Contemporary Painting Surfaces for Artists

by | Nov 12, 2017 | Blog | 17 comments

Create Seductive Painting Surfaces

Did you know that by changing your painting surface, prior to painting, you can gain all kinds of advantages? Instead of using a store-bought canvas, as is to paint on, here are some ideas you might enjoy, to customize your surface.

To begin a painting, we usually start with a commercially prepared substrate; such as watercolor paper, cardboard, primed canvas or primed panel. From there we simply start applying paint. Absolutely no problem with this process! It’s quick and easy, but you may be missing out on one step, that can add fun to your process, along with creating interesting effects, and can also save you money – all from one simple process before applying paint.

This article describes how to create an unusual painting surface, that can be used with any medium such as watercolor, oil or acrylic. It is a versatile surface you can easily make yourself, to achieve many interesting painting effects, as well as texture!

Several products are applied to the surface prior to painting
Painting using washes on a board primed only with gesso
The same painting using washes, but over the mixed surface

Compare the last two images – the ones with paint color on them. You can see the interesting texture and visual effects created when paint is appied over the custom surface, instead of the surface that only is primed with Gesso. The custom surface is created by applying several different acrylic products all over the surface. Each product, when dry, results in a different absorbency. Think of a piece of watercolor paper compared to a sheet of glass. The watercolor paper has tooth, or absorbency, and when a watery paint mixture is applied to it, the paint can sink in nicely and evenly into it. If you took this same watery paint mixture and applied it over something smooth, without tooth (it will be a glossy surface) and will repel the paint keeping the paint from an even application and instead creating puddling. Both absorbent and non-absorbent products, when applied to the same surface, create the visually textural and exciting effects. Here’s how to create this custom surface I call a “mixed absorbency surface”.


How to create a mixed absorbency surface



Start with any substrate, and follow any necessary procedures required for pre-painting. For example, watercolor paper needs no preparation but can be primed with gesso to add strength. Cardboard, canvas and wood panels do not need any preparation if they are already sealed and primed. If the substrates are raw wood with no sealer or primer they will need some preparation. Most surfaces will benefit from an appication of a stain sealer and primer, especially if acrylic paint will be used for overpainting. Skip the stain sealer but still prime if oil paint or other mediums will be used. Let dry.



Apply acrylic binders to your surface. These are acrylic products that generally have no color pigment added, such as mediums, gels and pastes. Every substrate surface already has its own unique quality for absorbency. A high quality piece of watercolor paper is very absorbent. This means it has lots of tooth, or places where diluted paint can sink into which results in an even application of color. Absorbent surfaces are always matte, which is one way you can tell if a surface is absorbent or not. Touch an absorbent surface and it will feel slightly rough because of its tooth.

Something glossy, on the other hand, like Yupo paper, glass or metal, is non-absorbent. This means the surface is so smooth, that there isn’t much (if any) tooth. Diluted paint applied over a glossy surface will bead or puddle up resulting in an uneven layer of color. The paint applied to a glossy surface will sometimes look marbleized or patterned.

In the same way that substrates will each have their own particular quality for absorbency, acrylic binders come in a wide variety of forms, also offering a variety of absorbent and non-absorbent qualities. Acrylic binders come in three different forms: mediums, gels and pastes. There are many choices for each of these three categories, and this can sometimes get confusing. Just remember that every product, when applied to your painting surface and left to dry, will create a unique surface quality and absorbency. And just about ANY acrylic product applied onto your substrate will present a more interesting surface to paint on than using the plain old substrate as is, whether primed with Gesso or not.

Samples of various art textures and gels.
Acrylic products applied to create a custom surface with mixed absorbency
Various shades of red and orange lipstick swatches.
Acrylic washes (heavily diluted paint with water) applied over the custom surface


Mediums are generally pourable and fluid, gels are thicker and create texture, pastes are also thick and create texture. So if you wanted texture you would choose gels or pastes, while mediums offer a smoother layer. As I mentioned before, each product also creates a different absorbency. Gloss mediums and gloss gels create non-absorbent areas on a surface, matte mediums and matte gels create a semi-absorbent area, and most pastes (except for Molding Paste) create an absorbent surface area.



To make your own custom surface, start by choosing one product. My favorite is Golden’s Light Molding Paste. This way you’ll get to see what how just one product alone can make a big improvement. Apply this product at least 1/4″ thick as acrylic will shrink down in volume by about 30% once it is dry. If you don’t apply enough of the product, by the time it dries you will not have a layer that is substantial enough to change the surface absorbency. I like to apply the products with a knife so I can apply amply. You can add texture or keep it as smooth as your tool and product allow. Let this dry at least one day.



Once your surface is dry, you can now overpaint it with paint – but it’s very important to dilute your paint ALOT. To dilute, use the correct item to dilute according to the medium you are using. For example, dilute with water for watercolor, water for acrylic, solvent for oil, etc. Apply these “washes” or diluted mixtures over the dry custom surface. You can spray water over the surface or apply water in areas to allow washes to “bleed” or run into each other. On absorbent surfaces, the washes stay wet for awhile due to the large amount of water in the mixtures. This means you can keep applying more paint, as well as easily remove paint. On non-absorbent surfaces it is best to add lots of water to the surface to create a puddle. Apply paint to the puddle, leaving it alone to dry into interesting puddles.

