Making Your Own Canvas Panels for Oil Painting
Making your own canvas panels is a great cost-saver when it comes to being a painter. This is how I make mine with my own homemade primer.
Before the invention of oil painting on sailcloth canvas, artists during and before the Renaissance Period commonly painted on solid wooden panels.
These were carefully selected pieces of hardwood, and painstakingly sized with hide glues and primed with gypsum or lead-based primers, in preparation for egg tempera or oil painting.
Today, making your own canvas panels for oil painting (or acrylic) is so easy to do.
Not only are canvas panels easy to make, and the materials relatively easy to find, you’ll also be more confident of their quality, when compared to the cheap and horrible commercial canvas panels available at most art stores.
According to Mark David Gottsegen in The Painter’s Handbook which I bought in my early years and which really helped me a lot in the pre-internet era:
Art supply stores sell canvas boards and primed paper as supports for painting, but these products are of doubtful quality, and you, a serious artist, should avoid them.. Canvas boards use thin cotton or muslin glued to cheap pulp cardboard, primed with an acrylic dispersion ground… These materials are technical disasters… you can easily make your own at less expense and be equally assured of a durable product.
Gluing canvas to a rigid panel has several advantages, and as I mentioned in How to Stretch a Canvas for Painting — the Easy Way!, my favourite surface to paint on is a rigid support.
What are the benefits of painting on a rigid support?
• Unlike traditional canvas stretched on a frame, a rigid support does not flex. Therefore the paint film has far more protection against changes in surface tension, and the effects of cracking.
• Canvas panels or rigid supports are very easy to make and are extremely durable (if made properly with good materials).
• Canvas panels are more durable than traditional canvas, and are not vulnerable to tears or indentations like traditional stretched canvases are.
• Painting on a rigid support mitigates annoying ‘canvas bounce’ which artists often experience when painting on a traditional flexible canvas support.
• Panel boards are easy to stack up and store away and use little space. While stretched canvases need to be stored carefully so that they do not damage each other. Canvas panels that have been painted on, can simply be wrapped with paper and then bubble wrapped (once the painting is properly dry that is) and then stored in a box or pile.
Disadvantages of canvas panels
One of the disadvantages to canvas panels that I can think of, is that they can start to become a little heavy once they reach a certain size. This also depends, of course, on whether the artist has used an oak panel, or Masonite board. So there are variables.
Unlike stretched canvas, a painting on a rigid support can’t be rolled up. So it can’t be shipped in a tube, or taken off its stretcher (if the canvas is glued to the panel or the painting is done directly on the wood), and the stretcher reused for other canvases.
Usually a canvas panel needs to be framed in order to finish it off or to hang it on the wall. ( Unlike a box canvas — where it has become ‘fashionable’ to hang it directly unframed on the wall, so long as the sides of the canvas are painted.)
However, one can still glue a board to a normal stretcher or strainer frame (see the differences between stretchers and strainers) and then stretch your canvas over this rigid support.
Thus the painting can be carefully removed from the stretcher/strainer and still retain all the advantages of being painted on a rigid support, plus be rolled up if need be.
What you’ll need to make canvas panels for painting
1. A board or panel (solid wood or laminate) cut to your specified size.
2. Lightweight unprimed canvas or calico material made from 100% undyed cotton or linen.
3. A glue size made from diluted acid-free PVA or diluted acrylic matt medium.
4. Titanium dioxide powder (preferably rutile).
5. Calcium carbonate (chalk), or calcium sulphate (gypsum or Plaster of Paris).
6. A binder made from acid-free PVA glue.
7. Plastic containers for mixing, and a squeezy bottle for squirting the glue size.
8. Table spoon.
9. A sieve.
10. A palette knife or spatula for mixing the primer.
11. A decent house painting brush made from natural bristle or hogs hair. Some synthetic brushes can also be used, if they have the required ‘spring’.
