Sunday, August 12, 2018

All About Oil Painting Panels

If you are a beginning oil painter, the vast world of painting surfaces and substrates can be quite overwhelming, especially when your Instagram and Facebook feed are flooded with artists working on everything from acrylic-primed canvas to vellum and ABS plastic panels. 

I take a fairly traditional approach to surfaces, keeping in mind both the archival quality of my chosen supports, and whether or not I actually enjoy working on them. Depending on your painting style, surface quality is everything. I am not a heavy-handed painter, and I like to make delicate, subtle strokes with my brush, so I've come to prefer surfaces that are quite smooth, but still have a bit of texture. So please keep that in mind as you read this post; I can only give examples based on my own experience and working methods.

Several years ago I wrote an in-depth tutorial on preparing your own linen canvases. In this post I'll share some of the tricks I've learned about prepping your own wood, aluminum, or linen-covered panels, which I recommend doing in large batches several times a year to keep your inventory stocked.  I have worked with ALL of these types of panels, depending on my time restrictions and desired textural outcome for the painting. I will attempt to explain as best I can my process for making them, and the outcome I achieved in the subsequent paintings.  

Wood and Linen-Covered Wood Panels

On a Budget - Make your own: It's very easy to make your own wood panels on a budget (especially if you want custom sizes). Take a trip to Home Depot, pick out some 1/8" or 1/4" medium density fiberboard, and have a store employee cut the board down to whatever sizes you would like. A 2x4-ft 1/8" thick sheet sells for about $5, and the employees make the cuts for free. You will also need to purchase some shellac to seal the boards on all sides when you return to your studio. Sealing (or sizing) your panels is a vital step to protect the wood from moisture and rot that would be caused over time by the acidic oil in your paint. I buy the brush-on shellac to ensure I'm covering the entire wood surface thoroughly. Once the boards are sealed, you can prime them however you want (with lead ground, oil ground, gesso, etc.). Lead takes the longest to cure (3-4 months), and gesso dries within hours but is much more absorbent or "chalky" to paint on. See my table at the end of this post for a full comparison between lead, oil, and acrylic grounds.   The primer is also crucial to the process because it creates adhesion between the wood surface and your oil paint. 

Below: this painting was done on an 1/8" MDF panel sealed with shellac and given two coats of lead primer. The second coat of primer had a lot of texture in it, meaning that when I applied it I used a palette knife and a brush to vary my application. Katie Swatland describes this process for prepping lead-primed panels in great detail in her book, "Alla Prima II Companion: Richard Schmid's Materials, Tools and Techniques." ( Purchase here:  I highly recommend this book!

"Spring Bouquet" - 12x24" - oil on lead-primed panel (private collection)

Great Quality - Make your own: Mounting linen to your wood panels can take them to the next level. They still need to be sealed with shellac first. Once that is dry, you can glue raw linen to the surface, or pre-primed linen. 

Mounting raw linen to panels: I'm still a traditionalist and use rabbit skin glue to size my raw linen. I start by cutting out a piece of linen that is approximately an inch and a half larger than my panel all the way around (the linen will shrink somewhat when it is glued). I prepare my RSG (see this post for how-to instructions), and use a brush or sponge to apply the glue to the wood panel. I then carefully place the piece of linen over the top of the panel, and brush on another layer of glue to saturate the linen and adhere it to the wood. I allow this to dry, then apply a second coat, making sure there are no bubbles or wrinkles in the surface. Once completely dry, I prime the linen with two coats of either lead ground or oil ground, allowing the first coat to dry before applying the next. Once the panels are fully dry, I can flip them over and use an exacto knife to trim off the excess around the edges. Though time-consuming, these panels make for a wonderful working surface and are nice and rigid (great for traveling!).

Below: a beautiful surface: raw linen sized with two coats of RSG and primed with two coats of titanium oil ground

Mounting pre-primed linen to panels: Again, make sure your wood panels are sealed first. Then, cut out a piece of linen (my go-to is Claessens #13, which you purchase by the roll) that is just slightly larger than your panel. Using a foam paint roller, apply a coat of book binding glue or Miracle Muck to both the surface of the panel, and the back of your linen, paying special attention to corners and edges, as these are the first to "lift" if you miss a spot. Carefully smooth the linen down onto the panel, using your hands or a rolling pin to gently roll out any air bubbles or wrinkles. In my experience, the larger the panel (or the thicker the linen), the trickier this process. It helps if you start at the center of your panel and slowly work your way out and towards the edges, much like rolling out a pie crust. I recommend weighing down your linen panels with something flat and heavy (I use my heavy art books :-)) while they dry to further avoid bubbles and wrinkles. 

