Canvas, MDF, ABS, Aluminum, Plywood… Phew, there are so many painting surfaces to choose from!

We’ve had a ton of questions about why I started using ABS plastic painting panels after using MDF for more than 15 years. In this post, I’ll tell you why I switched and why you may want to consider using ABS yourself.

I’ve used so many types of panels and surfaces over the last 30 years – from lead-primed linen to ½ inch Baltic birch plywood. I’ve also experimented with several primers.

Nobody knows everything about these materials. There are simply too many exceptions to every experiment and experience. But we’re learning new things every year. The Smithsonian has helped advance a lot of what we know today.

This blog post is not comprehensive – that would be a book to rival the length of War and Peace and would still be incomplete.

Hopefully, this will give you the nitty-gritty details that will help you decide if ABS is a good fit for you or not.

Join Our Community of Artists for FREE

Over 33,000 artists already enjoy free Art Training and insider exclusives directly to their inbox each week. We don't spam, your information is never sold or given to anyone else, and our content rocks. Want to learn more?

Thanks for joining us. Watch your inbox for awesome art related content and free training!

Canvases and Panels I’ve Painted On

It might help to start with a short history of my painting surfaces – and some of their pros and cons – that way you can understand my thinking and see if you can identify.

During the ’80s and much of the ’90s, I painted on canvas – both cotton and linen.

My dad is the best I’ve seen at stretching and preparing lead primed linen. I have two canvases from the 80’s I haven’t used yet. They have travelled from Montana to Idaho to Utah to California to Colorado and then to Indiana. Somehow they have never become saggy or wrinkled in the corners. They are still tight as a drum.

Here’s a canvas he stretched in 1989. He used the traditional Ralph Meyer process with rabbit skin sizing. Once the lead primer dried thoroughly, he put a wash of color over the ground, so the canvas was ready for painting.

A traditionally lead primed linen canvas

What I dreaded about preparing canvases was the time away from painting.

Stretching the canvas, preparing rabbit skin glue and lead primer and then waiting for it to dry was miserable for me (experts often recommend waiting 6 months to a year to let a lead primed canvas dry). Then making sure nothing leaned on the canvas that could cause dents or tears.

To overcome the long dry time, I used an oil primer. It still required rabbit skin glue to protect the canvas, but it dried in about a week. The real problem with that was the fumes. I had to wear a respirator for 2 or 3 days during a session to prime several months’ worth of canvases.

You know how much I hate dealing with any toxic fumes!

Buying the canvases premade was possible, but I never found any that were made as well as my dad’s or my own. The corners of commercial canvases always seemed to require those wooden pegs (keys) to get them tight.

Then in the mid-’90s, two things happened.

First, I read an article by a museum conservator who said that acrylic emulsion ‘gesso’ was superior to oil primer for oil paints because it is flexible and doesn’t require the moisture-absorbing rabbit skin glue. It is also non-toxic – no fumes.

Second, I played with some wooden panels for smaller plein air studies. I fell in love with the convenience and solid feeling compared with stretched canvas.

After reading books and talking with other artists, ½ inch Baltic birch plywood seemed to be the best choice. A lot of artists were cautious about Masonite because of the fear of the oils that were used early in its history. It was also so slick that sometimes the gesso didn’t adhere well.

I still have a few paintings from the ’90s and early 2000s that were painted on the plywood. They are still in great shape.

The painting below was done entirely on location in Rye, Colorado. Not a great painting, which is why I still have it, but – the painting itself has held up beautifully.

Greenhorn Creek 8×10 – oil painting plein air study done by Bill Inman in mid ’90s.

There was one main problem with the Baltic birch plywood. When I would cut it with a table saw the edges would often chip. I tried all kinds of recommendations by carpenter friends, like putting masking tape over the area I needed to cut. Nothing really helped.

The painting below was one that started out bigger and I decided to trim it down. It chipped all the way up the edge. Fortunately, it was not a keeper painting, so it was a good choice for experimenting with. I did not do that with any prized paintings.

Painting on ½ inch Baltic birch plywood that chipped when cut with a table saw.

I’m sure there are easy fixes for the chipping problem that is readily available on a YouTube video today, but at the time it was a huge disappointment.

Then in the early 2000s lumber yards started getting their Baltic birch plywood from China rather than Russia. The resins they used to make the plywood were no longer stable and the panels warped like crazy. Baltic birch was no longer usable for painting panels.

That’s when someone recommended MDF.

MDF Wood Painting Panels – the Good the Bad and the Ugly

After hearing about MDF (medium density fiberboard) I went to Home Depot, found a wonderfully smooth and warp-free panel and was hooked.

MDF panels for oil painting

The sheets at Home Depot came in 24×48 inch panels. MDF was easy to cut and gesso. It seemed like a dream product.

Then I looked for panels to create bigger paintings – 30×40 or larger.

That was a problem. Home Depot only carried the small sheets and said they couldn’t get them any bigger.

So, I visited some local lumberyards. The panels were awful. I special ordered 4×8 foot sheets and found out quickly that they all warped easily – most were warped when I went to pick them up.

Again, it seemed to be a different manufacturing process. I have MDF from Home Depot that is over 10 years old, hasn’t been primed and is still straight as when I first purchased it.

I realized recently that MDF panels can be easily ruined by moisture.  Once I discovered that I primed my panels on both sides and all edges, but my early ones were often sealed only on the front side.

I learned as well that MDF is treated with toxic formaldehyde. The fumes from formaldehyde leak out into the studio as the panels sit on shelves.

Turns out most wood panels today are made with formaldehyde and other toxic ingredients that emit VOC’s into the air. Then again, toxic fumes can be all around us – like in things we buy for our homes – carpeting for instance.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do my best to lessen the problem though, right?

