Using Wood as a Painting Surface

Using Wood as a Painting Surface

Fall in Long Island is a little delayed this year. It’s 62 degrees and sunny today with clear skies, no complaints here. It’s a cozy time to work in my home studio. I love shuffling across its hardwood floors, warming my toes in the sun spill of the south window. On the adjacent wall I lean my painting surfaces, some large canvases and a healthy stock of cradled wood panels waiting to be transformed for my fall and winter projects.

cradled wood panels

I discovered working with wood panels as an experiment. At the time, I wanted to work organic and abstract shapes with thick gesso on a sturdy surface and bought a few small panels to try; I really haven’t turned back. Something about wooden anything feels nostalgic to me. Like Bob Ross’s easel, the huge Noah’s Ark replica on the playground of my preschool, 1950’s affinity for wood paneling and ranch houses…

I’d say that my current work requires a really smooth surface and that’s what I get with cradled wood panels. They don’t bubble, pill, warp, or bend. Unlike raw wood, they have a limited wood grain and they’re already sanded, even though I always re-sand. I feel like the panel plays into the design of my overall work. I like to create a white border around some of my pieces to add clean negative space to a design and because these panels can be hung without a frame on two nails or screws, I feel like my border acts as a phantom frame, keeping the piece simple and easy to place.

Some artists opt for wood panels if they like using wet medium or pouring techniques. My wood panels are usually made of pinewood, birch plywood, or basswood. They come in different profiles but I prefer the flat (7/8”) and gallery (1-1/2”) because I feel like they’re flattering depths for most home styles.

cradled wood panel depth

nirvani brown art wood cradle panel corner

Tips for Artists Using Cradled Wood Panels

For creators who want to start using cradled wood panels, I’d recommend as a first step finding a trusted supplier with quality wood. All wood is not created equal and the last thing you want is to receive wood that’s noticeably cracked or dented (even though wood can have its natural imperfections). Panels are advertised as precision-sanded but you’re going to want to do some sanding yourself after you prime and even after you’ve laid a base layer. You never want a customer to be tagged by an outlying wood splint, obviously. Wood panels are archival surfaces but wood naturally contracts or expands in humidity so you’ll always want to gesso, prime, or add an isolation coat to your surface before working. It’ll actually help you from getting bubbles in the varnishing process, trust me. Remember that wood still has its characteristics and you can’t avoid some very tiny dents or grooves, don’t let that discourage you.

The Lumber Industry

I’ve been having a hard time lately, securing my wood supply. It’s good for other creators and for consumers to know as well, the Covid pandemic has had an obvious impact on the lumber industry. Not only with the workforce but with supply and with contractors unable to pay for the proper equipment due to financial strain. Wood prices have gone up by 40% since the pandemic. Wood prices had skyrocketed to pre-pandemic levels but with speak of a possible market correction, buyers hoped that wood prices would plummet further. That brought the price down for a little. But with construction back in swing and many using their stimuluses for home improvement, the demand for wood is high, driving up the price once again. The problem is, when demand backed off in hope of lower future prices, so did the supply. Personally, my wood panel vendor has a limited seasonal supply with larger sizes being up to a two-month wait.

Wood Panels and Sustainability

I wouldn’t say that painting on wood is more sustainable than painting on 100% linen or cotton canvases at all. In fact, any use of organic or natural resources in craft is a use of natural resources regardless. However, artists can mitigate their environmental impact. They can be diligent about planning their work in advance to reduce waste. They can also produce less and charge a price they actually deserve (and that’s a topic for another time). By adopting a model of quality over quantity, they can use less material and still make a profit.

I’ll be using cradled wood panels for the foreseeable future. I would love to do some larger than life pieces one day and for that day, I may not go the wood route as I’ve heard that very large wood panels are more likely to warp. But for now, it’s part of my artistic identity, a rustic element to my modern designs that combines workmanship, craft, and a quality over quantity approach that suits me.