Canvas for Oil Painting | Best Surfaces to Use for Oil Painting
Every teacher and professional artist I know will tell you the same thing: buy the best quality art supplies that you can afford.
Yet, it’s not always clear what’s high quality and what’s not. Many manufacturers claim that what they’re selling is the finest product on the market. Artists can feel overwhelmed and confused by this information - I know I did when I first got started!
As a painter, I’ve tested out many different surfaces and have compiled a list of best-in-category canvases and panels for oil paints. Check out the video below and scroll down for a summary and product links.
Best of the affordable canvases
Blick Studio, Blick Premier, and Fredrix Pro Dixie cotton canvases are my choice for cost effective canvases. All of these canvases have some texture and are great for both acrylic paints and oil paints, heavier applications of oil and acrylic mediums, and abstract pieces.
All of these canvases are back-stapled to the frames, which makes it easy to remove the canvas if reframing is ever needed in the future.
Best of the middle-priced canvases
Masterpiece Tahoe canvases. The surface of these cotton canvases is smoother than the Blick and Fredrix canvases, which is ideal for painting in a more realistic style with finer details.
Like the other canvases previously mentioned, the Tahoe canvases are back-stapled to the frames. The construction of these canvases is extremely sturdy as well, in fact, all Masterpiece canvases are made with solid pieces of wood. You might be wondering if this really makes a difference.
“Solid wood is far superior to finger jointed wood, which is many small wood pieces glued together. Each piece has varying densities and grain that absorb and shed moisture at varying rates, and expand and contract non uniformly, which can cause the wood to bow and the finger joints to fail. The purpose of finger joints is to reduce cost, not to contribute to archival quality.”
Example of finger joint wood
Another craftsman agrees with this philosophy and says:
“Wood moves. Wood expands and contracts in response to the conditions in the environment around it like heat, cold, and moisture. The problem with finger joint lumber is that every piece of wood moves differently and the piece of wood on one side of the joint vs. the other side will almost always expand and contract at different rates. This results in the joint weakening and pushing apart over time.” (Source)
Another reason to be a fan of Masterpiece products is their sourcing - their production is based in the United States and their wood is sourced from mills in California and Oregon that adhere to the Sustainable Forestry Initiative.
Best of the expensive canvases
Masterpiece Elite Heavyweight Oil Primed Linen canvases. These canvases are similarly constructed to the Tahoe canvases but are made with linen rather than cotton.
Linen - especially Belgian linen - is more expensive than cotton and some artists prefer linen for its greater historical durability. Linen is made from flax fibers, which are longer, stronger, and more flexible than cotton fibers and have more natural oil in them, making them less prone to damage from humidity.
Combined with modern sizes and priming, however, the difference between linen and cotton is apparently minimal.
That said, the Elite canvases are about twice the price of the Tahoe canvases. Also note that the oil primed canvas is only suitable for oil paint but there is also an acrylic-primed version of this canvas which is suitable for both acrylic and oil paint.
If you are looking for a very smooth linen canvas surface of the highest quality, check out the Masterpiece Elite Portrait Smooth Linen canvases. These are available in acrylic-primed and oil-primed versions as well. The only downside to these canvases is that they only come in a 1.5 inch depth.
Painting surface and structure
Regardless of how much a canvas costs, be sure to look at how each of the four sides of the canvas rests on the ground to make sure none of the sides are bending or warping. Also, lay the canvas flat on the ground to make sure none of the corners stick up.
If it doesn’t lay flat on the ground, it won’t lay flat on the wall.
Acrylic paint vs oil paint
Many artists find that a medium tooth or medium surface texture is preferred for acrylic painting and abstract painting while a smoother surface is preferred for oil painting, fine detailed painting, and thin applications of paint. It really comes down to your own individual preferences.
If you’d like to get a literal feel for the different canvas types, you can order sample packs containing swatches of Masterpiece's different types of canvases and hardcore panels here:
I know of no other manufacturer that offers samples like this. If you’d like to understand the look and feel of other brands of stretched canvases and surfaces in person, another great option is to go to a brick-and-mortar art store and examine their inventory.
Canvas stretcher bar kits
You can also construct your own canvas. For larger canvas sizes especially, you will save money on shipping by purchasing unassembled frames.
Masterpiece sells individual stretcher bars at a 11/16 inch depth, 1-7/8 inch depth, B2 stretcher kits (1.5 inch depth) and K2 stretcher kits (2.5 inch depth), so for a lower price, you can assemble their frames and stretch the canvas yourself. Again, these are all going to be solid pieces of wood.
