What are painting substrates in art? There is a lot of confusion about what these are, put simply a painting substrate is the painting surface such as canvas, paper, linen, etc. Substrates are the things to paint on. There is also confusion about the different types of painting substrates and what they are used for.
To be honest, I’m an artist, and I didn’t know what substrate meant, and sometimes even I don’t know which painting substrate to use. What’s the difference between canvas, gessoed canvas, linen, watercolor paper? Which one should I use? What kind of paint can be used on each surface? And how much do each cost anyway?!
Before I knew better, I would just grab all sorts of things to paint on and not even hope for the best. Then years later I would have a dumbfounded look on my face as my paintings deteriorated prematurely over time.
So I went ahead and did some research to write this article to scratch my own itch and hopefully help another artist. This article will answer these questions and more! I’ll cover what kinds of paint you can use on each type of painting surface as well as where to buy them. Let’s get started!
What are painting substrates in art?
Painting substrates are things to paint on. This can be anything from canvas to paper to wood paneling. The type of substrate you choose will depend on what kind of painting you want to do and what look you are going for. Some substrates are better for certain types of paint or techniques than others, so it’s important to know what each one is used for before choosing one.
Canvas is probably the most popular painting substrate out there. It comes in both primed and unprimed varieties and is made from either cotton or synthetic fibers. It can also come in a roll and raw form to pre-primed to primed and glued to a backing board. Canva is probably to most widely available painting substrate after paper. This leads me to…
Paper is universal and can be used with most mediums as long as they are prepared properly in advance.
Paper is a popular painting substrate and comes in a variety of textures, weights, and sizes. The most common types are watercolor paper (which is made for wet media like watercolors) and drawing paper (which is less absorbent than other papers).
Paper can also be used with acrylics but you have to be careful not to use too much or it will buckle.
Papyrus is an ancient type of paper that was originally made from the pith of the papyrus plant. It’s still used today, albeit rarely because it has a unique texture that gives paintings a special look and it can also be expensive but it is a very environmentally friendly type of paper to use as it is usually hand-made using recycled materials.
You can purchase quality papyrus in all shapes and sizes from https://www.elbardy.com/
Fabric is often used as a painting substrate because it doesn’t warp like paper does when wet. This is not meant to be confused with canvas as fabric is not always used to make paintings that are meant to be hung on a wall.
Choosing the wrong type of fabric may mean that your artwork may not last as long as you had hoped so be careful when selecting a fabric to paint your masterpiece on.
Gessoed canvas is similar to regular canvas but it has been covered in gesso, which is a type of primer made from calcium carbonate and water. This makes the surface smoother so the paint doesn’t sink into the fabric as it does with regular canvas.
It also absorbs a lot of the binder that is in paints, so whether you are using oil paints or acrylic paints, the gesso will absorb the oil or water in the paint, leaving just the pigment. So what you say? Well, this can lead to your work lasting longer because there is less chance of the paint cracking or flaking off.
The downside to gessoed canvas is that it can be a bit more expensive and it generally takes more time to dry than regular canvas.
Watercolor Paper and Board
Watercolor paper is made specifically for watercolors, hence the name. It is usually quite thin and has a rough surface (known as tooth) which helps the paint to grip the paper better. The downside to this type of substrate is that it doesn’t hold up very well to other types of paints such as oils or acrylics so if you plan on using other mediums in your work, then watercolor paper may not be the best option for you.
Linen is another popular substrate used for painting. It has a smoother surface than canvas and is more expensive, but what it lacks in affordability it makes up for durability as it can last from several years to even decades without the paint peeling off or fading.
Because of its smoothness, however, there are some paints you cannot use on linen without priming first, such as oil-based paints so be sure to check what type of paint your planned piece will require before choosing the medium that best suits what you wish to create!
A great thing about linen is that depending on how much time and effort goes into stretching the fabric over a wooden frame, higher quality fabrics could very well increase in value.
Wooden boards or panels such as birch boards are often used as substrates for thicker paints like oils and acrylics because they don’t warp like paper, and the thicker paints won’t seep through as easily. These can definitely be a cheaper alternative to canvas boards if you don’t need your paintings stretched, especially because they’re easy to come by in large sizes.
However, what’s considered cheap is relative; wooden panels for painting will likely cost more than paper or even linen since they are not typically used as substrates (though it really depends on what size you get).
They do tend to warp less over time compared to other types of board material though, so keep that in mind when looking into this option!
