Acrylic Paint on Wood? The Ultimate Artist’s Guide

Are you wondering if you can use acrylics to paint on wood? Looking for a cheaper alternative to canvases? There are a few things you should know if you want to transform a piece of wood into a masterpiece.

The short answer is yes, you can use acrylic paints on wood. Acrylic paints adhere well to wood when it is properly prepared. Many professional artists choose wood as the surface for their acrylic paintings for is durability and smooth surface.

Acrylic Painting on wood panel by Daniel Wilson

Why use Acrylic Paints on Wood?

  • Wood panels, especially composite boards like MDF, Masonite and Plywood, have little to no grain. This makes them especially suitable for finely detailed work, where the texture of a canvas might interfere.
  •  On the other end of the scale, thickly textured (impasto) paintings may also benefit from being applied to a smooth wooden panel, as the paint can be applied in a way that flows across the surface easily. Applying acrylic paint thickly to a smooth surface can make the texture of the paintwork appear more apparent and deliberate.
  •  Wooden panels are durable and longlasting with the right preparation and care. Many historic pieces of artwork found in museums were painted on wooden surfaces.

To make sure your creation lasts, there are a few steps you need to follow.

  1. Choose your surface
  2. Preparing the wood
  3. Applying a gesso or primer
  4. Painting your subject
  5. Sealing your image

Choosing your Surface

The secret to a long lasting painting on wood is the preparation. Luckily its really easy! First choose your wooden surface to paint on.

For realistic art you want a wood with a smooth surface, things like MDF, Masonite or sanded plywood work great.

You may want a wood with very little grain, as if it is too visible the grain of the wood can show through in the final painting.

Preparing the Wood

This stage involves two steps. Backing your surface and sealing your surface.

For very large or very thin wood you may need to back the board with bars or a frame similar to a canvas. This extra reinforcement provides strength to the board and prevents warping.

Next, sand down the edges and the surface of the wood making it as smooth as possible. A smoother surface is better for detailed work. Make sure to do this in a well ventilated space and wipe off any of the dust once you have finished.

The final preparation step is to seal or ‘size’ the board. Acid-free PVA is often used by artists to seal a wooden surface. This creates a protective layer preventing moisture from damaging the wood, and also prevents acids from the wood from leaching into the paintwork.

The front, back and sides of the wood panel should all be sealed to prevent warping.

Sealing the wood also prevents what is called ‘support induced discolouration’, which is when acids from the wood cause paintwork to yellow over time.

Applying the Gesso

Sometimes people miss this step, but it is a very important process. Typically you see canvases that are primed with gesso, but we need to do this for wood too.

The layer of gesso prevents your acrylic paint from soaking into the surface of the wood. It helps adhere the paint to the surface and keeps the painting looking fresher and vibrant for much longer.

Use a large brush to apply the acrylic gesso, usually this comes in white but you can buy other colours depending on your needs. It is also possible to tint acrylic gesso with acrylic paint to produce a coloured ground. The gesso that we often use is this from Windsor and Newton.

Apply the paint in a thin layer and wait for it to dry, then gently sand the layer until it is smooth. If you apply the gesso too thickly, or if you increase the temperature to suddenly with a hair dryer, this can cause the gesso to crack. For best results, it is best to leave the gesso to dry on its own at room temperature.  

To fully seal the wood panel, gesso over the front, back and sides in this way.

It is best to do this in several layers to build up a solid layer of gesso which adds further protection and longevity to the surface. We typically apply at least three layers of gesso when preparing our panels.

Painting your Subject

This is the fun bit, create your painting as you would on canvas. I find that working on the smooth, primed wooden surface is much more satisfying than working on canvas.

You can create much sharper details on the wood as opposed to canvas. Sometimes the grain of the canvas can interfere with the smaller details but properly prepared wood does not have this problem.

Close up of an acrylic painting on wood panel by Amber Tyldesley

Sealing your Painting

Sealing your work is very important with paintings on wood. It helps to stop your work from peeling away from the wood over time. For paintings the most common form of sealant is called a varnish.

These varnishes come in a range of finishes, the most common being matte, satin or glossy. The two most common ways of applying these varnishes is using a brush or spraying it on.

My favourite spray varnish is this glossy finish from Windsor and Newton

My favourite acrylic brush on varnish is this glossy finish from Daler Rowney.

When painting in acrylics, you may wish to apply an isolation coat before the final varnish.

An isolation coat is a clear permanent medium applied to a finished acrylic painting that forms a barrier between the paintwork and the varnish. This way, if the varnish is ever removed, the paintwork is protected during the process.

Once you’ve sealed your painting and left it to dry, you are all done!