Oil Painting Surfaces: Explained

Art is a binding agent that brings the world together. It is simple and complex at the same time. It reveals yet hides the intent. It makes people delve into the past, raise questions.

Oil paintings are used with different surfaces and are also known as supports. They are so-called as they assist the medium used. Some of the examples of surfaces are metal, paper, wood, canvas among many others. It requires artistry to know the various oil surfaces and their effect on the characters and surroundings.

Here are some of the examples of surface types that can be a good reference point to understand the material used & the right oil medium that go with it. It helps one choose the right paintwork for their homes and set the right mood and message to the ambience.



Created for sails in Venice, its availability in volume led to lower costs to the artists. Artists wanted larger paintings which were heavier and canvas provided more space and lightweight to move around with. Since the numbers run in reverse for weight, a number 10 canvas is lighter than number 4.

Traditionally, the canvas is made of linen with cheaper cotton fabric. Modern artists have moved to a more economical alternative called the “cotton duck”. The advent of acrylic paint (a painting medium used on canvas) has led to the popularity of cotton duck canvas.

Canvas is usually stretched across a wooden frame called a stretcher and coated with gesso (a medium) before being used to prevent oil paint from coming into direct contact with the canvas fibres which leads to canvas decay. Example: Christ Carrying The Cross.



The artists of the 16th century used copper-based surfaces as they were sturdier, were not eaten by insects and they didn’t rot over time. They also used props like spray, brush, splatter and roller knives to make their imagery come alive.

Raw copper is not used directly for painting purposes. First, the substrate (a chemical agent that works well with copper) is cut in the same size as the copper, glued, taped and sealed behind. Then the copper is roughened and cleaned for dust. A heavyweight is kept on the copper to ensure glue does slip out. Garlic is applied on the front end of the plate. Finally, a pure oil medium is used to paint.

Priming is a process used on copper. Two coats of very thin lead-based oil primer are used on the surface. Layers are kept smooth and thin by rubbing on a small amount of the lead primer by using the palm. Example: Self Portrait by Rembrandt.

Wood Panel

Wood Panel

As the name suggests, this is either one single piece of wood or panels put together. Wood panels were famous during the renaissance period, especially used for frescos (wall) and decorated manuscripts of the 16th century.

Carpenters cut the wood in solid panels, leaving out the outer sapwood. The wood type used is poplar, willow or linden. The wood is coated with a mixture of animal-skin glues and resin and covered with linen (the mixture and linen combination is known as a “size”). The right size is very important to create great artwork. If you wish to adorn your space with one such chef d’oeuvre you can easily find a reproduced form on https://www.1st-art-gallery.com.

While hot wax paint is used as an oil medium on wood panels traditionally, modern artists use tempera which is an egg-yolk medium. It requires the art of applying small transparent brushstrokes. The paintings on the wood panel take days for the multiple layers to dry up. Famous woods used are peak wood, cedarwood and Mahogany to create masterpieces like “The Ghent Altarpiece by Jan.”


For the curious newbie, it is impossible to think of using oil paints on paper! Does it even work? Why use paper when canvas and wood panels are perfect for the job? Well, paper-based oil paints have many benefits. The secret is in preparing the right paper material for creating a masterpiece.

A good quality heavyweight paper with a weight of 140-300 lbs is good to start with. An acrylic gesso primer (medium to create hard dry surfaces for paints) is applied. Sawdust and sand are applied on the medium for more texture and edges of the paper are cut by mat knife. After this process, once the paper dries up, it is ready to accept oil paints for creating beautiful artwork.

Watercolour paper comes in sheets, pads and blocks. They can be hot or cold-pressed, though output doesn’t change. The print paper makes a good acid-free surface for oil painting when primed with acrylic gesso or matte gel medium. Arches Oil Paper is made for use with oil media and requires no preparation of any kind. Example: View on Hampstead by John.



Many significant painters have used cardboard to paint. Picasso, Miro, Vuillard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas are some of the examples. Cardboards need a protective barrier between the cardboard and paint. Too much water in the sealant causes the paper surface of cardboard to wrinkle. A sealant with a creamy consistency helps to retain artwork.

Cardboards need preparation- two layers of sealing, for paper, the first is size the second is an acrylic layer. Other mediums that work well with cardboard are matte (expensive but good), cheap acrylic paint. It should be kept into consideration that cardboards need regular maintenance to keep the essence of the artwork.

Ordinary corrugated carton cardboard is the most readily available cardboard for oil paints. One can use the packaging cardboard for practice. Ordinary cardboard is highly acidic and slowly deteriorates. Mat Board is an artist’s grade material (for example white colored mat board). One great example of masterpiece Madame Vuillard.


All paint surfaces need some sort of preparation before using oil-paints. The knowledge of the right medium is a must to retain the essence and the material used. https://www.1st-art-gallery.com provides hundreds of oil-based paintings reproduced by artists only of international stature.  The gallery’s collection includes different oil surfaces and they even assist in choosing the right frame to their customers. A visit to their site is a must.