Getting started: Painting surfaces

Welcome!  I’m posting a series of tips for beginner artists, based on my own trial-and-error experiences as a self-taught painter.  

1. Paints  2. Brushes

3. Painting Surfaces

I’m continuing my series on acrylic painting for beginners.  Once you’ve chosen your paint and brushes, you’ll need something to paint on.

As a beginner, it’s difficult to decide how much to spend on your painting surface. On the one hand, your painting is only as durable as what it’s painted on, and it makes sense to spend a little more money on ensuring your time and effort aren’t wasted on a poor quality surface. On the other hand, you might feel more free to experiment if you don’t have a big expensive blank canvas staring you down.  It’s up to you.

I do feel that it’s more important to invest in good paints and brushes, so most of your money should go towards these. You can always start out with a few canvas panels and work your way up as you get more comfortable.  (I’m showing examples from but I am not affiliated with them in any way.)

Canvas Panels

Blick Canvas Panels

For brand new painters, I recommend canvas panels.  This is canvas stretched over paperboard, and you can get them for about $1-$2 each, depending on size*.  They’re good because you can get the look and feel of working on canvas, but they store flatter and cost much less than stretched canvas.  You can paint over them a few times and start over, if you want to re-use them for practice pieces.  The downsides are that they don’t look as professional as stretched canvas, and you’ll probably need frames if you want to display them.

Stretched Canvas

Once you’ve done a few paintings on canvas panels, you’ll have a better idea if acrylic painting is right for you. If it is, you should consider upgrading to stretched canvas, especially if you hope to show or sell your work at some point.  Stretched canvas is primed canvas cloth stretched over a wooden frame, with the edges stapled or wrapped around to the frame.  Unlike with canvas panels, the stretched canvas has some “give” against your brush when you paint, and feels great to work with.


Left: Back stapled canvas       Right: Gallery wrapped canvas

As with paint, there are many grades of stretched canvas.  With the cheapest grades (usually found at craft stores), the canvas is stapled to the sides of the frame, so you can see the staples when you look at it from the side.  Back-stapled canvas (left) is better, since the staples don’t show and you can hang the painting without a frame (which will save you a lot of money).  Gallery-wrapped canvas (right) is best, where the canvas edges are tucked into the back around a fitted rubber strip for a neater appearance and better durability, although it may not be worth the difference in price yet.

When possible, it’s better to buy your canvases in store rather than online, so that you can check the wooden stretcher bars for defects, knots or warping.  Lay the canvas down face up against a flat surface, and see if it lays flat or if it wobbles.  Good stretcher bars are important so that your canvas hangs properly and doesn’t warp when the humidity changes.  Another reason that I don’t recommend side-stapled canvas is that the wood is usually very poor quality and the stretcher bars are thin and prone to warping.  It’s so frustrating to finish a great painting and then realize that your canvas won’t hang properly!

*Choosing a size

If you don’t have a specific size in mind for your first project, I recommend something in the 9″ x 12″ to 16″ x 20″ range.  It’s small enough to be portable and easy to store, but large enough to give you room to work.  Beginners tend to think that small canvases (8″ x 10″ or smaller) will be easier to work on, but they can actually be more difficult because you have to fit your detail in a smaller space, requiring more dexterity.  Don’t be afraid to start bigger.

Next: Other Painting Supplies

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