Oil and acrylic paintings these days are most often created on canvas. Canvas replaced wood panels for painting during the Renaissance because stretching canvas across wooden bars allowed for larger paintings that were portable, because they were lighter and could be rolled, as well as being a more stable surface with less warping and cracking than a wooden panel. The first artist canvases were made from high-quality Venetian hemp sailcloth and the word canvas derives from cannabis (hemp) – canvas made from linen was introduced soon after and cotton is a more recent choice of fibre.
Whether you are stretching your own canvas or buying ready-prepared stretched canvases or canvas boards, there are many types of canvas fabrics to choose from. The characteristics you require of your surface will determine which you choose. The weight of the fabric, the material it is made from and the surface preparation, in different combinations will each give a different painting experience and will affect the final appearance of your painting.
At Jackson’s we stock a good variety of canvas that should cover most artists’ needs. You can get a huge range of sizes and surface characteristics in ready-to-paint stretched canvases, just unwrap them and go! Or you could add a final coating of a ground to it to customise your surface. There are thin canvas panels and Ultralite boards which are great for plain air painting because they are lightweight and will fit in most pochade boxes. If you wish to stretch your own canvas we have 40 variations of canvas by the meter or by the 10-meter roll.
Many artists try painting on different canvases, primers and grounds until they find the surface that works best for how they paint. The surface qualities can profoundly affect some artists’ painting, even more so for techniques like staining in oils or acrylics. You can compare some of the canvases that BESTON’s stock by ordering sample pieces of the Claessens Linen or the Claessens Linen sample book or the Belle Arti sample book.
Here are some things to consider when choosing which canvas to paint on:
There are two major fibre types used to make canvas: cotton and linen (flax). Some speciality fibres such as hemp and jute are also used for canvas – we do jute, and although it is a different fibre it is usually considered an extra-rough linen because it is very similar.
Cotton is economical but not as strong as linen and it hasn’t been time-tested like the linen used by the old masters. Cotton is easy to stretch and stays tight on the stretcher bars. Linen is made from flax and is stronger because it has longer fibers which means that it is less likely to tear at the staple line or at the sharp outside corner of the stretcher bar. It also means that you can use finer and thinner linen for the same strength as heavier cottons. The stiffness of linen means it is harder to pull when stretching and you need to take care to keep even tension across the canvas or it can ripple along the edges later. Some artists choose to buy ready-prepared linen canvases because linen has a reputation for being much more difficult to stretch than cotton. Unprimed cotton is usually a cream color and unprimed linen is usually a brown because it is unbleached, but we have some primed Italian cotton that has a coating on the reverse that makes it darker on the back. Cotton Duck Canvas has more tightly woven threads than plain cotton canvas – the term ‘duck’ comes from the Dutch word for cloth, duck.
We stock two types of cotton by the metre: Cotton Duck is the most common canvas in the world, it has many uses outside of art (canvas bags and so on), it usually has a noticeable weave and is quite thick. We stock it in three weights. Because of its low price it is our most popular canvas sold by the metre (and the roll) and for our bespoke canvases – the 12oz primed, to be exact. Our Italian Poly-cotton is an artist’s canvas, it is made for our industry so it has a tighter weave, a finer thread and an overall smoother surface, even the ‘medium’ texture Italian cotton is finer than the cotton duck we stock. There is also a super fine texture called No-Grain. The addition of polyester means the fabric will not ‘relax’ as much as all cotton and become loose over time.
Linen is more expensive than cotton, partly because cotton canvas is much more common and there are many non-art uses for it, so the lower price is a result of the marketplace. There is professional quality artist cotton canvas as well which is more expensive because it has a much smaller market demand. Linen is also more costly than cotton because it takes many more steps to process the flax fibres and because its inelasticity makes it harder to weave into fabric.
