The best surfaces to paint on when using oils
It’s a fascinating question for new and experienced oil painters alike: What surface, or ‘support’ to use the popular painters’ parlance, should you actually be painting on when you work with oils?
You probably won’t be taken aback when told that canvas — a cotton or linen material usually stretched to make it taut — is the most popular support for oil painting.
However, there are many other surfaces that can conceivably be used for oil painting, including hardboard, cardboard, paper or even a wall. These different surfaces naturally have varying characteristics that lend themselves to different painting experiences, so you shouldn’t necessarily dismiss any one support option out of hand.
Which, though, might be the wisest choice of support for your own oil painting endeavours?
Canvas has sustained its popularity as a support for oil painting for as long as it has simply because it’s such a sympathetic surface for oils, proving highly effective at ‘holding’ the paint.
You can buy canvases that are already stretched and ready to use, although you can also stretch and prepare your own, which may make sense for economical reasons. If you opt for the latter route, there is no shortage of artists’ suppliers that can sell you unprimed canvas by the metre, as well as stretchers in pairs, allowing you to customise the size of the canvas.
One thing that many novice oil painters may not be aware of is the range of different types of canvases available — from fine weave to very coarse — and what they afford. Generally speaking, if you’re expecting to use broad and heavy brushwork, a coarse weave is likely to make sense, whereas for finely detailed work, a finely woven texture will be most suitable.
Another key distinction to make is between cotton and linen canvas. As the much cheaper of the two options, cotton canvas is almost certainly the type that you should be using if you are an inexperienced painter, not least given that it also stretches very easily. Linen canvas is expensive, but many artists prefer it due to its strength, durability and longevity — as well as it simply being a pleasanter surface on which to apply paint.
If you don’t want to spend too much on the support for your oil painting but would also like to benefit from such characteristics as strength and lightweight, hardboard could be a very interesting surface to try. After all, you can purchase it from any builders’ suppliers or timber yard.
However, while both the smooth and rough sides of hardboard can be painted on, it’s inadvisable to use the latter unless you intend to apply the paint thickly.
Alternatively, you could always pick up some already-prepared canvas boards on your next visit to an artists’ suppliers. These are available with a range of surfaces, and although the more expensive ones are naturally the best, the cheaper ones — even if they can sometimes have a coarse and greasy surface — are probably perfectly adequate for experimentations when you’re just starting out.
Paper and cardboard
Paper and cardboard work much better for oil painting than you might expect, provided that you prime these surfaces first.
You’re probably most likely to use paper and cardboard for short and quick sketches, making the most of the slightly absorbent qualities of the paper that enable the paint to dry rapidly.
However, you also shouldn’t use just any old paper for the task, given how easily thin paper can buckle when primed. For this reason, I would suggest that you buy a good-quality, heavy watercolour paper, or even the dedicated oil sketching paper that has already been specially prepared, and which is usually purchased in pads.
This latter type of paper isn’t to everyone’s taste, as it can be as unpleasant to work on as the cheaper canvas boards I mentioned above. Others, however, feel liberated by a surface that doesn’t leave them feeling the need to be too ‘precious’ about preserving it in the best possible condition.
Best paper for oil painting
To help you narrow down which paper is best for oil painting, we put together a separate guide with paper types and brands we like. While it’s not an exhaustive list, it’s good place to kick off if you’re just starting out with this versatile medium.
Which surfaces have given you the best results, or that you would like to try?
Whatever your initial preferences may be when you glance through the support options above, there’s only really one way to determine which one will best suit your own approach to oil painting: trying them all, or at least a good number of them.
Even then, different oil paintings will probably call for different supports — so in all likelihood, there’s no single surface that will always be most suitable in every situation.
What are your own thoughts on the best surfaces for oil painting? Do you have your own favourites, or any that you are especially eager to try? If so, I’d love to read all about it in the comments section below.
This post was originally published in September 2019. Last updated in October 2020.