If you’re new to canvas panels, you may have a number of questions about what they are and how to use them. In this post, I’m going to explain all of the various aspects of painting on canvas panels.
What Is a Canvas Panel?
Canvas panels are rigid boards with a layer of canvas glued to them, they’re a good alternative to stretched canvas. These boards are thinner than stretched canvas which makes them convenient for painting outdoors. They’re also popular among painters who like to work small.
The phrases “canvas panels” and “canvas boards” are interchangeable. This is true regardless if the board is made from wood or cardboard. You’ll have to check the packaging to see if the manufacturer discloses what the board is made from.
You can buy canvas panels from art supply stores and craft stores. These stores carry a variety of canvas textures and sizes to choose from.
Additionally, if you’re the DIY type, it’s possible to make your own canvas panels. This allows you to make them with the canvas and gesso that you prefer.
What Canvas Panels Are Made From
Canvas panels are made from a rigid board, adhesive, canvas, and gesso. You can read more about each component in the sections below.
There are a variety of boards that are used to make canvas panels but they’re mostly made from cardboard or wood.
Cardboard Canvas Panels
As I mentioned above, the more affordable canvas panels are usually made from cardboard. It’s the thicker chipboard variety of cardboard, and not the corrugated cardboard that boxes are made from.
These panels are okay for students who are learning to paint. They’re less expensive than stretched canvas and yet provide the same canvas texture.
The advantage of the cardboard canvas panels is they’re affordable, lightweight, and widely available in craft stores.
The disadvantage is that cardboard is obviously less durable than wood, they’re prone to warping and the corners are easy to ding.
Water damage may make the cardboard soggy, and an extensive soaking in water will destroy the cardboard interior. Also, wet cardboard may eventually become moldy, and some insects are attracted to the cellulose in cardboard.
Wood Canvas Panels
There are a variety of wood boards that artists use to make canvas panels from.
The most common type of board is a sheet of MDF, also known as hardboard. There are different types of hardboard which can make things a little confusing.
The following article from Ampersand explains the history of hardboard that are available for making canvas panels. To paraphrase, Ampersand recommends using a tempered hardboard because it will resist warping, the edges won’t fray, and it creates a better seal with both oil and acrylic primers.
Most other manufacturers don’t disclose the exact type of wood product that they use for making canvas panels.
In addition, you can paint on wood without the canvas. Ampersand’s gessobord is a good example of this type of panel.
The adhesive that’s used to glue the canvas to the board should be pH neutral.
Artist quality supports are generally pH neutral or acid free so that they don’t deteriorate with age. Any acidity in art papers and adhesives will cause them to yellow and become brittle.
In addition to PVA glue, artists who make their own canvas panels usually resort to using acrylic gel as an adhesive. It’s acid free, archival, and is low odor.
Canvas panels are available in a wide range of different types of canvases. There are also panels that use linen instead of canvas.
Linen is made from the flax plant and it has a different texture than canvas which is made from cotton.
Each type of canvas has a slightly different texture and you will have to experiment with them to find one that works well with your painting techniques.
Gesso is an acrylic primer that you can use to prime canvas for painting with oils or acrylics. All of the canvas boards that I have came with the gesso already applied to the canvas.
I believe this is because the canvas shrinks after you apply the gesso. For this reason, the board would warp if you apply the gesso after you glue it to the board. This is something to keep this in mind if you try making canvas panels for yourself.
You can buy primed canvas if you want to make your own DIY canvas panels. It should save you the trouble of having to prime the canvas yourself. I never tried it, but I think priming unstretched canvas wouldn’t work very well.
The quality of the gesso that manufacturers use on their canvas boards varies. Inexpensive panels often have gesso that seems rather smooth, while higher quality panels use artist grade gesso that has more tooth.
You can apply an additional coat of gesso to your canvas panels if you don’t like the gesso they came with.
The cardboard canvas boards usually have the canvas wrapped around to the back, which may have a white layer of thick paper glued to it. It usually includes some room for signing your name.