At Jackson’s we stock linen by the metre from three manufacturers. The French linen canvas from Artfix is made of smoother, more tightly spun yarn than the Italian linen from Belle Arti, and also has a more regular, tighter weave and is really strong. The Belgian linen from Claessens is between the two. Because the famous Artfix company uses the highest grade of flax and has amazing quality control it is a superb linen. If you paint, scrape, repaint, scratch back, repaint, impasto, scumble glaze, and generally are hard on your surfaces then the French linen is a great choice as it will survive the rough treatment. Because it is so tight it can be a chore to stretch it, though and it is our highest priced canvas as well. Claessens is located in the middle of the Flax District in Belgium. Their linen is made using small scale production and longstanding traditional sizing and priming methods. They apply the primers by hand with a palette knife. The Italian is made with a bit coarser thread and more irregular weave but is a very good quality and we are lucky to have gotten such a good price on it, it is lower priced than it should be for the quality. It is also easier to stretch than the French linen. We also stock jute for a coarse 3D texture and at a low price for its thickness.
In addition to the great strength of linen and the fantastic surface it gives for painting, linen has cache among art collectors and so artists will usually mention in their materials list -that it was specifically linen they painted on. Also there is something romantic about painting in oils made with linseed oil on a linen canvas – both being made from the flax plant.
In addition to choosing the fibre type you also need to consider the weight and the texture of the weave. Similarly to paper, canvas is measured in grams per square meter (gsm) or ounces per square yard (oz). If the linen has a heavy weight then one or both of the following is true: it is a thick, tough yarn and/or it is tightly woven. Lightweight linens have an open weave and generally a fine yarn, they are easier to stretch and are more responsive to tightening procedures. The lighter weight canvases are usually used by artists who draw and/or have a light touch in their work, but even some impasto painters can use them as their paint skims over the air holes.
A fine canvas has minimal texture and can be almost smooth, while a rough canvas has a very pronounced weave. The choice of no grain, extra-fine, fine, medium, rough and extra-rough texture in a canvas affects the feel of painting and the final appearance. Do you want to see the grid-like weave, to have your brush skip over the bumps to leave bits of white to sparkle, or to build up layers of paint on the weave high points; or do you want a surface where the canvas is not a noticeable feature? Do you want a texture that thick paint can grab onto or a smoother, slicker surface for thin paint to glide over? A smooth texture is often important to portrait painters as a coarser texture can distort the appearance of skin, so extra-fine linen canvas is sometimes even called Portrait Linen. The ‘No Grain’ texture is almost as smooth as paper and is also great for portraits.
The terms ‘super fine’, ‘extra fine’, ‘fine’, ‘medium’ and ‘rough’ refer to the texture of the weave not the weight. Texture is not necessarily a guide to the weight. You can have a lightweight canvas with a rough or medium texture or a heavier weight canvas with an extra-fine texture. Our 574 Italian universal primed linen is both lightweight and so fine that it feels like a sheet of paper, but because it is linen it is strong enough to stretch tightly. Some artists particularly love the 574 canvas because it can take watercolour and inks. Our 568 universal primed Italian linen is strong and heavy enough for large scale work, has enough give to be able to stretch nicely, has a tight weave so can be used for both glazing and impasto work and everyone says it is just plain beautiful.
The heavier the weight the more tension the canvas fabric can take without tearing, so for very large stretched canvases you might wish to choose a heavier canvas. Weight is how much fabric there is per area so it is determined by both thickness of the thread used to weave and how tightly it is woven. A coarse/rough canvas can be loosely woven so it could be lighter weight than a fine canvas that is tightly woven. But usually, a thick thread makes a heavy canvas and a thin thread makes a light canvas.
Unprimed canvas can be considered light-weight at about 5 oz (140 g); medium-weight at about 8 oz (230 g); heavy-weight at about 10 oz (280 g) or more. When the canvas is primed the weight listed includes primer so it can be hard to compare the weight of the actual canvas as some have a much thicker layer of primer than others. When we have the information, we list the canvas weight on the Jackson’s website both before and after priming.
Jackson’s stocks four brands of artist canvas available by the metre: Artfix (French linen), Claessens (Belgian linen), Belle Arti (Italian linen and cotton), Jackson’s (Indian cotton). These highest quality canvases are also used for our Bespoke stretched canvases, our professional-grade ready-made stretched canvases and our Handmade Linen Boards.
