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Surfaces for Oils and Acrylics

The public has got a thing about canvas. It is perceived as the ultimate surface for oil-paint, the top end, the very best. Not all artists would agree with that, however. Canvas is easily torn and not easily repaired, especially when already painted. Naturally it does provide a nice surface to paint on, with choices of smooth or coarser texture, or various linens (which are pricey). It is also prone to rot and bugs that like eating fabric. Oils should never be painted on unprimed canvas of any type; but acrylics don't require the canvas to be primed and some artists actually use the surface as part of their design.

A major problem with mass-produced stretched canvas is that the corners are not always 90 degrees. A few degrees out isn't a problem, but beyond 10 or 15 gives the canvas a decided lopsided look. You can check it by hanging it on a wall or standing it upright, then stepping back and looking at the sides. Are left and right sides parallel? Does the top edge look like it is sloping upwards? If so, then you've got to decide whether to just carry on with it or chuck it. If you're selling your work, the customer won't be pleased if they find they've got a wonky canvas-panel in pride of place on their sitting-room wall.

The artist is not just concerned with the niceties of the finished work, but also the process. There are other surfaces that offer chances for experimentation. This is where the demands of commercialism oppose the artist's need for personal growth; the public want canvas but the artist needs to experiment and explore. Some swear by canvas-boards because the surface is rigid rather than yielding to the brush; paint does not sink in so readily, because the canvas is bonded to a thick quality card. As a result the colours remain brighter upon application. Boards are stronger for the placement and weight of thick impasto work and texturing substances.

Some canvas-boards are cheap, thinner creations, sometimes with canvas-effect paper rather than the proper stuff. I don't personally like these, preferring a good quality thick board with canvas bonded to it; those made by Winsor and Newton, Gerstaeker, Armaco, Reeves and Fredrix all seem to perform well with few problems. One thing, however, that I've found out is that some makes are overly frugal on the final priming layers. The surfaces are so absorbent that paint sinks into them like going down a drain. One make I tried was so bad that I couldn't even spread the paint across the board; the fluids were sucked out on contact and the paint remained on the board like a dessicated slug. Even several coats of extra primer were to no avail; all was absorbed. If you find you've got boards like this, you can perhaps add an extra coat of primer, to see if that will remedy the problem. Otherwise, send em back or put gritted primer on and use them for pastels!

Medium density fibreboard has become very popular (MDF). It's easy to cut to any size and shape you want; easily prepared by sealing, then adding a coat of acrylic gesso or whatever else you wish to use as primer, with some light sanding between. We are warned that MDF can create harmful dust during the sanding process. Also that from a conservationist's point of view, it isn't particularly stable. If you're really bothered about longevity then don't use it; but for small to average sized works and experimental stuff it has been very popular.

Oil paint is readily received on a suitably prepared board. Many of my small oils have been done on gessoed mdf. Like Kilve Beach, below.

The final finish is generally smooth; i.e you don't see that usual canvas tooth below the thinner paint. Brush strokes don't sink into the surface and tend to remain more pronounced; they also glide more easily. These days I don't do much with acrylic paint, but I have created the odd few pictures on mdf board using texture paste to sculpture a base, which is then painted over. MDF is rigid and thus ideal for this sort of approach. The picture of rocks by the sea (further below) was, on this occasion, done on hardboard, with a thick-ish texture-paste underpainting for the rock, then washed over with layers of watery acrylic paint, before moving on to finish the rest.

I wouldn't mind trying another like this, since the creation of rock-faces and rough shorelines is rather fun when using texture-pastes. I think it has to be balanced carefully with smoother areas; I don't like the all-over plastered-wall look. So at the moment, for me, it's good quality canvas-boards and MDF, with not so many canvas-panels. The latter do come into their own of course when works get large; the weight of mdf starts to mount up as the panels go over a couple of feet in width.

Recently new out is Arches Oil paper, looking like watercolour sheets but actually a new support for oil-based media; see my article under Arches Oil Paper. I haven't done a lot with it so far, but it's an interesting surface. There are a few examples in the blog, "Clouds at Loch Tay" and "Loch Assynt".

The latest to reach the UK is Ampersand gessoboard (or GessoBord as they spell it). Now, this is a board I really like. It is bright white, smooth gesso on a sturdy board and these come with or without "cradles" (a boxed section behind the board). The surface is smooth as silk to paint on, which I prefer for small works; no canvas grain to interfere with tiny details. The bright surface also reflects a lot of light which I have found very good for sky paintings. This is a board I will be continuing to use. (CD 2014, updated 2016).

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