Masonite or chipboards
When I was a young and broke artist I would use masonite and chipboards because they were cheap and readily available. I would get them for free from a construction site or I would buy them for like $0.50 at the hardware store.
The only downside is that they are really absorbent so you have to be careful with what type of paint and primer you use on it otherwise your painting will start peeling off. I would paint 2 to 3 layers of undercoating paint as a primer to ensure the paint would stick to the smooth surface (do not paint the rough side!).
Best types of medium to be used on painting surfaces
The rule of thumb is you can use almost any type of paint on any surface as long as the surface (substrate) is properly prepared. The other caveat with using any type of paint on any surface is that the final results will vary with each substrate/surface used. So this means, if you use oil paint on canvas, it may look, behave and last differently from the same oil paint being applied to paper or masonite.
Canvas is what we traditionally think of when someone says they are going to paint. Canvas has been in use for literally hundreds of years; it was the traditional painting surface in Europe (and still is). It comes from a cotton fabric that is treated with sizing or glue before applying gesso.
Paper is what we traditionally think of for drawings. Paper can be applied with pastels or even charcoal but generally speaking it’s used more often with graphite pencils and ink pens. It offers a smooth surface so clean lines are easily achieved. Watercolor paper is what you use when painting in this medium.
Best used with: tempera paint (you can also use them for drawings)
Papyrus is what was used in Ancient Egypt. It’s basically the same as modern paper but with a very different texture. This surface offers no sizing so it will absorb moisture from water-based paints which makes it unsuitable to work on if you are planning on wetting what you paint.
Best used with: oils, acrylics, and water-based paints (oil is the best choice for oil paintings)
Linen canvas offers a very smooth surface so it’s great for drawing as well as painting. It can be applied to wooden stretchers which are what most canvases are stretched on.
Best used with: oils, acrylics
This is what I use most often for my paintings. It’s great because it already has a texture that can give your painting more interest. You can also buy unprimed fabric or pre-gessoed fabric depending on what you want to do with it.
Best used with: acrylics, oils
Gesso is a primer that you can apply to almost any surface to make it smoother and more absorbent. A lot of people prefer to use gessoed canvas because the paint doesn’t soak into the fabric as it does with unprimed fabric.
Best used with: watercolors
Watercolor paper is made specifically for watercolors, and it has a toothy surface. This makes it the perfect substrate for washes and other delicate painting techniques.
Best used with: oil paints
Wooden boards come in both primed and unprimed options, but if you want to paint on them with acrylics or oil paints it is best to get the primed ones (the board will soak up too much of your medium otherwise). Some boards may also be too smooth and acrylic paints will struggle to stick to the surface which can be a pain when painting.
Masonite or chipboards
Best used with: oil paints, acrylic paints
Masonite and chipboards are often used by artists to paint with oils on, because of how smooth they are. It is easy to get the right amount of sheen on masonite too, making it a popular choice for painters who want their work glistening in the light. Personally, I hate the sheen and prefer to prime the masonite surface to make it behave more like a smooth canvas. These boards also have an added bonus in that they are very affordable, so for artists on a budget this can be an ideal option.
Why you should use a canvas for your first piece instead of other materials like paper or linen
When you are starting out in any new medium, it is a good idea to use the most forgiving surface that you can find. A primed canvas will give you more leeway when it comes to making mistakes than paper or linen would.
Because of the texture and weave of a canvas, the paint will not seep through as much as it would on a smoother surface like paper or linen. This means that if you make a mistake while painting, there is less chance of the paint becoming permanently stained on the substrate.
You can also easily paint over a canvas and you can ‘clean’ the canvas with a thinner and still have a useable surface to paint on once dry. Canvases also come in a variety of sizes and for any budget so you can choose one that is best suited for your project.
Bonus – Alternative things to paint on
While we looked at the traditional things to paint on, a lot has happened in art over the centuries and there are new painting surfaces that can be used.
I have listed as a bonus some alternative things to paint on below:
- Plexiglass or other types of plastic
- Plates and cups (ceramics)
- Metal surfaces
- Precious and semi-precious metals
- Tanned hides, preserved skins
- Sneakers (though these are either canvas or leather or a synthetic)
There are endless possibilities when it come to things to paint on and the best way to find out is to experiment! You may be surprised at what you come up with. If you are unsure, feel free to contact me. Happy painting! 🙂