We also do a wide selection of ready-made stretched canvases and boards that use other artist-grade and student-grade canvas.
Rolls of canvas
Canvas comes in rolls which are 210 cm or 183 cm wide. A full roll is 10m long. You can purchase the full roll or metres cut off the roll (these must be whole metres, not partial). We also offer half-width rolls which are easier to ship and to store in the studio if you are not making very large canvases. Folding primed canvas can crack the primer so it must always be sent and stored on a roll, even if it is just one metre cut off the roll. But unprimed canvas can be removed from the roll and folded which can save on shipping charges as a roll is quite long and attracts over-sized shipping charges.
When measuring to purchase canvas to stretch your own, be sure to account for the amount required to go up the sides or around to the back of your bars (whichever depth you choose) plus the additional amount you will need to grab and pull with your pliers which you will later trim away or fold under. Also account for the different widths of some of the rolls of canvas.
- Cotton canvas by the metre, 5m or 10m – on a roll or folded (not all canvases are available in all formats)
- Linen canvas by the metre, 5m or 10m – on a roll or folded (not all canvases are available in all formats)
Stretched across bars or mounted on a panel
Depending on their painting style some artists like the bounce of a canvas stretched across bars, others prefer the lack of movement of canvas glued to a panel (also called a board). The rigid support can be made of solid wood, plywood, MDF, heavy card, thin stiff plasticised card, or Gatorboard (plastic impregnated foam board). The canvas can be cut off shear with the edge of the support or it can be wrapped around to the back and glued down.
Read more about mounting canvas to a panel in this blog article Making a Canvas Painting Panel.
Sizing and Priming with a Ground
The final thing to consider would be the primer on your canvas. Creating a stable structure before you begin adding paint will help to ensure that the painting will remain in the best condition for the longest time. You can choose from a variety of primed surfaces or go with unprimed and treat the surface yourself.
Canvas comes either uncoated or with a primer coating. Jackson’s stock unprimed, universal primed, oil-primed, gesso-primed and glue-sized canvas by the roll and on many of our panels and professional-quality stretched canvases. Not all types of coating are available on all types of canvas or in all types of format (stretched, panel or by the metre). The priming can be sprayed on in one to seven coats with less expensive student-grade canvases being one coat and most artist-grade canvas being two to four coats. Claessens apply their primer by hand with a palette knife to make sure it is scraped into the weave for the best adhesion and protection of the canvas, then for the oil primed linen they follow up with a final coat of primer applied with a roller.
You can add your own additional coating on top of a ready-made universal-primed canvas. You may wish to:
- Make the surface more white.
- Colour the surface but keep a gesso texture by adding a tinted ground, a mid-tone coloured ground or a black ground.
- Make the surface absorbent enough for watercolour painting by applying a few coats of Watercolour Ground.
- Add an oil ground for the unique texture that provides.
You can paint on unprimed canvas directly with acrylics but if you are painting in oils and you want the painting to last, you will need to seal the surface. Oil paint dries by oxidation, slowly absorbing oxygen from the air. If canvas or paper is in contact with the oil in oil paint or oil primer it slowly corrodes the canvas fibre. To prevent this canvas needs to be sealed from oil penetration. This sealing process is called ‘sizing’ and the sealant is called ‘size’ – so ‘to size’ your canvas means to seal it. Size is either hide glue (rabbit skin glue RSG) or acrylic polymer. The secondary purpose of size is to stiffen the fabric so it has less bounce. RSG comes as pellets that are soaked to soften them and then gently warmed to use as a size or part of the recipe of genuine gesso. Warming RSG is not a smelly process, the reputation for smelliness comes from leftover liquid glue rotting in a corner of the studio days later. It doesn’t rot after it is dried on the canvas. If you do decide to use it be aware that if you do either of these two things the glue will be less effective: over-heat it or use it after it has rotted from sitting out as a liquid for days. Recent studies have shown that RSG is problematic as a size because it continuously absorbs moisture from the air, causing it to swell and then when the air is dry it shrinks. Over time, this constant change in the surface under the brittle layer of oil paint causes the oil paint to crack. RSG is now understood to be the main factor of cracking in old oil paintings. So for a more lasting solution many artists now use a fluid acrylic polymer or a PVA size to seal the canvas and GAC 400 can be used to stiffen the canvas.
