Painting Boards

In general, painting boards are better for making small paintings and canvases are better for making the big ones.. For techniques involving kaolin or pure egg tempera, it's necessary to work on a stiff board. Oil paint (eventually combined with egg-tempera) and acrylics are flexible enough for canvas, but pure egg-tempera and casein paintings need a stiff board (to keep from cracking). There's a unique quality about very thin paintings on board. But thin boards also warp easier. On the other hand, thin economy painting boards are great for doing lots of quick studies.

What to consider when choosing painting boards

  • What's more important - pricing or durability? Scroll down for economy options. Canvas panels may be less durable, but you can help it by mounting a cradle on it later (scroll down for that). Only oil painting paper is cheaper.
  • If you have time and less money, make your own. If you have money but not much time, choose the better ready-made alternatives.
  • What primer or painting ground do you need? Gesso is said to be good for oils, but not durable in the end (doing your own gesso, with caseine added, is better - check here for recipes). For studies, universal priming is ok - but on the other hand: sometimes studies turn out to be the best you ever did.
  • A panel has many other options for priming - besides the usual acrylic gesso ('universal primer'), there's kaolin or aqua board, encaustic board (for wax paint), pure oil primer, or traditional recipes involving rabbit skin glue. The more absorbing your primer, the faster your work will be dry. Extremely absorbent grounds (like kaolin) can be worked on with watercolor, in the first layers.
  • What do you like for structure? How thick do you want your painting panels to be? Scroll down for more.
  • How will you hang up your painting board - with or without frame? This issue comes last, but it's best to take care of it first. Cradled panels, or panels with a slot in the back can be hanged without a frame. Thin panels can be framed, or you can glue a strip of plywood to the back and put in little screws.

Economy options for painting boards

  • Classroom packs are cheaper because they go in bulk. Great for a quick start and lots of economy stock. Here are two options: one with a carton core, and one with a wood core. They're canvas structured, and universally primed (which is only to a certain degree suitable for oils, but it will hold for a decade or so). With the carton-core panels, you'll have to worry about warping later (which can be mended, by cradling, or mounting paper to the back)
  • Raw hardboard panels - better to take Blick's hardboard over the ones from the hardware store because they had extra treatment against warping (click here: Hardboard Panels They're not primed, but for oils it's better to do your own priming anyway, then you can use colored gesso which saves an underpainting layer. Check here for free primer recipes. No canvas structure, unless you glue canvas to the board yourself. Which is rather easily done (more about that in this oil painting guide). Best treat the back the same as the front, to keep the panels stable.
  • MDF panels from the hardware store can be cut to the exact sizes you need. They need to be thick enough for their size, and the back is best to be treated the same as the front.

Making your own painting boards

It's some extra work, but making your own boards provides you with cheap and good quality painting boards. The cheaper ready-made painting boards are universally primed, and need extra priming anyway to become durable. On panels, you have a wide range of options for priming (scroll down).

When you buy MDF at the hardware store: make sure they're thick enough for their size. For sizes up to 5 inches (on either side), I use 1/4 inch thickness, but bigger panels need to be thicker. Here you'll find an oil painting guide with more information on boards, canvases and other oil painting supplies.

Glueing canvas to a board gives structure, and it has the advantage that the primer will hold on better to the painting board. If you prime without canvas: first size the board with caseine (on both sides), it's one of the strongest glues and the gesso will hold on to it well. Applying it on both sides prevents warping. In this oil painting guide, you'll find out more about primers and panels.

Kinds of primer on ready-made painting boards

Ready-to-use painting panels are available with the folowing kinds of primer:

  • gesso primer, for acrylic and oil painting techniques (with notes on them over with acrylic-caseine gesso). Gessoed panels need only one layer of that priming over.
  • kaolin primer or clay boards, on which one can starts with or watercolor, before going over to oils. Check here: Ampersand Claybords. The thin, uncradled version is not really expensive.
  • oil primer, suitable only for oil paints. For example: Art Boards Oil Primed Linen Panels. Oil primed linen is also available on rolls. You can cut what you need and tack it on plywood, when the painting is finished you can still stretch it on bars, or frame it.
  • All these options can be home-made as well - more on that in this oil painting guide.

