gesso, when applied, has a satin or matte finish, is absorbent in nature, and therefore will not adequately seal the wood unless multiple applications are used – and this still may not seal.

A general rule is to apply at least two coats of sealer directly onto the raw wood to protect the wood. Then over these sealer layers when dry, apply primer to (1) enhance adhesion (2) return tooth to the surface, and (3) whiten the surface for optimizing paint colors applied over it.

 

Instructions to Prepare Wood Panels

(1) Clean off any dust or debris from all exposed areas of the panel including the cradled sides and panel back, first using a vacuum or air pressure if very dusty, then wiping clean with a microfiber cloth (or other lint free cloth) slightly dampened (with water).

(2) Lay the panel flat on a table, propping it up several inches on all four corners with jars, wood props, etc to allow for wiping away any drips, and ease of application.

(3) Apply a glossy acrylic medium over all exposed wood surfaces. GOLDEN’s GAC100 is made especially for this purpose. It’s special thin formulation of polymer acrylic, applied over the wood, soaks in quickly and minimizes brushstrokes and texture. GOLDEN has recently changed their advice saying that their Acrylic Gloss Medium works better as a seal then their medium called GAC100. I still prefer to use the GAC100 because it is thin and doesn’t create brushstrokes like the Gloss Medium. GOLDEN still says both work fine. You can also opt to use a commercial stain sealer like Kilz found in home improvement stores.

Tip: Let one surface dry fully before flipping over to seal the reverse side. Drying times can vary. When dry to the touch with no tack, it can be flipped over without sticking to the table or other props.

(4) When all exposed wood areas are sealed and fully dry, the wood will feel very coarse. That is because the wood grain gets raised with this first coat of sealer. Lightly sand all surfaces to smooth them using a 220 grit or fine sanding block. There is no need to heavily sand, just an easy swipe with the sandpaper will suffice.

(5) Wipe the surfaces clean with a slightly damp rag after sanding or vaccum, then apply a second coat of sealer. Usually two sealing coats are sufficient, making the wood appear slightly satin or glossy in sheen. Optionally apply more coats if you desire a more saturated seal.

(6) Once you finish applying all sealer coats and it is dry to the touch, I recommend to apply one or two coats of a primer, such as an acrylic gesso, especially to the front surface to regain surface tooth. Priming your panel, regardless of which paint medium you plan to eventually use, will add a second archival process to your artwork, by strengthening adhesion between your first painting layer and the primer. Opt to prime all surfaces, including the back and sides, for a clean white professional look. However, all you really need to do is prime the panel face that will be painted. To summarize you want to seal all exposed areas of wood, but priming can be just applied to the front face.

For acrylic painters, one coat of a better quality gesso, such as GOLDEN’s Gesso, will add adhesion strength between the sealed wood and your first layer of acrylic paint. Lesser quality primers are sufficient for use with oil paint, as oil seeps into the layers differently than acrylic. The lesser quality primer, though, does not have a high pigment content for extra adhesion strength that acrylic paints require.

Once the gesso is dry to the touch it is ready for applications of acrylic paint. To apply oil paint instead, wait 1-3 days or more.

Important: For this blog article I am offering information for fine art paintings that will be stored and/or displayed INDOORS. For information on outdoor projects, such as murals on wood, read this article.  

Additional Information

GOLDEN’s article on preparing panels
Adhesion in Paints and Coatings

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179 Comments

  1. Felicity Perkins

    Hi,

    I came across your how to blog and love it!
    I’m from the UK and am looking to give this a try
    I just wondered what sort of pen you have used here before applying the primer and resin? Is it an oil based?
    I’m aware some wouldn’t work and would end up running.

    Many thanks

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Felicity, I am happy to answer your question, but am not sure what you mean by “pen”? And there is no resin used in my process as described in this article. Please feel free to add more details to your comment post here and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
      Nancy

  2. Chloe

    Hiya,

    I’ve just completed my first ever acrylic painting on wooden panel and loved it! Following the steps above for preparation.

