One of the biggest factors in how well a painting comes out is the surface which you create it on. Throughout the last twenty years I've slowly narrowed down what I prefer to paint on which allows me to produce original artwork that is both visually stunning and stands the tests of time, like this one:
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There's no one answer for every artist, the surface on which you paint on is largely individual and will always vary even amongst the best painters. So just remember that nothing is right or wrong here, it comes down to your preference and your own unique intentions. Hopefully I can give you some direction however in what might be best to try in your process of discovering what's best for you.
One of the first things to consider when choosing a surface to create your masterpiece on is longevity and archivalness. If you’re wanting to start a profession in art and want your paintings to last decades to come, choosing a surface that will stand the test of time is key. Hardbord is excellent because unlike stretched canvas, it cannot be poked and doesn't flex nearly as much. Over time, stretched canvas can lose its rigidity and become loose on its frame, which can be bad if you are hoping to avoid any type of physical wear or cracking. Hardbord is completely smooth and many love it for it's ability to allow for precise detail. Plain hardbord comes unprimed, so they'll need a layer or two of gesso; Because of that, if you wish to try painting straight on a panel, I would go with a gessobord which comes primed and ready to paint.
One major downside to gessobord, MSD panels, or other hardboards are that the corners are very prone to being dented and damaged if hit and as a result, they can and will chip if you're not careful. Painting on hard panel is still a great option if you find that it works best for you, just keep that in mind and be careful with them. I would highly recommend framing these and never hanging them with exposed corners. If you like painting on panel, but want something more durable and with a bit more texture, I'll talk about that below in a second. First, let's start with texture.
Do you like a lot of texture or none at all? Or somewhere in between? The texture of your surface will determine how paint will transfer from your brush. Little to no texture will not pull paint off of your bristles and well as medium or coarse texture will. This is why many artists do not prefer to paint on smooth board or panels. I'll admit myself, smooth boards can be tricky! That being said, too much texture can take away from what you're trying to achieve. So for me, I like texture to grab the paint, but not too much.
If you want some texture, canvas is the way to go. The great thing about canvas is that you can control how much texture you want. All canvases and brands have varying textures. Some canvases have a deep tooth and some have shallower tooth to them.
You can add layers of gesso and/or paint to smooth out those grooves, leaving just a touch of texture. I like to apply gesso with a joint knife and scrape it across the canvas tooth rather than using a brush which doesn't necessarily help smooth things out. It really takes some experimenting to figure out which you like best. Finding the sweet spot is a personal endeavor and takes patience and time!
I originally thought that stretched canvas was just what I should use, but that changed with time as well. For archival purposes, I didn’t like how stretched canvas can become loose over time. Whenever I visited museums and viewed older paintings, it seemed that the ones done on stretched canvas were always the first to crack and show major signs of wear. At the same time however, I always felt I couldn’t trust a bare panel alone being that the edges can be quite delicate. So I took what I liked about both and figured I'd combine them to create my own canvas panels using rolled canvas mounted to hardboard panel.
The canvas I buy is fine textured and pre-primed with a layer of gesso. I prefer to mount them to Ampersand hardbord. After I’ve mounted canvas to the board, I’ll apply another layer of white gesso to reduce the texture down to the consistency of sandpaper. Adding additional layers of gesso makes the canvas more absorbent, which can create some issues for your first layer or two of paint, so be aware of that when applying your own primer layer.
You might need to experiment at this stage. What I'll do to help with this issue is add some titanium white acrylic paint mixed with burnt sienna into the gesso to help tone the canvas as well as reduce the absorbency overall. This helps greatly with keeping the paint handling like normal during that initial stage of the painting. If you’re curious about how I make my canvases, you can check out that video here!
So honestly, that's pretty much it when it boils down to it. How well a surface handles for your given techniques and how long it will last is what you should mainly be concerned with.
Do you ever prefer stretched canvas over panel?
If I am painting a very large piece, over 48" in length lets say, I would prefer stretched canvas. Board can get very heavy when its cut that large and not to mention you can't move it easily. The major advantage stretched canvas has over board is that it can be removed from the stretching bars and rolled up so that it can fit through doors and transported more easily.
If you like the feel and look of stretched canvas or are working on something large, just be sure that you go with a brand or type that is well constructed with back braces to keep it from warping. Some also come with wedges in the corners of the frame which can be used to maintain the tight pressure which is great. A few brands that I recommend are Masterpiece Pro, Fredrix Red Label, or Masterpiece Elite which is a smooth linen canvas (a bit pricier).
With hardboards and wooden painting panels, the same holds true. If you buy cheap panels, you're likely going to get something more fragile and not as archival overall. Additionally, some can be too rigid and snap far too easily when stressed. I always recommend Ampersand products when suggesting pro-quality boards. Then as far as the rolled canvas goes, it's definitely not as easy to go wrong, but I would always suggest quality over value to some degree. There are a lot of great choices and I think you get what you pay for. There are pre-made canvas panels as well, but I have never had luck finding one I truly trust and enjoy.
For those of you looking to simply paint for fun or a hobby, and would like to have quality WITHOUT breaking the bank, I would suggest something on the lines of these: Blick Premier, Winsor & Newton, Ampersand Gessobord or Blick Economy Canvas Panels.
So whether you paint for fun or paint professionally, always remember to ask yourself what you intend to do with the painting. If you're intent is to sell it, you owe it to your collector to make sure it's an archival surface and one that won't damage or loosen easily overtime. If you are just experimenting with painting or perhaps giving your work away as gifts, you can find cheap options that will still last long. At the end of the day, keep in mind I’m sharing my personal preferences and opinions from my experiences. Everyone has a different experience and they may differ from mine. I hope that the insight I’ve provided here will offer help and guidance to anyone out there wondering about painting surfaces.
Thank you as always for reading!
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I'm Chuck Black, landscape and wildlife artist based in Southwest Montana.