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Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Use MDF for Painting, Mixed Media or Collage

As artists, we're always looking for good painting surfaces. Have you tried MDF yet?

The Pro's:

Medium Density Fiberboard, aka MDF, makes a fine substrate, or support, for painting as well as mixed media and collage. Its nice smooth surface lets you push paint around with ease. It also makes gluing down collage papers a snap because -- unlike canvas -- there's no "give" to it. Any air bubbles trapped beneath the paper disappear under the pressure of a brayer. Dimensional objects can be affixed securely to MDF with an appropriate adhesive.

MDF is wonderfully inexpensive. You can usually find 4x8 foot sheets of it at most home improvement centers for less than $25 each. Some also sell MDF half-panels, which are easier to handle and transport. If you've got access to a power saw you can cut it down to support-size pieces yourself, or you can pay the home improvement center to cut it up for you. Either way, one MDF panel can yield dozens of good supports for art making at very low cost.

The Cons:

MDF does have its drawbacks, though. For one thing, it's heavy. Small 8x8" pieces, such as those Corinthian II or Sojourn, shown below, were created on, weigh about 1.6 pounds apiece. That's considerably more than a cradled wood support the same size, and much, much more than a stretched canvas weighs. Its weight therefore makes MDF impractical for large works. The largest MDF panel I care to work on is 14x14".
Corinthian II, 8x8" mixed media and collage on MDF
Although MDF can be found in quarter-inch and half-inch thick sheets, which are lighter, the most commonly available MDF is closer to an inch thick. 

How to Hang It:

The bigger and heavier the MDF support, the more essential it will be to use a weight-appropriate hanging system. You simply cannot hang weighty MDF pieces with flimsy metal wall hooks. It's a safety issue. For a 14x14" piece of art I use two heavy duty wall hangers. Also, I wire the piece with heavy duty picture wire attached to heavy duty D-rings, which are screwed into the back, not nailed on.

MDF's other drawback is that the edges are not as smooth as its surface. If you want something that's nice and smooth all the way around, you'll have to do a little extra work. One solution is to don a mask and sand the edges. Even then you won't get the same smoothness as the surface, so you may want to take it a step further by applying wood filler to the edges, letting it dry thoroughly, then sanding again. Or, for a rustic look, you can skip the sanding and filling altogether and just paint the edges as they are. (Use an old, worn bristle brush for this.)  Another option --my preference -- is to collage painted paper onto the sides, as I've done with Sojourn, shown here:

Sojourn, 8x8" mixed media and collage on MDF
Strips of artist's tissue paper were glued to the sides to give Sojourn a finished, textural look. The tissue paper was gessoed, then painted, then cut into strips and adhered with soft gel medium.

How to Prep MDF:

Because MDF is a wood product, I always apply a couple coats of Golden's GAC 100 to its surface, back and sides before gessoing or doing anything else. GAC 100 is a sealer that keeps impurities in the wood from migrating up through the paint layers. It dries clear. Once the GAC is thoroughly dry, you're good to go for gessoing, painting, collaging or whatever.

Don't be tempted to skip the sealing part. Unsealed MDF is very susceptible to damage from water and other liquids. Sealing it helps protect it from moisture and allows you to use this sturdy, affordable substrate to create artwork that, given its heft, should endure for a very long time.

Questions? Comments? Just scroll down to share your views.

All text and images ©2013 Lynn Edwards   


  1. How do I hang a large 3mm thick mdf board

  2. I don't know of any way to hang a piece of MDF that thin. It would be impossible to install the hardware without having the screws protrude through the surface of the painting. You've not given its dimensions, but if it's cut to a standard size perhaps you could affix it to a deep cradled wood panel of the same size. A sturdy 2 inch deep cradled wood panel would allow you to use weight-appropriate hardware for hanging it, and would prevent the MDF from flexing. If the MDF is not cut to a standard size, the only suggestion I can think of is for you to make your own wood cradle, but this calls for having access to power tools and knowledge of how to use them properly. If you're not into DIY projects, consulting a good frame shop might be your best option.