    I’m just curious as to how you would tidy up the back of the panel to prepare it for hanging?

    There’s a few paint marks on the back and as it’s for a customer I want it to look as tidy as possible 🙂 x

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Chloe, Congratulations on your latest achievement painting on wood panel. The backs of my paintings are handled the same way I do the fronts and sides. So while I prepare the panel, and before painting on it, I seal all exposed areas of wood including backs and sides. Then I prime all the same areas with white Gesso. I use two coats so it looks pristine white all over. Then I add my painting on the front. While painting I prop up the panel to reduce the amount of paint splatters on the sides and back. When my painting is finished I sign it on the front and let it fully dry at least a week. Once dry I flip my painting over onto foam to protect it, and touch up the sides and back with more gesso in case paint got splattered on them. I add the hardware and a tag listing the materials used on the back. I will also add my signature on the back too. Then lastly I flip the painting face up, wipe it with a damp rag and varnish it.

  3. Qaiser Shahbaz

    Hi Nancy !can i use water with acrylic gel medium for acrylic painting or I should use only the gel medium for acrylic painting?

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Qaiser! This is an excellent question! I have a video about this that will best answer your question. The quick answer to your question is YES of course you can use water and mediums to change your paint accordingly to create different effects. If you don’t use water you will be missing out on ways to make the acrylic act and appear like watercolor. Here is a link to the video I mentioned: https://youtu.be/7Rv0pOyHnOU

  4. Bo

    Is there a clear sealer for wood if it won’t be completely covered with paint? I will be using acrylics

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Bo,

      Sealers are usually clear. It’s the primers that have a high load of pigment to add adhesion strength. Sealers I use such as acrylic gloss medium, and GAC 100 are both clear. If you want to make sure the wood grain is still visible prior to painting with acrylic, then skip the primer (Gesso) as that is usually white and will cover the wood. Products called “Clear Primers” are merely acrylic mediums as I mentioned before.

      Hope this helps!

      Nancy

  5. Daniel

    Hi,

    My ten yer old daughter and I are making Indo boards (smooth plywood)…we want to have small ocean designs, like a graphic turtle that will be painted on them but the rest of the plywood we want to appear natural. They will be finished with clear lacquer (I’m guessing)). What kind of paint would you recommend we use and lacquer? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Daniel, Sounds like fun working on a project together with your daughter. Since you will be using the Indo boards, you will want to use commercial grade (instead of fine art grade) paints and sealing products that will protect your board and painting during regular wear and tear with use. I recommend sealing the wood with a good grade polyurethane or lacquer that you can find in Home Depot or commercial paint stores. Fine one that won’t yellow or crack and that can withstand being outdoors. Even if you don’t plan on having it outdoors, that will mean you will be giving it maximum protection. Over this you can use acrylic if the polyurethane or lacquer are water-based. If not, and they are oil-based, then you would use oil paint over it. After painting apply another sealing coat using the same product you used to first seal the wood.
      Nancy

  6. Janna Aycock

    Thank you for this wonderful information. I am actually painting a large piece of plywood with a Christmas scene using acrylic paints. After priming and painting, what do you recommend as a final step as a sealer once the painting is complete?

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Janna,
      If the painting will be outdoors you will need a commercial sealer such as polyurethane. If the painting will remain indoors and you want it to last a long time, I suggest you seal it like you would a fine art painting. You would first apply what’s called an isolation coat. This is a mixture of 1:1 an acrylic gloss gel with water. This will make the painting all glossy so that the final top coat of varnish that goes on next, will sit evenly on top. For a final varnish you can use an archival varnish meant for paintings. These have UV protection and are removable for cleaning purposes. Those two qualities are what makes the varnish archival. Most varnishes come with options for sheen as gloss, matte or satin. I suggest Golden’s Polymer Varnish Gloss. This varnish is non-toxic and can be thinned with water. Using gloss brings out the colors more than using a satin or matte. Hope this helps!
      Nancy

  7. Lydia

    Thank you, Nancy! The differentiation between seal and primer was super helpful!