Abstract monochrome textured painting with dynamic brush strokes.
The mixed absorbency surface before washes are applied
Colorful seaside landscape painting with cloudy sky.
Washes over a surface only primed with Gesso
Impressionist coastal landscape painting with vibrant sky and vegetation.
The same washes applied over the mixed surface


Once you master making a custom surface using only one product, then try making a mixed surface by using three or more products. Pick at least three binder products to apply; an absorbent one, a non-absorbent one, and a product somewhere in the middle absorbency range. Apply products all over the substrate, overlapping products if you wish, so that the end result is a surface with a variety of absorbencies. Once dry, apply diluted paint as above in Step 5, over the surface to see how quickly the surface results in many types of effects.


This process allows you maximum effects while saving money. You use very little paint since it is very diluted. Paint has colored pigment, and is therefore the more costly product for painting. Mediums, gels and pastes have little or no color pigment, and are less expensive then paints. By using these binders underneath your paint layer, you get texture and visual effects without using alot of the paint colors.



Here is my favorite combination of products to use for a mixed surface.
First I apply Light Molding Paste in a few areas. This is my favorite absorbent paste. Note the name is very specific, as this is NOT the same as another product called Molding Paste. Both products are made by Golden but it is the LIGHT Molding Paste that is absorbent, while Molding Paste is not.

Other absorbent pastes I like are Coarse Molding Paste and Pastel Ground. After applying one or more of these absorbent ones, I will then apply other products around these, and/or overlapping in areas, while all products are still wet.

So next I apply some mid-absorbency products, filling in whatever areas are still uncovered, using products such as Glass Bead Gel, Molding Paste and Heavy Gel Matte.

As a last step I apply the non-absorbent products. Anything that dries glossy will work here. Wherever I apply a gloss medium or gel, it will act as a resist. When I eventually get to the step of applying a wash of color over the entire surface, the paint will resist off the gloss areas, revealing the white surface underneath.

I create gloss lines (which will end up being white lines after painting) using Gloss Medium squeezed directly out of bottles. I create gloss areas (which will result in white areas after painting) using Regular or Soft Gloss Gels, and apply them wet over the still wet mixed surface I am working on.

In other words you can apply multiple products in one session while all are still wet. You do not need to wait for one product to dry to add another. But you do need to let the products all dry on the surface for at least one day before using it to overpaint with the diluted paint.

OK there it is – my favorite way to paint in layers. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!

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Hand painting pink wall with sponge.

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  1. Clementine Cuppen

    Thank you Nancy, you are so very generous! I am always encouraged by your emails/instructions and inspired by your art.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Thank you Clementine for your comment. I apreciate it!

  2. max

    I see the possibility of working with a sketch and deciding before laying down product which areas will be smooth and which textured. In other words, it can be a hit or miss effort or it can be controlled.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Max,

      Agreed! You can use this idea for both ways of working. You can apply the products as a sketch or layout for your overall composition or design. And then you can use it as a way to create an interesting surface that may be in contrast to the design, or may be an organic approach. Thanks for adding this idea to the article.

    • Nancy Reyner

      Hi Felipe,
      Thanks for adding my post to yours! I’m so glad you like it!


  3. Rosalind Robertson

    Hello Nancy,

    I recently purchased three panels with the intention of trying encaustics but have decided to put this aside at present until I have some instruction.
    I am an acrylic and mixed media painter and would like to use these panels for this purpose. I have removed every possible layer of the wax from the timber until finally rubbing the warmed surface with paper towel until nothing would come off. My question is how could I prime these for acrylic use?

    • Nancy Reyner

      I give full instructions in this free article on how to properly prepare wood panels for over painting with any medium such as oil, acrylic, wax or mixed media. Preparation of the wood panel is the same for everything because the wood needs to be sealed and primed no matter what you paint over it. Wood will swell if moisture is allowed to enter it, and by sealing the wood you will keep this from happening and the wood will not warp. Here is a link to the article:
      If you have any wax residue on the wood it may create an issue. You may want to wipe the wood with a rag and denatured alcohol to make sure all wax is removed before sealing and priming as per instructions in the previously mentioned article.

  4. Lisa Gibson

    Thank you so much, Nancy, for the detailed examples and descriptions! I’m just now starting to dive into mixed absorbencies on my supports and this gives me some much-needed direction.

    • Nancy Reyner

      I’m glad the article helped!

  5. Marjie Iversen

    Thank you so much, Nancy, for such an informative article. I can’t wait to experiment with different acrylic binders to alter the surface absorbency in my next painting. Exciting information!

    • Nancy Reyner

      You are welcome! It will surely be fun to experiment!

  6. Susan

    Wow, the differences are so dramatic (nothing added to substrate vs gels, pastes, etc. added). Thank you for the great examples!
    When you use one of the gels in a squeeze bottle to make white limes, is it tar gel? The marks you made in the sky of the first example are wonderful and dramatic.
    Thanks again, Nancy!

    • Nancy Reyner

      Golden’s Clear Tar Gel will make great resist lines. You can use it by dipping a palette knife into the gel, then drizzling it over the surface to create clear lines. When you apply washes over the dry surface, the color will resist over the clear lines, leaving them white in the end (if your surface is white under the clear). You can also get refillable containers with a variety of applicators. You can then put any gloss medium into the container, and squeeze out lines that way too.

    • crissea grovenor

      Wonderful succinct information thanks Nancy. I did explore creating a mix surface for painting and loved it however I like the process you describe of absorbent, mid absorbent and non absorbent. You are so generous with your knowledge.
      Great looking forward to trying this again.
      Thank you, Nancy

    • Nancy Reyner

      Glad you can use the info here! Thanks for the comment.

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About Nancy

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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