A wide range of traditional and modern canvas size (sealant) can be found at Jackson’s.
Purchasing canvas that is already glue-sized saves a step when you are stretching canvas and it also makes the linen easier to stretch evenly as the added stiffness helps it keep the weave shape.
The type of ground affects many things about the painting. The amount of tooth affects how well the paint adheres and how much brush-drag you feel as you paint. The amount of absorbency affects the glossiness and brightness of oil colour as the oil is absorbed by the ground and if pigment is also sucked in, the colour will be diminished. An oil ground is often less absorbent and quite smooth for a silky painting experience where the colours sit proud and vibrant. After you have sized the canvas you can apply one or more coats of a ground, the surface you will apply paint to that gives the right amount of tooth, also called providing a ‘key’ for the paint to stick to. Priming your own canvas will allow you to really work the first coat into the weave (to create a good barrier against oil paint penetration) and then to make the additional coats as smooth or textured as you wish. Unless you sand the dried primer for a really smooth surface, there will probably be some brush mark texture.
Acrylic primer usually acts as both size and primer. If you are using acrylic primer to provide a barrier to oil paint check if you need another coat by holding the canvas up to the light – if pin holes of light show through then you need more primer to seal it. When a canvas says it has Universal Primer that means it is an acrylic primer than can be used with acrylic or oil paint. If it is labelled as acrylic ‘gesso’ this sometimes means it is more absorbent than acrylic ‘primer’, though this varies a lot my manufacturer. To apply it you usually thin with water for the first coat and scrub it into the weave or scrape it on with a palette knife. Then get a bit thicker for each following coat. Applying primer too thickly may result in cracking when it dries as it will shrink a lot. So building up the surface with many light coats is better than one heavy one. A light coat is often dry enough in 30 minutes to apply the next one so a batch can easily be done in one day. For the smoothest surface many artists sand between coats.
An oil-primed canvas can only accept oil paints. Although oil paint can be applied to an acrylic gesso primer, acrylic paint will not permanently adhere to an oil-primed canvas and will eventually peel off. Oil primer contains oil paint and so you must apply a sizing of some sort first as a barrier. It usually need a few weeks to cure as well, so the surface is properly ready to paint on.
Genuine gesso is a very absorbent surface, which is what is needed for painting with egg tempera or encaustic. It is made in the studio and applied warm as it contains RSG. It will crack on flexible surfaces and should be used only on rigid surfaces, usually wooden panels. We now have a ‘gesso hand-primed’ canvas available in an Italian linen that has quite a delicate dry surface that is very absorbent yet it doesn’t easily crack (though it could if handled badly).
Some painters like the look of the texture of the weave showing through so they do not add many coats of primer, just enough to seal the canvas and give a white ground. Renaissance masters preferred a super-smooth surface created by applying many coats of primer, sanding between each, until the weave was completely obscured.
Some artists require a clear primer because they wish to use the colour and texture of the canvas as an integral part of the painting. If you like the colour of the canvas and don’t want a white ground you can prime the canvas with a fluid acrylic medium like Matt Medium or a ‘clear acrylic gesso’ to soak into the fibres and fill the weave holes. It usually takes a few coats.
Canvas at BESTON’s Art
The canvases in this article are available at jacksonsart.com in a variety of formats – ready stretched, mounted on panel and by the metre – ready to be delivered to your studio.
You can compare some of the canvases that Jackson’s stock by ordering sample pieces of the Claessens Linen or the Claessens Linen sample book or the Belle Arti sample book. With the Belle Arti book you get refunded the purchase the price of the book when you purchase one of the canvases. Since we don’t have a way of letting the website know that you have previously ordered the sample book you will need to order the canvas on the phone and let the operator know you have purchased the book.