Which Art Canvas
Should I Use ?

Have you ever thought how painting on a properly stretched art canvas somehow makes you feel like a 'real' painter, no matter what your experience?

The slight bounce and 'give' in the surface as you apply paint is not matched in any other medium. Canvas is an ideal surface for both oil paints and acrylic paints as well.

Raw Canvas The woven surface provides a perfect tooth to draw the paint from the brush and allows you to paint thick or thin with equal freedom. For a while, at least, you're up there with the masters!

But like watercolor paper, canvas comes in several different surfaces and grades, each determined by both cost and purpose. But which do you choose?

To keep things simple, there are three main canvas surfaces you need to be aware of.

At the cheapest end and ideal for starters are canvas panels. These are usually panels of heavy duty card with a cheap, but serviceable canvas surface glued to one side.

Embossed Art Canvas BoardEven cheaper, is a pulp board which has a heavy gesso textured surface or an embossed pattern to broadly represent the weave of canvas.

These art canvas panels all take oil and acrylic paints just as well as the more expensive stretched canvas and are lightweight too, ideal for painting outdoors.

As they are flat panels, you can paint with them on a table or drawing board, whereas the 'bounce' of stretched canvas panels tend to require you to work upright on an easel. No doubt someone will e-mail me to tell me different, but that's my experience so far...

Next we come on to the pre-stretched canvas panels, generally now covered in a cotton duck canvas surface.

Cotton duck is now by far the most popular art canvas material, particularly in terms of cost and availability. They are available in different weights which affects rigidity.

Canvas PanelThis is usually available in three grades - fine (ideal for portrait work), medium for general applications and rough for, say, landscape subjects or where heavy impasto work is required.

All canvasses need sizing and priming before use. In the raw state they are brown and traditionally an animal extract glue is painted on to seal and stiffen the surface.

Once this preparation is complete, the canvas is wrapped around wooden stretcher bars and stapled to the sides (or, for a better finish) to the back.

It is then given several coats of primer to seal it and prevent the oil from the paints soaking through the surface.

Nowadays, acrylic primer (gesso) is highly popular as it is easy to apply, quick drying and gives a clean, white surface.

Typically, three coats of primer are used, each being painted at right angles to the previous coat, to ensure even coverage.

Wooden Stretchers

Ordinary 1.5" x 0.75" planed timber could be used as stretcher bars, joined with simple butt joints, providing you can ensure a truly squared frame.

I've used these in the past as an economical way of using up some loose canvas I had sitting around doing nothing in particular.

However, In terms of convenience against cost, pre-cut stretchers are not that expensive.

The advantage of pre-cut stretchers is four-fold -

  • First they lock together to ensure solid, right angled joints.
  • Second, they contain no sap, which could leak onto the canvas and ruin the picture in the future or warp the frame and of course, the painting.
  • Thirdly, the surface nearest the canvas is slightly bevelled to make sure that you don't have a ghost ridge-line all the way round your picture about 1.5" in from the edge...
  • Fourthly, they come with wooden wedges which fit into precut slots in the corner, so you can tighten up a canvas that has sagged a little during painting.

The best quality art canvas is a linen surface, again available in different weights and textures. Smoother than cotton duck and rather more expensive, it is more difficult for the amateur to size and stretch than cotton.

However, if you are tackling a very big art canvas, cotton duck is reckoned to be a bit too flexible, so linen is the preferred choice.

For most artists, the convenience of pre-sized, pre-stretched, pre-primed art canvas far outweighs the savings of making you own. If you are a beginner, you'll have quite enough to think about before moving on to preparing your own canvasses.

If you must make your own boards, why not consider wood panels such as masonite, hardboard or plywood. These should also be primed with gesso or you could at a push use white household emulsion or latex paint...

Paint 3 coats with a fairly coarse brush, letting each one dry first. Paint the base coat one way then at 90 degrees for the next coat and so on. This will ensure even coverage and give you a hint of texture.

However, my advice at the outset at least, is to use prepared art canvas panels and stretched canvas. This lets you get your paints out with the minimum of fuss and get on with what you enjoy best - painting.

When you have a bit more confidence and have examined a professionally-made art canvas panel close up, you'll have a better idea of whether you want to make your own.

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