The Best Painting Support, Ever!

Its permanent, durable, versatile, and very inexpensive, and, its available at the hardware store.  Raphael would have loved it.  Its Hardboard (Masonite).

Wooden supports were favored by Tempera and Oil painters of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance because they are more stable than flexible supports like canvas.  The problem was, where do you find a piece of wood large enough to make a painting on that is straight, flat, not cracked, and does not have too many knots and resin canals; those darker stripes in the wood, or ‘wood grain’ as it is often referred to – this is where there is a higher concentration of natural glue, or sap, and so the place most likely to crack.  These early painters paid good money for a fine wooden support.  They needed to be cut from the largest trees possible, properly dried and ready to paint on.  Dealers would sometimes source them from old pieces of furniture or ships that were being dismantled and sell them the the artists.  But they did not have Hardboard.

Raphael, Madonna and Child, 1503, oil on wood, 55x44cm (22x16 in)

Raphael, Madonna and Child, 1503, oil on wood, 55x44cm (22×16 in)

That is why the paintings from this era were all pretty small.  If you wanted to do a larger painting you would do Fresco painting (paint directly on walls) or you would have to fasten together several small boards with bracing on the back and fill the seams.  These were heavy and unstable, not ideal to say the least.  This is the main reason why flexible supports made of fabrics like linen and cotton became popular for large portable paintings.  Now flexible supports like cotton canvas have become the painting surface of choice for most artists.  But we also have Hardboard.

The main reason these early oil painters did not like to use flexible supports for oil paintings is because the dried paint isn’t, flexible that is, so lots of cracking.  Moreover, oil is acidic and likes to eat fabric,  so, not so permanent.   Raphael was active during the transition period between the early and ‘high’ Renaissance when artists like him started to paint on large flexible canvas supports.  It is just not more practical to paint on fabric for large, portable paintings that could be more easily moved and shipped.  The painting on the right is one of his early ones done on a wooden panel.

Hardboard is a unique product in that it is pure cellulose fiber (wood); it has no additives, fillers, glues or resins added; it is simply compressed saw dust.  The natural glue in the wood, called lignin, is what holds it together.  This means it is dimensionally stable with no resin canals or knots.  Other wood products that some artists like to paint on, like MDF, Plywood, and Melamine, are put together using glues and resins that are not permanent for paintings that are meant to last for generations.

Hardboard is ideal for oil painting of course, but also acrylics, tempera paints, mixed media and collage.  It comes in 1/8″ and 1/4″ thickness in 4’x8′ sheets.  You can use the thin 1/8″ for sizes up to about 14×18, then the thicker 1/4″ boards for sizes up to about 20×30.  Larger supports should be cradled by attaching a wooden frame to the back to prevent warping.

june 18 002

The cradle is made by using 1×2″ strips of wood glued to the back of the hardboard. Standing on end for a wider edge, or flat to end up around the same depth as a stretched canvas.

The problem with hardboard panels in larger sizes, larger than 24×36 say, is that they become quite heavy and therefore more challenging to hang and transport.  For sizes larger than 24×36 I prefer to use canvas.  For large oil paintings, canvas can be prepared using acrylic resins to make it more permanent – Golden’s GAC 400 fabric stiffening medium on the back and GAC 100 for sizing on the front.

Some artists like the feel of the stiff board under the brush, others prefer the feel of a flexible fabric support like cotton canvas.  Don’t forget too that paintings done on a smooth surface like hardboard, will have brighter and more intense colors than the same painting done on a more textured surface like canvas.

The warm dry days of summer are ideal for setting aside some time to prepare a bunch of painting panels to last the whole year.  Get together with some artist friends, esp if one of them has a table saw, and make a day of it.  So here then is how to make your own permanent and economical painting supports using hardboard:

july 5 005


How to Make Your own Painting Supports

Supplies you will need:

Untempered hardboard cut to size, White Shellac, Methyl Hydrate, a wide brush, no. 60 or 80 sandpaper, no. 120 sandpaper, good quality Gesso.

  1. Buy Untempered Hardboard.  ‘Tempered’ hardboard has additives like oil, tar, and wax to make it waterproof for outdoor construction applications.  The gesso will not stick to it and the additives will have unpredictable and undesirable effects on your painting.  You can get smooth on one side or smooth on both sides.  Hardboard comes in two thicknesses, 1/8” and ¼”.  It comes in 4×8’ sheets and most hardware stores will cut it into whatever sizes you like for a fee.
  2. Sand the smooth surface before sizing.  No.60 or 80 sandpaper is good.
  3. Size both sides of the panel with a mixture of 3 parts Methyl Hydrate to 1 part White Shellac.  Apply the shellac in a thin layer in one stroke of the brush or roller.  If you apply too much size the surface will become too shinny and smooth and the gesso will not adhere well to it.  You can substitute the Shellac for Golden’s GAC 100 medium, diluted 2 parts GAC 100 to 1 part water.  The purpose of the size is to create a barrier between the ground (gesso) and the wood, which is naturally acidic.  Without this, the natural glue in the wood will migrate into the gesso and cause yellow or brownish discoloration.  This is referred to as SIDS (support induced discoloration).
  4. Using a light sand paper (120), sand the surface once it is dry to make it smooth again.
  5. Apply a coat of Acrylic Polymer Gesso on the back  of the panel (optional) and at least two coats on the front.  If you want a very smooth finish you can sand with fine sand paper between each coat after it has dried.  You will find the best quality gesso will have more covering power and better adhesive strength.  I typically apply 4 coats of gesso; the first two brushing in opposite directions, then two more thinner coats diluted with a bit of water for a smoother painting surface.
  6. You may also want to use a spray machine to apply the gesso.  Its faster, and gives a different finish than a brush, certainly more even.  If you do that you will  want to add some flow release medium to prevent clogging.  I use Golden’s Airbrush Medium.  Below is a picture of my painter buddy Joe using his commercial sprayer to coat some panels for me.

oct 9 004

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