Actually – quite a lot when it comes to art. The surface – or substrate – in art is the last of what I consider “the triumvirate”. We’ve addressed paint and then brushes, now let’s talk about what surfaces all that goes onto.
The idea of substrate runs the gamut from paper through canvas through linen through wood. So let’s break this down.
Oh, my, where to start here. Well, acrylic paint is considered watermedia, in the same vein as watercolor. So what’s good for watercolor applies to acrylic. So both hot- and cold-pressed paper works with acrylic. Of course, the paper weight you choose depends on your paint viscosity. The lighter the viscosity, the thinner you can go with the paper weight.
But, with acrylic, there are other paper options. I personally use bristol paper, especially for studies. This inexpensive paper can handle heavy paint, acrylic gel, and even collage paper without significant warping.
If you need a paper version with a bit more “oomph”, mixed media artboard (from Canson) is the heaviest paper option. It easily handles multiple paint layers with no problem. [PS. Canson offers a watercolor artboard. However, when I tried it, it did not match the same versatility as the mixed media version.]
Basically, canvas is fabric; it has a weave where paint can seep through. So traditionally the fabric was sealed with white gesso. But we are no longer restricted to just white on canvas. For example, Daniel Smith also offers clear gesso (which seals the fabric but leaves the natural color of the canvas), black gesso, and, my personal favorite, gold gesso. (Yes, I said GOLD.) Even Fredrix has gotten on the train with these popular alternatives by manufacturing black gesso-ed canvas.
Along with color, canvas has now taken many forms, such as canvas pads (literally a pad of gesso-ed canvas sheets), panels (flat boards covered with canvas), and the traditional cradled canvas. And if you’re bored with squares and rectangles, Fredrix also manufactures round versions.
I have begun working with linen as well as canvas and paper. With my heavy body acrylics, the difference between canvas and linen is amazing. Senso manufactures a clear gesso-ed linen in both panel and cradled. I love the look of the raw linen against my colors. The paint applies just like butter. If you get the chance, I strongly recommend trying a linen panel or pad.
Last, but not least, is wood. DaVinci has stepped up and offered many different versions of this substrate. (You can get a sample pack to try out each version.)
Canvas wood cradleboard provides a similar experience to the traditional stretched canvas. However, this canvas is attached directly onto the wood board, providing a firm substrate that is perfect for stamping and other mixed media techniques.
Birch wood cradleboard is raw birch affixed to wood strips to form a “box”, ready to attach hanging hardware. This substrate requires you to apply gesso (either colored or clear) so that any chemicals in the wood does not change your paint color. (Many artists, myself included, apply Golden’s GAC-100 before the gesso as an extra barrier against chemicals.)
Ultra smooth gesso wood cradleboard is exactly what it is. Wood that has been sanded smooth and then sealed with white gesso. This substrate seems to be popular with oil painters. Regardless, your paint application will feel very different because of this board’s rather slippery smoothness.
Textured gesso wood cradleboard almost looks like a spackle-textured wall. This texture does not match canvas texture – more like a fine grit that has been gessoed white.
So what’s in a surface? Quite a lot actually. Trying small versions of each, along with your preferred acrylic paint viscosity and your brushes, should help you pin down what works for you and makes you happy and satisfied. So if you find yourself struggling, remember this triumvirate because you may need to change one or more up.