Choosing a surface for oil painting

Choosing a surface for oil painting

Before mixing your oil colours, it’s worth spending a little time thinking about the type of surface you intend to put the colours on. The most common surface for oil colours, and one that has been used for centuries, is stretched, primed canvas. Alternatives include wood panels and medium density fibreboard (MDF), which last a long time and will not bend. If you are thinking of working in the great outdoors then canvas boards may prove a sound investment. Winton Oil Colour pads are a popular choice for sketching and outdoor painting.


Artists have been using canvas for more than 300 years, so it comes highly recommended. The weave of the cloth, combined with the spring of the stretched material, makes it excellent for oil painting. Canvas is often made from linen or cotton. Although linen is difficult to prime and stretch properly, it offers the smoothest and stiffest painting surface. It lasts many years, and is still regarded as the gold standard by classically trained artists. Cotton, on the other hand, is more affordable than linen and is easier to stretch. Take a look at our guide to the difference between cotton and linen canvas for more information.

Canvas boards

For those painting outdoors, canvas boards have always been a popular choice, taking up less room than stretched canvases and less easily damaged. Winsor & Newton canvas boards are made from substantial board and high quality cloth, making them superior in quality to coated sketching boards. Boards can also be cheaper to frame than canvases.


No matter what you may have heard, it is perfectly possible to use paper for oil painting. Winsor & Newton oil paper is formulated to withstand thick, layered paint applications and comes ready-to-use, not requiring any priming or preparation. Another alternative is using heavy watercolour paper that has been thinly primed with an acrylic gesso primer.

Medium density fibreboard (MDF) and priming

If you enjoy preparing your own materials then using MDF could be the way to go. MDF is created from wooden fibres that have been compressed with adhesive under high pressure. It is affordable, which may in turn make you paint even more, and easily found in most DIY stores. A word on safety: wear a mask if you’re cutting MDF, as the dust can be harmful if you breathe it in.

Remember to prime the MDF before painting. Primers control the texture, absorbency and colour of your surface. Winsor and Newton offers a selection of acrylic and oil painting primers, and both can be used under oil painting. To find out more, read our guide to priming canvas.

If you get the surface right, you’re well on the way to creating something special. Getting it wrong can cause frustration and delay. Winsor & Newton primers and ready-made surfaces will give you great results by controlling texture, absorbency and colour.