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Surface Preperation

On This Page:

- Paper
- Fabric
- Canvas
- Preparation
- Thinning


- Canvas Panel Boards
- Compressed Hardboards
- Plywood
- Foamboard
- Fiberglass
- Metal and Glass
- Plastic Panels (Plexiglas)
- Acetate
- Mylar
- Masonry and Concrete
- Murals
- Plasterboard
- Unusual Surfaces

Just about anything can be painted with Acrylics, but it is important to understand a few basic principles to ensure maximum stability. The surface (support or substrate) is the basic substructure of a painting, and should be appropriate for the type of work to be executed. The choice of surface and ground has a large effect on how the paint handles during the painting process and the overall longevity of a work of art. Paint will tend to dry more slowly and move more freely on a smoother surface while a more porous and absorbent surface will have the opposite affect.

The surface chosen will depend on several factors:

  • Painting style of the artist.

  • The desired visual effect

  • The purpose of the work.

  • Required longevity.

  • The type of Media used.

Basic rules for choosing and preparing surfaces:

  • Avoid oily, waxy and hard, shiny surfaces. (Note: Some hard shiny surfaces can be prepared by roughing the surface up to provide tooth, usually with sandpaper.)

  • Never apply acrylics over oil paint.

  • Always do an Adhesion Test on a sample first if you are unsure.


Adhesion Test

  • Apply the paint or medium to prepared surface and let dry thoroughly. Wait 72 hours for acrylic paint to cure before continuing (longer in more humid conditions).

  • When completely dry, score surface in a crosshatch pattern using a sharp knife.

  • Apply masking tape firmly to scratched surface and firmly burnish.

  • Remove masking tape slowly.

  • If any paint comes off with the tape, good surface adhesion has not been achieved. Either a different surface preparation is necessary or the particular support is not suitable for the paint or medium tested.


Flexible Surfaces



  • Most papers are made and labeled for particular media and require little or no preparation.



  • Bristol Board is designed specifically for acrylic painting.

  • Hot Pressed Paper and Boards have a smooth surface.

  • Cold Pressed Paper and Boards have rough texture and are best for watercolour and airbrush technique.



  • Papers can be sealed prior to painting to prevent absorption into the paper fibers.

  • Heavier paper is recommended for most applications to prevent warping. (Note: Tape edges of paper to backing surface while sealing and do not remove tape until paper has dried to maintain flatness.)

  • Liquitex Clear Gesso and Liquitex Matte Medium allows colour of paper to show through.

  • Note: Clear Gesso contains fine aggregate giving the surface “tooth” making it an excellent ground for pastels.)


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  • Liquitex Acrylic Colours can be applied directly on both natural and synthetic fibers. The tighter the weave of fabric the brighter the colours will be when dry.



  • Liquitex Acrylic colours are suitable for cotton, cotton/poly blends, woven fabric, knits, felt, suede, leather, terry cloth, silk, velvet, velveteen, corduroy and flannel.



  • Wash first to remove the sizing or starch. (if applicable)

  • Always do a test piece to ensure compatibility.

  • Recommended Products: Liquitex Fabric Medium and Liquitex Flow-Aid

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  • Canvas comes in many varieties including cotton, linen, jute and natural or synthetic fibers. It is available raw, pre-primed and pre-stretched on bars or boards.



  • Cotton Duck: The most common and popular style of canvas used.

  • Linen: Superior strength and longevity though not necessarily ideal for acrylics due to its oil content.

  • Jute: Not considered a permanent surface (used for it’s texture as well as lower price.)

  • Synthetic: Most uniform in texture, exceptionally strong and long lasting.



  • Commercially prepared with acrylic gesso or oil ground in a variety of styles.

  • Available in a variety of natural and synthetic materials and weights, weave patterns and textures.

  • There are single and double primed versions, which can be further smoothed with more layers of gesso and sanding.

  • Primed canvas is more difficult to stretch than raw canvas and requires canvas pliers to stretch.

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Acrylic Medium

  • Liquitex Clear Gesso, Liquitex Matte Medium or Matte Gel can be used as a sealer (size) for canvas, paper or board, allowing natural surface colour to be seen after sealing.

  • Substrate Induced Discolouration (SID)

    • When acrylic mediums are used as a size for primed or unprimed cotton, linen, wood or hardboard, the water content may draw impurities out of the support as it dries.

