A Guide to Painting Surfaces

FC Art
7 min readApr 16, 2021
Nobel Flat Bristle Decorator’s Brush

Painting surfaces come in a variety of forms that is not limited to your everyday cotton canvas. Depending on your method of painting, you may or may not be working with the right surface!

There are some general rules you must consider and apply when preparing your surface for painting in order to guarantee your work will sustain itself for a long period of time!

Priming your surface:

Your surface must always be primed with a ground. The ground is the layer that will separate your paint from the material or fabric of your painting surface. This is what will prevent your painting from future deterioration and decay, as the underlying surface is of an organic material that can be prone to rot if it comes in contact with your paint. Grounds are highly versatile and durable — every surface will call for a different kind of ground. Make sure you have at least three layers of a ground on your surface if you are applying one yourself. Watch out for paint that looks like it’s absorbing into the surface material— this probably means you do not have a thick enough layer of ground! Your paint should always rest right on top of the ground. For the smoothest painting surface, you can give your primed ground a quick sanding to even out irregularities.

Justyn Warner via Unsplash

Determining your surface’s support:

Surfaces can be worked on in many different formats. Fabric material can be painted on loose or stretched. You can stretch your fabric onto wooden stretcher bars or onto a board. We recommend stretching your fabric before you paint, as unstretched canvas can be more prone to cracking and chipping. Harder surfaces like wood or paper can also be painted on flat, but for increased strength and to avoid warping, you are best to have your surface sit flat on a frame.

Most of these materials will come pre-stretched and primed if bought from an art store, but it’s good practice to know what materials you’re working with!

Nobel Bevel Edge Convexo Canvas

Cotton canvas:

Cotton canvas is by far the most widely used, available, and affordable material to use! It is made of 100% lightweight cotton that is highly versatile and holds paint really well. It is an easy-to-stretch material and its flexibility allows for a really springy surface to optimize paint application. It can be stretched tighter than linen without risk of causing stress or warping to its frame. Its flexibility, however, doesn’t make it well-suited for large paintings. A heavy-grade cotton weight can compensate for this and add more strength to your material!

To prepare your cotton canvas, use an acrylic gesso painted onto canvas stretched on wooden stretcher bars or onto a board. Canvases you find in-store will h typically be double or triple primed with a white acrylic gesso.

Use cotton canvas if you are working on small to medium-sized works and if you are just starting out!

Nobel 100% Linen Canvas — Gallery


Linen is considered the golden standard amongst painters. It is a highly durable and strong material made from a 100% linen weave. It allows for the stiffest fabric paint surface and the smoothest paint application. Linen is the priciest paint surface but it is highly regarded for its ability to sustain paintings years into the future and avoiding the slack and decay that you will more readily find with cotton canvas.

Preparing and priming linen is a more involved process than all of the other painting surfaces. Linen must be stretched and when doing so, you don’t want to pull it anywhere near as tight as you would with cotton canvas, as the sizing you will place onto it will tighten into a drum-like surface. Once stretched, you will need to size your linen with animal skin glue. This material typically comes in the form of a powder and its preparation is similar to that of preparing gelatin. You will brush it on the linen wet, ensuring it seeps into the fabric. Once the sized surface is dry it should feel very rigid and drum-like. You are then ready to prime it! Prime it with an oil ground applied in two layers and typically left to dry for a period of two weeks. Sand down your primed surface to ensure a smooth surface for your brushes — linen can be quite abrasive if not! Linen is ideal for larger surfaces and oil painting!

The sizing is what gives this material its strength and rigidity. The size will ensure your painting does not crack or warp when exposed to different levels of humidity and temperature. An oil ground is also a necessity as it will adapt well to oil paint and nicely fuse into the sizing and linen fibers. Acrylic gesso will not adhere to the sizing or linen in this case. These are both organic materials that will live and breathe with your painting as it ages!

Use linen if you are working on medium to large scale works and if you are looking to get more advanced with your painting!

Nobel Burlap Stretched Canvas


Burlap is a heavy-weight natural fiber that is ideal for thick paint applications and acrylic paint. Use burlap if you want to achieve an interesting texture or effect to your works, or if you work in a thick impasto style! Burlap is pretty resistant to water, so for ease of use, you can wet your surface before taking your brush to it for a smoother result. Painting on it dry will emphasize it’s rough and textured quality.

Stretch your burlap onto a wooden frame like you would with cotton canvas. You can opt for a clear gesso when priming it to keep the natural color of the burlap. Make sure you dampen its surface with a water-soaked sponge before applying your ground to help the gesso absorb into the fiber of the burlap.

Use this if you are looking for an interesting effect and material to experiment with!

Den Thrustin via Unsplash

Wood Panel:

Opt for a wood panel that comes with a hardwood surface to avoid warping and to provide the stiffest and most consistent painting surface. With this in mind, its surface will be less absorbent than you will find with fabric surfaces, allowing for more paint coverage but at a rate where your paint will glide a bit more across the surface. Wood panel is ideal for acrylic and oil painting

Prime your surface with a clear or white acrylic gesso and make sure you have plenty of layers built up as wood can heavily absorb your paint if you don’t!

Use this if you want to work with a more detailed and precise paint application or in thicker, rougher brushstrokes!

Nobel Gallery Wooden Cradleboard, Gesso Primed


Masonite is similar in functionality to wood panel, except that it is composed of wood particles and glue that are compressed together under high pressure. Masonite is a preferred painting surface to wood in some cases as it is a cheaper alternative and offers more durability. Its composition eliminates any risk of cracking or splitting that you may find occurs with the organic and veined surface of wood panels.

Masonite is most ideal for the delicate medium of tempera, but it also works well with oil and acrylic painting. Prime masonite with an acrylic gesso if working with acrylic or oil paint, and with a chalk gesso if working with tempera.

Use masonite if you are working with a delicate medium like tempera and for a more guaranteed durability.

Nobel Watercolor Paper Pad


Paper provides a smooth and stiff painting surface that is ideal for small-scale works or studies. It is more tolerable and best suited for watercolor, ink, and tempera. It is not a surface that should be worked large as it is a fragile and unstable painting surface that can be prone to warping and breaking. A heavyweight paper starting at 200 gsm should always be used for enhanced strength and use.

If working with oil and acrylic paint, prime the front and back of your surface with acrylic gesso. You can also opt to stretch the paper over a wood panel if you want to work larger and increase the strength of your surface. Prime both sides of your paper with a gelatine solution when working with tempera. Paper used for watercolor or ink does not need to be primed.

Use paper if you are working small-scale with water-based mediums or if you are looking to create quick small studies in acrylic and oil paint.

Jade Stephens via Unsplash


These are a peek into the kind of painting surfaces available to artists nowadays! They all have different properties, uses, and incorporate differently to every kind of method of painting. We hope you are able to experiment and find one that best suits your practice!



FC Art

Montreal based since 1985, we provide businesses with high quality art supplies. Take a look through our blog to learn more about art materials, history & more!