Alternatives to Stretched Canvas for Oil Painting

Most artists enjoy trying new materials. Here are some alternative surfaces for painting in oils. Most are easily found in art supplies sources.

Stretched canvas is the most common surface for oil painting. Canvas practically defines the genre. Let’s face it, people are used to seeing paintings on canvas stretched on frames. It may be traditional, but stretched canvas is NOT the only surface that artists can use for painting in oils.

Alternative painting surfaces and supports:

  • Paper Materials
  • Panels
  • Unstretched canvas.

Paper Supports for Oil Painting

Paper as a support for oil paintings has never really taken off. There are a few good reasons for using paper materials, but also potential bad problems. Paper is light in weight and less expensive to use. Also, paper supports take up much less space than either canvas or panels. These features make paper materials seem like a good option.

Potential paper supports:

  • Museum board
  • Canvas paper
  • Stiff cardboard
  • Watercolour or bristol paper.

All paper supports need a barrier between the paper and the oils, such as acrylic gesso or acrylic varnish medium. Without question, only acid-free or rag products should be attempted. There is some question as to how archival paintings on paper will be as they age. These supports tend to be flimsy and may lead to cracking or damage to the oil surface as it hardens.

Museum board or illustration board is a multi-ply cardboard-like paper with a nice surface for artwork. Canvas paper has a prepared canvas-like texture and is available in pads. Various cardboards can be coated and painted on, but cardboard is noted to be susceptible to dampness and breaking down quickly. Watercolour paper or bristol paper is archival, but the flimsiness doesn’t bode well for a hardened oil surface.

Panels Alternative to Stretched Canvas

Panels are attractive support for artists. They are thinner and take up less space than stretcher frames. The solid surface may be better suited to oil painting preservation. And wooden panels are common to the tradition of oil painting from the Renaissance on. All panels must be coated before painting on with oils.

Panels for Painting:

  • Hardboard or Masonite
  • Birch or maple plywood
  • Wood boards

Artists have been painting on Masonite or hardboard panels for long enough now that they are considered archival. The disadvantage to these panels is that they may warp. Large size panels need to be braced or framed. Smaller panels up to about 16 x 20 are usually not braced.

Plywood is a tempting large, smooth surface. However, plywood is susceptible to separation of layers and splitting along the surface. Wooden boards are seldom wide enough alone and joining boards together to create a larger surface may lead to splits in the surface much later.

Unstretched Canvas

A canvas that is pre-coated with gesso may be painted on without being stretched. The flexibility of cloth without backing or support makes it

less desirable for oil painting. The unstretched canvas can be taped to a lightweight firm backing, such as gatorboard or foam core, and then painted. After it is painted on, it may be simply stored flat, transferred and mounted to a hard panel surface, or stretched onto a frame.

There are many reasons for seeking alternative support materials. Convenience, weight, storage, and aesthetics are some of the motives. Stretched canvas paintings remain the most common supports, but artists are wont to experiment. As long as the materials are prepared specifically for oil paint qualities, there is a great degree of success in using alternative materials for supports.