Some Advice on Artist’s Support Media

I don’t recall where I originally gave the following advice on artist’s supports for painting, but it was in answer to an oil painter seeking a large scale, more rigid alternative to canvas or linen. He was concerned with longevity and cracking. I felt it might be of interest, so I’ve republished it here.

Everything will decay eventually, but a quality Masonite (or “hardboard”, as Masonite is a manufacturer of the product) should be every bit as reliable as any canvas or linen supports. Make sure to fully seal the edges and the back of any hardboard panels. Ideally, the back of any type of panel should be gessoed with the same number of layers as are applied to the front so as to create more even tension on both sides of the support, which will minimize warping. This will also serve to seal the wood materials from the air – ancient Egyptian wood that was painted can be found surviving rather well in tombs, while unpainted wood in the same tombs has rotted terribly. You could go one step further and apply some extra to the back to account for the layers of paint that will be applied to the front.

There is a tiny oil painting in the Art Institute of Chicago which was done on copper sheet. I don’t remember the date off hand, but it was hundreds of years old, and it looked like it was painted yesterday. Aside from potential dents, which will be difficult to remove, copper’s drawback is its weight when used in large sheets. Aluminum is lighter, but it is also much softer than copper.

I have painted on copper, stone, wood panel, birch plywood, hardboard, canvas, linen, and paper; I have also used canvas, linen, and paper mounted on wood and hardboard. The birch plywood actually performs very well, but is very heavy in large sheets. For anything large, I’d recommend you do stick with canvas or linen. I know you said you did not want to do that, but it is still potentially the best choice for large pieces.

Focus instead on proper layering and preparatory techniques for your painting to help prevent any problems that might occur over time. At some point in the future, it will be up to the conservators to ensure the longevity of your work. Existing in museums are hundreds of pieces on canvas that have been transferred to rigid supports. Museum conservators know what they are doing, and once you’re dead (before that actually), your work’s future will be totally beyond your control.

Another thing to consider, if cracking is a nagging worry, would be to try working in acrylics instead.

If you are up for some technical reading on the subject of choosing the proper hardboards as artist’s supports, I recommend the following page:

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