    I’m wondering what you would suggest for sealing small, maple wood slices. I will be painting them with oils for indoor use. I already have a commercial linseed oil, so would that be a good option or would you recommend something different? I don’t mind if the seal darkens the wood as long as the grain is visible.

    Thank you for your time,
    Lydia

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Lydia,

      Best sealers are gloss acrylic. Oil isn’t really a sealer. It will sink into the wood but won’t keep out moisture – which is the main purpose of a sealer. I recommend not using linseed oil as a sealer. It is fine for use with your oil paints, to add to a paint color to make it more transparent. Instead use any acrylic gloss medium or gel, either straight or adding some water to thin it. These should not darken the wood, even though that is not an issue for you. Once sealed with an acrylic gloss medium you can overpaint with your oils.

      Enjoy your project!

      Nancy

  8. Kim Walker

    Thank you Nancy! Over twenty years into my art making adventures and every time I read one of your blogs I learn something new and helpful and find lots of inspiration!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Kim,
      What a lovely note! Thank you so much! I’m very glad you are finding my articles helpful for your work.
      Thank you!
      Nancy

  9. Mei

    Thank you for an excellent explanation of how to star painting on wood. Do you have any advice on how to varnish an acrylic painting on wood to give it maximum protection? I am planning a piece on wood box that will be handled frequently.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Mei,
      If the piece will be well handled as you said, then I suggest using a commercial grade varnish or sealer. Home Depot, Walmart or other paint suppliers all carry clear gloss sprays that should work well. You can also use a polyurethane. Any type of clear sealer should be fine. You probably do not need to use fine art varnishes as these are archival and are removable for cleaning purposes. These are well suited for fine art paintings that will not be handled.
      Nancy

  10. Dilsah

    Hello Nancy
    Such a nice comprehensive article.
    I want to paint with ink and watercolours on wood.
    Is it the same process ?
    Thanks for your help
    Dilsah

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Dilsah,
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. The process I describe is to seal the wood so it doesn’t warp. Warping will happen when moisture enters wood. By sealing the wood with something that is glossy you keep moisture from entering the wood. This can happen with or without painting on top. So sealing is important regardless of whether you will paint on it, leave it as is, or paint using ink, watercolor, acrylic or oil. Priming would be an additional step, after sealing, that would be beneficial to painting with any type of paint. Priming would add adhesion strength between the first layer of paint and the primer. If you are using ink and watercolor you would want to prime to get an absorbent surface, so that the paints will adhere well.
      Nancy

  11. Ellen E Baer

    Thank you for such detailed information. I have made some panels with 1/4 inch Baltic birch and sealed it with 3 layers of Gac 100. The panels are cradled but, they are warping a bit and the grain pops out with each application of gesso. The gesso Michael’s house brand. Do you have any advise that would fix these problems.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Ellen,
      Sealing it with three layers of GAC 100 should keep it from warping unless the wood wasn’t cured before making the panels and still contains moisture. Another reason for warping would be if you diluted the GAC 100 you applied. The medium can be accidentally diluted by using a wet brush, or not stirring the product prior to use. I am assuming you sealed the wood on all exposed surfaces including the back. If not, then this could also be a reason for warping. If the grain is still expanding with applications of Gesso this may indicate that somehow your three coats of GAC 100 are not sufficient, or not applied correctly as per the reasons I mentioned above. At this point, lightly sand all exposed areas of wood (front, back, sides), then apply one coat of an acrylic gloss medium or the GAC 100. Both will work as long as they are not diluted with water. Hope this helps!
      Nancy

  12. Patricia Truitt

    I used run off paint from an acrylic pour to paint my wood. Must I still prime the wood?