Masterpiece individual stretcher bars (11/16 inch depth)
Keep in mind, you will need to buy canvas separately. You can check out some different canvas roll options here. You’ll also need a staple gun and staples, preferably stainless steel (staples that are not stainless steel can rust over time).
Pro tip: add stainless steel metal brackets to the inside corners of frames to ensure the stretcher bars stay square.
Aluminum stretcher bars
Some professional artists I know who create large paintings prefer using aluminum frame canvases because they are strong, rarely warp, and lightweight.
While the outer edge of the frame is made of wood, the inner aluminum frame is less impacted by humidity and temperature, which greatly reduces the bowing and warping that can affect wood frames.
With a linen canvas, these can be about as expensive as the Masterpiece Elite canvases. Some artists feel the expense is well worth it. To learn more, click on the links below:
Canvas panels, wood panels, and hardboards
Alternative painting surfaces that are archival quality, free of acid, and structurally sound include hardboard, wood panel, and canvas mounted on panel aka canvas boards or canvas panels.
One of the upsides of using panels is that they are flat and smooth and don't "give" when you rest your hand on them. Panels are considered a “rigid support” - they are less flexible than canvases, which means over time the paint itself is less likely to crack due to movement.
However, one of the downsides of panels is that because they are less flexible than canvases they are more easily damaged when bumped.
If you’re on the fence, consider getting a small board or panel to see if you prefer painting on them over stretched canvas.
For hardboards, Ampersand Gessobord is a great choice. These “museum series” panels are ready to be painted on, are archival quality, and have a patented sealing and coating technology that protects against support induced discoloration (SID). The fine tooth surface lends itself to tight detail work yet it is also strong enough to support heavier textures and palette knife painting. These are suitable for both acrylics and oils.
Side note: the quality and durability of hardboard panels, like Ampersand’s, are praised as a painting support by Mark David Gottsegen, author of The Painter’s Handbook and former Chair of the ASTM. He wrote:
“Hardboard panels are made of shredded, compacted, and compressed wood fibers. The fibers are burst apart under steam pressure, and the resulting pulp is formed into sheets. Only the natural adhesive found in the wood - lignin - holds the mass together. The method of manufacture produces a dense, one-layer substitute for solid wood that does not have a pronounced grain. The panels are therefore less likely to warp and are resistant to penetration by atmospheric moisture.”
For canvas panels, take a look at Masterpiece Linen Hardcore Pro Canvas Panels - the Malibu, Ventura, Poiters Artfix, and Pau Artfix panels all have a lovely smooth finish. If you would like a medium texture, try the Santa Cruz panels. Be sure to choose the correct ground (i.e. acrylic primed or oil primed) based on the medium or mediums that you intend to use.
For hardwood panels, I’d recommend Blick Premier Wood Panels.
Preparing wood panel for painting
Note that prior to painting on an unprimed hardboard or panel, you must seal and gesso all sides of it in order to increase moisture resistance and even out the tension caused by the application of paint.
The process of how to do that is outlined here:
Note that Golden Gesso comes in black and white. If you are working on a hardwood panel and want the wood grain to be visible, Winsor and Newton makes a clear acrylic gesso.
You don't have to gesso the sides if you like the natural texture of the wood, but you do need to seal all sides and gesso at least the front and back for even tension.
After each coat of gesso, you may lightly sand each layer to get rid of any unwanted texture (order a sandpaper variety pack here).
If you'd like more information, Ampersand outlines the process a little more in depth here (scroll to the bottom to see instructions when using oil grounds).
A note on using acrylic primer underneath oil paint: Golden maintains that their acrylic gesso is a perfectly fine foundation for oil painting and suggests applying at least three coats of gesso to control the penetration of oil paint. Golden offers more information here and here.
Side profiles of a floater frame and a decorative frame
At first, you might not pay attention to the depth of a canvas or panel, but it’s worthwhile to think about what style frame might complement your finished artwork and choose a depth that would fit in the intended frame.
Floater frames, which are often the choice for abstract paintings, are typically about 2 inches deep and will accommodate a 1.5 inch deep canvases.
Decorative wood frames on the other hand, which are often the choice for realistic paintings, often only have a rabbet depth of 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch. If you think you might want to use a decorative frame, then you may want to use a panel or hardboard instead of canvas.
Below is a list of the painting supports discussed in this article:
Masterpiece individual stretcher bars (11/16 inch depth)
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