A Guide to Buying & Preparing Canvases


Tue, 2014-01-07 15:55


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

The slight bounce and give in the canvas surface as you apply paint is a unique and encouraging feel that you just can’t replicate with paper or board. Its woven nature provides a perfect tooth to tease both oil and acrylic 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 watercolour paper, canvas comes in several different surfaces and grades, each determined by both cost and purpose. Which do you choose?

To keep things simple, here are 3 types of canvas for you to consider…


1. Canvas Panels / Boards
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.

Even cheaper, is a pulp board which has a heavy gesso textured surface or an embossed pattern to broadly represent the weave and texture of canvas.

These canvas panels 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, solid panels, you don’t get that bounce and give from traditional canvas stretched across a wooden frame.  However, you can paint with them on a table or a drawing board, whereas the bounce of stretched canvas tend to require you to work upright on an easel.


2. Pre-Stretched Canvases
Next we come on to the more traditional pre-stretched canvas (usually stretched over a wooden frame), generally now covered in a cotton duck canvas surface.

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

  • Fine - ideal for portrait work
  • Medium - for general applications
  • Rough - for, say, landscape subjects or where heavy impasto work is required

The best quality canvas is a linen surface, again available in different weights and textures. It’s smoother than cotton duck but rather more expensive.

If you are tackling a very big painting, cotton duck is reckoned to be a bit too flexible, so linen is the preferred choice.


3. Home Made Canvases
You can stretch and prepare your own canvases and you may or may not save a bit of money n the process. But I would suggest artists that do this, do it for the love and pleasure of creating every aspect of their work from scratch.

Here are some quick pointers if you chose to purchase your own canvas material and then stretch and prepare it ready for your next masterpiece…

Canvasses, in their raw state, 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 then wrapped around a wooden frame and stapled to the sides or, for a better finish, to the back.

It’s then given several coats of primer (very often a white acrylic primer called gesso) to seal it and prevent the oil from the paints soaking through the surface.

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

Ordinary 1.5inch x 0.75inch planed timber can be used to make the frame, joined with simple butt joints, providing you can ensure a truly squared frame.

'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 stretcher frames 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 1.5inches in from the edge...
  • Fourthly, they come with wooden wedges which fit into pre-cut slots in the corner, so you can tighten up a canvas that has sagged a little during painting process.

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.


In Summary...

If you must make your own, 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 either prepared canvas panels or pre-stretched canvases. 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 canvas panel close up, you'll have a better idea of whether you want to make your own.

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