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Painting is an amazing hobby. It’s a relaxing yet still a way to harness your creative energy into something productive. If you take it seriously enough and learn the proper painting techniques, you can even turn it into a viable side hustle! But an important aspect of painting that isn’t often discussed is the various types of painting surfaces available.
You need something to paint on. Traditional painting surfaces such as canvas and hardwood are what the professionals tend to use, and you can usually get these at your local arts and craft store (My favorite is Michaels– you can get everything you need there from brushes to oil paint, easels to acrylics!)
So let’s dive into the best painting surfaces – from the traditional to the obscure, you will find something interesting to paint on!
Traditional Painting Surfaces
Canvas is the go-to painting surface for most artists. How many times have you browsed a museum and noticed all the “oil on canvas” tags next to famous paintings? It’s tried and true.
If you’ve been to a big box art supply lately, you might have noticed how cheap those canvas packs are getting to be. Depending on the dimensions, you can get anywhere from 5 to 20 pre-stretched canvases for around 10 bucks. When you’re in practice mode, those pre-stretched canvases are perfect for the job. Of course, try to go too much larger, and the price of canvas jumps way WAY up. That means, if you’re ever trying to get to a finished piece that could potentially sell and hang on someone’s wall, it’s quite an investment.
However, there are some alternatives to canvas whose price points scale much better.
Hardboard is a medium-density fiberboard that you can get from hardware stores. Generally, a 4’ x 8’ sheet goes for 10 bucks, which you can have cut down to a more manageable size by taking advantage of the in-house cutting resource. Hardboard comes in different thicknesses, so the thicker hardboard will have a better time of holding its form in larger dimensions.
Hardboard is cheap, but also rather heavy, so experiment with larger dimensions. Hardboard is sturdy enough if you prepare it right, but its flexibility comes with issues of warping. Consider reinforcing or “framing” your hardboard before you begin preparing the surface. Just look at the back of some of those large-format canvases, and consider joining some less flexible materials in a similar configuration to the outside edge and support pieces. Remember, you’ve got to hang your monstrosity somewhere, and you need reliable anchors and anchor points to pull that off.
Preparing Hardboard for Painting or Mixed Media
You want your project to last, and though prepping the surface is really more important for those intending to use oil paints, this is also your opportunity to pre-apply textures with cheaper substances than your paint, like modeling paste. Gesso is perfect for a flat surface, and several layers, with some sanding in between, will create a strong flexible barrier between your paint and the mdf. Gesso is basically the same as a primer in other paints, so you can even use layers of flat white spray paint in a pinch, if you let the layers dry fully between coats of paint.
Creative Painting Surfaces
Sometimes, canvas and hardboard can be so blase. Maybe it lacks depth, or maybe the wall space lacks actual wall space. Whatever the reason, even if that reason is pure boredom, sometimes you just can’t get inspired without the right surface.
If that describes you, maybe you need some inspirational surfaces to paint on. Here are some fun alternative surfaces for you to dabble with.
There Are Doors, and Then There Are Doors
Personally, my favorite alternative surface has always been doors. It’s a little ridiculous, but I’ve always found doors to be so bland, generally. I’ve painted on many doors, and either affixed the necessary hardware to convert it to wall art or reattached the original hardware and added visual interest to functionality.
Just between us, door art can be a really easy commission to land, because there are numerous small businesses looking for ways to set their place of business and its atmosphere apart from their competitors. And who doesn’t have some boring old bathroom or closet doors hanging around just asking for a little color?
From the Windows to the Walls
Glass needs a little preparation to paint on, and even though it might seem a bit fragile for a painting surface, glass has a few obvious features that make the extra fuss worth it. Rather than finding a fresh piece of glass, you can use an old window or mirror. The mirror won’t give you the fun transparency that a window will, but a mirror can still throw light back in interesting ways.
The most important thing to do is coat the surface of any glass with a clear sealer to give the surface a bit of tooth that will hold the paint. Glass isn’t going to break down over time like many supports, but the smoothness of bare glass can limit the adhesion of some paint.
Rather than listing random garbage here, let’s just say that found materials or old building materials can be just what you need to get inspired. Random textures, shapes, and surfaces can produce an infinite number of effects, so get creative before you get creative, and try to salvage something ugly to make it interesting.
Experiment with painting on old wood, bricks, cinderblocks, or even paneling to see what masterpieces you can create.
The Fabric Game
Just as you can stretch, seal, and prime canvas, a lot of other fibers, when properly prepared, work just as well, silk, being the most obvious choice after cotton or linen duck.
Look up what info you can about alternative fabric preparation, and chances are someone else has goofed around a bit with the same fiber. Reinventing the wheel is fun, but do some research before you get discouraged, and keep a sharp eye on man-made fibers and their often volatile chemical combinations. Ever seen a polyester turtleneck melt? No? Try mineral spirits!
Some artists these days use brass, copper, steel, etc, but of course, the expense is nothing to laugh at. Small sheets can be purchased at hardware and craft stores for experimentation, but larger formats are a bit economically unsound.
If you’re feeling extremely adventurous, you can head to a junk yard and try to find some old door panels.
High-quality papers from Arches or Strathmore can be sealed and gessoed in much the same way as any other surface, just be sure to X the back for warping. Paper can be more porous than other surfaces, so keep that in mind before you get started. If you are going to be working with watercolors, you can get a special watercolor paper that absorbs the water and helps the color pop.
Another option is to use a sketchbook or an art journal. Though typically used for drawing, pulling a random piece out for experimentation is definitely a cost-saving idea.
Have Fun Exploring!
Painting is all about exploration and creativity. When art supplies just aren’t going to cut it, these alternative painting surfaces may be just what you need to light the spark of inspiration.
So grab your palette and whatever surface suits you best, and get to creating that masterpiece!