what is the best surface for oil paints

What Is The Best Surface For Oil Paints – Comparing Pros and Cons

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The first question that a painter comes across after selecting the desired medium for painting is what is the best surface for oil paints.

A number of criteria need to be fulfilled – strong enough to support the painting but not rigid enough so that there is a chance of the painting itself cracking, porous enough so that the paint holds but not absorbent enough so that the paint is sucked in.


What Is The Best Surface For Oil Paints?

So which surface should we use? We have a number of options – the foremost ones being Canvas, Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF), Priming and Wood.

Different types of surfaces can be used for Oil Paint. All of these have advantages and disadvantages.

Before the selection of a particular surface, one has to compare the pros and cons of all the surfaces and then decide on the particular surface. The final painting depends on a lot on the surface used.


la page blanche de l'écrivain via Les Bricoles de Dame Uranie

la page blanche de l'écrivain via Les Bricoles de Dame Uranie

This is being used for centuries as a surface for painting. Its use is flexible – it can be used for smooth portraits as well as an uneven coarse surface for collages. Paintings on this surface remain good and attractive for a long time.

Canvas is made of cotton with a stretched material and can be of either cotton or linen.

Using oil on canvas via Mail Online

Using oil on canvas via Mail Online

However, it takes quite a long time to dry; making blending colors a fairly time-taking process.

Oil paints have the tendency to blend easily with one another, which often make certain artists keep blending until the colors become unclear and pasty. Once this happens, it is very difficult to fix it.

Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF) and Priming

Medium density fiberboard (MDF) is a type of composite wood product. This is a surface which the painter has to prepare himself or herself. One of the advantages of MDF is its density and hence there is no grain.

MDF offers good workability via Wood Solutions

MDF offers good workability via Wood Solutions

This is prepared from wooden fibers which are compressed with adhesive together with resin under high pressure. This is quite inexpensive in comparison to other materials. Priming of MDF is a must before the painter starts the painting.

It can be painted or stained to look just like wood. After it is installed and painted upon, most people will not be able to tell that a cheaper substitute for real wood has been used. The look of wood can be achieved for a fraction of the price.

On the flip side, MDF is weak compared to real wood. This means that when it is installed, there is a chance that it could split or crack under stress.

You will need to be very careful about it will be used and what is being used to hold it so that you can make sure it will not fall.

To prepare the MDF for painting, you have to first apply a coat of primer on the surface since its surface is very porous.

Prepare MDF Panels for Painting with Oils or Acrylics via Brandon Nixon

If it is not primed properly, the paint will blister up and crack. After priming, you should put on a face mask and lightly sand the surface. The mask is a must since there is a high possibility of dust particles entering the eyes while sanding.

Wood Panels

Plywood or hardwood can also be used for oil painting. Unlike canvas, wood is rigid and prevents cracks in the paint. Even centuries ago, oil paint was done on wood and many of them have survived the abuse of time.

oil, acrylic, and graphite on wood panel 18

oil, acrylic, and graphite on wood panel 18"x24" Jonathan Levine Gallery 2012 via audrey kawasaki

Wood panels (both hardwood and plywood) are relatively cheap. The surface is quite smooth in nature and the paint easily glides onto the surface.

If a board is not primed correctly before painting, there is a substantial risk that oils may seep in through the board, yellowing or discoloring the painting.

Acrylic gesso is often used as a barrier against this. Also, they are quite heavy in weight and longer pieces have the tendency to bow, so they have to be reinforced with bracing struts or frames.




The latest trend in oil painting surfaces is painting on aluminum. Many artists have been using sandwiched panels of aluminum (mostly used for road signs) for oil painting.

They are available in sheets, are easy to cut to size, comparatively lightweight, thin and rigid. To use it for oil painting, you have to sand it with sandpaper and prime it.



The advantage of painting upon something such as aluminum is the extreme smoothness of the material. Such a material is the optimum material for the artists who appreciate doing fine detailed work. Other than that, it is light, stable, and doesn't rot.

People can draw easily on this surface due to the smoothness of the surface

One can go through the following video link to see how the painting on aluminum surface is done:

Dario Campanile - Oil on Aluminum Paintings via Dario Campanile


Paper has a lot of advantages: absorbency, brightness of surface, slight texture, and archival integrity. There’s no need to prime it. It is cost effective, lightweight, easy to store, and easy to cut to size.

Although oil paint and paper are not traditionally considered to be compatible with each other, paper is a wonderful flexible surface to paint on with oil when prepared properly. No matter what you may have heard, it is perfectly possible to use paper for sketching in oil.

However, it is worth investing in good quality, heavy water color paper that has been thinly primed with an acrylic gesso primer.

A Cloud Study by John Constable via John Constable

A Cloud Study by John Constable via John Constable

There are many types of papers available, some high quality and acid-free, and they are certainly worth trying and using.

Lower quality paper, such as brown craft paper, with and without having primed the paper with gesso, can also give excellent results. The paintings might not last centuries, but the less expensive materials would give more freedom to experiment.

To sum up, there is no single surface which is outright the best for oil painting. The artist must go through the advantages and disadvantages of each surface in order to balance the perfect one suitable for his or her needs and according choose the best surface for oil paint.

Moreover, artists have different styles of painting, for which a particular surface may be more appropriate than others. A lot also depends on the type of painting, like, landscape, portrait, abstract, etc.

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