What Can I Paint On?
Canvas isn’t the only surface suitable for painting on. Just about any surface that can hold up to a little moisture can be used to create an awesome piece of artwork.
Painting on non traditional surfaces can be interesting and inspiring. Here are some ideas to answer the question “what surfaces can be painted on?”
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Canvas is traditionally the ideal artists material and is only one of the many surfaces that can be painted on. It is lightweight, durable, portable and can hold up to a lot of paint, water and different mediums.
You can use canvas with oils or acrylics and works well with different texture mediums and embellishments. Canvas boards are perfect for plein air painting since they are strong and durable.
Painting on Paper
There are a variety of different types of papers that can be used for painting. Because they are much thinner than canvas, they don’t hold up well to multiple layers or heavy textures.
You should tape the paper to a board to help prevent buckling while working with it.
Canvas paper is great for practicing techniques. It has a slick surface so if you want to use it for a finished piece you may prefer to apply a coat or two of gesso.
You can read about applying gesso in this article How To Gesso A Canvas.
Watercolor paper can be used with acrylics or watercolors of course. The most common weight of watercolor paper is 140 lbs. (300 gsm).
There are heavier weights (more expensive) and lighter weights. The lighter weight paper will not hold up to a lot of moisture or multiple applications of acrylic paint.
For more on watercolor paper Empty Easel has a really great article on choosing the right watercolor paper.
Mixed media paper is great for any medium, as the name implies. It is a heavier weight paper that can be used for acrylics, watercolors, colored pencil, pen and ink, pastel and more.
Mixed media paper is great for collages and artwork done with a variety of media in a single piece.
Bristol paper is generally used for drawing although you can paint on it with some precautions. It comes in 2, 3 or 4 ply and is stiffer than regular drawing paper.
If you wish to paint on it get the thickest ply available and tape it down to a board to prevent warping.
Use a minimum amount of moisture to help prevent warping. Bristol paper works well with spray paint and light applications of acrylics, watercolor and oils.
Newspaper, tissue paper, and other types of craft paper are popular items to use in art journals and collages along with paint. They are not generally archival so they will begin to fade and yellow within a few years.
Painting on Wood
Wood makes a good, stable painting surface that can be used with heavy applications of texture medium, gesso or paint that add extra texture and weight to your painting.
Artist wood panels can be purchased at most art supply stores and are generally made of birch, oak or other hardwood.
They may come already sealed but if they aren’t you should seal them with a clear gloss acrylic sealer to prevent the natural wood resin from seeping through your paint.
The moisture in the sealer slightly raises the grain of the wood so you should sand it between coats with a fine grit sand paper.
(Hint: I use a plain brown paper bag to smooth out the wood. It works well in most cases and doesn’t produce dust or scratches in the wood.)
You can give the wood a coat or two of gesso if you want to once it dries to cover the color of the wood or leave the wood showing through for a unique look.
You can also buy MDF, Masonite or any type of wood from your hardware store. Most stores will cut it to size for you. If not you can cut it yourself or have a friend do it for you.
Follow any safety precautions recommended for cutting the type of wood you choose.
For bare wood, follow the instructions above for sealing the wood. It is economical to buy it this way since you can get several pieces from one sheet of wood.
If the wood is very thin (1/4 inch or thinner) you should “cradle” it. This means adding thin pieces of wood strapping to the back edges of the board and down the center if the piece of wood is large.
The strapping provides more stability to the wood and prevents warping.
There are lots of beautiful artworks painted on driftwood and reclaimed wood from old houses and barns. I love the uniqueness of theses pieces since the wood itself has a story as well as the artwork painted on it.
I am always on the look out for a unique piece of wood to paint on.
Painting on Fabric
To paint on wearable fabric such as t-shirts, you would use a special fabric paint or a textile or fabric painting medium added to acrylic paint. Once the paint is dry, you need to heat set the paint on the wrong side using an iron.
The fabric can be washed after the paint dries in some cases, although you should read the instructions on the bottle of paint or medium to be sure.
You can also paint on fabric by attaching it to a canvas or board using an acrylic medium. The medium acts like glue to stick the fabric to the board.
Once it is dry, you can cover it with a coat or two of gloss medium to bring out the vibrancy of the colors and give your paint a less absorbent base to stick to.
Incorporate the design and color of the fabric into your painting or use it as a contrasting background. You can also use fabric as part of a collage in a mixed media piece.
Painting on silk is also popular for flags and banners. Fluid acrylics are best for this type of application.
Your silk fabric should be pinned or taped to a surface to prevent it from moving while you paint. I have used embroidery hoops and quilting frames to do this and they work well.
If you want to draw your idea onto the fabric first, use dressmakers chalk since it is almost impossible to erase pencil or graphite transfer marks from fabric.
Painting on Glass Surfaces
Paint does not stick well to glass. Generally paint needs an absorbent surface to stick to and glass is smooth and nonporous.
You can use glass etching fluid or sandblasting (if the glass is thick enough to withstand sandblasting) in the area you want to paint on to improve adhesion.
Using specially formulated glass paint is an alternative. Most of these formulations need to be heat set in an oven so they are suitable for smaller objects like wine glasses or candle holders.
Follow the manufacturers instructions as each brand may be slightly different.
You can also add a polymer such as GAC 200 or other glass and tile mediums to your acrylic paints to improve adhesion to a glass surface.
You can use a clear polyurethane or other clear sealer to protect your painting once it dries, but only use this on decorative surfaces or paintings done on glass panels as it is toxic if ingested.
Clean the glass with alcohol or vinegar to remove dust and finger prints. Natural oil from your hands can prevent paint from sticking to the glass.
It is a good idea to wear surgical gloves while painting glass if you can tolerate them.
Be careful of the sharp edges on panes of glass and tape them with masking tape or frame them before painting if necessary.
Painting on Copper and Other Metals
Painting on copper has been a thing since the 1500. Many old masters painted on sheets of thin copper to produce some very beautiful work that has lasted through the centuries.
The medium of choice for painting on metal is oil paint. Acrylics do not adhere well to metal, but with a little preparation you can use them on most metal objects. Sand or sandblast the metal piece and then prime it with a primer designed for metal.
You do not necessarily need to prime copper and most artists like to let the glow of the copper shine through their paint.
You should glue thin pieces of copper to a firm base such as hardwood because copper bends easily. Thin pieces of tin or aluminum may also need this extra support.
You should also seal the wood base to prevent warping and seepage of resin.
Any exposed areas of copper (without paint) will oxidize over time so it should be sealed with a varnish to protect it. Most metals will rust or otherwise deteriorate over time if left exposed to the air.
For more information on painting on copper, the Artists Network has a great article.
Your creativity doesn’t have to be limited to traditional materials. You can paint on just about any surface including ceramics, pottery, tiles, wallpaper, plastics and much more.
The surface itself can inspire great works of art. I hope this article has given you some inspiration and new possibilities for unique and innovative art.
Thanks for reading.