All about the Surface

Date: 16-05-2019


Artists will experiment painting on just about anything, to achieve a unique look or to marry conception to production. Some, such as Melbourne-based Hamilton-born artist Richard Lewer, even revel in unreceptive surfaces, like Formica, sandpaper and felt!  

With the right materials, however, just about any surface can be made to take paint; and with some unusual materials some unusual surfaces can successfully be made!



Before painting on wood, and for some techniques, for example using oil-based paints, on raw fabric (like canvas) and paper, the surface must first be “sized”. This is especially so if using a strongly absorbent primer.

Size is what we call a sealer that does two things: prevents absorption of impurities from the substrate (fabric, wood) into the paint layer (Support-Induced Discoloration or S.I.D.); and preventing binders from the paint travelling into the substrate. Prior to the 1960’s, rabbit skin size was mostly used, but since the acrylic revolution there are now excellent synthetic sealants that offer a better stability, flexibility, and avoid the need to cook up rabbits in your kitchen! 

Golden GAC100 is an excellent, modern S.I.D.-blocker and sealant. We recommend GAC100 as a sealer for a good reason. On the left section of the above image, a wood Pro-Panel has been sized with a cheap sealer called AC235 (used in cheaper acrylic sealants), the right with GAC100, then a coat of gesso applied. AC235 was cutting edge in the 1960s but has long been superseded. As a resin, it remains relatively soft, and a simple scratch test shows it doesn't offer a secure ground for priming.

Cheap sealants stay soft, and do not provide a strong base for priming over, as evident in this scratch test: the left sizing with AC235; on the right sizing with GAC100. Cheap sealants do not provide an adequate barrier between support and ground – you can see the craters from “gassing off” on the left, while the right side has formed an even, durable surface.


AC235 does not provide an adequate barrier to Support Induced Discoloration either - the porosity is evident in this close-up of the surface (left) of the gesso painted over the AC235. GAC100 is a much more recent acrylic resin, and its specific properties ensure a non-permeable barrier to both S.I.D. and sinking of the paint layer. Here the same gesso layer remains stable (right).

When sizing fabric, the GAC100 should be scrubbed into it, so that it penetrates the surface and provides a strong link between the fabric and primer. A short haired brush, like da Vinci 2470 Mottler, is ideal for this.



Of course, acrylics can be painted directly onto paper, preferably 300gsm weight or heavier. Being absorbent, though, the paper offers a very brief working time for your paint. In absorption, you also lose the reflective white of the paper, resulting in deeper colour tones. This can be desirable when wanting staining & watercolour-type effects; however, you can easily reduce the absorbent nature of the paper and retain its reflective properties by applying a couple of coats of GAC100 before your colour.

Preparing or not preparing paper gives acrylic a different working characteristics and appearance. Colour takes into the surface more quickly and deeply when untreated (left), less quickly and deeply when sized (middle, using GAC100), and gesso will also increase the brightness yet create its own surface (right).


Luminosity is achieved by light passing through transparent layers of colour, hitting a reflective surface and bouncing back through the layer of colour.

Above, dilute acrylic has been applied across 600gsm Leonardo matte paper; the left remains untreated, the middle has been sized, and the right has also had gesso applied. The colour is deepest on the left, because the paint has soaked into the paper, removing the reflective white aspect, to a degree. The sized area (middle) retains the reflective white aspect of the paper and so the colours are brighter, and as the GAC100 is so thin, the texture of the paper has been kept. The colour is brighter still on the Golden Gesso (right) as gesso is whiter than paper, and the paper’s texture is giving way to that of the gesso. On both the sized and gessoed areas, you have a much longer time to manipulate your paint, as the absorption in much less than painting directly on the paper.

If you don’t want the primed paper becoming too plastic, a single coat of gesso is sufficient if one is painting with water-based paint.

Prepared paper offers a cheap and versatile oilpainting support, sized with GAC100 on the left, and further prepared with gesso on the right, which adds brightness and brush strokes to the texture. A sturdy paper 500-600gsm is best.


Paper can also be made into a suitable and economical surface for oilcolours (above) by sealing with at least two coats of GAC100. Oilcolour can be painted directly onto this, preserving the texture of the paper (left), or you can apply gesso over the size to alter the texture and add brilliance to the surface (right).

