Canvas is perceived by many people to be the best support for painting, but hardboard (wood) should not be shunned and in fact some would argue that it’s a superior support as it’s rigid, not flexible like canvas. Many of the paintings that have survived the best from previous centuries are painted on wood panels.
What is hardboard?
Hardboard is the term used for a board or panel made from a hardwood such as oak, cedar, birch, walnut, or mahogany. Softwoods such as pine are not suitable for painting on because they contain excess resins and tend to crack.
What’s the difference between hardboard, Masonite, MDF, and plywood?
These terms tend to be used interchangeably when people mean a board or wood panel rather than canvas. Masonite, which is often used as a painting support, is a trademarked brand name of a particular type board made (in very basic terms) from wood fibers and glue (resin) that is molded into flat boards. High-grade or furniture plywood makes a good painting support. Extremely smooth plywood is made from birch, mahogany, and poplar. Another painting surface to consider is a hollow core door, which makes a relatively light panel. Laminated board have a mica film on its surface to give it resistance and strength; check which side sands better and use this side to paint on.
What are the advantages of painting on hardboard?
Hardboard or wood can be relatively inexpensive. The surface is more rigid so there tends to be is less cracking in the painting. And if you are doing work smaller than approx. 18x24" (45x60cm) the weight is not much of a problem.
What are the disadvantages of painting on hardboard?
If a board isn't primed correctly, there's a risk that acid or oils may leach in from the board, yellowing the painting. Acrylic gesso is regarded as an effective barrier against this. Larger pieces can weigh quite a bit and will bend or bow inward so should be reinforced with a frame or bracing struts.
Where do I get hardboard and what formats does it come in?
Most places that sell wood sell hardboard. It generally comes in 1/8" and 1/4" thicknesses, in tempered and untempered versions. Tempered hardboard may have been manufactured with oil to keep it from warping when wet, so it can leach oil through the gesso; you need to check the board for an oil residue and seal it (with primer or acrylic medium) before using it. Untempered hardboard is looser and more fibrous and makes a good surface for painting because of its absorbency.
How do you prepare a piece of hardboard for painting?
Hardboard is easy to cut to the size you want using a saw (particularly an electric circular saw (see 10 Panels from One Board). The lumber yard you buy it from will likely offer a cutting service too. There's usually a smooth side and one with a weave-like finish which is very coarse; you can paint on either side, it's a matter of personal preference. The shiny side should be lightly sanded, otherwise the primer may not adhere.
How many layers of gesso or primer should you use?
It’s generally recommended you give it three coats of gesso and lightly sanding between each coat. Fine sanding between coats can produce a surface like paper or as smooth as glass. But some artists use more layers to build up a completely smooth painting surface, while others don’t sand in between layers to create rough painting surface or create areas of texture that relate to the subject of the painting. Priming the back and sides will help seal it from moisture in the air. One other benefit of three coats of gesso is that paint, even when it looks opaque, is affected by what is underneath, so if you’ve three coats of white underneath, your colours will be that much brighter and it’s an excellent way to achieve ‘light’ in your paintings. (Find out more about different types of sandpaper.)
Using hardboard to create a canvas board
If you like the feel or look of canvas, you can make a canvas board by gluing canvas or linen to Masonite using an archival-quality glue, acrylic medium, or gesso. To create the impression of a deep, ‘galley-wrap’ canvas, you screw the board to a ‘frame’ at the back before beginning and leave excess canvas around the edges it could be wrapped around, making a deeper edge dimension.
Tip for Dealing with Warped Board
This tip on dealing with a board that's warped comes from Brian Rice: I started a painting on a 16" x 20" hardboard. On bigger sizes I had been cradling to avoid warping. This was my first painting in this smaller size in a while, so I thought there was no need to cradle. Anyway, I gessoed only on the one smooth side three times and proceeded to paint my painting. Well, the panel warped slightly bowing outward from the center on the painted smooth side. I thought painting the back unpainted side would even make the bow worst, but when I painted the back with three coats of white acrylic house paint just to protect it (I sometimes use oil-based polyurethane for this), the water-based paint fixed the warp, straightening the board out perfectly."