    Reply
    • Patricia Truitt

      I should add that I used the run off several days ago so it is indeed dry. And, I plan to do another acrylic pour. Thank you.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Patricia,
      You can use anything to paint on wood. HOWEVER the most important thing to remember is that wood needs to be SEALED prior to adding anything. Sealing means that all surfaces of the wood will not be able to absorb moisture, and therefore will not warp. If you use any paint or product that is GLOSSY it will act as a sealer – or barrier for moisture entering into the wood. If you use any paint or product that is MATTE, this means it is absorbent, and therefore you are actually increasing its ability to absorb moisture, and therefore may warp the wood.

      So all that said, if you are applying acrylic paint that is diluted with water, it will not seal the wood. If you are adding acrylic paint that has mediums added to it (such as is often added into pouring mixtures) then you could very well be sealing the wood. Are you also sealing the sides and back? If not, these need to be sealed too.

      Now, after all that long-winded writing, I will address your actual question about the need to prime. The reason for my rambling is that many artists confuse the products and functions of sealing with priming – and they are very different. Priming usually uses Gesso – which is matte, and absorbent, and this is important because the main function of priming is to add adhesion strength between surface and the first paint layer applied. Adding a primer (over a sealed wood surface) is not necessary but can add an important element to your layering. Here’s a good test. If your first layer of paint (you are using your run off paint from a pour) is thinly applied, or thin in consistency it will probably adhere well to the sealed wood. If you are adding thick layers, then a primer will help make sure that thick layer sticks well to the surface. The decision to skip an important step like priming really depends on your surface and the quality (consistency, dilution, application, etc) of your first paint layer. Hope this helps!
      Nancy

  13. Cat

    Hey there Nancy!

    I loved this article, thank you so much for writing it!

    I have a question I’m hoping you can answer. I’ve read through your comments and didn’t see this question posted so hopefully this isn’t a repeat 😬

    I am very interested in painting yard decorations on untreated dog eared fence or wood from pallets. I am an acrylics fan so that will be the type of paint I use.

    My question is this; would I still follow the directions above if my project will be outside and exposed to the elements?

    I know you provided a link to follow for outdoor projects but that page seems to be geared towards painting on masonry or the sides of buildings which isn’t really the type of surface I plan to paint on.

    It even has a table that’s supposed to tell the reader what steps to take for each material that is to be painted on but I’m struggling with some of it. I’m sure I’m overthinking it but can you break it down for me please?

    Any advise is greatly appreciated!

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Cat,

      Sounds like you have some fun projects in the works. If you are going to paint on raw wood and want it to last outdoors, you will want to use commercial products meant for outdoors not fine artist products. Use sealers and paints made especially for wood outdoors such as those used for porches and fences. The article I referenced on Golden’s site has some good information. You could skip filling in the cracks to create a smooth mural surface if that isn’t important to you. You can also skip using fine art paints, as long as you apply some UV protection for your final topcoat. See if you can find a commercial topcoat (try Home Depot or paint stores like Sherwin Williams). See if anyone working there can find a topcoat product with UV protection to keep your colors from fading outdoors in the sun. Wood is pourous, which means just about any sealer, paint and topcoat will adhere. You want to make sure you get UV protection somewhere in those layers, and also the topcoat is weatherproof, waterproof and as durable as you can find. Hope this helps!

    • Robyn

      Hi nancy,
      Im a new artist.
      I actually think that’s the first time ive ever referred to myself as an artist.
      And i dont think i’ve ever commented on a post in my life. But i see this is a recent post.
      I also have to agree i am grateful for your articles and your artwork is beautiful.
      I originally found you when searching for gold leaf info.
      Ive been asking art retailers, hardware stores, renovationists etc, but i have yet to ask a fine artist. Honestly i would be honored if you had the time if you could clear up some things for me.

      – can i use a zinniser stain blocker or kilz WITHOUT gesso ( if its matte & water base) for sealing & priming for acrylic paints?
      – can gloss modge podge or frank t. ross wellbond universal sealer be used as an effective sealer?
      -can pouring medium be used as a sealer and top coat?
      – can gloss medium & varnish be used as selaer and top coat?
      – what do you recommend to varnish mdf and birch ply?