High quality gesso with low absorbency, such as Golden or Schmincke Primer 2, will provide an adequate barrier to oil strike-through with three or more coats.

To allow all moisture to leave the gesso layer, it is recommended to wait a few days before painting with oilcolour.


Hahnemuhle Oilpainting Paper provides a unique surface for oilpainting, with a fine linen texture and an absorbency that allows quick layering and blending for alla prima techniques.

Hahnemuhle Oilpainting Paper (above) gives a totally different oilpainting experience: while all other oilpainting surfaces are much less absorbent than paper, this gives you a true paper absorbency, allowing easy blending and quick layering, perfect for quick alla prima sketches, painting outdoors en plein aire, and, the paper being archival, finished works. The secret to Hahnemuhle Oilpainting Paper is the special additives that prevent the oilcolour from staining the fibres.



Metal panels, such as aluminium and Aluminium Composite Panel (ACP), don’t need to be sized, but need a special primer for the paint to hang on to. We recommend applying Golden GAC200 to metal (or any similar surface, such as Plexi-glass or glass) with a soft brush like the da Vinci 5073 Mottler, sanding the metal first with a P600 or finer wet & dry paper. GAC200 increases adhesion, and acts as a link between your paint and the metal.

left: primed with GAC200 and painted; right: GAC200 plus gesso then painted).

Once applied, you can paint directly on the GAC200 with either acrylic or oilcolour (left), or prime with your favourite ground, which will increase the luminosity but may add some texture (right), as such a smooth surface can be difficult to cover evenly. Golden Hard Sandable Primer is excellent, as it allows you to polish the surface much smoother than standard acrylic gesso, which is difficult to sand. Schmincke Primer 1 tends to self-level and is also easy to sand, making a great oilpainting surface for your Alumi-Panel.



The most popular primer for use on all grease-free surfaces is, of course, acrylic gesso. This universal primer can be used for acrylics and oilcolours, providing a flexible painting ground with tooth & absorbency for the paint to purchase, and a bright white reflective surface that brings out the best in your colours. Please note that house-primer is not flexible, not bright white, and designed to let go of your house after a decade or so – not desirable features here! Besides, we have gesso for around the same price. 

But hang on – aren’t almost all canvases pre-primed? Well, yes and no; factory-primed surfaces are usually primed by spraying, especially on cheap canvas. This means the coat is thin and the weave insufficiently filled. Applying further coats of gesso is the easiest way to get the most out of your colours and brush handling. Premium primed canvas, such as Fredrix who use a special process to ensure a secure and generous surface, can be painted on directly, though will also benefit from additional coats of primer.


Applying additional coats of primer to even good canvas clearly improves your painting! On the left we see acrylic over factory priming, while the same colours have been applied over an additional 3 coats of Golden Gesso on the right hand image


I used to think “I haven’t got time for this – I just want to paint!” but careful preparation of your ground is the easiest and cheapest way to improve your painting. You also use a lot less paint.

Here are our four most popular primers, on a Fredrix Canvas Panel, one additional coat on the left, an original strip in the centre, and three additional coats of primer on the right of each example.

 Pebeo Studio Gesso is a good affordable primer thatimproves the surface with 2-3 quick coats.   Pebeo One Coat Gesso is thicker and fills much more  quickly and with a brighter white.

The Pebeo One Coat Gesso (right) lives up to its name, filling the weave very quickly, and with a whiter surface. Brush marks are smoother and can be used for underlying texture.


Golden Gesso is our premium acrylic primer that fills quickly and provides a very bright ground for bouncing light back through your paint layers.    Schmincke Primer 1 is a half-chalk ground that gives a   gives a smooth, absorbent surface with few brush marks,   and is sublime for oilpainting!


Golden Gesso (left) fills well, with much softer brush marks, and is much whiter, leading to brighter colours. This is our premium gesso for acrylic paint, and has a creamy consistency that allows it to spread over large areas easily.

Not really an acrylic gesso, but a flexible, half-chalk primer, Schmincke Primer 1 (right) self-levels, drying with virtually no brush marks, to a soft white tone. It fills the weave quickly and is easily sanded. Its absorbent nature suits oilcolour better than acrylic, though many acrylic painters also use it successfully. Primer 1 is our most expensive primer, but is a concentrate, requiring dilution with water 10 – 30%, and it works! Schmincke now also produces two cheaper versions (non-concentrate) named White Primer and Gesso (in the old sense of the word i.e. a half-chalk gesso, not an acrylic gesso).

