How to Choose the Right Surface for Your Oil Painting

So, you are ready for your first painting project. You are excitedly mixing oil colors after contemplating an excellent subject to paint. You’ve got your creative ideas to portray your subject, channeling your inner Picasso. But as you make your first stroke, you find some uncharacteristic look on the paint. 

What went wrong? Have you spent time choosing the type of surface you decided to put the oil colors on? Well, maybe not.

One of the best oil painting tips that beginning painters should know before embarking on a painting endeavor is trying painting on different surfaces, primers, and grounds until they find the surface that works best. This is primarily because the qualities of a certain oil painting surface can largely affect some, if not all, artists’ paintings, especially when they use specific techniques and materials, including staining in acrylics or oils. 

Painting oil on an inappropriate surface can be very frustrating and discouraging. Fret not, for you are on the right page at the right time to salvage your work and find your groove as you learn how to choose the right oil painting surface for you. 

In this article, we discuss the many different oil painting surfaces you can try to find the right fit for you. Read on and carry on.


Canvas and linen are the two most used painting surfaces among artists. Some think they are the same since they possess many similarities. But let this article be a definitive guide for you to distinguish the difference between the two. Here are some pointers to remember about canvas and linen.

Canvas is cheaper since it is made of cotton. It has a shorter life span because of its lightweight material, and it can only be expected to last for 50 years. However, there have been some developments in preserving canvas paintings.

Meanwhile, linen is made of fibers coming from the flax plant. This material undergoes a tedious production process, making it a pricey surface material. But the price comes with outstanding quality, with linen lasting for about 200 years. It is also sturdier than canvas. Linen is also more organic than canvas, but canvas makes it up with its smooth quality, as linen can have a rough surface, bumps, and imperfections.

With their distinct characteristics, you can take your pick between the two based on what you feel is more fit to your painting style: rough, natural surface for a natural-looking paint in linen, or perfectly smooth, affordable surface material in canvas. Yet, you are not limited to these two options, as more surfaces are listed below for you.


Masonite may not be a familiar material among beginning paint learners. This oil painting surface is one of the cheapest and easily available in the market today. Hardboard with a medium density, masonite is commonly used to make clipboards. It is a wood pulp processed to possess distinct characteristics and qualities that make a good oil painting surface.

Masonite is known for lacking a binding material, making it a pure wood substrate. Some are made with a glossy surface on one side as a result of adding oil into the mix to provide a beautiful and smooth quality.

Masonite can be very smooth when it is finely primed. It adds a pleasant look to the surface, making it a classy choice to create an oil painting. Moreover, priming helps secure blocking humidity to penetrate the substrate. After a delicate and fine priming process, a masonite painting can last up to a century.

Masonite is a popular choice among artists as it is cheap and can be found in almost all hardware or lumber stores. One of the best versions of a masonite board is an acid-free pH-balanced surface.

Wood Panel

One of the ancient surfaces used in painting is wood. Wood materials back in the day produced high-quality substrates. A wood panel, though, was used in traditional paintings without being refined or enhanced. 

Paintings that can surpass any form of environmental contamination are wood panels from a quality piece of furniture. If a painting made on the wood surface has not been damaged after getting exposed to environmental elements for several decades, it is more likely to stand the test of time and live on for many more years to come.

But what are the advantages of using a wood panel for oil painting? Being heavier than other surface materials, a wooden panel is the most durable. On the flip side, its weight can also be its weakness, as a wood panel can be cumbersome for some artists.

Another advantage is that a panel can have a customized surface. Unlike linen and canvas that are fixed with their respective rough and smooth qualities, a panel has no visible texture before being primed, which means you can make the surface rough or smooth, and add other surface qualities, depending on the artist’s preference. This way, artists have more control over the outcome of the material to allow them to add creativity and expression to their painting.

Aside from the surface materials mentioned above, there are other surfaces that you can choose from. All you need is a good primer or gesso to use different oil painting surfaces for your artwork.

Basic Supplies for Oil Painting

Now that you have an idea of the different surfaces you can use for your oil painting, here are other painting essentials you need to prepare for a smooth art-making process.


Practicing oil painting before making your actual masterpiece will help you determine the kind of oil painting brushes that work best for your technique. The shapes and sizes that give you the best stroke and expression are the ones you should stick with. As you test different brushes, you can buy one or two round brushes in various sizes.

Cleaning Set: Turpentine, Linseed Oil, Jars, and Rags

Cleaning an oil paint brush requires a thinning solution. Turpentine is a good brush cleaner to remove lingering paint on the bristles. When not available, you can opt for some odorless mineral spirits to clean your brushes. Pour the thinner into a jar and dip your brushes in it. Put a coil inside the jar to make the cleaning easier. Rub the bristles of your brushes against the coil to remove color stains.

Linseed oil is used to dilute oil paint. Its presence in the cleaning solution in the jar is like water, thinning oil paint for instant cleaning. Lastly, use rags to wipe your brush after dipping them into the cleaning solution.


Choosing a suitable oil painting surface will help you paint with limitless expression and achieve your desired results. As you evaluate certain surfaces for your oil painting, apply some primer to it to protect its substrate, whether it’s linen, canvas, masonite, or wood panel, from oil paint’s corrosive effects. If you want longevity for your artwork, choose the surface that will hold up your painting for the ages to come.

Do you want to know more about oil painting basics? Learn how to paint with E. John Robinson's instructional painting lessons for oil, available in 3 formats: digital download, DVD, or book on compact disc (book-on-CD). Contact us today for questions, comments, or suggestions on how we can help you develop your painting skills. 

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