      I found your article very well laid out.  I am new to wood and teaching myself and still get tripped up. But happy 🙂

      Best,

      Robyn

    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Robyn,

      Thank you for your comments. I’m glad you are finding my articles helpful for your work.
      Here are some answers to your questions.
      1. I am not familiar with Zinniser Stain Block, but have used Kilz. Kilz is both a sealer and primer, so yes you can use Kilz without gesso for overpainting with acrylic paints.

      2. I am not familiar with Modge Podge or Frank T Ross. Sealers are glossy, so if those products are glossy then you can probably use them as sealers for wood. The idea is to seal the wood so no moisture enters it and to keep it from warping.

      3. I would definitely not use pouring mediums that are meant for pouring as a sealer. Sealers should be thin so that they penetrate the wood. Pouring mediums are usually too thick to do this effectively. The word “topcoat” is easily misunderstood or used in the wrong way. Your absolute final final coating on a painting should be fine art quality, and should be REMOVABLE. Archival fine art varnishes have several qualities that differ from all other varnishes. They have UV protection to keep colors from fading, and for conservation purposes can be removed so the painting can be cleaned, and then the varnish is replaced. Pouring mediums are not removable and have no UV protection. Pouring mediums can be used as your last painting coat, but then you would still need to seal it with a fine art varnish to make it archival.

      4. Liquitex has a product called “Gloss medium & varnish”. A medium dries permanent, while a fine art varnish, as I just described, is removable. How they can label one product as both is beyond me. That product is a medium, and they are using the word varnish in a mis-leading way. If the product is removable and has UV protection (and these will be listed on the product’s label) then it is probably a fine art archival varnish. If it is not removable and has no UV protection it is just a medium. This can be used as a sealer but not as a final top coat.

      5. I’m not sure what you mean by varnishing mdf and birch ply. Are you asking what you can use to seal it prior to painting, or to varnish it over the painting? To seal prior to painting use any gloss acrylic medium. To varnish it over the painting you would need to use a fine art archival varnish as I mentioned above.

      Hope this helps answer your questions. They are good ones!

      Nancy

  14. Adrian Bangerter

    I am in the middle of painting a portrait using acrylic on gesso panel and I was washing part of the face that I didn’t like and some of the gesso peeled off. What’s the best way to repair it? Thanks

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Adrian, It sounds like your gesso did not adhere properly to the panel support. Or, the gesso is properly applied but you are using something too strong to remove the paint. If it’s the first reason – adhering issue – unfortunately there isn’t a way to readhere the gesso or fix it. However, I’d be glad to help make sure it doesn’t happen again. Please let me know which type of panel support you used. If it was pre-gessoed by the manufacturer, then this is not a brand you should use for acrylic. Ampersand is the only company I know of that uses the proper gesso to seal under acrylic, and with good adhesion. If you applied the gesso yourself, then perhaps you need to let it dry longer before overpainting it. Please add more details (type and brand of panel and gesso, what you used to remove the paint, how did it peel – small amount or more?) and I’ll be glad to offer my advice. Sorry about your issue. It must be frustrating as you are in the middle of painting.

  15. Jenny Arnold

    Dear Nancy

    Thank you for your very detailed and most informative descriptions.

    I want to make placemats; am using MDF wood, the biggest being 12×16 inches. I will probably put cork on the back. I want to do acrylic pours over the fronts.

    Does the same procedure you described also apply to thin 3mm thick MDF boards; namely seal, lightly sand, seal again to both sides and then apply 1 coat of primer eg Golden Gesso (is this the same as Golden GAC100?) to the front?

    If so, could you please suggest a good sealer obtainable in Australia?

    Also, as for a good gloss varnish, would a resin be the best which would give me heat protection for my placemats? For my canvases and vases, I suppose I could use a cheaper varnish which is UV protected. Is spray or paint on easier for beginners please?

