How to chose the best canvas for painting? The purpose determines whether you need the most expensive canvas or not. And the most expensive may be the worst, shockingly, if you do not pay attention to some critical detail. I made the mistake of buying the most expensive canvas and man, was it a disappointment.
But let’s step back and have a broader look at the issue, and this will definitely help us to select the right canvas for our purpose, and recognise which one fits best our painting type.
We all started painting in sketchbooks, on paper, or maybe hardboard (masonite), MDF, plywood, basically any support sturdy enough for a paint layer. Using these cheaper options was a good solution only in the very beginning. Once we had more predictable and positive results, we started using canvas.
And for a creative person at the outset of their artistic career, choosing the best canvas can be a daunting prospect.
Why event use canvas?
Canvas is an archetypal artists’ support, and for a good reason. First and foremost, by choosing canvas you ensure your work lasts through the years. And second, canvas is artists’ support of choice since Renaissance. It was a luxury back in the day, while today you can find a good deal of affordable canvases.
For centuries, specially prepared wooden panels were the only support for oil paintings. These gave a great rigid surface to paint on but environmental factors could cause cracking and warping, especially larger sized panels. They were also heavy to transport. Thankfully in 14-16th centuries, lightweight stretched canvas became increasingly popular type of support.
Why are there so many types of canvas?
Any art shop offers a variety of choices. And we may not even get qualified help in trying to choose the best / right canvas for our purpose. You can chose any canvas starting with cotton one with acrylic gesso, and up to linen canvas with oil gesso, and everything in between. Each type of canvas is the best for its purpose.
How to choose the best canvas among all these shapes, sizes, and primers? Let’s look into the matter.
Which canvas not to buy? What to pay attention to when buying a canvas?
A canvas is basically some fabric stretched across a wooden frame called a stretcher, and mostly coated with white gesso. Any of the component part may deteriorate the quality of the end product if it was not handled properly.
Some manufacturers do not use properly dried wood and the frame warps when drying. It may even crack when drying, and given any extra stress, for example a fall, the frame may break completely. So check if the frame is perfectly aligned in one plane. Do not be tempted by discounts, if it is not a straight frame, it’s not worth it. Bad frame will compromise the quality of anything you paint on the canvas.
Wooden frame can be classical or deep edge. Deep edge canvas is meant to be hung without any frame, while you can either frame classic edge or hang it as is.
Canvas is basically an extremely durable plain-woven fabric used for making sails, tents, backpacks, etc. It has to be tightly stretched across the frame. To check the tightness, you may lightly drum your fingers on the canvas. Well stretched canvas will produce a low drum like sound, while cheaper canvas will produce a more shallow and the vibration will be shorter.
Even a cheap saggy canvas can be saved, if you have one, check how to fix this problem in this video. Cheaper cotton canvas is great for practice, so why not? Just make sure you do not make commissioned art on cheap canvases. And try to always protect your canvas from any pressure, especially after the painting is done. After the fibers got distorted by pressure, restoring the painting can be hard. Depending on damage, it may even be impossible to restore.
Cotton vs linen fibers. Each material has its own advantages. Cotton is affordable and it stretches very easily. A properly prepared cotton canvas will last a long time, especially in dry environment. It is the most popular choice for oil and acrylic painting, especially for students. Cotton canvas is too flexible for very large paintings.
Linen canvas is more durable, and it has a more textured finish compared to cotton. Because of its strength linen holds up to a heavy painting hand and its main advantage is that it does not become slack as easily as cotton canvas.
Gesso is a white paint mixture consisting of a binder mixed with chalk, gypsum, pigment, or any combination of these, used to prepare painting surfaces for acrylic and oil paint. While it is the thinnest, and lightest component of the canvas, it also can have a drastic effect on your outcome, if the quality of gesso or its application did not meet the standards.
This is why I always prime my canvases with good quality paint with latex or acrylic binder. If I want to make 100% sure oil does not get into the canvas fibers, I apply a couple of layers of glue first and then primer. Just be careful with flaky gesso, which easily peels off, while it can be okay to apply glue or other binders on top and practice on it, I would not make art for a client on such gesso.
I love hope this information will help you to make a more informed choice and know which canvas to chose. And also do not make my mistake of buying the most expensive canvas, especially when you are in a hurry.
Here is a short story how not to chose your canvas. I bought what I thought was the best canvas for my next painting. But when I started painting my acrylic paint rolled into drops and did not spread and adhere to canvas as I would expect it to. I realized I bought oil, and not acrylic gesso. Fortunately, I had alternatives in different size, so I contacted my client and we agreed to have a painting on a slightly larger canvas.