So, I kept my eyes and ears open for a better solution.

I tried out aluminum. Paid $50 for an 18×24 inch panel, dropped it and dinged the corner – Ruined the panel!  It’s just about impossible to get it smooth again.

I have a large roll of lead primed linen and thought about returning to the good old days. But I’ve grown so accustomed to the ease of shipping panels that I cringed at stretched canvases. I knew I could mount the canvas to a panel, but then I was kind of back to square one with the VOC’s and warping.

Enter ABS plastic.

ABS Plastic and William Whitaker

Two or three years ago I was at an OPA show in Cincinnati and watched a painting demonstration by William Whitaker. He told us he had been using 1/8 inch ABS plastic panels to paint on for 20 years.

An ABS plastic panel for oil painting

I was intrigued. I had never heard of painting on ABS.

Painting on a plastic panel sounded ridiculous at first. Wouldn’t it break down and be bad for the environment? What would galleries and collectors think? If it was any good, why weren’t a lot more artists using ABS?

As he spoke about its merits, I decided it was worth investigation.

It wasn’t easy to find good information, especially about using them for fine art paintings. I called manufacturers and read article after article – including ABS characteristics compared to other plastics.

One artist wrote a scathing essay about the evils of ABS. It almost turned me away because he talked about how toxic ABS is for the earth. Then I realized nothing else I had read sounded nearly so doomsdayish.

The artist was right about one thing. The chemicals they make ABS with are highly toxic – individually. When combined together they become inert – making it harmless.

ABS plastic does not emit any fumes, it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment and it is 100% recyclable. It is one of the few plastics that are completely recyclable because when it is melted down it keeps the same chemical composition. Other plastics are changed when they are melted and become a different product.

It is more environmentally friendly than any of the wood products I’ve researched.

What really sold me though, was how easy it is to work with. ABS is not affected by moisture, it doesn’t warp, and it doesn’t need to be primed with gesso or anything else.

Let me tell you how I prepare ABS for oil painting panels.

Turning ABS Sheets into Painting Panels

You need to know that it is not something you can buy at the local hardware store. I order and pick up mine at the Regal Plastics company in Indianapolis. That 40-minute drive saves me hundreds on shipping.

I buy the ABS in 4×8 foot sheets. The company is happy to cut it into smaller pieces to fit in my car when I don’t have access to my van.

I started with 1/8-inch-thick sheets as William recommended but now buy ¼ inch. The 1/8 inch is a bit too flexible for larger paintings. It works fine for small pieces though. Although, I will probably buy only the ¼ inch for now on – I like the sturdiness of it.

A 1/8-inch-thick 4×8 foot sheet costs about $50 – a ¼ inch sheet about $70. We can make a lot of panels with one sheet.

When you pick it up you will see that it is very glossy and slick on one side.

ABS plastic is glossy and slick on the front side

And it is textured on the back side.

ABS plastic is textured on the back side

That slick glossy side is the side I paint on. It is very important that the glossy surface is sanded first. Otherwise, there will not be enough tooth for a strong mechanical bond.

I use 60-grit sandpaper with a palm sander. William Whitaker and Jeff Hein both used 150 grit sandpaper. You can experiment to see what works for you.

Palm sander with 60 grit sandpaper to take the gloss off ABS plastic painting panels

I use 60-grit mainly because it speeds up the process. If the sander is not moving constantly it will sand grooves into the surface. If you’re worried about that I would go with the 150-grit.

The best sandpaper I found is made by 3M. It is super tough and lasts forever. The piece you see on my sander finished off a whole 4×8 sheet.

A sanded ABS plastic painting panel

I sand the panels until I can no longer see any glossy reflection. The 60-grit leaves a velvety texture on my panel that is very nice to paint on. I then vacuum and wash the panel to get rid of any dust.

One of the wonderful things about ABS is that I no longer need to use a table saw ending the sawdust debacle. ABS cuts easily – okay, it does take some muscle – and a simple box cutter knife.

A tape measure, Sharpie pen and box cutter for measuring and cutting ABS painting panels

I measure out the panels, mark them with a sharpie and cut with the utility knife. Always cut the panels from the textured side. Otherwise, the knife will leave a slight ridge on the panel’s edge. It’s not a big deal – it can quickly be sanded off with a file – but it’s also easy to avoid.

I like to use a metal ruler to keep my cuts straight.

Cutting ABS plastic with a metal straight edge and box cutter

I score – or cut – the panel about halfway through, and then I bend the panel in the opposite direction and snap it in half. It makes a perfectly smooth edge.

Another amazing advantage to ABS is its strength and durability. William Whitaker said he experimented by dropping a panel from a two-story balcony onto a marble floor. It landed on a corner and didn’t affect it at all.

I experimented here at my studio by taking a piece of MDF and a piece of ABS and whacking them both on the floor.

MDF after colliding with the floor – it is easily damaged

You can see that the MDF didn’t fare so well. I have had finished paintings slip out of my hands, land on a corner, and end up dinged like this. It is a royal pain to repair it.

The ABS, on the other hand, was barely affected – and I hit it harder than I did with the MDF – multiple times.

ABS corner after being pounded on the ground – barely affected

Once it is sanded, washed and cut, it is ready to paint on. It’s that easy!

Can you see why I have fallen in love with ABS?

Oil paint mechanically bonds with the microscopic pores beautifully. I have no fears about my painting lasting my collector’s lifetime or his great-great grandchild’s lifetime.

I’m hoping an art supply company will jump in and start producing painting panels for artists made from this amazing material. That would make life so easy.

Who am I kidding – life is never easy! But, it would make it faster to get in front of the easel, and I always love the sound of that.

What is your favorite surface to paint on? What are the pros and cons of that material?