Gesso-primed boards are generally used for both oil and acrylic painting techniques, but contemporary gesso really is an acrylic material. A specialist adviced me to add caseine to the acrylic primer, to make the oil hold on gesso (otherwise, the paint tends to let go after a decade or so). But then you would have to prime the panels yourself. An option is, to do one extra layer of gesso (with caseine), on a gesso primed panel.

Kaolin grounds or clay panels require very much their own approach. They are extremely absorbent, you can start with watercolors if you like. You can also scratch it with steel wool, to either add highlights, or to take off everything you did. There is no canvas structure. The first layers dry quickly, and they will be matte. Absorbent grounds are great if you like starting out carfully, with thin washes of color. It also allows you great depth in material: you can fully use the extent of material expression, when you can work both very thin, and very thick on one panel. Kaolin grounds are of a much older recipe, then gesso.

Oil-primed panels are especially friendly to oil paints. The first layers are not sucked into a chalky ground, loosing their gloss and structure: they stand firm. You can make expressive patterns and textured structures by pushing around a bristle brush - on an absorbent ground, the paint (and color) is sucked in immediately. Doing your own oil priming can be an option for adding extra structure (scroll down for that).

Thickness: cradled painting boards

If you like your panel thicker, it needs a frame on the back. It's best to fix that before you start to paint, but it can be done later as well. Cradled painting boards are available (check here - American Easel Wood Painting Panels These are still unprimed. You can do your own cradling, by using strips of thin plywood. Make the frame in two layers, let the corners overlap, and use wood glue or caseine binder to glue everything together.

Canvas structure on painting panels

Canvas structure has advantages - paint is picked up easier by the board, and you don't see every hair of every brushstroke. Most ready made painting panels have a canvas structure - but they're usually primed with acrylic gesso, not really suitable for oils. You might consider priming them over with caseine-acrylic gesso (check here for recipes).

A nice feature of canvas structure, is that it hides little mistakes, it sort of fusses your perception. Every brushstrokes get about the same texture, and it makes painting itself easier too - when doing brushstrokes, the brushtip gets more grip on a structured surface. But work on smooth, flat panels, has a certain clarity and pureness. For really fine work like portraits, fine or no structure is better. You can see everything you did. When you make your own panels, a canvas structure can be achieved by gluing a piece of cotton canvas on the panel. But you can also get structure by the way you brush on the primer. Rolling it on is a good option too (and will also give some structure). You can take away structure by abrasing the panel, with fine sandpaper or steel wool.

Doing your own oil primer on painting board

Traditional oil priming was done with lead-white linseed-oil paint. Painting boards like that have to dry for six months... but it's really necessary to let a primer dry through and through. New, fast-drying oil primers were made, but they involve alkyds - and alkyds produce a fake dryness. The paint hardens so you can work over it, but the real drying takes as much time as before. For an oil-primer effect it's probably better to take a caseine-gesso ground, and paint the first layer with pure foundation white (eventually with some alkyd added, and not too thick). Then your ground is sealed, and the rest of the paint will stand firm, keeping its gloss and structure. The same can be done on a traditional half-oil ground.

Painting boards and egg-tempera

Oil- and acrylic paintlayers remain flexible, but egg-tempera and casein paint harden out in time. They become brittle. For that reason, they'll be safer on a painting board - take the better qualities for that.

Hanging up a painting board

This issue comes last - still it's handy to take care of it before you start painting. If you want to frame your work, and the board is stable, you don't need cradling, and the painting will be hung by the frame. Unframed work needs a hook or string on its backm that's firmly stuck, and a glue-on string will let loose sooner or later. A strip of (ply)wood glued to the back gives you material to put little hooks or screws in.

Cradling provides extra stability, but also gives opportunity for hanging up your work. But if you want to keep your panel thin, you'll need another solution.

Keeping a thin board from warping

There are two ways to keep a thin board from warping: cradling (mounting a frame on the back), or balancing the forces by treating the back with glue or paper. Glue is a mysterious thing - applied to only one side of a board, a strong glue like caseine will make the board warp. But when you apply it to the other side as well, balance is restored, and the board will go straight again. Instead of treating the back in the same way as the front (which is on itself a good option but maybe much work), you can also restore balance by gluing paper to the back of the panel. The pulling force will be the strongest, when you first let the paper swell with moisture, and use a strong glue (like caseine binder). The paper will shrink while drying, creating a strong pulling force. Glue strength can be regulated by mixing caseine binder (strong) and acrylic binder (weak glue).

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