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painting on canvas

Answered: Your Most Burning Questions About artists canvas and other surfaces

Sometimes choosing the right substrate

for a new piece is the hardest part of a prospective project. Once you’ve started there is no looking back. But I look at it this way. I want the best foundation for my work so I spend whatever time I need to in researching the material I want to use.

Art gets picked up, dropped on occasion, stored and sometimes hung in a way that is not the best for the work. The surface you choose to work on is one of the most important decisions you will make.

I worked on one series

where instead of working with artists canvas I decided in all my wisdom to collaborate with a metal artist who sent me some wonderful pieces for my series. I was so excited that the work was finished and ready for hanging before I finally realized that the metal was HEAVY!

Very Heavy, and while it didn’t create a problem for me, I quickly found that the cost was prohibitive when shipping off the pieces to a show.

Live and Learn.

When deciding what kind of surface to use for a piece it is important to remember that not all surfaces are created equal. Especially for mixed media because sometimes what you think you are going to do is not always the same as where your project takes you.

For that reason there are considerations such as weight, shape, framing and materials bring used to consider before starting. If you think about all of that first, it is much more likely that you will create something you love.

Another thing to keep in mind

is the longevity of the surface you are working on. If you are creating something that will last for 50 or 100 years it is important to prime the substrate correctly and make sure that the surface is acid free so that the color won’t fade and the work doesn’t turn yellow in a few years.

And if you are using glue you must think about how permanent it is, how flexible it is so that humidity won’t affect the flexing and contracting of the surface you have chosen.

It may seem like the impossible task to choose the right surface to work on, but soldier on. There is one that will stand out to you and be the perfect solution for you to begin your next masterpiece.

Artists Canvas – Not all canvases are created equal.

There are many variations in canvas. However, if you are looking for an archival substrate you won’t do better than stretched canvas.

Canvas is made from Linen or cotton fibers. Thread count determines the weight and density of the canvas and is a design choice. If you are thinking about a piece with a lot of detail a fine weave with little texture is best, however if you are looking to unleash your inner Picasso the rougher weaves might be best.

Canvas comes pre-stretched and in many sizes, so it is easy to go to your local art store and pick up a few and start to work. Even though the stretched canvas generally comes primed, it is a good idea to gesso them to make sure that the surface is receptive to paint.

You can paint on unprimed canvas,

however the colors are paler and duller, and often spread through the fibers of the canvas giving a fuzzy look and the texture of the canvas will be obvious. I mean if that’s what you are looking to do, unprimed canvas can be your best friend, however for the majority of artists, priming is a good idea.

If you are buying a primed canvas make sure to notice what material it is primed with so that whatever medium you are using is compatible with the surface.

There is also a difference in the thickness of the stretcher bars. Generally canvas comes in 1/2 or 1″ bar size. There are specialty sizes both in panel size and in stretcher bar size.Before you start your next piece consider carefully your vision for the completed work.

The other option is canvas rolls.

You can buy primed or unprimed canvas by the roll or yard, in a variety of weights, textures and fibers. If you have a size in mind that isn’t commercially available or if you just like making your own canvases this is the choice for you.

Working on un-stretched canvas is always a possibility. I’m always a bit fearful of damaging my work if I wait to stretch it after I’ve finished a piece. Sometimes however, it is the best solution.

Linen is also a choice and for some painting it is the clear choice. It is also the most expensive option. It is the most archival and its fine weave is perfect for paintings with fine detail as well as for large far less detailed works.

Of course if you are a die hard DIYer here is a video to help you stretch your own canvas.

Panels and Canvas Pads– Which choice is best?

There are many panel choices out there. For anyone on a budget or experimenting with a new method it is perfect. Panels are fairly inexpensive. They are available in a variety of sizes and fabrics such as hessian, muslin, calico and scrim. The thing to keep in mind with panels is that they are not archival and they have a tendency to warp.

Canvas pads

come in pads like paper. Depending on how much you want to pay there is paper that is textured like canvas or actual canvas sheets in pad form. Theses are great if you like to paint while you travel because of the ease of use and portability.

Hardwood panels

have been used for centuries. In case you want to go to your local hardware store and buy some wood panels, keep in mind that hardwoods are best. Softwood, while usually cheaper, also warp over time when hung on the wall. The downside is that the panels are heavy and can split, much like any wood over time.

That said, painting on furniture is always a choice that can be extremely satisfying as an artistic pursuit.

Hardboard panels or MDF are a choice that some artists make. Some prefer the smoothness of the MDF panels for their work. It comes both tempered and untempered. The tempered version is flooded with linseed oil after leaving the hot press. Acrylic paint is unsuitable for this surface because (of course) oil and water don’t mix and the paint won’t stick. If you want to use MDF for acrylic, use the untempered version.

Metal – Is it a possibility?

You can use aluminum, copper or brass if you are looking for a unique look for your work. They come in different thicknesses and either in sheets or rolls, depending on the thickness.

If you are thinking of using metal, just a couple of thoughts. The only paint that I have found that sticks well to metal are alcohol inks. That said, most metal comes coated with a light oil.  Clean it with detergent and sand lightly to give the metal tooth so that paint can stick to the surface.

There are also precut metal sheets

in some art supplies stores.  It would be best to make sure that the surface has both tooth and no oil protecting the surface before beginning to work.

If you plan to use thinner metal sheet, the biggest drawback is the fact that it bends and buckles, sometimes in unpleasant ways. So you must be very careful with it. It can be cut with sharp scissors, but it does dull the blades after a while. Sometimes it leaves small marks on the sides of the sheets that can be seen as well.

Plexi or Glass – Give it a chance.

Plexi or glass are options as well. Acrylic isn’t a very good option due to the slick surface of both. Plexi can be lightly sanded, but glass is a little trickier. I stick again to alcohol inks as my color of choice.


A plethora of choices.Paper is always a good choice. It come in many thicknesses, and textures and tones. Some are more suitable than others for whatever you have in mink. Make sure to check that the paper you buy is archival and acid free. Your work will last for generations. There are papers for printmaking, multimedia work, watercolor, pastels, and oils.

Speciality papers are always an option. Yupo, which is not really paper but a synthetic surface which is paper free and widely used. It is waterproof and doesn’t tear. which makes it ideal for signs or even posters that are hung outside. It can be printed on or painted on, and has a slightly translucent look to it.


All that said…

Every time I start talking about a different subject, many more subjects come to mind. I could go on for ever and even the most fact hungry reader will eventually have crossed eyes from the sheer amount of content. So I try to keep it simple. Today I have supplied a list of artists canvas and other types of substrates that are easy to find. Depending on what you want to do you can find one that is easy to use and is perfect for your next project.

Just make sure that your surface and your paints are compatible. Do a bit of research before starting and you won’t go wrong.

There is nothing worse than spending hours on a project and be really happy with the way it turned out, only to have it peel off or fade away because there were incompatibilities. So go forward and prosper!

Mixed Media on artists canvas
Mixed Media



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