You can use this area to sign and date it, and to include more information about the painting.
The backs of wood canvas panels sometimes have a layer of melamine or other material glued to it. This extra layer helps prevent warping and makes the board more durable.
Other panels have a thin layer of clear sealant applied to the wood back. The sealant helps prevent the board from absorbing moisture and prevents warping.
Uses for Canvas Panels
Plein Air Painting
Plein air painters often use canvas panels for painting outdoors for the reasons below.
Since canvas panels are much thinner than regular canvases, you can fit many more of them in a backpack or whatever you use to carry your supplies while traveling.
A canvas panel is usually ⅛” thick so they’re roughly 6 times thinner than a stretched canvas.
Most of the equipment for painting outdoors have clips that will hold the board in place while you paint on it. Pochade boxes usually have these clips built into the lid. You simply open the lid and slide a canvas board into the clips and begin painting.
A traditional canvas is at least 3/4” thick so they’re much too thick for these clips. If you plan on painting with a regular canvas outdoors, you’ll have to use a more traditional easel that has clamps that will hold the canvas in place.
In case you’re wondering, “plein air painting” means to paint outdoors.
Canvas Panels Block Out Sunlight
In the photo above, you can see the shadows from the stretcher bars along the outside edges of the painting. The sunlight is shining through the center part of the painting which makes it difficult to judge colors. Canvas boards don’t have this problem because they entirely block out the light.
This is a real distraction because it will make the colors look lighter where the light is shining through. The areas where the stretcher bars are will appear normal because they block the light.
Of course you can bring a board along with you and place it behind the stretched canvas to block the light.
Since canvas panels have a solid core, they entirely block out the sunlight.
Canvas boards are also popular among artists who paint small.
While you can make a 6”x6” stretched canvas by stretching canvas over some stretcher bars, a canvas panel is a more convenient and simpler solution.
They have a more uniform and neat appearance so they’re perfect for small paintings.
Stretched canvases don’t always provide such a uniform surface at smaller sizes.
Another issue with stretcher bars is they have rounded edges and they seem more pronounced at smaller sizes. You may not notice the rounded edges if the canvas is large, but they can be distracting on smaller canvases.
The corners where the stretcher bars meet can sometimes have flaws where they don’t line up perfectly.
Stretching canvas across small stretcher bars can be tricky. The smaller size can make it challenging to get enough tension in the canvas so it doesn’t sag. Trying to staple a small canvas while stretching the canvas with a pair of canvas pliers is cumbersome. Since larger canvases have so much more canvas material, the canvas will stretch more easily.
Canvas boards are very consistent and the corners are almost always perfectly square. Even if you make canvas panels for yourself, it’s easy to get a square corner and a smooth surface.
Some artists use canvas panels for collage. Sturdy canvas panels should hold up to most collage techniques.
If you use extra thick papers for collage or use many layers, I recommend using panels that are cradled so that they’re less likely to warp.
You’ll need some sort of glue to adhere the paper to the panel. I normally use acrylic mediums for collage. Matte medium works well for thin papers but if you need a thicker glue, gel medium will work too.
Acrylic mediums are archival, acid free, clean up with water, and are low in odor.
Gessobord is another type of panel you can use for collage. You can view the different sizes of gessoboard on Amazon. Essentially, gessobord is a wood panel without the canvas that’s primed with gesso. These boards seem more rigid than the hardboard you would find in the hardware store and work well for collage. Ampersand offers cradled Gessobords too.
You can click on the image below to view the wide assortment of gessobord that Blick offers. (This is an affiliate link which means if you click on it and make a purchase, I earn a commission at no cost to you.)
Common Canvas Board Sizes
You can buy canvas panels in a variety of sizes, from 4”x5” all the way up to 18”x24” or even larger.
One issue to keep in mind is that larger panels are prone to warping, more so than smaller panels. This is something that I cover more in the section about warped canvas panels.
