Choosing the right canvas for your acrylic painting is the first important step to a successful piece of art.
Painting on crappy canvases is like building a house on toothpicks. You can build an architectural masterpiece but it won’t last long before it crumbles into a pile of dust.
If you are going to put hours of effort, not to mention expensive paint, into making something beautiful you want to be sure it will last.
The word canvas actually derives from the word cannabis or hemp. During the Renaissance artists began to move away from painting on boards which were heavy and expensive.
At the time, hemp cloth was readily available since this was what most boat sails were made from. Today canvases are made usually from cotton or linen.
Below I explain a bit about canvases and how to choose the right canvas for your acrylic painting.
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First lets dive in to the two main types of canvases and the pros and cons of each one.
Cotton Duck Canvas
Cotton duck is the cheapest and most common type of canvas to by. Don’t worry, it isn’t actually made from duck. The term comes from a Dutch word, doek, which means cloth.
Cotton duck comes in different weights and weaves. Weave refers to how tightly the fibers are woven together while weight refers to the heaviness of the canvas.
Most stretched canvas available in art stores have a weight of 7-8 ounces (200 – 230 grams). A good canvas weighs around 10 – 12 ounces ( 280 – 340 grams). The lower weights are not as smooth or sturdy as the heavier weight canvases.
Canvases can also be classified by a number system which is the reverse of the weight. So a number 10 canvas would be lighter than a number 5.
Most store bought, pre stretched canvas comes already primed with one or two thin coats of acrylic gesso. You can start painting on them right away if you want.
However, some manufacturers coat their canvases with some type of sizing to prevent them from sticking together during shipping. Some artists wash this off with a damp cloth but I prefer to err on the side of caution and give the canvas a coat or two of gesso.
You can also add more gesso to your canvas if you are doing a detailed painting, such as a portrait and want a smoother surface. You can sand between coats of gesso until you get the surface texture you want. For more information, see my post on How to Gesso a Canvas.
One drawback with cotton duck canvases, especially larger ones, is that they can become slack over time and may need to be re stretched.
If I get slight stretching, as can sometimes happen when you are painting, I spray the back side of the canvas with warm water and let it dry. This usually takes care of any minor stretching.
Linen is made from fibers of the flax plant and therefore contains natural oils that make it mold and mildew resistant. It is considered the “cream of the crop” of canvases.
It is more expensive than cotton duck canvases and is stronger and much less likely to stretch. This makes linen more suitable for larger paintings and heavier applications of paint.
Linen needs stronger stretcher bars and a tighter stretch to prevent warping and sagging.
Like cotton duck, linen comes in a variety of weights and textures ranging from smooth to very rough.
Rougher linen is ideal for palette knife painting and abstracts with a lot of texture. The smoother linen is perfect for portraits and very detailed work.
Belgian linen and oil primed linen are two of the most popular types and are generally used for oil painting. Do not use oil primed linen with acrylics!
Styles of Canvases
You can purchase canvases in several styles as well.
Pre Stretched Canvas
This is probably the most common form of canvas. Pre stretched canvases come in a variety of sizes and weights and are usually pre primed.
The canvas is wrapped around stretcher bars and stapled on the back. This type of canvas can be hung on a wall without a frame.
Canvas panels are made from heavy duty cardboard or wood to which canvas has been glued. They are usually cheaper than stretched canvas and are easier to transport and store. They do require framing before hanging.
Canvas pads are sheets of primed canvas. These are great for doing studies, experimenting with other media or just practicing various painting techniques.
They come in a few different sizes and are an inexpensive way to improve your painting technique.
You can also buy canvas in rolls so you can make custom sizes for your artwork. This is the cheapest but least convenient way to get a painting surface.
Canvases must be stretched on stretcher bars or glued with archival glue to a panel. Many artists prefer to stretch their own canvas, but this is an art in itself requiring practice and knowledge. Stretching your own canvas can be done with either cotton duck or linen.
Both pre stretched canvas and canvas panels can be purchased in various shapes such as oval, round, square or long narrow rectangles. You can also buy them pre primed with black gesso.
At the moment my favorite canvas to use is the Fredrix brand. They are a little pricey but still reasonable for the quality and smoothness of the surface. I like to paint detail with a lot of thin layers and this canvas is ideal for me. Check out their website https://fredrixartistcanvas.com/
Now that you know the various types of canvases another thing to keep in mind when buying a canvas is the stretcher bars on the back. These stretcher bars are there to support the canvas and keep it taught.
Some manufacturers today are making these bars thinner to save money. The result is weaker bars that can break more easily.
Another problem with cheap materials is that the canvas hits the edge of the bars so sometimes when you are painting you are left with a ridge where your brush hits the edge of the bar behind the canvas.
Some canvases you buy come with canvas “keys”. Canvas keys are little blocks of wood you fit into the grooves in the corners of the stretcher bars to help stretch or tighten the canvas if it has begun to sag.
Buying a Canvas for Acrylic Painting
To sum everything up, here are a few points to remember when purchasing a canvas.
- Think about your needs. Are you just starting out and learning to paint? Then a cheaper, lightweight canvas would do the job.
If you are painting something special for someone, say a pet portrait, then a little more expensive and smoother canvas is what you need.
If you are painting a piece for an art show or gallery, then purchase the best canvas you can afford to showcase your work.
Expert work starts with an expert foundation.
- Examine the quality. Check for imperfections in the canvas that will be hard to cover.
Look for dents or loose, sagging material or discolored material. Check to see if the canvas wraps around the sides and is stapled on the back.
- Take note of the layers of priming. The canvas should have at least two coats of acrylic primer, more is better.
- Check the quality of the stretcher bars. Stretcher bars should be made of strong wood and not too thin.
- When purchasing a canvas panel, check for warping or uneven cut and make sure the canvas is evenly adhered to the board. It too should have at least two coats of primer.
- The cost of the canvas or panel is often the biggest factor for a beginning artist. You don’t want to spend a fortune on a canvas only to find out that painting isn’t for you.
It is fine to start off with the cheaper canvases. Take pictures of your finished work (see my tips on photographing your artwork) and if it turns out to your liking you can use the pictures to make prints.
As you gain more confidence, you can upgrade to more expensive quality canvases.
I hope this information was helpful to you when purchasing canvases. Keep your eyes open for good sales and purchase a few canvases, boards or pads to have on hand.
I live many hours away from the nearest art supply store so I always have a few on hand for when the artistic mood strikes.
Thanks for reading.