Often overlooked as unimportant, choosing a surface to paint on can completely shape your opinion of acrylic paint.
Poor choices can lead to unpredictable results and frustration. Choose well and you will take advantage of all the best properties of acrylic.
The three things you need to begin painting are usually paint, brushes and a surface. Most artists appreciate how important good paint and brushes are. Yet, the effect of a good surface is often overlooked.
Finding the right surface
Sometimes when we buy expensive surfaces there’s that added pressure to make something that “looks good”. This leads to less experimentation, and more restrained and hesitant strokes. So, go cheap with purpose (but not too cheap) and go wild.
Now it’s definitely possible to make a “great artwork” on any surface. In fact many contemporary artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat painted onto old pieces on junk wood.
Recommended surfaces for acrylic paint
The great thing about acrylic is that it can be painted onto virtually anything. The synthetic polymer is the key ingredient in acrylic paint. This makes it strong enough to hold onto glass, wood, canvas, paper, walls, plastic, etc.
Some of these surfaces often don’t last very long though. And some can be frustrating to get many traditional effects onto.
Lets discuss some of the recommended surfaces to paint on. This is based on you using common acrylic painting methods and wanting the artwork to last. But please remember that there are no rules!
Paper is the cheapest and easiest surface to paint on.
It’s easy to store, transport and display. It can also result in some issues if you choose the wrong paper.
Paper that is not designed for water based painting will warp, tear and fall to pieces either immediately or over a few years.
Paper that is suitable for acrylic paint is fairly thick and textured. Paper thickness is described in “GSM” or “grams per square meter”. The higher the GSM, the thicker the paper is going to be.
The paper should be at least 250gsm, or more if you want to do multiple layers and use thick paint.
For very thick paint, or many layers of paint, paper is not recommended.
It’s worth spending a bit of time at your local art store and have a chat to the attendants or go online to browse somewhere like Eckersleys.
Start with paper that is designed for acrylic paint. Watercolour paper is also suitable.
For a newbie, Reeves is the cheapest commonly available decent brand. It comes in various sizes, quantities and thicknesses. It works out to approximately $2.50 for a per A3 sheet of thick paper (in a pack of 10), which is great value.
Sometimes we may want to work on a piece for more than a couple of days, or using thick layers of paint. Even good quality paper will struggle to support this. This is when it would be good to switch to canvas.
“Canvas” can refer to any fabric that you paint on, even if it’s cotton, linen or actual canvas.
Like with paper, you get what you pay for. Buy a cheap canvas and it will warp over time and the paint will be difficult to apply. Also the colours will be absorbed into the canvas, requiring multiple layers simply to cover the white.
The three signs of a good canvas:
- Firstly the wood that supports the canvas will be thick and strong, so the canvas won’t warp.
- Secondly the material will be a good surface to paint on, like cotton or linen. These have some grip but not too much.
- Lastly the canvas will be properly “primed”. This means that the material is painted with an acrylic substance which your paint will sit on. If the surface was not properly primed most of your paint would simply seep into the fabric.
Brands like Jasart, and anything you can get at a dollar shop or those thin canvas boards are ok for experimenting. But even then, you’d be better off using a good quality paper for that same price. Windsor and Newton is a good entry level brand and can cost between $30 – $100.
If you’re working on an artwork for a few weeks this is a minor cost for something that will lead to a better experience.
If you can afford to go higher, speak to suppliers like Pigment Lab, who make custom canvases and important great material from Italy.
Their canvases are $50 – $200 but are far superior to anything you will find at Eckersleys.
Experiment with different fabrics. Linen canvases are great if your work is fairly smooth and detailed, like Margeret Ollet. Cotton would also be a good option. If you like to use large brushstrokes like An Doh then consider an unprimed rougher material.
A thick wood panel offers the best support for acrylic painting. It is rigid, which means that paint won’t easily crack. With canvas and paper, the paint becomes brittle over time and if the surface bends it could result in little (or not so little) cracks in the paint. If you are planning on using very thick buttery strokes, and if you want the painting to last for many years, consider painting on wood.
This is the most expensive popular surface, and the heaviest by far. It’s at least worth trying it out.
Most art stores will have small wooden panels from as little at $12. As you get larger though, the thickness of the wood needs to increase, so the prices get exponentially higher.
FAQ Questions to include:
- What kind of paper do you use for acrylic paint?
Paper should be fairly thick (at least 250 gsm) and slightly textured. Populars brands include Reeves, Arches and Fabriano
- What is the best brand of acrylic paint?
Da Vinci and Golden are fantastic Brands. Windsor and Newton Professional and Mattise are also good. Avoid and products labelled as “student quality.”
- What does acrylic paint not stick to?
Acrylic paint sticks to most surfaces but will have a harder time sticking to smoother surfaces like glass and metal. You can scuff (roughen) these surfaces if you wanted to paint on them though.
- What to paint on when you don’t have a canvas?
Paper, wood, old furniture, glass, mirror, blackboard, even walls are great surfaces. Be creative and have fun with ideas!
- Is acrylic paint waterproof?
Yes. Once Acrylic paint dries it forms a solid plastic-like layer which is waterproof. Bear in mind that some mediums that you choose to mix with acrylic paint may make it less waterproof. It should still resist the occasional splash of water, but leaving an acrylic painting underwater or out in the rain for an extended period of time is obviously not advised!
- What are fun things to paint?
In terms of surfaces to paint on, ceramic bowls (pre-glazing), old tables, and old chopping boards could all be enjoyable surfaces to paint on. Paint brushes themselves, frames, jar lids, mirrors, little boxes, place mats, coasters and old guitars!