Buy it Pre-Made: You can buy pre-cut, smoothly sanded wood panels from various art suppliers. Some of the kinds I have tried are Richeson Gessoed Hardboard panels, Ampersand value series artist wood panels, and--my particular favorite--Art Boards natural maple panels (I like them uncradled). Since the Richeson panels are already gessoed, these are great if you're in a hurry and just need a sturdy but inexpensive surface to take on the go. The others still require sealing and priming if you plan to use oil paint on them.

Below: this painting of my daughter was done on an Art Board natural maple panel. I sealed it first, then applied two coats of lead ground (each coat was brushed on in a different direction than the other). I allowed a couple of months before doing the painting. This was one of those paintings that seemed to paint itself--every brush stroke just fell into place. I love when that happens... and it all starts with a great working surface!

"A Fleeting Moment" - 8x6" - oil on lead-primed maple panel (private collection)

Aluminum Panels

Quality - Prepare your own: I am fairly new to working with aluminum. I have yet to venture out and have them custom-cut for me. But, there are many pre-cut sizes available on the market; I use the AlumaComp brand sold by Jerry's Artarama, which has both a smooth side and a lightly brushed side. The advantage to aluminum is that it will not warp or react to humidity the way wood can, and you don't need to seal it before priming. I use a poly-foam sponge brush to apply two coats of lead primer to the brushed side of the aluminum. I apply one coat from left to right, and the second coat from top to bottom, creating a subtle perpendicular or "plaid" brush stroke pattern. 

Above: this 12x6" plein air was done on lead-primed aluminum. I liked the slight grip/tooth of the surface (but still slick enough to push the paint around), as well as how lightweight it was for traveling. Plus, no risk of dents or tears!

Buy it Pre-Made: If you want to splurge, try Artefex's Custom ACM panels. They are a wonderful surface and I can't recommend them enough!

"Doctoring" Store-bought Panels

If you're REALLY on a budget and don't want to go through the hassle of making your own panels... This is where you can start having some fun! Try buying some of those cheap canvas panels from Michaels or Hobby Lobby. Then, play around with different foundations, applied over the top of the canvas. I love using these for guilt-free plein air painting and my weekly figure studies. Here are some that I've had great success with.

Start with one of these:

Apply a coat of Holbein Foundation Umber, White, or Grey. This stuff instantly transforms your surface from dull and boring to slick and professional! Apply it in a well ventilated area with a putty knife (you can vary the texture and thickness this way), and be sure to wear latex gloves, as it is lead-based. Allow a couple of weeks to dry before painting on it. The longer it cures, the better the working surface. I also find that this product is amazing for covering over "failed" paintings" and repurposing them. 

Try Rublev's Transparent base, a fast-drying underpainting that comes out of the tube like a gel. I also use a putty knife to apply it and vary the texture. This stuff performs much differently than the Holbein Foundation colors; because it is an alkyd, it dries very fast and you can start working on it within an hour. However, it is more absorbent than the Holbein colors and you will find yourself needing to use more paint, or extra medium, to make sure your oil colors (darks especially) don't "sink in."

Pre-Made Linen Panels I Recommend

I have several favorite brands for professionally manufactured panels and linen panels. My go-to is Raymar Art: I use both their Claessens 13 double oil-primed panels, and their L64C (this is a total splurge! Great for commissions. As smooth of a surface as I'll work on.).   I also use Centurion linen panels, which are a more affordable option, as well as SourceTek, New Traditions, and Artefex.

I hope you found this post helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or comments!

Anna's Comparison Table Between Lead Ground, Oil/Alkyd Ground, and Acrylic Gesso

Oil or Alkyd Ground
Smooth and silky surface that you can customize to be smoother OR more absorbent depending on the amount of linseed oil in your mixture. You can also customize for texture; for example, “sour cream” consistency will allow for some interesting surface texture if you apply it with a palette knife rather than a regular brush. Natural Pigments Rublev brand gives you the option of buying a ready-to-use lead ground, OR a lead ground paste that is fully customizable.

