Plain Air Panels

Aren't you amazed how an hour of painting in the nature, in a park, or just in the back yard can yield a stronger and more joyful painting than days in the studio? Guess what! Plain air painting season is around the corner! I bet that the toughest ones are already out and about! Good for them!

It’s easy and inexpensive to make a very good quality panel support for acrylic or oil paintings that is especially handy to use for plain air expeditions. You can carry these panels with you, or you can mount loose canvas on them after it has already been painted.
Here is what you need:
-          Sheets of plywood
-          Sandpaper
-          Ready-made acrylic gesso
-          Loose canvas of your choice
-          Acrylic medium


By 1/4 inch thick sheets of plywood form any lumberyard (Home Depot, Rona, etc.). Sheets come in various sizes, so buy a size that can fit with your chosen means of transportJ. Pick sheets that are not warped, but don’t worry too much if the surface isn’t perfect because you will mount canvas on it anyway. Some people buy thicker plywood with the idea of leaving the pieces unframed. This can work nicely, but you will have to take a good care of the edges to make sure they don’t get chipped while cutting. Don’t buy MDF because it’s super heavy and I am not sure how it behaves in moist environment.

You will need to cut down the sheets into smaller pieces, which you can do at home if you have a good saw, or you can have it cut for you in the store. Since the goal is to make plain air supports that are easy to use, I like to cut them down into standard ready-made frames sizes. Opus store has plain air frames in a few standard sizes 8x10, 11x14, 12x16, 16x20. If you live elsewhere, just check what’s available in your area and plan accordingly.
Frames are costly so I won’t say that ready-made ones are “affordable”, but some are less expensive than others.

Be economic in how you mark your sheets for cutting – make sure you minimize waste. Once your plywood is cut in pieces, slightly sand the edges.

Acrylic Gesso

Store bought acrylic gesso comes in a very thick consistency. Dilute it with water to get consistency of a milkshake and brush or roll it onto the panels on all sides (that’s front, back and all the edges). You only need one layer and it doesn’t need to be neat – the purpose is to prevent the panels from warping. When the gesso dries, your panels are almost done.


Now you need to decide if you want to mount blank canvas on panels right away, or if you will mount it later after you painted on it. It’s best to use pre-gessoed canvas, although I see no reason why you couldn’t use any sort of fabric of your choice. In either case the process is the same. Place your panel on the fabric back side and outline its shape with a pencil. Then cut the fabric to be the exact same size as the panel (make sure you mark the sides of the canvas and panel that go against each other because nothing in this world is exactly symmetrical as you will find out if you get this wrong J).


Brush a neat uniform layer of acrylic medium on the back of the canvas all the way to the edges, position and press it on the panel and smooth the surface with your hand to remove any air bubbles. Then place the panel face down (or canvas down), and press the panel on the top with something heavy. I usually stack a few of those panels on top of each other and place a heavy weight on top. This dries fairly quickly, but to be on a safe side, I leave it overnight. It’s so good to come to the studio next morning and find a wonderful heap of lovely new painting supports!


If you were using gessoed blank canvas, you are done, pack up and go out to paint! If you used raw canvas, you will need to brush or roll a few layers of gesso over it, and leave it to dry. Then you are ready to go!
If you have mounted a finished painting, the next step is to seal and varnish the piece. I seal all sides (front, back and edges) with a thin layer of acrylic medium. Once that dries, you can put a layer of varnish on top.
Sometimes I want the edges to be black, so I paint them with black paint or gesso before sealing the piece.


These panels are a breeze to frame – just use a few framer bits or small nails on the back and you are done. Ready to hang and be admired! They also pack and ship easily and don’t take much space in the storage.

I am hoping that this spring will be a beginning of a wonderful plain air season. Happy painting!