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Wood & Masonite Panel

The master’s dream surface

Wood and masonite panels are excellent choices of support for almost every size and medium. Although there are many panels that can be purchased ready made for your intended project, my objective is to show the specifics to painting on panels successfully. There are circumstances when the size, design, or desired technique used in your painting project actually favor wood panel over paper or canvas.

Some primary examples are:

  • Medieval and Renaissance old world masters utilized panel supports for portrait and figure paintings. They traditionally prepared the surface with sanding and priming to a smooth surface in which paint would flow effortlessly to allow more intense detail.
  • Paintings done in  fresco, those  which use egg tempera emulsions or casein  all which become brittle when fully cured. A wood panel is preferred for these mediums because it provides a rigid support
  • With heavy “Impasto” techniques, sculpting or where an embossed texture is desired, work should not be applied to canvas due to it’s tendency to flex. These large quantities of paint can eventually crack from the movement that canvas permits.
Ship of Fools
Click image to see larger view

“Ship of Fools”
oil on panel    1490 – 1500

 The Secret Heresy of
Hieronymus Bosch 
by Lynda Harris

Back in the days before laminating, if artisans were unable to cut whole panels from wider trees they had to mill and join individual boards to obtain the desired dimensions for their paintings. This seriously dictated the size, weight and quality of the piece as well as the time required to complete it. Today, there are actually two types of panel available for the artist. We can purchase laminated plywood or oil pressed masonite panel for the same task.

  • Laminated plywood, favored for it’s resistance to warping,  comes in a variety of grades and sizes. However, the only suitable woods to use for this application would be Birch for it’s smooth almost non porous surface texture, Oak for it’s open grain that provides grip for the ground or Mahogany for it’s light weight and  resistance to weathering.  I would like to make note of the fact however, that almost 50% of all historical panel paintings collected were done on oak.Due to it’s lower expense, Birch is favored for painting directly after preparing a ground. With paintings up to 784″ sq. or rough dimensions of  28″ x 28″ a  3/8″ thick panel can be used. However, due to an excessive weight issue,  larger pieces use of  1/4″ panel are more favorable. Because weight is always an issue for me I prefer 1/4″ panel for all work that I do.
  • Masonite or hard board, available in 1/4″ thickness, is available in two versions. Stay clear of glued particle masonite which, has the appearance of, and is not much different than, a strong cardboard. It is highly absorbent to moisture and will eventually crumble in high humidity environments. Oil pressed masonite is processed entirely different and is extremely durable. It easily identified by it’s smooth satin surface on one side and rough textile texture on the other. The smooth side is exceptional for realistic detailed paintings,  such as portraits, directly after preparing a ground. The rough side works well with Impastos if you plan on creating a uniform texture across the entire painting with paint or don’t mind the texture existing as an integrated part of your work. This side also works well for applying canvas and paper (see below) to where the porous area is able to hold more sizing which grips better than the none porous side.

Use of 1/4″ panel larger than roughly 784″ sq. or  28″ x 28″ will require you to fabricate a back brace (known as cradling) with 1″ x 2″ Popular similar to the canvas stretcher bars. Popular is the choice for this task because of it’s density and  light weight. Other stronger woods such as Oak, Mahogany, or Teak could be used but it is not necessary.  There are several designs used as a means to hold this support rigid. Most smaller pieces will let you  get by with bracing around the perimeter. Larger pieces will require cradled cross bracing similar to canvas stretchers to prevent warping and the panel’s tendency to buckle (convex or concave) in the center. Experience has taught me that  “X brace” bracing across from corner to corner glued to the panel is the most effective method (see fig.1 below). Most twisting and warping generally pulls the dimensions of your work “out of square”. When you are positive that the distances across from corner to corner will not change, you can effectively insure that your piece will remain as it was originally created .