Below is a table of the sizes that are most commonly available. Many daily painters prefer to work in the square format so you’ll find squares canvas panels in a variety of sizes.
|Common Canvas Panel Sizes|
|5” × 7”|
|6” × 6”|
|6” × 8”|
|8” × 8”|
|8” × 10”|
|9” × 12”|
|10″ x 10″|
|11” × 14”|
|12” × 12”|
|16” × 20”|
|18” × 24”|
There are many more sizes available, but I find these are the sizes that artists gravitate towards the most.
One key issue you want to remember when that choosing a size for your paintings is how are you’re going to frame the finished painting.
While you may leave that up to the collector, it still pays off to think about this beforehand. I discuss framing canvas panels later in the post.
In short, you can make framing much quicker and much less expensive if you paint on the most common canvas panels sizes.
How to Cut a Canvas Board
You can cut down a thin canvas panel with a handsaw. Thicker panels may require a table saw. Cardboard canvas panels can be cut with a utility knife but the edges may look strange. This is because the other uncut edges will still have the canvas that wraps around to the back.
On the side that you cut, the canvas won’t wrap around to the back and it may stand out in comparison to the sides that are uncut. This may not be a problem if you plan to use a frame that will hide the edges of the board.
Another concern with cutting down cardboard canvas panels is the canvas may lift from the cardboard because it doesn’t wrap around to the back of the panel.
As for wood panels, I don’t recommend trying to cut a wood canvas panel with a utility knife.
Some people cut sheets of hardboard with a utility knife by scoring both sides and then folding it until it breaks. I don’t suggest using this technique to cut a canvas panel because it would leave a ragged edge.
Cutting all the way through the hardboard with a utility knife may produce a smoother cut but it would take forever and quickly dull your blade. Instead, you’ll want to use a handsaw.
Below is how I normally cut a canvas panel that’s ⅛” thick. It’s a good idea to test your saw on a scrap canvas panel to see if you like the results before cutting down larger, more expensive panels.
Steps for Cutting Down a Wood Canvas Panel
- Measure the board and draw the cut lines. Use a ruler to measure the board and draw lines where you want to cut the board. For example, I had a 16×20 canvas panel that I wanted to cut down into four 8”x10” panels. The math was easy. I just had to divide the board in half in both directions.
- Cut down the board with a hand saw. My hand saw has aggressive teeth and I was concerned that it would cause fraying as I cut through the canvas, but it worked rather well. It helps to cut the board with the canvas facing up. Keep in mind the saw will remove some of the material so your finished boards may be slightly smaller than you expected.
- Sand the edges of the wood panel with a sanding block. If you don’t have a sanding block you can wrap a piece of sandpaper around a flat piece of wood.
Keep in mind the saw will remove some of the material so your finished boards may be slightly smaller than you expected.
Stretched Canvas vs Canvas Panels
|Stretched Canvas||Canvas Panel|
|3/4” thick||1/8” thick|
|Stretched across a wood frame and stapled to the back||The canvas is glued down to wood board or a piece of cardboard|
|Stretched canvas has a springy feel||Canvas board is rigid|
|Allows light to shine through the canvas when you paint outdoors||Entirely blocks out any light coming from behind the canvas|
|You need a french easel or regular easel to hold it in place as you paint outdoors||Pochade boxes have clips that hold the panel in place when painting outdoors|
|The canvas is more prone to puncturing by sharp objects||Rigid wood support resists damage|
|Can be displayed with or without a frame||Requires a frame to display it on the wall|
|Canvas tension changes with the weather||Canvas board is always rigid, there’s no sagging|
|Canvas is flexible, expands and contracts, which may cause cracking||Wood supports are more stable and flex less than canvas|
|Mural size canvases are possible, requires heavy duty stretcher bars||Larger panels require cradling to resist warping|
How to Frame Canvas Panels
Below are the three basic framing methods for canvas panels. I wrote a very in depth article about how to frame canvas panels, which includes a video demonstration ( you can watch it below).
- You can buy a floater frame kit for framing canvas panels. This method requires you to glue or use double sided tape to adhere your canvas board to the frame.
