Cotton ducks don’t quack

     You probably know that many artists paint on canvas.  But if you’re just getting started as a painter in oils or acrylics, just walking into the art supply store can blow your mind.  There are a lot of choices to make when it comes to canvas painting surfaces!

     For the extreme beginner, “canvas paper” is a good way to get the feel of canvas.  It comes in pads, has a canvas-like texture, and is used for practice and studies.  However, if you paint on canvas paper don’t expect it to survive for many years, as it is an inexpensive paper product and not real canvas.

     The next step up is “canvas panel”, cardboard covered with a thin piece of canvas.  These are cheap, come in several sizes, are primed and ready to be painted on, and are great for beginners.  The disadvantage to this product is that if you get into larger sizes you may find that the board warps and you’ll have to use a firm backing when it’s framed to eliminate the bend. 

     “Canvas boards” are primed linen canvas stretched over a lightweight board and glued.  Many artists do all their work on canvas boards.  Again, the cheaper models may bend or warp if you work large.

     “Pre-stretched canvas” is canvas stretched over a wooden frame.  It comes in many sizes and many quality levels.  The best ones are securely and neatly fastened to the back of the wooden frame so that the sides can be painted, allowing the artist to do without regular framing if desired.  If you buy the kind with visible staples on the sides, you will need to use framing.  Look for a firm stretch and neat finishing on front, back and sides.  The better pre-stretched canvas may also include “keys” in the packaging — wooden or plastic pieces that can be gently pushed into slots on the back of the frame after the painting is finished, to tighten the stretch.  Cheap forms of pre-stretched canvas are loosely fastened and have sloppy edges, and should be avoided except for practice work or studies.

     “Canvas rolls” are an alternative to pre-stretched canvas, if you want to stretch your own.  These come in various materials, textures and weaves, and can be primed or unprimed.  You will need a good instruction book or training and some specialized tools if you decide to stretch your own canvas.

     “Watercolor canvas” is a revolutionary new 100% cotton surface made just for watercolor paint.  Painting on it is different than painting on watercolor paper because the paint stays wet longer, and the surface can be “abused” more with coarse brushes.

     The two most common types of canvas for oil and acrylic painting are cotton duck and linen.  Cotton duck is the most commonly used, and has nothing to do with ducks!  (The term comes from “doek”, the Dutch word for cloth.)  The threads in duck canvas are tightly woven and come from the cotton plant.  The fibers are spun larger, affording moderate strength, and then woven into a heavy canvas.  Acrylic painters generally prefer cotton duck canvas because of its strength and texture.

     Linen canvas is made from long, strong fiber strands of the flax plant.  It’s thought of as superior to cotton because the threads are finer and the weave is tighter.  Linen is expensive to manufacture because the quality of the linen canvas depends on the quality of the flax plants used.  The best flax often comes from France and Belgium.  Linen is especially good for oil painting.

     Synthetic canvas is available, but a lot of artists don’t care for it because it’s not traditional, and has not yet stood the test of time.

     Canvas comes in varying weights, weaves and grades.  Museum grade is linen or better cotton duck that usually has a tight weave.  Professional grade is quality cotton canvas with a medium to heavy weave.  Value grade is the lightest canvas in both thread count and weight.

     When buying canvas, you must choose whether you want unprimed or primed.  This is strictly up to the artist. Unprimed means the canvas has not had the undercoat priming usually done before the artist paints on it.  It’s off-white or brown, depending on what it is made of.

     Canvas is usually primed with gesso, a priming material that comes in both white and colors.  You can do it yourself or you can buy primed canvas, which has already been coated with gesso.

     Canvas is primed to protect it from the paint.  Oil paint will eventually cause unprimed canvas to get brittle and decay.  Gesso also provides a smoother painting surface, especially when applied in layers and sanded down between each layer.  Note that you can use acrylic gesso to prime for either oil or acrylic paints.  However, oil-primed linen canvas can only be used for oil paints.

     Now you can make an informed decision when shopping for canvas painting surfaces.  Every artist has his or her own preferences.  Don’t be afraid to try different kinds of canvas to learn what is right for you.

Published by on December 2010. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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