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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 is not always clear what is high quality and what is 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.

Canvas for painting

Blick Studio canvases.
Blick Premier canvases.
Fredrix Pro Dixie canvases.

Best of the affordable canvases

Blick Studio, Blick Premier, and Fredrix Pro Dixie cotton canvases are my choice for cost effective primed artist canvas. All of these canvases have some texture and are great for both acrylic paints and oil paints, heavier applications of mediums, and abstract pieces. 

 

These canvases come in a variety of depths (7/8", 1-1/2", and 2-3/8") and are also all 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 canvas.

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. 

 

Masterpiece explains:

 

“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.”

Finger joint wood example.

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 Portrait Smooth oil primed canvas.
Masterpiece Elite Portrait Smooth Acrylic primed canvas.

Linen canvas

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 one downside to these canvases is that they only come in a 1.5 inch depth (aka "gallery depth" or "gallery wrap"), which can limit frame options.

 

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. 

Canvas samples

Masterpiece canvas swatchbook.

Masterpiece canvas swatchbook

Masterpiece Hardcore Panel swatchbook.

Masterpiece hardcore pro panel swatchbook

If you’d like to get a feel for the different canvas types, click on the images above to zoom in. If you’d like to understand the look and feel of other brands of stretched canvases and surfaces, go to a brick-and-mortar art store and examine their inventory in person. 

Stretched canvas kits

Masterpiece B2 stretcher kit.

Masterpiece canvas stretcher bars

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 and 1-7/8 inch depth as well as B2 stretcher kits (1-1/2 inch depth), K2 stretcher kits (2-1/2 inch depth), and K3 stretcher kits (3-1/2 inch depth), so for a lower price, you can assemble their frames and stretch the canvas yourself. Again, all of these options are solid pieces of wood.

 

 

If you go this route, keep in mind that 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). 

 

Tip: add stainless steel metal brackets to the inside corners of frames to ensure the stretcher bars stay square.

Canvas panels and hardboards

Masterpiece hardcore pro canvas panels.

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.

Ampersand gesso bord.

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.” 

 

Masterpiece Ventura Hardcore Pro Canvas Panels.
Artefex Allinpanel Lead Oil Primed Extra Fine Linen.

For canvas panels, take a look at Masterpiece Linen Hardcore Pro Canvas Panels - the Ventura, Poiters Artfix, and Pau Artfix panels have a lovely smooth finish. If you would like a medium texture, try the Santa Cruz panels.

 

I'd also recommend taking a look at Artefex Allinpanels. Allinpanels are made with very sturdy aluminum composite (ACM) panels laminated to a polyethylene core. Canvas is adhered to the panels with BEVA 371 film (a removable archival glue). There are a variety of canvas options to choose from, including acrylic primed linen and titanium white oil primed linen. My personal preference for oil painting is the lead white oil primed extra fine linen ACM panels; the texture of these panels is comparable to the Ventura linen. Allinpanels are available in standard sizes from 8 x 10 to 20 x 24 inches and Artefex is happy to make panels in custom sizes - even oversized ones - to your specifications. Be sure to choose the correct ground (i.e. acrylic primed or oil primed) based on the type of medium or mediums that you intend to use. 

Copper Panels

Artefex also makes copper panels, which consist of a copper sheet and an aluminum sheet laminated to a polyethylene core. Although relatively uncommon, artists throughout history have used copper panels for oil painting with great success thanks to their durability as a rigid support and low response to environmental changes, such as relative humidity (RH) and temperature. One of the curators at the National Gallery in London even commented, "For the most part, pictures on copper are wonderfully preserved. They have a very fresh quality, almost as if they were painting yesterday." (Source)

Oil paint can be directly applied to these panels or they may be partially or completely primed (preferably with a lead alkyd ground). You may also use 300 gsm sandpaper or higher to sand these panels. Sanding is not necessary but if you want to reduce the shine, this is one way to do it, as well as create a little “tooth” if you don’t want a completely smooth surface.

 

Learn more about Artefex Copper Artist Panels here.

Artefex Copper Artist Panel.

Wood Panels

For hardwood panels, I’d recommend Blick Premier Wood Panels. These wood panels are made with a 4 mm solid basswood surface braced by a solid basswood cradle. Basswood has a smooth and uniform surface and is known for its longevity over time. Blick Premier Wood Panels can handle heavier paint applications as well as encaustics. One thing to note here is that wood expands and contracts with changes in humidity and temperature. Because of this, conservators suggest wood panels be sealed and primed on all sides to ensure the stability of your artwork over time.

Blick Premier Wood Panels.

Preparing wood panels for painting

Below you will find instructions on how to seal and gesso unprimed hardwood and hardboard. Doing this will increase moisture resistance and even out the tension caused by the application of paint. 

Apply 2 coats of Golden Gloss Medium on all sides and then 2 coats of Golden Gesso on all sides, allowing each coat to dry before applying another. 

 

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.

Framing considerations

Floater frame vs decorative frame side profiles.

Side profiles of a floater frame (left) and a decorative frame (right)

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 1-1/2 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. 

List of painting supports

Below is a list of the painting supports discussed in this article:

Canvases:

Rigid supports:

Notes

I hope this information was helpful! If you’d like to see more demos and art supply reviews, subscribe to my YouTube channel and check out my other articles here.

Also, please note that this page contains affiliate links. If you decide to make a purchase through one of these links, I will make a small commission. There is no additional cost to you and your purchase supports the creation of more articles and videos.

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