    • A yellow or brown discolouration in the medium may occur over time. It will be noticeable only in areas that are left unpainted. It is not a problem if the mediums are mixed with paint or painted over.

    • It occurs with all acrylic mediums currently used by major fine art paint manufacturers.

    • Washing the canvas before use can greatly decrease or eliminate SID.

    • The amount of discolouration in the acrylic medium will vary depending upon:

  1. Quality of the acrylic medium. The unique resin formulation used in all Liquitex Paints and Mediums is clear, flexible and non-yellowing.

  2. Thickness of the medium application. Gel mediums are more susceptible to SID than fluid mediums. They are thicker, contain more water and take longer to dry.

  3. Substrate used. Different surfaces contain different colourants and contaminants.


 Acrylic Gesso

  • Liquitex Acrylic Gesso is the highest quality gesso and provides a flexible, non-yellowing ground with excellent tooth for proper paint adhesion.

  • Seals and protects the substrate (i.e. canvas) and readily accept the application of paint. (Note: suitable for both oil and acrylic paint applications.)

  • Liquitex Gesso is available in Clear, Titanium White, Black, Neutral Gray, and Super Heavy formulations.



  • Apply Liquitex Gesso to raw canvas after it has been stretched and stapled onto stretcher bars. This ensures a tight surface. (Note: don’t stretch canvas too tight as this can cause the stretcher to warp. Drying paint will cause shrinking.)

  • Allow to fully dry for a minimum of 24 hours before use.

  • Multiple Coats are recommended especially if it is to be used as a ground for oil paint.

  • A second layer will produce a smoother surface and offer better protection and adhesion. (Note: Lightly sand between applications for a smoother painting surface; use Liquitex Super Heavy Gesso for more texture.)

  • For most economical multiple coat surface use Liquitex Matte Medium as first coat, followed by one coat of Liquitex Gesso after its dry.

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  • Liquitex Gesso may be thinned with up to 25% distilled water and function without adversely affecting adhesion or causing gessoed surface to crack.

  • For increased adhesion and flexibility, it is recommend to thin gesso with equal parts distilled water and Liquitex® Matte Medium.



  • Liquitex Gesso can be brushed, troweled, or sprayed directly onto canvas.

  • For a smooth surface (without brushstrokes), apply with a large painting knife or squeegee (in half-circular motions) or use a house paint pad. (Note: Work the gesso into the weave if using canvas.) Let dry, lightly sand with fine-grit sandpaper. Apply second layer.

  • When spraying it may be necessary to thin gesso with Liquitex Airbrush Medium approximately 1:1, add more Airbrush Medium as needed.

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Eggshell Canvas Surface

  • This preparation will create a paper smooth surface that is excellent for portrait and airbrush techniques.

  • Wet sand gesso surface in circular motion until area dries and becomes smooth using 400 grit wet-dry sandpaper and a spray mister (Note: Surface will be brittle and may crack if surface is pushed or stressed.)


Surface Tooth and Absorbency

  • Dilute Liquitex Gesso with Liquitex Matte Medium to get less absorbency and tooth.

  • Any Liquitex Texture Gel may be mixed into gesso along with marble dust or sand for textural effects. (Note: Too many aggregates may make gesso brittle.)

  • A mixture of 75% Liquitex Gesso and 25% Liquitex Modeling Paste will make an Absorbent Gesso, suitable for use as a ground for pastel, charcoal and graphite drawings.

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Rigid Surfaces

  • Provide smooth or textured surfaces for dimensional painting and collage.

  • Most boards can be used as supports to which canvas, paper or other material can be glued. Use Liquitex Matte Gel to adhere canvas to board.

  • Surfaces should be tested for proper adhesion.


Canvas Panel Boards

  • Not recommended for permanent work, as they may warp and materials may not last.

  • Prepared commercially and available in a wide variety of sizes

  • Generally made of cotton canvas wrapped and glued onto heavy cardboard.


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Compressed Hardboards

  • Compressed hardboards such as MasoniteTM are not recommended as a permanent support.

  • Untempered Masonite is subject to warping and is not very stable.

  • Tempered Masonite contains oily substances that may affect paint adhesion over time.
    If permanence is not required, untempered Masonite may be used but should be sealed all over with a barrier varnish such as Liquitex Soluvar Varnish and then prepared as follows:

  • Sand the top (shiny) surface.    