Most primers are best applied with the da Vinci 2410 traditional gesso brush. In the 19th Century, artists were taught to apply primer in criss-crossing strokes, to add interest & depth to their base layer. To apply primer with less brush strokes, try putting it down like this, then – while the primer is still wet – softly brushing first horizontally then vertically. On panel, this softening can be done with a da Vinci 5073 Mottler.


Unusual Grounds

To support more specific techniques, we have a range of primers with specific properties.

Schmincke Primer 2 provides a smooth, plastic surface that keeps acrylic paint wet longer, allowing for more blending and manipulating of acrylic colours.

You can see how differently the fluid acrylic reacts from the gesso priming on the far left to the Golden Absorbent Primer on the right 2/3 -  perfect for painters using dilute acrylic for watercolour effects.

Golden Absorbent Primer is especially suited to fluid acrylic techniques, having a paper-like absorption. One coat is sufficient to give a good surface. 

Black Gesso is great for using over the top of failed paintings! It quickly covers them, leaving you a new surface from which opaque colours appear to “pop out”.


Golden Molding Paste offers a smooth, non-absorbent painting surface that can be applied evenly or textured with a palette knife. It can be coloured with acrylic paint and once dry is suitable for painting with acrylic and oilpaint.

Golden Molding Paste (above) can be applied with spatula or brush to provide a smooth, hard, non-absorbent surface that’s perfect for subtractive techniques using oilpaint or OPEN Acrylics. Being made from marble powder, it’s almost like painting on stone, and the imperfections you get from application emphasise this.


Light Molding Paste (left) provides a soft, absorbent surface with fine texture that’s for acrylic staining techniques. Crackle Paste (middle) also works well with fluid acrylics, here seen with each cracked area treated like a mosaic and with the surface flooded with colour then dabbed with tissue. Fiber Paste (right) makes a surface that looks like rough paper, yet is hard and less absorbent. 


Golden Light Molding Paste creates just the opposite – a soft, absorbent surface for fluid acrylic and staining techniques. It has a fine texture that also catches heavy body paint well, and its light weight makes is perfect for creating texture on canvas. Golden Crackle Paste is an opaque paste that cracks on drying – the warmer the room the thicker the cracks. It can be stained and scrubbed for ageing techniques or each “island” can be coloured to create a mosaic effect. Fiber Paste provides a much harder, more textured ground for staining and sanding. 

We think of grounds as being under what we paint, but Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastel, a mostly transparent ground, can be painted over smooth acrylic paint so you can use pencil, pastel, charcoal, even aquarelle pencils over the top! This is a very easy way to achieve detail in a painting, to spice up an old work with some mixed-media, or just to add your signature in the corner! Thin with plenty of water, paint a layer over the top of your acrylic and wait to dry before drawing.


Wood & Canvas Panel

Heavy applications of Pastes are best done on a rigid support, such as panel, as they will carry the weight well. As well as the Alumi-Panels mentioned above, our wooden Pro-Panels and MDF boards are extremely popular as a painting, collage, and modelling surface. They’re available as braced plywood panels, clash-sided plywood panels, and MDF board key-holed for easy hanging, in a wide range of sizes and shapes.

Pro-Panels and our MDF panels offer solid supports for many applications and a smooth surface for detailed painting.


Our popular Pro-Panel Mini wooden panels are also available in a round “tondo” shape. The term tondo was used in Renaissance Italy – it was originally a 12 sided birthing tray, for bringing refreshments to women who had just given birth, and afterwards hung on the wall to commemorate the event. These became very ornate, eventually becoming an accepted painting format, but the round shape does challenge our composition – maybe just imagine looking out a porthole?

Pro-Panels are best sealed with GAC100, and you can either paint directly on this, or continue to prime with your favourite primer. You can mount paper, canvas or finished works on to a Pro-panel, using Golden Soft Gel (Gloss). Simply brush both surfaces with a thin layer of the Soft Gel (Gloss), press together with a hard rubber roller, and sit under a pile of books overnight to dry. Make the paper slightly larger than the panel, so you don’t have to be too careful marrying them together, and, when the bond has dried, it’s easy to trim the excess paper from the sides for a smart finish.

