Acrylic Painting on Wood: Everything You Need to Know
Let’s talk acrylic painting on wood. It is not a difficult endeavor, but it does take a few steps, and a little bit of patience to let things dry. Wood is my surface of choice when it comes to acrylics, and I’ve made my fair share of mistakes, but I’ve learned a lot along the way!
I’m going to lay out all the steps for you below, and give you a list of supplies below (shout out to fellow art supply collectors).
If you are a total newbie to acrylics, you will want to go visit my Acrylic Painting 101 post first.
Acrylic on Wood Supplies
I love these cradled panels and have used them for years!
These birch wood panels from American Easel are also great, and you have tons of options here.
I also use cut pine boards, and I know people are into painting on wood slices and planks now, so you may even want to try using clear gesso after you seal the wood.
Check out this guide to choosing your acrylic paint colors.
Golden acrylic polymer varnishes
Liquitex acrylic polymer varnishes
Tip: I haven’t tried this, but have heard great things about this varnish, especially if your painting will ever be outdoors or in direct sunlight.
Flat brushes and/or foam brushes – this is my favorite, and the one I’m using in the photos. Warning: cheap brushes drop soooo many bristles in whatever you are painting on the surface of your wood and will make you crazy.
Acrylic Painting on Wood – The Steps
Here are the basic steps to get your wood all ready for acrylic paint. Keep reading for more details.
- Sand the wood surface if it’s rough.
- Seal with 2 coats of gloss medium, sanding after each layer.
- Gesso with 2 coats of high-quality gesso, sanding after each layer.
- Paint with acrylics.
- Seal with a top coat.
Step one is to prep your wood. First give it a little hug and an air kiss to make it feel great, and then sand it. Most wood you will be painting on will have a relatively smooth surface anyway, so you just need to give it a light sanding. Think of it as an exfoliation.
Next, wipe off the sawdust using a very lightly damp cloth. You want to wipe the surface after every sanding. But you don’t want to get it wet because then you have to wait for it to dry. Sigh.
Tip: If you are using wood panels made specifically for painting on, you won’t need to sand as they are pre-sanded.
Once your wood is lookin’ fresh, go ahead and paint a couple of layers of sealant on it, front and back, letting dry completely and sanding between layers. It’s not your imagination that the wood will be more rough after applying the first layer – the sealant raises the grain of the wood.
Don’t glop a huge amount of medium on your wood- you want to apply it in two even layers so you don’t get cracking, crazing, uneven areas. And applying it to the back helps keep moisture out and will minimize warping that might happen if only one side of the wood is left exposed.
I use Golden gloss medium, but Golden also recommends GAC 100, which you may have if you’ve tried making your own paint.
Why Seal The Wood?
Sealing the wood is important, mostly if you are painting on found or natural wood. Before I knew this, I made many paintings where the wood oils stained through the gesso. They looked wretched about a week after I finished them.
You want to seal the wood so there is a protective barrier between your wood and your gesso and acrylic paint or you risk oils and moisture from the wood seeping forward and staining or detaching the acrylic paint layers.
If you are using acrylics on wood panels from the art store, y’all don’t need to seal the wood. It’s all ready for priming (see the next step). This only true of panels made specifically for fine art painting! If you are using a wood board from a craft store, like the one I have in the photos, definitely seal it before priming.
If you want to watch a little video on the Golden site about the very ominous sounding support induced discoloration (SID), here ya go.
Next comes priming the wood, in the form of gesso. Gesso is used on virtually any surface you will be painting with acrylics, and gives you the most ideal starting point for acrylic paints.
Using a high-quality gesso is verrrry important here. Cheap gesso is such a waste of money. Believe me, I’ve tried it.
Brush your gesso evenly over the surface and edges (if desired) of your wood, and let it dry thoroughly. Use a soft bristle brush, foam brush, or even roller to get the fewest brush strokes (unless you want the brush stroke look).
Sand between layers for more smoothness (and wipe away the gesso dust). I usually do 2-3 layers of gesso. Also, sometimes old gesso will be stupid-thick, so you can scoop some of it out and mix a little bit of water into it in a bowl before brushing on the wood. Think a tiny bit more than heavy cream consistency.
Why Prime The Wood?
Priming the wood for the acrylic paint is a crucial step. The primer (in this case gesso), will give you a white background so your paint colors look as expected. The gesso also gives a little bit of ‘tooth’ or slight texture, thereby giving your acrylic paint the perfect surface to stick to.
If you are painting on a fine art wood panel that has not been sealed, you still want to gesso it so your paint doesn’t sink into the porous wood surface (unless that’s the look you’re going for).
When everything is prepped, sealed, and primed, you are ready to paint! Yasssss. Grab those acrylics and do your thing.
Related: How to Mix Black Paint
To finish acrylic on wood, you’ll brush a top coat over your (fully dried) acrylic painting.
Do I Need to Put a Finish on Acrylic-painted Wood?
I would say this one depends. To keep dust, scratches, uv rays, and any other zillions of enemies of paint away from your artwork, by all means put a finish over the top. Which means you probably should put a finish on it if you want it to last a long time.
Some finishes can slightly change the look of your painting, whether deepening the saturation of the acrylic paint colors, slightly muting them, or giving a shiny or mat look to your painting. Please test a little bit of the top coat on either a separate test artwork or on an outside edge to see how it will look first.
Wood vs Canvas For Acrylic
I love and adore painting with acrylics on wood, and this is my surface of choice. Sometimes I’ll paint on paper, which is fun, too. I prefer a sturdy, smooth surface when painting.
Canvas has that bounce to it, and is textured, 2 things I don’t like when painting, which is why I use wood surfaces for my acrylic paintings.
The advantage of canvas is that it is lighter than wood, which can make a big difference if you’re painting large. It can also be cheaper to paint on if you are buying canvas in bulk and stretching your own canvases.
With wood, you can use found natural wood, cut boards, painting panels, etc. If you buy wood panels (usually birch) from the art store, if they are flat they should have a pre-drilled hole in the back for hanging. For cradled wood panels or canvas, you would screw small eye screws into the inside edges of the supports and string picture hanging wire across.
Related: Cool Abstract Acrylic Painting Ideas
Reminders and Tips and Breaking Rules
Wipe the wood surface with a barely damp cloth or after each sanding.
After brushing on your whole layer of gel medium or gesso, brush the flat brush very lightly over the surface to smooth out brush strokes as much as possible.
Elevate your wood pieces on a few small blocks or something that will allow them to stay flat, but keep their edges from the surface. Gesso and mediums act like glues and will stick your wood to the surface and make you angry like a wolf.
Prepping a few surfaces at a time, assembly-line style, will save you time and materials and greaten the chance you will actually make more paintings. When you have these gorgeous wood surfaces all ready to go, you will be much more likely to actually paint because you don’t have to go through all of the above steps again. *WINK* You’re welcome.
Ermagehrd, sometimes rules were meant to be broken, especially in the art world. If you want to grab a piece of wood and acrylic paint right on over that bad boy, go for it. Acrylics will sink into the porous wood, and sometimes that’s the look you want. Just be prepared for potential peeling, discoloration, etc. (In other words, I wouldn’t try to sell art like this.)
If you are planning to draw on your wood with pencil before painting, press lightly with the pencil. I have had pencil bleed or show through my acrylic paint in the past. Do a little bit of experimenting with this to see what works. Oh – Sharpie tends to show/bleed through, also!
Fun Fact about painting on wood: Until canvas was created as a painting surface, painters used wood panels, planed, sized, and gessoed with up to 15 layers. This is an interesting short read.