Supporting Painters

Painting supports come in lots of different materials. Historically, artists have used all sorts of things like cardboard, found objects, painting rocks, but traditional painting supports have progressed over time, as I would call it. Originally, I believe cave walls, thus rocks or body painting were probably the first art supports going back to Paleolithic times like 45,000 years ago.

In more modern history, like the Middle Ages, paper had been invented and book illumination was popular, but the ancients had been painting sculptures and painting on papyrus scrolls up until the invention of the book around 800 AD. By that point, Romans had been painting on walls, so I would guess it went... rocks, plaster, paper, and then wood, or wood then paper. Wood panels were popular early supports, but metals like copper were around and so maybe wood was followed by metal. Paper is a whole subject worthy of its own chapter.

Then something changed. Weaving and ceramics had been around since the dawn of civilization, around 10,000 BC, but sail making came sometime later. The earliest record of sailing we have is around 3,500 BC, but that is not to say reed boats weren’t paddled around earlier. The reason I bring this up is, because, I believe that weaving has been around since 6,000 BC and we know marijuana has been used herbally since at least 5,000 BC. The earliest sail cloth was woven hemp, and this technology was pressed into service as a painting support by Venice’s painters who went large around the Renaissance (end of the Middle Ages... late 1300 early 1400 AD). It is interesting to note that religion played a large part in all of this, from book illumination by monks, to books about Confucius, alter pieces, frescos in churches, iconography on wood or metal panels, and paintings on stretched canvas.

Maybe linen (made from flax) predates cotton as a support, but hemp was, in my understanding, the first fabric support for painting. It was technically and economically prohibitive to use wood or metal panels for the larger works required by the grand halls and palaces in Venice and the churches, which required things to be viewed from a distance and thus enlarged. We know that artists like Michelangelo were aware of perspective and corrected for it by making the head larger, proportionately, on very tall sculptures like David.

“Linear perspective is thought to have been devised about 1415 by Italian Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi and later documented by architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti in 1435 (Della Pittura).” -

So, big art... canvas, whether it was hemp, linen, or cotton, being organic, has its limitations. It can be eaten by bugs, rot, mold (also, buggish but on a micro scale maybe), basically being eaten. But it is subject to other deleterious problems like acid or pH issues. You see, being made from a plant, organic, canvas does not do well soaked in linseed oil over time, so methods were developed to isolate the fabric from the linseed oil used in oil paint. Thus we have gesso made with rabbit skin glue. Now the practice of using collagen glues probably predates canvas painting, but for reference, bark distillate adhesive date back to stone tool making around 200,000 BC. I didn’t even think distillation went back that far. Collagen glues are subject to absorb moisture and expand, are not dimensionally stable, and are no longer considered state of the art... having been replaced by acrylic gessoes, or Polyvinyl Acetates (PVA) and (GAC) or heat activated adhesives like BEVA.


Polyvinyl acetate is an aliphatic rubbery synthetic polymer with the formula ₙ. It belongs to the polyvinyl ester family, with the general formula -[RCOOCHCH₂]-. It is a type of thermoplastic. Wikipedia

I had once considered painting on fiberglass mat, and have experience with glass cloth and gel coat painting. I’ve now seen paintings on glass cloth, and I’m guessing painting on carbon fiber will happen if it hasn’t already.

There have been some evolution in traditional painting supports. From large murals on the side of buildings to painting objects like automobiles and barns, technology has progressed... not always for the better. Today, we have polyester canvas and polyester blends, hemp has been making a comeback, as have cradled wood panels. One retro innovation is metal panels. Aluminum composition material (ACM) panels, and copper composition panels (sandwich panels both), combine the light weight of a polystyrene core and thin metal skin to form a dimensionally stable (over temperature and humidity ranges) surface that won’t deteriorate substantially over time. They have not been around long enough to assess if they will corrode, and some manufacturers supply them primed or with primed canvas adhered to the panels. These may be considered the state of the art painting supports for archival survival. They are considered better than gator board (paper over styrene core) and stretched canvas. One advantage is you can stack them in a smaller space than stretched canvas on wood stretchers.

Tempered hardboard, plywood, and medium density fiberboard (MDF) are popular supports, as well; however, I do not find them to be archival, having worked with particle board that got wet, swole up, and disintegrated. I should mention some bent, cracked and buggered corners from being dropped.

I spoke to a conservator friend who suggested maybe adhering two layers of canvas to the ACM, one as a sacrificial layer that can be destroyed when removing the art to be restored in the future. One big advantage of panels is that it’s harder to tear or poke a hole in the canvas.

Today, with so many possibilities, anything can be a canvas... a digital screen, a holograph, sound, a meal, a road, a building, or a performance. Back then too, like nazca lines! But, for me painting... canvas, or panel, maybe just oil primed canvas that can be rolled or stored flat, and then mount them if sold.

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