What Art Canvas Should I Use?

Painting on a Big Canvas
LWA/Larry Williams Getty Images

Question: What Art Canvas Should I Use?

"I assume there are a variety of types of canvases used for art. Can you explain the different qualities of canvases and how it reacts to the various qualities of paints? Some may soak up the paints where some may not. I'd like to start out with the right products from the beginning, so I have the correct basics." -- Susan


With canvas, there are three things to consider initially: the type of fabric used, its weight, and its weave. Cotton and linen are most commonly used. Linen has a smoother finish, with finer threads and a tighter weave. It's better for paintings with fine detail which might otherwise be obscured by the texture of the fabric. Cotton is cheaper and comes in various grades. Student and budget canvas is generally lighter in weight with thicker threads and may have only one or two coats of primer on it.

The heavier the weight of the canvas, the more robust it is. Most paintings don't get suffer much abuse during their creation or lives, but the fabric is under tension, especially around the edges. For large-scale paintings, that can be quite a lot of stress on a few rows of fiber, so the stronger it is the better for longevity.

Other things to remember are that you get variations in the width of the stretcher bars the canvas is attached to, and how the fabric is wrapped around these. If you're not going to frame a canvas, then a wider edge can be appealing and the painting seems more substantial. But it's a matter of personal taste.

Cheaper canvas tends to have a coarser weave and be on narrower stretchers. Check to see that the canvas has been pulled straight as it's been stretched, that the threads run parallel and aren't skewed, and how neatly it's been folded around the edges and attached. Also check that the primer has been evenly applied, that you don't see any raw canvas. Yes, you can apply more primer, but then you want to pay less for the ready-made canvas.

The absorbency of a canvas depends on how it's primed, not the type of fabric. Raw canvas is the most absorbent, and fine with acrylics (see Acrylics on Raw Canvas). You also get absorbent grounds, which are formulated to protect the fabric but pull the paint into the surface. Standard primer or gesso serves to protect the fabric and helps the paint adhere to it. The paint sits on top of gesso, it doesn't soak into the fibers.

How paint behaves on canvas depends on the consistency of it. If you're accustomed to working on paper, where paint soaks into the surface, it may initially feel like the paint is slipping and sliding around the surface as you use a brush. A little bit of practice and you won't notice it. Extremely fluid paint will run down, pulled by gravity, creating drips, but thicker paint will stay where you put it. The mark-making you get with it is up to you and your brush.

A canvas also bounces as you apply the brush to it, the surface flexes. Again this spring may feel odd at first, but soon you'll get a feel for it. I find it creates a rhythm to my brushstrokes.

So, what canvas should you use? Initially, anything that's neatly made and cheap. Then a bit later try out a few other brands, with heavier canvas as well as a finer weave, to see how they compare. It's a question of finding a balance between cost and feel of the canvas, ultimately a personal decision. I generally use a cotton canvas with a fairly tight weave, but I do also keep an eye out for sale bargain. The size and proportions of a ready-made canvas are more often what determines what I buy, rather than brand.