Non-Traditional Canvas Alternatives for Painting

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Ready to try your hand at painting on something other than a stretched canvas?

You’ll be glad to know that many other surfaces will work well with acrylic paints, and many of them may be free or very inexpensive, compared to the cost of stretched canvas.

Let’s explore a few of the many possibilities.

It’s impossible to guess at all of the possible ideas artists may have in mind, so we’ll look at some nontraditional sources for surface choices, and we’ll think in terms of using acrylic paints.

They’re widely available and a popular paint choice.

As you consider your next project, are you looking for any surface, or are you looking for a flat surface?  Creative, non-canvas flat surfaces could include rough reclaimed wood from shipping pallets, or unused finished cabinetry, doors and furniture.  They’re ready to cut to size, if necessary, and use!

wood from a thrift shop

Thrift Shop Finds

Think of walking through an inexpensive secondhand or consignment shop with new eyes.  What you’re looking for is not furniture, but candidates for your next painting surfaces.

Shop with repurposing in mind.

What’s the immediate benefit to you?

You won’t have to worry about knotholes or crooked boards in finished wood.  You may have to prepare the surface, for example, of the pull-out tray of a desk with some light sanding to have a workable surface for acrylics, but you won’t have to pay for premium hardwood, and it may already be the right size.

What about working with finished wood surfaces?

If you’re dealing with a highly polished surface that’s been the recipient of years of furniture polish, you’ll have to plan on spending time to prepare the surface carefully.

Remember that paint must be applied to a textured surface.

reclaimed old wood

Garage/Yard Sales Are Goldmines For Painting Surfaces

Yard sales and flea markets can be gold mines for the kinds of material you can quickly put to use.  A piano bench, shelving units and corner tables that are inexpensive and easily dismantled may be just what you need.   That abandoned walnut dining table leaf may be just the size you need for your latest work of art.

Guess what else may be found there?


A possibility for small, abundantly available paintable surfaces could include the covers of hardback books.  The covers of an out-of-date textbook on the dollar table may provide you with the perfect surfaces for a pair of small paintings.  Many hardbacks are covered in a type of tightly woven fabric that might give your miniature project just the right surface.  Again, a bit of preparation of these surface might be required.  This is actually very comparable to canvas board, a well-known alternative to stretched canvas.

We shouldn’t ignore the possibility of painting on plastic surfaces, but you’ll have to experiment to find what works for you.

Many compounds can be loosely classified as “plastic,” but not all will give you the surface you’ll need, even with a coat or two of acrylic gesso.  Caveat emptor.

A few words should be said about working with older materials.

As you’re sanding, or sawing, always work in a well-ventilated area.  Cover your nose and mouth with a mask so you don’t ingest fine dust of either the woods or plastics you’re preparing for use.

The question again is any surface, or a flat surface?  When you begin to consider any surface other than a traditional stretched canvas, a door opens to a whole new range of possibilities.   Thinking of arts and crafts applications allows you to consider painting on more unusual surfaces:  traditional, unglazed Southwestern terra cotta roofing tiles and dried gourds, both with curved surfaces, might be good candidates.

Nature can offer many beautiful options.  Seashells and driftwood are unusual possibilities with highly textured surfaces.  Large, dried seed pods and the smooth side of tree bark may be good choices for your project.   Again, remember to prep with acrylic gesso.

planks at a wood store

Hardware / Home Improvement Store

If you’re interested in new materials, or very large surfaces, a visit to the building supply store may be in order.

Building materials offer numerous possibilities for surfaces to which acrylic paint will adhere.  Your choice should be guided by the effect you want to achieve, as well as the cost and availability of materials.  Some surfaces may require some preparation to ensure that paint will adhere – shiny or slick surfaces will have to be roughed up before paint will adhere.

A lightweight, pliable metal such as tin might be a good choice.

It’s easily cut to your preferred size with tin snips, and can be flexed and bent to the shape you desire. Once acrylic gesso has been applied to it, acrylics should easily adhere.

What about available wood choices?

Hardwoods are generally a better choice than softer woods for longevity, surface stability and durability.  The biggest drawbacks to new hardwood, such as mahogany or oak, are price and weight.  If you’ll be framing and hanging your painting, the weight of the painted surface needs to be considered, too.

A good choice for a less expensive surface, available in a variety of sizes, is hardboard.  It can be purchased at art supply stores and comes either primed or unprimed.

One more option is paper.

Could it be that paper would work for you?

Paper, readily available in a variety of weights and sizes, could provide the perfect surface for your work.  To give your art a longer lifespan on paper, acrylic gesso can be applied to the paper’s surface prior to painting with acrylics.  Gesso can also be applied to cardboard, if you’re looking for a thicker but inexpensive surface alternative.

Speaking of paper, specialty papers offer another option.  For example, papers made from plant materials, such as leaves, give you an unusual surface that may be used to emphasize certain aspects of your finished work.

Only you know the end product, but consider always keeping acrylic gesso on hand when heading into uncharted painting territory.  It can be spread on surfaces, preparing them to receive acrylic paint.   Acrylic gesso applied to a compact disc is what will make it a paintable surface.