Painting Panels

You can use the 1 x 2 ” bracing laying it flat similar to a canvas stretcher or on edge to give it the museum profile. Many panel canvases with sides larger than 36″ are set with the 1x 2″ on edge. These pieces will also require additional cradling to prevent the panel flex. One advantage of painting on panel is that, multiple panels can be attached to complete one large painting or mural. When these panels are made up in sections they can later be taken apart for transport.

The next step, one of the most important, is to sand your panel with course sandpaper to open the grain providing grip for your ground. Then you will need to apply a  Rabbit  skin glue sizing to seal the panel previous to applying the ground. An alternative to RSG is to use a home made batch of Casein glue.  This step is as important with wood as it is with any other supports because the unsealed pores of the wood will result in the wood absorbing your paint, problems with adhesion and discoloration. Once the sizing has dried you can prepare the ground. This is the best and most flexible part about using panel. You have so many choices to make depending on what type of work you are doing.

  • Next some would not say is necessary,  but I will take that measure by priming the panel with a good oil base sealer primer.  If you are planning to take advantage the panel’s smooth texture for your painting, you would now apply either  Gamblin Oil Painting Ground for an oil painting  or  Acrylic Gesso  depending on what paint you where planning to use.

    Again a Casein glue gesso can also be used by hydrolyzing the 1-1/4 parts raw casein  with 1 part of Slaked Lime and immediately after the reaction takes place diluting the mixture with distilled water to a paint consistency (water content would be roughly equal to casein and slacked lime combined). Use caution to avoid contact with lime (especially your eyes). Unlike acids, alkaline substances continue to burn after washing the area they’ve come in contact with. After the medium is made any color dry pigment can be added to this ground.

    Be sure to apply at least two coats sanding between coats with a fine grade sand paper until reaching your desired texture.

  • After sizing, wood panels provide additional support to projects where canvas or paper is applied as part of the ground. Fabric or paper can be applied to the panel for uniform texture. Brush on a diluted casein glue solution or a Neutral pH PVA (poly vinyl acetate) Adhesive diluted with distilled water to the panel and then soak the fabric or paper in the glue solution and apply it to the panel similar to the method used when hanging wall paper.  Make sure to smooth out all the air bubbles. Once stretched over the panel, allow the piece to dry and trim off the excess from the edges with a razor knife. You will need to then apply primer ground as above of varied build up depending on the medium used.

  • Wood panel, whether it be plywood or masonite can easily be made into an excellent inexpensive support for Pastels. You can create the exact texture or “tooth” for a panel that you are most comfortable with by making your own ground from diluting acrylic gesso and adding any of a wide range of grit minerals such as Pumice (MSDS), Marble Dust (MSDS), or  Aluminum Oxide (MSDS).

 Note: The larger the grit number means it’s a finer tooth, the smaller micron number means it’s finer tooth.

Before use of these materials it is always wise to read the MSDS provided above for each about possible eye / lung exposure and safe handling. 

The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio:
The Role of Technique
The Panel Paintings of Masolino and Masaccio: The Role of Technique
    Some of these grit materials are used as abrasive rubbing compounds or polishes. Marble dust is recognized as a fine whiting filler used in traditional gesso recipes. The advantage of using the abrasives is that you have freedom to experiment with the coarseness of the grit till you find one that suits you.
    By adding 1 part distilled water to 1 part acrylic gesso  you are thinning to prevent paint film resistance to pastels but with enough medium to hold the pumice on the panel. The ratios of grit added will be pending the material you use and the amount of tooth desired in a range between 1 and 13 tbsp grit to 1 cup of diluted acrylic gesso.
    Apply the gesso in coats preferably with  a  roller to avoid unwanted brush mark texture alternating strokes across the panel from up and down to side to side. If you find you are not achieving your desired tooth, before the surface dries sprinkle more grit evenly across the panel. Tap off the excess and allow to dry. Repeating these steps, apply additional coats until you have obtained your desired ground.

Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” ….Salvador Dali

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