    I know these are a lot of questions but you are obviously a wealth of knowledge and I hope you can answer them for me.

    Thank you so much
    Jenny

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Jenny, Sounds like a fun project! Yes you would follow the same procedure – sealing twice with a sealer (not a primer). I don’t know what is available in Australia for sealers – but any gloss acrylic will work to seal the raw wood. Please re-read the article to make sure you understand the difference between sealers (glossy – allows next coat to stay on top of this non-absorbent coating) and primers (matte – allows next coat to sink in to an absorbent coated surface). Since it is for placemats and not fine art paintings, I recommend you follow all the steps you mentioned, except once you are finished pouring, and the placemats are all complete, I suggest using a commercial product meant for kitchen counters – like a polyurethane for a final sealing coat over the whole project – paint, cork and MDF. Spray and paint options for varnishes are up to the user. I spray when there is heavy relief texture and/or the piece is small. I brush apply when the piece is large. Both application processes require some practice. There is no easy application (!) Hope this helps.

  16. Daniel P Gontar

    Thanks for the info. It is greatly appreciated.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      You are welcome! Glad you like the article.

    • Emily

      Thank you for the informative article! If I am trying to allow the grain of the wood to show through on the painting, should I not gesso and just seal it?

    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Emily,
      That is correct. Gesso is opaque and will cover the grain. There are products called “Clear Gesso” but that is misleading in my mind. Gessos add adhesion strength and are made with white pigment because these pigment particles add gripping power. Without pigment, it cannot be considered a real gesso. Instead it is merely a clear medium masquerading as a gesso. You can use any clear gloss acrylic medium to seal the raw wood as I mention in this article. Gesso is a secondary step (first step is to seal with a clear coat) meant to add adhesion between the wood and your first coat of paint. You can skip this step if you don’t want to cover the grain. When skipping this step, if you want to apply paint, as a suggestion use a thin layer of paint as your first paint layer instead of something thick like a paste or gel. This will help adhesion between your first paint layer and the wood.

  17. Amethyst

    Hi Nancy!

    Quick question: I bought a regular piece of smooth plywood stained it and applied a clear gesso and it isn’t drying clear. It kind of has a white dusty kind of look. I’ve tried multiple coats and sanding in between and I’m still getting the same thin white layer over the piece where you can also see some of the brush strokes. Is there a way to fix this?

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Amethyst,
      I highly recommend against using any type of “clear gesso”. Gesso is a white pigmented product that enhances adhesion. The pigment is an important ingredient for this purpose. A clear gesso means it has no pigment in it. So it is misleading in its name. A clear gesso is actually a semi-gloss or matte acrylic medium. Acrylic is naturally glossy. This means that any matte or satin or semi-gloss acrylic product has a white powder in it to give it some tooth. If you use “clear gesso”, or matte or satin acrylic mediums, you will get a translucent white film over whatever you apply it to. I believe companies that sell this are misleading the customer by repackaging a matte medium as “clear gesso”.

      As I describe in this article, there are two different steps to take when working with wood, each used for a different purpose and each requiring different products. First you seal (with something glossy). This is important to keep the wood from warping. The second step is optional. That second step is to prime with gesso which adds adhesion strength to the next layer applied to it, and also adds a white coat. It sounds like you are trying to seal and prime using one product and one application.

      Next time, use a gloss acrylic medium to seal. Then skip the priming step with gesso, and paint directly onto the glossy coated wood. If you want to add some tooth, lightly sand the glossy surface. You will make it slightly matte doing this, but there is no white powder added to this process, and therefore if you applied gloss over it again, the matte effect will disappear.

      Unfortunately the only way to fix what you have now, is to sand off all the way back to the wood and start over. Remember anytime you use a matte or satin product (which includes clear gesso) you will get a non-removable white film.

      Hope this helps!

