I've painted on wooden panels for a while, but the daily painting project inspired me to refine how I prepare them, and to share that process with you.
If you're an art supply junkie like me, I'm sure you've plopped down five to ten dollars--or even more--for Ampersand gessobords, unfinished hardboard or other rigid painting surfaces. Last time I checked, a 5 x 7 inch gessoboard was running around $2.50 and if you do 30 small paintings a month, that comes to $75!
I found a better alternative. I go to Home Depot and buy a 2 by 4 foot 1/8 inch thick piece of hardboard for $2.58, plus tax. I've built a relationship with the millwork department, and they cut it into 5 by 7 inch pieces, very cleanly, because they know I'm an artist and the boards have to be almost exact. Home Depot is the only store I've found that will make these custom cuts. Kudos to their customer service philosophy. I went to every small and large lumber store where I live, and none of them would cut for me.
When I get home I sand the edges smooth with 220 grit sandpaper. If they've made clean cuts with a table saw I won't have to sand much. Once they scored and cracked them, and these boards were useless. The edges were all ragged. Home Depot recut them for me, no charge.
Then I lay them out on a table and start gessoing. I buy a gallon of Golden gesso for about $35; it lasts me up to eight months, and I use it on large canvases too. I apply three coats to each board, and once around the edges to seal it off.
Hardboard has little fibers in it that show up when you gesso. So after the third coat is dry I wet sand with 320 wet/dry sandpaper in circular motions and this really smooths out the surface. I wipe them dry with shop towels (again from Home Depot), and apply another two coats of gesso. That's five coats total. They are really smooth and absolutely beautiful to paint on. I'm a detail painter so I like a really smooth surface.
The first time I prepared panels I left them white. The second time I applied a final coat of buff titanium acrylic. You can see these in the picture above. Daily paintings are direct painted so sometimes you're left with tiny places where the white board shows through. I don't like this. It looks unfinished to me. The buff titanium gives a nice golden glow that I think gives my paintings more depth.
That's it. Even with the gallon of gesso at $35, a couple packets of sandpaper and a 9-pack of shop towels I'm still under $50. I have most of the gallon of gesso, plenty of sandpaper and the shop towels left for other canvases. One 2 by 4 foot piece of hardboard nets 24 5 x 7 panels. I also have Home Depot cut the end pieces into odd sizes for me, like 3 x 4 and 2 x 3.5. I gesso these and use them for tiny odd shaped paintings.
It's a hands-on process that I enjoy. It's almost becoming a routine; putting on a coat of gesso every day. What I like is that the final painting is really a product from my own hands, right down to the board I'm painting on.