I love cradled wood panels, and I think you should too. Cradled wood panels, usually made of birch plywood affixed to a pinewood frame (called a cradle), are a durable, frugal and versatile alternative to canvases and paper. Wood panels have a rich and exciting history (for instance, the Mona Lisa was painted on a wood panel) and several excellent brands are available for modern day artists. Despite their many sterling qualities, they are still underappreciated and underutilized in the contemporary art community. Allow me to explain why I think that’s a shame!
I love how durable they are. They are wood, so you don’t have to worry about denting or tearing, they way you do with canvas and paper. If your panel gets gouged or deeply scratched, you can simply fill with wood putty and sand it down, just like furniture. They stack for easy storage, even at different sizes (with canvas, you have to be careful to brace the stretcher bars against each other when stacking canvases of different sizes, otherwise you get sagging and denting). Different sizes can be stored in the same box, Tetris style. The way the laminated surface is attached to the frame prevents warping.
This durability also extends to making art on panels- you can lean on it, press firmly, scratch, scrape, erase, and wipe without worrying about damage. Working on wood means you can sand, carve and chisel the surface, adding sculptural elements into your artwork. Wood provides a solid surface to build up heavy applications of gel mediums, fiber pastes, and other textural mediums. The panel to the left has been carved and then areas have been built up with gel mediums to create a relief. A solid, rigid surface means you can glue, nail, and screw things to it. Panels are fantastic for so many kinds of mixed media.
On a practical level, basswood panels can save you money. A heavy duty canvas can cost the same or slightly more than an identically sized panel. Aside from the durability bonuses above, the panels have a few specific advantages to save you money. Because of their rigidity, they don’t always require the protection of a frame, and because they are made of raw wood, it’s possible to paint or stain the sides, creating a classy finish that gives the impression of a frame without the cost (obviously this only works with light-fast and waterproof mediums). The panel to the right got iridescent gold edges, to match the snake. You can even wire the backs by putting screw-eyes directly into the panels cradle, and the flat backs of the cradle allow for the use of 3M Command strips, making hanging extra simple.
The versatility of panels is pretty amazing. Aside from traditional painting applications for oil and acrylic (which they are great for), panels are an absolute godsend for mixed media artists. You can prime them with a variety of different mediums for a variety of different effects. Panels allow for the mix of wet and dry media without having to worry about wrinkling or damage to paper. It allows you to use sharp implements like pens and pencils without gouging or tearing canvas, and on a much more durable surface than paper. You could use an absorbent ground in order to incorporate watercolor, or a silverpoint medium to dabble in historical drawing styles.
Personally, I use panels for oil pastels– in order to get them to stick, I coat the panel with gesso, then paint, and then a layer of Golden Molding Paste. The molding paste gives me enough of a toothy porous surface for the pastels to cling to, and the rigid surface prevents the sagging and slipping I had encountered when trying to work on canvas. The piece at the right here is mixed media- the central rose and flowers to the top left are acrylic paint, the detailed roses on the left and bottom are decoupage taken from a gardening catalog, the other flowers and the hand are oil pastel, and the text in the background is pen and ink. Wood panels allowed me to layer and mix all these different mediums without paper rippling or canvas denting.
Panels allow for some really outside-the-box applications too. For instance, since it is wood front and back, you can paint on either side. You can use wood-burning tools to create rustic details. You can hinge panels together and paint each side, creating diptychs and triptychs like the altarpieces of the early Renaissance. If you flip a cradled panel over, you’re left with a framed indentation that’s perfect if you want to skip a frame, or want to create a shallow relief that has some protection. I’ve seen people use the backside of panels in order to do some really interesting things with resin and other pour-able mediums: the cradle creates a natural boundary for the resin. You can stain, carve or sand the cradle to look like a real frame, or to be part of the artwork itself.
You can use a number of techniques to attach and include all kinds of 3D elements or non-fine-art items to your artwork- I’ve seen metal jewelry findings, cabochons, fabric, and even hand tools (like the very heavy artwork at the right) attached to panels. You could apply a stain or a clear-coat in order to work the natural wood-grain into your artwork.
Aside from fine art applications, cradled wood panels are awesome for crafts as well. Flip a large panel over and attach handles to the short sides to make a quick tray, then paint, stain and personalize. Use a painted panel with hooks screwed into the edges as a caddy for keys and phone chargers, or attach two small panels with hinges to make a sturdy jewelry box. As for home decor hacks, you can paint a gallery depth canvas panel and hang it to cover an unsightly thermostat or oddly placed switch or outlet.
Whether you’re a traditional painter trying to get back to the roots of medieval and Renaissance painting, or an experimental mixed media artist looking for the next amazing surface, panels are something I highly recommend trying! You could fall in love with them, just like I have!