The more coats you add, the smoother and more luxurious the surface becomes.
Depending on the brand (I like Williamsburg), oil ground goes on smooth and silky much like lead, and dries a bit faster (2-3 weeks).

The more coats you add (with sanding in between coats), the smoother and more luxurious the surface becomes.

Cheaper and easier to find than lead ground

Alkyd ground is thixotropic, so the the brush strokes will level out over the course of drying.
Fast drying time

Inexpensive and available at any art store

Water-based; easy cleanup (soap and water)

Can be applied directly to raw canvas, paper, wood, or other surfaces without needing a size or protective barrier.

Makes a good initial base if you wish to add a coat or lead or oil ground over the top to save on drying time.

Both acrylics and oils can be used over acrylic gesso.
Expensive. Also, you have to be wary of the brand you purchase, as some add too much marble dust as a filler, which compromises the textural quality of the surface.

Requires a size or protective barrier before application to prevent the oil from rotting the substrate.

You can’t sand between coats (it’s not safe!).

Lengthy curing time (3-4 months for best results)

Fumes/danger of ingestion. While not technically dangerous to breathe, the fumes do cause headaches for some people. Apply lead ground outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Lead is toxic if ingested or applied to an open wound.

Requires mineral spirits or solvents for cleanup

Acrylics can not be used over lead primer.

Pricier than gesso

Requires a size or protective barrier before application to prevent the oil from rotting the substrate.

Usually has quite a bit of marble dust in the recipe, so not quite as smooth as lead ground.

There is still a long-ish wait time for curing, depending on the humidity levels of your studio.

Fumes. If you easily get headaches, a mask is recommended, or working on batches outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.

Alkyd grounds sometimes feel “sticky” or difficult to brush on even when applied straight from the can.

Requires mineral spirits or solvents for cleanup

Acrylics can not be used over oil primer.

Highly absorbent. This means that if you use oil paints on this surface, the gesso will “suck up” the linseed oil from at least the first several coats of paint, causing the colors to look dull and lifeless.

Requires many coats (at least 4) with light sanding in between to avoid support induced discoloration (SID) and to get a smooth surface. If sanded too smoothly, oil paint may not make a secure bond. As it stands, oil paint does NOT create a chemical bond with acrylic gesso.

Brittle, especially cheaper brands.

Not recommended for raw stretched linen, as it is likely to cause support induced discoloration (SID).



  1. Hi Anna, Thanks for the very informative article. I've never used any ground except acrylic gesso, but really dislike the way it sucks up the oil. You said that the oil ground requires a sealant before painting on it. Would it be okay to use the oil ground over the acrylic gesso? Or would the oil seep through that and rot the canvas? Just as an added comment, I have yet to try painting on linen. I'm hoping that it will be the wonderful experience I've heard that it is. Thanks again, and also for your wonderful paintings!

    1. Hi Jan, yes, it's perfectly safe to apply a layer of oil ground over your gesso! I do that all the time; that's essentially what I'm doing when I cover over cheap canvases. :-)

  2. This is a great post! I'm going to try the Holbein foundation on my failed canvases.

  3. This is the first time I read such type of blogs,Its really useful for the users.Keep updated This type of blogs provide information to the users ..

  4. I really like the way you are describe the oil paintings. thanks for sharing an amzing Article!

  5. Hi Anna, thanks so much for this informative article. I enjoy your posts each week.
    I recently got mdf panels cut to size and was thinking of applying couple layers of acrylic gesso on the board all slides. I am not sure if shellac is available where I live or if it goes by other names. Do you think just gesso on mdf will be enough to paint in oil? Will it be more thirsty than say a cotton canvas which also has acrylic gesso? Sounds like discoloration could also happen with mdf...

    1. Hi Priya, thanks for reading! Acrylic gesso will work just fine and you won't need to shellac the panels before gessoing. You're correct in thinking it will be a more thirsty surface. My recommendation is to apply AT LEAST 3 coats (preferably 4) and sand heavily in between coats. Happy painting!

  6. Nice and informative post. It will help me a lot to work better. Keep up the good work

  7. Wonderful tips & tricks. Thanks for sharing

  8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  9. Hello Anna, Amazing post ...Appreciate the way you have shared your knowledge on the usage of oil painting.Very useful tips provided for the artists community.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Very informative read and some great tips for artists. Thank you.

  12. OMG I was looking for the same post. Wonderful blog, I must say. It's gonna help me a lot. Thanks for sharing.


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