Golden Soft Gel (Gloss) also makes an excellent collage adhesive. 

Many artists like painting on board for the firm surface it offers, but the very smooth surface of metal and wood does not help paint come off the brush, making alla prima techniques difficult. Canvas boards feature both a firm support and a canvas surface. We normally think of canvas boards as a cheap, temporary painting surface, but the Fredrix brand from the U.S.A. is all we stock, and they’re cut from a different cloth! Fredrix have a unique priming system that offers a superior surface even on their economy Canvas Panels. The Fredrix Archival Canvas Panels feature a heavier canvas mounted on a rigid wood support that won’t bow. These are great for all styles of painting.

Fredrix Watercolour Panels (left) and Schgmincke AQUA-Primer (middle) expand watercolour painting onto canvas supports! Using metallic leaf as a ground (right) is an old technique from icon painting that provides great lumination.


Watercolour needn't be confined to paper. On the left is an example of watercolour on the Fredrix Archival Watercolour Panel. The surface behaves like a heavily sized paper, and colour is easy to lift out, for correction and highlights, for example in the clouds. This surface is also available in stretched canvas and canvas pad form. A more subtle watercolour surface can be obtained on canvas & panel using Schmincke Aqua Primer (right). This very specialist primer provides an almost fresco feel and a good ability to lift out colour.



Most of us who paint with acrylic & oilcolour use canvas. It’s light, durable, relatively inexpensive, and suits most painting techniques. Although it’s available as a board, pad, or loose off a roll, we mostly use stretched canvas.

If you want to take a stack of canvas to your art class or home, to work through ideas or just gain experience, you can’t go past the Expression Canvas – good quality cotton at bargain store prices! We have Expression especially made for us, so although a bargain, they’re a much better quality than what you’d find in a budget store: 100% cotton with a nice, tight weave and primed with quality gesso, kiln-dried wooden frames with the canvas properly stapled on the reverse. Make it sing with two or three more coats of primer!

Our Stretched With Love Canvas features Smooth (left) for fine detail work, and Universal (middle) for all painting techniques. Linen (right) is especially prized for its longevity and irregular, lively surface.


Serious recreational painters and the professionals go for fresh-stretched New Zealand canvas, like our Stretched With Love range. Stretched With Love is made by us right here in New Zealand, by a passionate team who produce tight-as-a-drum canvas, using American cotton in fine & universal weaves. The expandable stretcher bars are kiln-dried pine, specially cut to reduce warping, with a unique rounded lip that provides the strongest edge and less stress on the canvas. The canvas is attached on the reverse with stainless steel staples.

Stretched With Love Canvas is available in both Fine surface, for detail work, and an all-round Universal surface. Although both are quality primed in the U.S. of A., you will always get better results by applying a couple more coats of your favourite primer yourself.

For those who prefer to stretch their own canvas, stretcher bars are available in a wide range of sizes, and we have plenty of different canvas to match to your painting style.


Our professional stretcher bars are designed by us and produced from both kiln-dried New Zealand Pine and plantation-grown North American Red Cedar, which is lighter and stronger. These expandable frames can be put together in literally thousands of different sizes to suit your painting. These are available in 20x35mm Mini and 35x65mm Professional profiles, with 180 degree rounded edges (strong and less stress on canvas) and bevelled away from the canvas. Bracing slots are provided for all sizes over 100cm, and double bracing available for sizes over 150cm. 

Artists will experiment painting on just about anything. By encouraging a closer look at your painting surface, we hope to help you improve, expand, experiment and create art that is like great cheesecake: a sweet top sitting on a perfect base – Bon Appetite!




  • Date: 24-05-2019
    Sharon Richardson

    Thanks for that info, especially about GAC100. I have been trying different surfaces as well and I think the sandpaper sounds like fun. I also like the sound of Schmincke primer2 for enabling better blending of acrylics.
  • Date: 23-05-2019

    Thank you, I found this informative and helpful - especially as I have just starting painting directly onto wooden panels and was struggling to find the best way to prepare them for successfully taking the paint. I now feel fully informed on what I need to do.
Write a Comment...