12. A bottle or container of water.
13. A cloth for wiping excess stuff off your brush or for general clean-up.
14. Sheets of 120-200 grit sandpaper.
More about supplies needed for making canvas painting panels
The first thing you’ll need is obviously a board or panel, which can be bought from your local lumber or hardware store.
It can be either a composite laminate material such as hardboard/Masonite or plywood (avoid chipboard), or a solid hardwood panel from fine-grained woods such as oak, birch, beech etc.
But using hardwoods obviously pushes up the cost and the weight of the panel.
You can paint directly on the wood (after sizing and priming of course), which may give you a bit of a wood grain texture (unless you prime with many layers). Or you can glue canvas to the panel to create a more uniform texture from the weave of the material.
Raw unprimed cotton duck canvas or Belgian linen can usually be purchased online or from the art store. I buy my canvas from a material warehouse or an industrial canvas and PVC factory.
I prefer the fine weave of lightweight cotton duck material, or even light calico.
A thicker canvas may be more difficult to glue to a panel, especially folding the corners at the back, but it’s easier to remove the painting from the panel, if you ever decide to do so (for rolling up, shipping or restoration work etc.)
Some artists also swear by synthetic materials such as polyester. But I’m not really familiar with it.
For the glue size, you can use Gamblin PVA or GAC 100 sold by gamblincolors.com
Traditionally, artists used hide glue or rabbit skin glue for sizing canvas before the application of a primer.
But, due to rabbit skin glue being hydroscopic, this exacerbates shrinking and stretching of the canvas, and thus causes issues of delamination, cracking and flaking of the paint film (according to the Canadian Conservation Institute, the Smithsonian Conservation Lab and the National Gallery of Washington).
If you’re confused about what sizing the canvas is, check out a previous blog I wrote Painting the Traditional Way – Part 1, where I explain how to prepare and prime a canvas, ready for painting.
I’ve tried many different glue sizes, and it’s important to make sure it’s as close to pH neutral as possible. You can always check with the manufacturers if you are unsure.
The whole point of the glue size is to protect the raw canvas from the oxidative effects of linseed oil and to prevent SID (surface-induced discolouration).
SID is where water discolours the canvas or panel and these stains migrate upwards through the primer and cause unsightly marks on your painting.
I use simple acid-free PVA wood or craft glue diluted with 3 to 4 parts of water. It has a pH of 7.5.
Gypsum (calcium sulphate hemihydrate) is itself pH neutral and has no effect of neutralizing acids.
However, calcium carbonate (used to strengthen the titanium dioxide primer and add ‘tooth’ to the primer surface) does neutralize acids. So that’s quite beneficial.
So for primer, you have several options: if you’re painting with acrylic, you can simply use a ready-made acrylic dispersion primer or acrylic ‘gesso’. (Not real gesso at all!) Or you can make your own acrylic paint with white pigment and acrylic binder.
If you’re painting in oils, you can make an oil or alkyd-based primer (which I’ll write about another time).
Or simply go the (semi) traditional route, and make a glue chalk gesso, or a gypsum gesso (which basically means the same thing in Italian, gesso = gypsum or chalk).
I mix titanium dioxide pigment with Plaster of Paris. You can also use marble dust or chalk (calcium carbonate).
These ingredients can be found at hardware or building supply stores, at well-known artist pigment suppliers, or even at industrial chemical and lab equipment suppliers.
Look for rutile as opposed to anatase titanium dioxide (if at all possible). Sometimes they come mixed with no clear information about the crystal structure.
Rutile TiO2 is a more stable form of titanium dioxide and causes less ‘chalking’. But don’t get too hung up about it. The addition of calcium carbonate funny enough seems to mitigate chalking. (See: Investigating the effect of artists’ paint formulation on degradation rates of TiO2-based oil paints.)
Be aware that it’s probably not a good idea to use gesso (gypsum) on a flexible support, such as a canvas stretched on stretcher bars. Gesso is rather brittle, so it’s best used on a rigid support.
For stretched canvas, it’s better to go with an oil-based primer made with hand-refined linseed oil, titanium dioxide and calcium carbonate mix (or lead oxide/sulphate if available).
