As someone who loves art materials, I’ve tried all kinds of different plein air and studio painting panels and have found that some of my favorites are the ones that I’ve made myself.
I started with a sheet of Masonite that had been cut down into 8“x10” panels. You can do this yourself, get the gang at the lumber yard to do it, or if you have a handy father with a radial arm saw like I do, that works too.
Give the panels a light sand. The finish on Masonite is very smooth and has a sheen to it. You want to rough that up so the gesso has something to stick to. I would also knock down the edge where the front of the panel meets the sides. When cutting the boards, the edges can become a little rough.
Wipe the panels with a slightly damp rag to get all of the sanding dust off. Let the boards dry before you move on to priming.
I’m working with Golden Acrylic Gesso. I’ve used Liquitex Gesso as well, and have found it to be a great product. I’m going to be applying 3 layers of gesso. The gesso needs at least 2 hours to dry between coats. However, there is nothing wrong with letting them dry overnight, or let them sit while you’re out landscape painting or having a coffee.
Apply the gesso to the sanded panels. I’m using a foam brush. I know. Not what you’d expect, but it does a great job. The foam leaves a very smooth surface, and hey, it’s super cheap.
Once the first layer is dry, flip the panels over. You will need to give the backs of each panel one layer of gesso. This equalizes the tension on the board and prevents warping. It also seals the panels, protecting them from moisture and also from the oil that is in paint which can rot untreated wood.
Here’s where you can start to control the surface quality. Using a fine-grit sand paper, you can sand between each layer of gesso for a super smooth finish. Or leave the foam brush marks for another layer of surface texture.
Your panels are now technically ready to go. The surface will be smooth. Very smooth. This allows you to slide the paint around. You can create some wonderful effects moving and scraping. Some people, myself included, find the sliding a bit distracting though. To remedy that, give your panels about 24 hours to dry, and then move on to the next step.
I’m giving my boards a thin layer of lead white. I’m using Cremnitze White from Old Holland. Flake white or a Foundation White would work just fine as well.
Brush on a thin layer of lead white oil paint.
Think about how you are applying the paint. Any brush marks that you leave will still be visible once the panel is dry
Let the panels dry for at least 3 weeks. Longer is better.
The result of this lead white layer is a surface that grabs the paint just enough, but still allows you to move the paint around.
That’s it! You’re all set to start painting. The great thing about making your own panels is the control that you have over the end result. Want it super smooth? Sand between every layer and leave it with just the gesso. Want a more absorbent surface? Use a second layer of lead white. Just make sure that is has a super long time to cure. Just like a bottle of wine, these panels do get better with age.