- Use a regular wood frame to frame a canvas panel. Picture frames have a recessed groove along the back edges of the frame which is deep enough to hold a canvas panel in place. You’ll need to use points to secure the panel in place. I recommend using a point driver, or a less expensive manual point driver.
- There are frames for canvas panels. However, they’re not easy to find. This method also requires the use of some sort of adhesive to hold the panel in place.
I prefer using regular wood frames with a point driver (option number 2) because it works with a variety of frames. Another benefit is you can use flexible points which makes it easy for you to reuse the frames by switching out different paintings. Below is my YouTube video where I demonstrate how to do this.
How to Fix a Warped Canvas Panel
This is a challenging question to answer because it’s very difficult to fix a warped canvas panel.
There are a few circumstances that can cause a canvas panel to warp. Acrylic paint can shrink a little as it dries and the tension causes the board to warp. The canvas is another part of the panel that can shrink and cause warping.
Another common cause of warping is leaning a canvas panel against a wall for an extended period.
If this is what happened to your panel, you can try flipping the painting over so that it’s leaning against the wall in the opposite direction. The idea is to use gravity to pull out the slight bend in the panel.
However, I don’t have much confidence though that this would result in a perfectly flat panel. And it would take a long time.
Depending upon the adhesive, you may be able to remove the canvas and adhere it to a new board. This is a drastic measure and you shouldn’t take it lightly, you may end up damaging the painting beyond repair.
Consult with an art conservator before you attempt to remove the canvas from the panel, especially if it’s an important piece.
I’ve also heard of artists trying to flatten out a canvas panel by weighing down with a flat board and weights of some sort. This solution is also fraught with risks. Acrylic paint tends to stick to surfaces if you allow it to remain in contact for too long.
Acrylic paint is soft, so placing weights on a painting with thick impasto may damage it.
Similar problems exist with oil paintings. Thick layers of oil paint takes a long time to dry, so thick impasto marks may become damaged under pressure. Old oil paint tends to become brittle with age and flattening out the board may cause cracking.
There isn’t really any simple solution to flattening out a warped canvas panel. It’s best to learn how to prevent them from warping in the first place.
How to Prevent Canvas Panels From Warping
There are a number of variables that will cause your canvas panels to warp.
Larger canvas panels tend to warp more than smaller ones. In fact, panels that are larger than 16×20 would benefit from cradling. Panels that are cradled have wood strips attached to the back of them.
This helps to stiffen the board and prevent it from warping.
Another cause of warping is leaning a panel against a wall for an extended period of time. There’s nothing wrong with this if it’s only for a couple of days, but gravity will eventually cause the board to bend a little.
If you’re going the DIY route by making your own canvas panels, you should use primed canvas when you glue the canvas to the board.
Otherwise, if you were to apply gesso to the raw canvas after it’s glued down to the board, the canvas will shrink and create enough tension to warp the board.
The best way to prevent warping is to frame the canvas panel as soon as possible and hang it on the wall. It’s very unlikely that it will warp in a frame because it will hold the painting completely vertical.
If you can’t frame it then the best solution is to store the painting in such a way that it’s vertical.
The Best Canvas Panels for Oils and Acrylic
Over the years I have tried out numerous canvas panels and my favorite panels are the ones from Raymar. They offer them in 11 different surfaces including canvas, linen, and paper.
Panels with acrylic gesso will work with acrylics and oils. They also make canvas panels that are primed with oil painting grounds.
These boards are made from MDF and the adhesive is PH neutral. They are backed with gray melamine to help prevent warping and to prevent damage. They are available in a variety of sizes and canvas types.
I like the variety of canvas textures that they offer. I use the smooth portrait canvas and the rougher landscape canvas.
In conclusion, canvas panels are small, easy to use, durable, and good for traveling. Most of my recent paintings are on small and canvas panels and they work great.
I usually prefer to buy them instead of making them so I don’t have more time to practice my painting. They’re very convenient to use and I feel more confident they won’t get damaged when I ship them to collectors.