How to make a canvas panel for oil and acrylic painting
Step 1: Cutting the board to the correct size or format
If you have a clear idea of the dimensions you need for your panel(s) then the easiest is to get the board cut to spec when purchasing from your local timber supplier.
Hardboard and plywood usually comes in large sheets of varying thicknesses. I usually buy good quality tempered hardboard which is at least 3mm – 6mm thick (the one which is smooth on both sides).
Sometimes, however, I just get a large sheet cut in half (so that it can fit in my car), and then cut smaller boards from this myself as and when I need them.
Since I’ve been doing a lot of preliminary studies and sketches in my A4 sketchbook, I wanted to use the same format for my oil on board paintings, which is a root 2 aspect ratio of 1:1.4142.
This means I can go as large or small as I want and still maintain the same aspect ratio.
To see how I work out this ratio and use a steel ruler and craft knife to cut the board (since I don’t have a nice big table saw currently), check out the video above.
Step 2: Gluing canvas to the board and sizing with PVA
You can, if you wish, forego gluing canvas or material to the panel, and paint directly on wood (after sizing and priming) if that’s the kind of texture you’re going for.
Personally, I like a fine weave calico texture for painting on.
Material can be bought in bulk from a textile wholesaler or canvas supplier. There are many options and personal preferences.
But it’s best to use undyed natural material such as pure cotton or linen. Make sure it has a strong weave.
One has to be a lot more careful with the quality of the canvas when stretching canvas over stretcher bars. A rigid support is a bit more forgiving, since the material is glued to a board. Therefore, it’s doesn’t necessarily need to be too thick.
The ideal is to have a canvas material that’s thick enough, that if needed, the painting can be carefully removed from the panel. But, even so, removing a painting from a panel is risky business best left to conservators.
And besides, if using a gesso ground, rolling the painting should always be avoided. A gesso (gypsum) ground is not very flexible.
For my PVA size, as I mentioned above, I use an acid-free craft or wood glue diluted with water in a small plastic squeezy bottle. You can just use old wood glue bottles.
Cut the canvas to the required size, making sure you have at least two inches of overlap on all sides of your Masonite board.
Then squirt your glue size all over the material and brush it carefully into the weave of the canvas with a sturdy hogs hair house painting brush. The glue should soak through the material and glue the material to the board.
If your canvas is a bit too thick, you may need to brush a more concentrated glue solution onto the board first, so that the canvas adheres to the board. Thereafter, use the more diluted glue size to brush on the topside of the material.
Make sure you brush out all the creases. It should be completely flat and well-soaked with glue size; all the fibers between the weave of the canvas must be properly covered.
Once you’re happy that the whole front surface of the canvas panel is properly sized, leave it to dry for a day or two.
Then turn it over, fold the edges over the back and size/glue them down. Make sure you fold or cut neat corners at the each corner.
If your hardboard has started warping due to being wet on the front side, then you can cover the back with glue size as well, or simply paint a large X across the back with the size. This should mitigate the bowing of the board.
Then again, allow to dry.
Since PVA (and acrylic dispersion primer for that matter) leaves little pinholes when it dries (if you ever held a canvas up to the light after sizing and saw all the little pinholes, you’d know what I mean), it’s important to give it at least two coats of size to ensure that the whole surface is properly covered and protected.
Again, give a day or two to dry.
You’re now ready for the priming stage.
Step 3: Priming a canvas panel for oil and acrylic painting
For one average size canvas panel (mine is about 40 x 60 cm), I use 40ml water, and about 2 tablespoons of acid-free PVA glue. Shake it up really well until the glue is properly diluted.
Pour this into a paper cup or round plastic container such as yogurt ‘bakkie’. (Don’t use a metal tin like I did in the video. The water causes the tin to rust, so if you use it a second time, you’ll get brown streaks on your canvas.)
Then add 2-3 tablespoons of titanium dioxide powder to the water and stir well.
Then add a tablespoon of gypsum such as Plaster of Paris or marble dust.