Oh, by the way, I did find a way to use oil gesso for acrylic painting. To make a binding layer between oils and acrylics, I used industrial acrylic glue slightly liquified with water. Every year, new materials are made, and they can solve these unique situation, that are not so unique after all. And yes, the painting is still ok after many years. Over time, you will also encounter challenges and acquire unique knowledge and experience.
So which painting surface should I buy?
When choosing a canvas, remember you get what you pay for. Linen is more durable and rigid, compared to cotton. If you’re making a painting you intend to sell, or if it is a commissioned painting, always go for linen. The most important detail in choosing canvas is oil primer for oil paints, and acrylic primer for acrylics. A canvas primed with an acrylic primer is actually good for both acrylics and oils, just make sure you apply extra primer under a painting in oils.
Can I pay less and get a good quality canvas?
Get a cheaper cotton canvas to make your experimental paintings, and do not even think twice about it. Even the most basic cotton canvas can become an acceptable support, especially after you re-prime it with an oil primer. Correspondingly, if you are working with water based paints, it makes sense to prime it with an acrylic primer, or even a wall paint if you are on a tight budget.
Let’s say you don’t have an acrylic primer or a wall paint and you are in the mood to paint. In this case, something like Elmer’s glue, and a thin coat of neutral color acrylic paint on top will make any canvas tighter and more durable in the long run.
The same is true for other supports. I made a study in oils on cardboard primed with only a couple of layers of an industrial polyvinyl acetate glue (somethings like Elmer’s glue) back in 2005. It still looks good, the oil did not penetrate into the fibers of wood. Thus, it is safe to say that even plain polyvinyl acetate glue can serve as a primer for oils, when there is nothing better available at the moment.
Alternatives to canvas
Canvas boards are great for studies, they’re thin, lightweight to transport and smaller sizes (up to 12 by 16 inches) don’t tend to warp. As the name suggests, it is primed canvas glued to a board, usually a cardboard. If you’re handy at DIY, and willing to save you money, check out in the videos below on how to make your own canvas boards for acrylic and oil paintings.
Some gesso boards are expensive compared to other canvas boards, and only you are to judge whether they are worth the investment. Their advantages over a stretched canvas are: high-density hardwood preventing canvas from shrinking and expanding, and they are still lightweight.
Metal can be a great alternative to wood as its extremely smooth, naturally non-porous, doesn’t rot and is lightweight. Copper is the best choice, aluminum is also a good option. It’s crucial to use a special primer to make sure your paint bonds to the metal. And remember, most boards and canvases can survive a couple of knocks and falls, but a metal support will need to be handled with care.
General pro’s and con’s of these alternatives compared to stretched canvas: some painters recommend any hard surface over stretched canvas. Their reason being that it prevents paint layers from cracking or flaking, given the priming and each next layer was properly applied. Most artists, however, will say that stretched canvas seems to sell better. The majority paint on stretched canvases for years and have no intentions to try other supports. So the rule of thumb is to use any support you like.
How to prime any support?
When priming a support use a wide priming brush to give an even finish. Read this Wikipedia article what primers go with your type of support. Start from one side of the support and work horizontally across the entire surface in one direction, and then allow to dry. Once dry turn the support 90-degrees and repeat the process, working across the brushstrokes of your first coat and allow to dry. Try not to leave thicker stripes of primer, if you go after a smooth flawless look. Repeat if necessary.
Important! Always prepare your canvas for painting
First: get rid of the white! Apply an even coat of ground of color on your painting surface. If you are using oils on acrylic primer, to protect your canvas fibers from oil, first apply a couple layers of glue. And only then proceed to the ground color. This not only gets rid of the daunting white, but also acts as a harmoniser.
As you paint some of the ground will inevitably show through the brush strokes, creating a visually pleasant, harmonious effect. For oil paints, I would advise applying the ground color thinly mixed with a little odorless paint thinner medium. Make sure you give it enough time to dry.
Apply the ground colour roughly with a brush and then scrub it in with a wad of kitchen towel. Don’t be too precious, it doesn’t need to be perfect. Try experimenting with different colored grounds. You will need to add more paint over a darker ground compared to a lighter one, but this can also give interesting results.
Thank you for reading this far, I hope by now you have a clear understanding why the best canvas is not the most expensive one.
Leave a comment or find me on social media, if you have any questions, about canvases, paints and art supplies in general. I’m not selling anything, so my advice will not be affected by affiliation to any brand or store. In this post you can get a few ideas of how to improve your painting and start making quick progress. And if there is more information you need, I’d be happy to share, just let me know.
And, as one of the coolest painters said: “All you need to paint is a few tools, a little instruction, and a vision in your mind.”