      Nancy

  18. Julia

    Hi Would you recommend using “Gamblin’s Gamvar or Golden’s MSA Varnish (for brush applying) or their Archival Varnish (spray application)” on a fine art piece from 1944. Its a relief painting/sculpture … it has a couple of linear cracks. I’d like to protect the colors and protection from insect damage.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Dear Julia,
      Since the piece is from 1944, it probably uses oil paint. It is probably very dry at this point, if it hasn’t been restored since then, so adding a varnish would be a good idea for protection, avoiding any future cracking and reducing any color fading. Since it has relief texture, a spray varnish would be the best. Brush applications would work if the texture is slight. If the texture is raised quite a bit, then brush applying may create puddles in the crevices. Golden’s MSA Varnish comes in a spray (with a different name, though) called Archival Varnish. I recommend using only gloss, so the Archival Varnish Gloss will work very well. Matte varnishes contain a white powder that may not work well over the old painting. Another consideration is the back of the painting. Check it out to see if the canvas is OK. If not, you may want to apply an acrylic gloss medium over the canvas back to keep any moisture entering the painting through the back.
      Nancy

  19. Alex

    Hi Nancy

    Thank you so much for this detailed run-down! It is so helpful.

    I see you’ve got a lot of comments, I’d be here all day if I were to comb through each page – so apologies if my question has been asked before.
    I’m new to painting on wood panels and am very excited to go out and buy all the supplies I’ll need before I can get started.
    Forward thinking, is there a varnish or medium I should use or that you can recommend (specific to painting on wood panels) to finish & seal in my painting?

    Thanks and look forward to hearing back.

    Alex

    Reply
    • Alex

      Just to clarify, I’ll be painting on wood panels (birch) for fine art purposes that will be on display inside – not for furniture or outdoor use etc.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Alex,
      I’m glad you are finding this article useful for your artwork. Once you prepare your panel following the instructions in this article, you can then paint on the wood. When you are finished painting you would need to apply a final topcoat of varnish. Fine art varnishes are different than hobby or commercial varnishes. Fine art varnishes have two important qualities. (1) They are REMOVABLE for cleaning purposes, and (2) they have UV protection so paint colors don’t fade. Golden has lots of great articles on their site. For starters here’s a good one: https://www.goldenpaints.com/technicalinfo/technicalinfo_varnapp

      You haven’t told me what type of paint you will be using, and this makes a difference in the varnish product you will choose. If you are painting with acrylic, then you will need to do two steps over your finished painting. You need to apply what’s called an “isolation coat”. For this I recommend 1:1 Golden’s Soft Gel Gloss with filtered water. Over this you can then apply your varnish. I recommend Golden’s Polymer Varnish, which comes in a variety of sheens – gloss, matte and satin. Varnishing is tricky and I do recommend reading the articles prior to purchasing anything.

      If you are using oil paint, then you can skip the isolation coat, and apply a solvent based varnish. I like Gamblin’s Gamvar or Golden’s MSA Varnish (for brush applying) or their Archival Varnish (spray application).

      Nancy

  20. Tom

    Hi Nancy,

    I went out and got Golden’s GAC100 Acrylic Primer and Extender and did exactly like you said in your wood preparation instructions. I often extend drying periods between steps because I’m overly cautious and in no hurry. 1st coat went fine. Dried well. Sanding, cleaning, and all the usual steps went fine. Second coat seemed to go fine. The only doubt I have right now is that after about 5 days, the surface does not seem “kitchen counter” or “glass surface” dry. There seems to be a slight tackiness or rubbery feel to it when I press slightly with my the palm of my hand, or handle the panel with my hands. It’s very subtle but it’s there. I applied rather thin, normal coats, nothing too thick. In my 30+ years, my surfaces have always been bone dry before applying the gesso. This one seems to have a slight tackiness about it. Like I said, it very subtle, but I can feel it. Could this be normal for GAC100? Could this be because of the actual nature of the GAC100 product. The Golden website indicates that the GAC100 is “Useful for thinning or ‘extending’ colors as well as increasing ‘flexibility’.” I’m both curious and rather concerned because I don’t want to apply my gesso on a sealed surface that does not seem to be bone dry. I know it’s probably going to be difficult for you to make an assessment without being able to touch the panel surface in person, but maybe you can give me an answer from afar.