Stir this really well, and let it settle for a minute or two. The consistency should be like runny cream.
Don’t be tempted to add too much gypsum just yet. It sets really fast, so you don’t have much time once it reaches the perfect consistency — not too watery, and not too thick, that spreading it with a brush becomes an issue.
If you need to prime more panels, then you can obviously make a bigger batch of primer using the same ratios. However, don’t make more than you can use in a few minutes. The gypsum dries pretty fast.
If you want, you can spread it with a large painter’s spatula or palette knife. I just go straight for it with a decent house painter’s brush.
Start with one side and move across, brushing it carefully into the weave of the canvas, moving quickly. Brush up/down and across at right angles.
For a chalk mix (half titanium white, half calcium carbonate), you have a bit more time and you can brush it nice and neatly in one direction. Then allow to dry and brush at right angle the next day.
But with calcium sulphate, I just try to get the panel covered as smooth, uniform and quickly as possible.
Don’t be too worried about messing it up. You can always prime again. In fact, it’s best to keep the layers thin and build up 4 -5 thin coats of primer. It’s also very easy to sand.
Just remember, don’t overwork it. Move quickly. Overworking it can cause the gesso to start pulling off and make messy streaks. You’ll be able to see it drying and change texture.
Gesso is quite brittle, so keep your layers fairly thin.
Don’t forget to finish off the thin sides of the panel too. If you have too much primer on your brush at this point, you’ll probably start making little ridges at the edges of the panel.
So use a rag to clean off your brush. Don’t stress about it though. You can always sand it neatly once dry.
Allow the gesso to dry. Then you can lightly sand it the next day with 120 – 200 grit sandpaper. I use 100 grit which has already been used. I slap the sandpaper against the desk to get off all the white powder. And use it very lightly.
Give the panel at least 3 coats. If you’re a mad person, you can give it 7 or 8 thin coats (like was done apparently in ye Olde Dayes, although I think that’s overkill), and sand it lightly in between.
If you have a canvas weave, then try not to coat it so thickly that you lose that texture, otherwise there’s little point in gluing a canvas to your panel.
Step 4: Final polish of the canvas panel
Once you’re happy with the result and have sanded the panel down nice and smooth, you can if you wish, paint a thin, lean layer of oil paint such as a transparent earth pigment over the board.
Let this dry, and then you can sand with very fine sandpaper (such as 400 grit). Once all the brown earth colour has been removed by sanding, you’ll know that it is perfectly smooth.
Gesso or chalk primed panels are extremely absorbent. Which is great for painting in layers and maintaining the fat over lean principle.
But sometimes, they can be too absorbent. And your paint binder could be sucked in by the ‘thirsty’ primer. Your paint film be left under-bound, which results in flaking off/delamination.
Thus, it’s a good idea to wipe the panel with linseed oil and then wipe off the excess with a cloth before painting. Or paint an imprimatura, or tone the panel.
Alkyd-based primers can produce the opposite problem sometimes, being a little on the fat or resinous side.
If the surface is too glossy, your surface won’t be absorbent enough and your paint might never adhere to the support properly. Thus, it cause cracking because the layer beneath is too ‘fat’ or oil-rich.
Priming boards with PVA glue and gesso pigment in the way I’ve illustrated above is great for both oil and acrylic painting.
It saves a lot of costs, teaches you about the lost craft of making your own art materials, the quality is much better than store-bought ‘economic’ canvases or art panels.
And, it’s way better than taking the risk of painting with oils on dodgy acrylic dispersion grounds (marketed as gesso) where conservatory issues are just waiting to happen.
It also avoids the issues with rabbit skin glue, or zinc oxide containing primers. (Zinc oxide is now known to create paint film issues too.)
If you’re just as passionate as I am about the craft of oil painting and preparing panels for painting, if you have any questions or further advice/discoveries that you’ve come across and wish to share, please don’t hesitate to write below.
Also, check out my Sirens series which are my latest series of figure paintings done both from life, and from imagination.