  • Cover with at least two coats of Liquitex Gesso.

  • Sand between coats and apply the second coat at right angles to the first.


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  • MDO (Medium Density Overlay) boards are varieties of plywood that are bonded with paper on one side or both sides.

  • They offer a very smooth surface quality that is hard to achieve with standard plywood. (Note: They can be heavy.)

  • Good exterior grade boards can provide an excellent painting support. They are available in 1/8” thickness of mahogany, birch, maple and oak. They may be adhered to wooden stretchers to prevent warping.

  • All forms of plywood will require between 2–5 coats of gesso. (Harder woods are less porous and will require less to seal.)


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  • Not recommended for long-term applications—vulnerable to warping and damage.

  • Lightly sand and use two coats of Liquitex Gesso (sanding between coats)

  • Let dry overnight.


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  • Can be painted with acrylics or oils if the surface is prepared properly.

  • Sand or sandblast the surface. Remove residual dust.

  • Coat with an industrial solvent based, primer-sealer such as KILZ (for water-based media)

  • Allow to cure for 3 days—Test for proper adhesion (See Adhesion Test).

  • Lightly sand

  • Apply Liquitex Gesso (spray or brush)—Let dry overnight and re-test adhesion.

  • Paint Surface and apply Soluvar Varnish as a finish coat.


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Metal and Glass

  • Sand with 400-grit paper or sandblast for proper paint film adhesion.

  • Etch Aluminum with 5% lye solution for 4 to 5 minutes.

  • Glass can be acid-etched or sand blasted.

  • Degrease surface and coat with industrial primer (for water-based media).

  • Let dry fully and test adhesion. (See Adhesion Test).

  • Apply Liquitex Gesso (spray or brush). Let dry 3 days and test for adhesion.


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Plastic Panels (Plexiglas)

  • Surface preparation will depend on the type of plastic.

  • Plastic must be chemically inert so that it will not react with the paint film over time.

  • A slight tooth is required for paint adhesion—if none exists the surface must be sanded with a fine or medium grade sand paper (dust mask should be worn) where paint is to be applied.

  • After sanding, use Liquitex Matte Medium or Matte Gel and one or two coats of Liquitex Gesso or Clear Gesso for an opaque or transparent ground.

  • Both sides of the sheet can be painted to yield dimensional qualities.

  • Apply Soluvar Varnish to protect and seal finished work.


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  • Acetate is a transparent, somewhat brittle plastic available in varying thickness and surface textures.

  • Matte-surface acetate, textured acetate and wet-media acetate (also called “prepared acetate”) are suitable for acrylic materials.

  • Smooth acetate is not recommended for acrylic materials, as it is too slick.


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  • Mylar is a film that has all the properties and uses of acetate with additional flexibility and strength.

  • Much higher in price than acetate.

  • It does not stretch, crack or yellow.

  • Available with a photosensitive surface for the reproduction of line drawings.

  • Available in a wet-media form that needs no surface preparation.


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Masonry and Concrete

  • Masonry and concrete must be thoroughly dry and cured. (may take 8–12 weeks)

  • All moisture must be gone and there must be no waterproofing, cement paint or silicones (often used during construction) on surface or acrylic paint adhesion will not be permanent.

  • Liquitex Acrylics can be applied directly to a masonry wall.

  • For best results: apply Liquitex Matte Gel Medium with a trowel. (An excellent ground that will seal the wall and reduces the amount of paint needed to cover the surface.)

  • Let Matte Gel Medium fully dry; then apply one or two coats of gesso.

  • Let dry overnight.


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  • Encompasses a wide variety of techniques including: fresco, encaustic, mosaic, stained glass and photography.

  • Most common techniques; painting on canvas and then attaching to a wall or painting directly on the wall.

  • Surfaces must be free of grease, wax, and oil—structurally sound and free of loose particles.


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  • Use only if not previously painted with oil or alkyd paint.

  • Seal first with a barrier varnish like Soluvar or an industrial product (like Aqualock for use with water base paints). Let dry completely

  • Apply two coats of gesso with a brush, spray or paint pad.


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Unusual Surfaces

  • Test for compatibility with the acrylic paint. (See Adhesion Test.)

  • Certain surfaces may have adverse reactions with paints, either immediately or over time

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