    Thanks for your time,

    Tom.

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Tom,
      That’s a very interesting question. I too have found the surface to be a bit tacky at times. It sounds like you did everything right, and after 5 days it should be bone dry as you said. In my experience I have found it varied in touch when dry. I do not think it is an issue that it has a slight tack, and applying gesso over it at this point should be fine. There are always variables with every process, so this means we will get variation in our results. Acrylic is so stable though that again I do not think it is an issue of concern. Acrylic will still continue to dry even if overpainted with other acrylic layers. The variables I found are: (1) Humidity and warm temperatures slow the drying and may keep the layer tacky for longer (2) The wood itself may have elements in it (either naturally occuring or in the processing of it) that react with the acrylic to keep it tacky longer (3) Different types of wood have different densities, and therefore some of the medium may sit on the top surface instead of sinking into the wood, causing the slight tackiness you feel (4) Make sure you mix the GAC100 well before applying. If it separates in the bottle and you only use the top part this could be an issue.

      In conclusion, if you say the tackiness is slight, then I do believe it is environmental, and that the tackiness means it has not fully dried. Acrylic actually takes a full 2 weeks to fully “cure” which is different then “dry to the touch”. Within this 2 week period it is fine to continue layering over acrylic layers. Once your painted wood is finished, before wrapping it or storing it, you want to wait a full 2 weeks for all the layers to fully “cure”. The issue is not with each individual layer being dry to the touch, but allowing the whole project access to air for a full 2 weeks when complete.

      Hope this helps!

      Best,
      Nancy

    • Tom

      Hi Nancy,

      Some of the points you mentioned crossed my mind when I was questioning the whole thing. First of all, the GAC100 came in 8 fl. oz containers and were easy to rotate in my hand for easy mixing so the possibility of the contents being separated in the container was virtually impossible after mixing. Second, I thought I may have applied too thick a second coat, but I know I applied as thin a coat as possible. I think the answer is environmental. Montreal has been going through combinations of heat waves, up and down periods of humidity, etc. exactly the same time that I applied the sealer on my birch panels. Yesterday and today, with the humidity and heat subsiding, the surface seems a little dryer and harder than before. I know that the nature of acrylics when applied over certain thicknesses can be a little tacky/rubbery as it dries, so I assumed the GAC100, which is acrylic based, could present these dilemmas. I’m encouraged by the results in the last two days and I think you hit it on the nail when you said it could be environmental. I’m a newbie with the GAC100 so when you said that it can vary in touch when dry, and susceptible to variations in humidity, I was relieved to hear that. Like I said in my previous post, I’m patient and never in a hurry, usually preparing panels months before actually applying my first brush stroke, so I’ll let it cure for a while and go from there. Thank you for enlightening me on the subject.

      All the best,

      Tom.

  21. Michelle Roberts

    Hello Nancy, I want to paint on large wooden slabs an oil painting of my kids homes and then seal it and turn it into an end table. How would I go about it from the preparing the wood and to the sealing of it at the end?

    Reply
    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Michelle,
      Follow my instructions in this article for preparation of the wood. If you want to use it functionally as a table, I suggest your final top coat to be a commercial high grade product such as polyurethane. You want the top coat product to be durable, non-toxic once dry, and waterproof. Using a fine-art product for varnishing like I suggested would not work.

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About Nancy

Nancy Reyner is a professional fine-art painter with over 30 years experience using a variety of mediums including oil, acrylic, watercolor and mixed media. She has appeared on television for HGTV’s “That’s Clever,” and authored several best-selling painting books with F&W Media. She currently lives in Santa Fe, NM. Read more.
 
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