quick guide to canvas

What is Canvas?

Canvas is fabric woven from natural or synthetic fibers. Linen and cotton are the most common materials for canvas, but technically any type of fiber can be used to create canvas. Canvas is typically stretched on a wooden frame called a stretcher and the surface of the fabric may be primed with gesso before paint is applied. Canvases became popular in 16th and 17th century Europe and slowly replaced wooden paneling as a preferred method for creating paintings. Much like choosing suitable paints, finding the proper type of canvas for your project is important!

Canvas cloth can be purchased in rolls and stretched to custom specifications, or it can be bought pre-stretched on frames of varying sizes. Most pre-stretched canvases are already primed with gesso and ready to be painted. Gesso is made with gypsum, chalk and binder. The purpose of gesso is to fill the tiny holes in the weave of the canvas and create a smooth, even surface for applying paint.

Which Canvas Should I Use?

Before selecting a canvas, you should think about what your intentions are in your painting. Pricier canvases tend to last longer because the fabric is typically higher quality and more tightly woven. Linen is the ultimate canvas material, but cotton is excellent too, and it can be confusing to pick from the multiple types of cotton canvas. 

Linen Canvases
Linen is the fiber that many of the old masters painted on. It is stronger and more resistant to decay than cotton. Woven from flax, linen canvas is more expensive than cotton canvas and it maintains an excellent quality over time.

Cotton Canvases
Cotton came into use in the early 20th century. It is now used more frequently than linen for canvases because it more widely available and cheaper to manufacture. Both cotton and linen canvases can be purchased already primed with gesso, or without gesso. Cotton canvases generally come in three gradations:

Cotton duck is the most commonly used canvas. It is fairly thick and good for all-purpose painting.

Onasburg canvas is made of single yarns and it is often used for non-permanent studio or student work.

Jute is loosely woven, with a rough texture. It is excellent for thick painting techniques like impasto, but not recommended for archival pieces of work.

selecting canvases

Gallery Wrapped vs. Stapled Canvases

Gallery-wrapped canvas, sometimes called “splined” canvas, offers advantages that the traditional side-stapled canvas does not. The most obvious benefit is that the edges of the stretched canvas are smooth and staple-free. This allows painters to incorporate painted edges into the artwork itself. It also allows the artwork to be displayed without a frame.

Gallery-wrapped canvas is easier to remove from stretcher bars, and it is also easier to re-stretch since there is more fabric to work with. Sometimes a painting will begin to hang looser on its frame after several years. When this happens, many people like to re-stretch the canvas so that is hangs completely taut again. Stapled canvases stay stretched tighter over a longer period of time, but are more difficult to re-stretch if the need arises.

Many canvas manufacturers now offer stapled canvas alternatives with the staples placed on the back. This allows the gallery-wrapped look at a lower cost, plus there is extra canvas to work with if the painting needs to be re-stretched.

Stretching Your Own Canvas

Sometimes you can save money by stretching your own, and sometimes it is more cost effective to buy pre-stretched. It may be best to stretch your own canvas if you want to create a painting with unusual dimensions. 

Stretching your own canvas is fairly easy, but you’ll need the right tools. You will need a roll of canvas, stretchers for the frame, and a staple gun. It is also helpful to have special pliers for stretching the canvas taut around the frame, though you can do this by hand as well. Below you will find a great Richeson Art video detailing how to stretch a canvas effectively. Whether you want to stretch your own or buy pre-stretched, we have all the tools and products you need to get your canvas started!

How to Stretch a Canvas: