Oil Painting For Beginners Part 3

New here? Maybe head to part 1….


In part one I told you that a support was just a fancy word for what you paint on. Well, I’m going to blow your mind with another bit of information: you can paint on almost anything! At this point, let’s say you’ve got your paints, so let’s make the magic happen……. but not so fast!

What are you painting on? Paper? Canvas? Canvas paper? Canvas boards? Cardboard? Wood? Wood panel? MDF? Masonite? Foam core? Sheet metal? Glass? A wall? A puddle of regret at deciding to take up oil painting?

DON’T PANIC! You only need to know one thing about oil paints before you paint on whatever stays still long enough for you to get your masterpiece on it: the oil in oil paint will soak into the surface of any porous material and destroy it.

Oh, did that not have the calming effect I thought it would? Luckily, that’s where gesso comes in. If you’ve ever painted anything – a wall, a door frame, some furniture then you’ll be familiar with the concept of an undercoat, or primer? Gesso is the same thing, but different.

Traditionally, gesso was made of a mix of rabbit glue, marble dust, and/or calcium carbonate (chalk). Rabbit glue stinks, and the chalk or marble dust makes it quite inflexible. Modern gesso is acrylic based, which means it’s more flexible and doesn’t stink. Gesso has two key properties:

1- It seals the surface of the support you’re going to paint on which prevents the oils from your paint and chemicals from your medium soaking into it. This stops the oils from damaging the support and stops your paint looking dull.

2 – It’s adaptable. You can layer it to create a smooth surface on a rough texture, or use it to put texture on a smooth surface.

The main thing you have to consider before painting on something is whether or not it’ll take your paint. In part two I introduced you to the concept of the paint oxidising as it cures (“dries”). During this process the paint surface contracts and can warp the surface. This is more likely to happen the thicker you paint on an unsupported support (I’ll explain that in a minute).

You may find that some supports purchased specifically for oil painting will warp when you paint on them – so avoid the bargain canvas panels from the same shops that sell the really cheap oil paint sets. How will you know if what you aim to paint on is suitable? Get it wet.

If you wet it and it crinkles up and dries as a wibbly mess then it’s best to choose something else (you can always decide later if that’s actually the look you’re going for when you discover your style, until then anything that goes wrong is going to feel like utter failure and will put you off). I’d suggest that for your first couple of forays into oil painting, while you get used to the paint itself, use stetched canvases. You do not have to pay a lot of money for canvas when you’re starting. Art and hobby shops, supermarkets, and various other places sell canvases or multipacks of canvases for a couple of pounds each and look out for special offers online (you can also reuse canvases).

1: Canvas board. 2: Linen board. 3: Stretched Canvas (wooden stretcher bars). 4: Recycled fibre board.

Canvas quality can vary, as can the finish. Low priced canvas generally has quite a rough texture and the gesso primer (most ready made canvases come ready primed) may not be thick enough to fully protect the canvas, or give you the finish that you require. Quality of the stretched canvas can also be patchy so have a good look at the canvas before you buy. It should be dent free, rip free (obviously), and flat – some cheaper canvases may not be stretched properly and there can be sagging of the canvas, especially towards one or two corners. Most stretched canvases can be adjusted with “keys” (more on that in a later post) but if it’s not right from the beginning don’t waste your time trying to fix it, just don’t buy it.

Detail of the “keys” on a hand stretched canvas

Depending on what you want to paint, a rough canvas may be fine, especially if you’re going to use thick bold strokes. If you’re planning on painting fine details you’ll want something smoother and work in thinner layers of paint (again, something for a later post). For ultra smooth surfaces you’ll want to look for fine linen in canvas, or cradled board. For smaller paintings boards are ideal, but at larger sizes canvas is more widely used as it is lighter. At this point it’s worth noting that there is a big difference in the feel of painting on different surfaces. The surface of a stretched canvas “gives” under the pressure of a brush or palette knife, while painting on a board there is no give. On smooth surfaces the paint can feel as though it’s sliding around rather than going where you want it to go. Again, these are things that you’ll work out as you gain experience, and are topics that I’ll return to later.

In progress painting on aluminium panel

I know what you’re thinking: I said at the beginning we could paint on practically anything, but now I’m saying stick to canvas!? You can choose whatever support appeals to you, you can use stuff that’s lying around your house, just make sure you prepare it first. Gesso to seal. What gesso? At this stage, any will do. We’ll cover gessos in more detail later.

To show that you can literally paint on anything that’ll stay still long enough, here’s some examples on non-canvas works:

Cesar Santos does a lot of oil paint work in his sketchbook. Yes, sketchbook, as in paper. He primes the paper first either using a transparent gesso over an undersketch, or acrylic gesso. Obviously it needs to dry before shutting the pages.

Tania Rivilis paints on OSB (Oriented Strand Board) which you’ll find more often in builders merchants than art supply stores. It’s a construction board and is usually impregnated with resins and waterproofing chemicals. It definitely has a unique surface, and Tania Rivilis uses it very effectively.

Shana Levenson paints on aluminium panels to get a very smooth almost hyper-realism effect.

Using materials other than wood panel or canvas is not a new tradition. When Rembrandt was 22 he painted a portrait of himself laughing, on a sheet of copper.

And let’s not forget the frescoes that have adorned walls and ceilings for centuries.

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