How to Prep a Wood Panel for Painting

I enjoy painting on wood panels more than any other support. When I am painting en plein air, I prefer the lighter portable panels and use Gessobord, or canvas covered panels. For larger paintings, still life, or other studio paintings, I almost always use wood panels, mainly birch.

The cost of pre-made panels can add up quick. I have built my own but I tend to stock up on pre-made panels when they are on sale. It saves me a bit of time, and when they are at a reduced price, I figure it is worth it to purchase them. To save a bit more money, I purchase unfinished panels and prepare the painting surface myself.

There are mainly two types of grounds that are used as a primer for oil painting, gesso (both traditional and acrylic), and oil grounds. I prefer to paint on the surface that Gamblin’s oil ground creates but I also use acrylic gesso when it is more appropriate for what I need.

When using an acrylic gesso, it is important to note that while you can use oil paint over an acrylic ground, using an acrylic ground over oil paint will not work. Something to consider if you are planning to reuse an old painting surface.

The picture above shows three panels I prepared drying in my studio. The two in the foreground are primed with Gamblin’s oil ground. The one flat on the taboret is primed with acrylic gesso. Both have similar application processes. The oil ground comes in a can and is quite thick. It needs to be thinned to the proper consistency with Gamsol, or odorless mineral spirits (OMS). Gamblin has many excellent videos on their site for using their products and can be found at this link:

Acrylic gesso can be thinned with water if needed. I like to use an old plastic gift card to spread the gesso or ground out over the most of the surface of the panel. I then use either a smooth paint roller or a brush to coat the surface of the panel evenly. The ground is then left to dry overnight, or longer as is sometimes the case with oil ground. Sometimes I sand between coats, and sometimes I just sand the final coat. It depends on the kind of surface I want. I tend to like my surfaces fairly smooth but not completely smooth.

The one drawback to the oil ground is that it is more challenging to clean up and I tend to make a sticky mess. I use a rag dampened with a bit of OMS to wipe off my small rubber spatula that I use to mix the ground with. I try to prepare several panels at once to make the process go easier and keep the paint roller wrapped in plastic until I have finished all the coats. The disposable roller cover is usually so saturated with the sticky ground that I discard it when finished. I find acrylic gesso cleans up easily with water and I can clean and re-use the roller cover.

If you have never prepared your own painting panels I hope you are inspired to give it a try! If you do prepare your own panels, I would love to read any tips and tricks you have found. Please feel free to leave a comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *