When most people think of painting surfaces, they think canvas! If a painting isn’t on canvas, it can’t be a real painting, right?

Well…actually, canvas may not be the best surface for oil paints. If you were to paint directly on raw canvas, the canvas would rot and the painting would fall apart. That’s why artists add a coating to the canvas. If you’re hard core, you coat it with rabbit skin glue (yes, it’s made from rabbit skin) and lead white. It’s a lot of trouble and not something you want to do with poor ventilation. But done right, it’s supposed to give a very smooth surface, perfect if you like working slowly with tight detail.

If you’re not a super duper professional, you’d probably coat your canvas (or buy canvases already coated) with acrylic gesso. That was my standard coating for many years, and still is when I paint on canvas.
The past couple years, I’ve switched to painting on panel. They’re more easily transportable, and inexpensive. I used to buy them, but the cheapskate inside of me bristled at paying 3-4 bucks a board. Now I make my own for like 90 cents each, and they work great.

I love watching YouTube videos by other artists. One of my favorites is Stefan Baumann. I can’t recommend his videos enough. They’re incredible informational about the technical parts of painting, as well as inspirational. He deals with every aspect of painting, including the Golden Mean, composition, lighting, plein air, supplies, color, subject matter, abstraction, realism, etc., etc.

The reason I bring him up is that he also has terrific videos all about canvas and panels. Stefan’s the one who taught me that acrylic gesso is basically little more than common housepaint in composition. If you’re going to paint on panels, then there’s any easier method to coat them. I’ve posted his videos that explain all this in detail at the end of this entry, but I’ll summarize how I make my panels here.

First, I go to a local hardware store with a lumber yard and buy a 4-foot by 8-foot sheet of 1/8″ thick MDF board. (I’ve read untempered Masonite hardboard works too, but my lumber yard only carries the tempered type, which isn’t supposed to work well.) The reason I choose the 1/8″ thickness is because that’s the thickness my pochade box and my drying box hold.

The lumber yard offers cutting services, so I have them cut a couple 16” x 20” pieces from the sheet. Then from the rest of it, I have it cut up into 11” x 14” boards. I take home any of the scrap and cut them up later at my house with a common saw. I usually walk out of there with over 2 dozen panels.

Inside the hardware store itself, I buy 3 cans of basic primer spray paint. I usually buy a red, brown, and green paint. When I get home, I lay a huge tarp in my garage and spray a coat of the spray paint on each board. I paint some brown, some red, and some green. When they dry, I give them a second coat. When that dries, they get a third and final coat. Sometimes, I mix colors between coats. This gives some interesting neutral colors. If the spray paints in your store aren’t a color you like to tint your panels with, then you can always spray paint them white and tint them when they’re dry with whatever method you prefer.

By painting the panels in color, I not only give the panel a coating to paint on, I already have them tinted. I tint all my panels and canvases for three reasons:

  1. It’s easier to judge my colors on a neutral background. A dark color looks too intense on a white background. A light color is hard to see. Since painting involves playing a color against another for effect, it’s easier to see the correct color if it’s on a neutral base.
  2. It looks amateurish to have spots on your surface that’s unfinished when you’re done painting. But, if it’s tinted, you’re guaranteed of having paint on every part of your surface.
  3. Sometimes, artists purposely let the undercoating show a little bit all over the painting. If you have a red tint on the surface and paint a lot of green trees, the red that shows through can add energy and sparkle to the green. Plus the bits of red all over the surface can add harmony and unity to the color scheme.

Another good tip I learned from Stefan Baumann is to pick one size of panel and stick with it. For plein air, I almost always paint 11” x 14” panels. I purposely bought an easel that accommodates it. I have a drying box that also accommodates 11” x 14” panels. I can carry unused as well as finished paintings with it when I’m on a painting vacation. I don’t have to worry about transporting wet paintings, like I would if I had different sizes. It also makes it easier when buying frames.

Don’t I ever paint on canvas? Sure, if I work large. Panels don’t work well larger than 16” x 20” because they’re too heavy and can tend to warp if you don’t attach braces to the back. Rather than deal with that, I’ll go for a nice canvas from the art supply store or even stretch my own. In that case, I do use acrylic gesso. Since this entry deals with plein air specifically, I won’t go into any more detail on that right now.

What I will do is end this entry with Stefan’s videos. If you like them, feel free to comment on his YouTube channel and let him know who sent you. It’s not like he knows me or anything, although I would love to take a workshop from him one day.

Next blog, we’ll talk about paint. See you then.