How to Choose the Right Canvas for Painting

"An empty canvas is full" Robert Rauschenberg.

If you’re fairly new to painting, perhaps you’ve been honing your technique on paper and are ready to make the move to canvas but have a few questions you want answered before you make the jump.

Good news, we can help! Let’s start with the basics.

What is a Canvas?

Canvas is a plain-weave fabric generally made of heavy cotton or linen. Did you know that the word 'Canvas' comes from the same root as 'Cannabis' as traditionally, hemp fiber was often used to make canvas? One benefit of painting on canvas is that it is relatively lightweight, and can be removed from it's support (stretcher frame) for remounting, or rolled for storage or shipping if needed.

The use of canvas for painting first began over 600 hundred years ago and it replaced hard surfaces like walls (frescos) and wooden panels which were heavy, cumbersome to work with and quite expensive. Although reported as being used occasionally in various regions of the world, it is thought that canvas first become popular with Venetian artists who discovered good-quality sail canvas was readily available and affordable, and they found it to be ideal for portrait painting.

Fast forward to now and there is an array of supports to consider when planning your masterpiece - canvas (stretched, off the roll, in pads, etc.), paper, wood panels, gessoed boards are a few of the more popular ones – and trying to decide between them all can be overwhelming. They each have their pros and cons, but today we’ll be looking at the benefits of using canvas for your painting.

Why Should You Choose Canvas for Your Painting Project?

Most artists working on canvas are painting in either oil or acrylics, but canvas can also be a good support for collage, fibre art and, mixed media pieces. Good quality canvas is very durable, warranting that your work will last through the years. Canvas can also be less expensive than other types of supports making it an economical choice, especially if you’re a beginner – you won’t have to spend a fortune on it.

Another plus to using canvas for painting is that it’s available in so many different sizes that it’s easy to find one to fit your painting project whether you’re creating a miniature portrait or a statement landscape or even putting several together for a triptych that will fill a large wall.

And once you’ve completed your work, you’ll absolutely want to show it off – and another pro to using canvas is that it’s easy to hang so you can readily display it. The wooden stretcher that most canvases are stretched over can act as a built-in frame.

What Types of Canvases Are Available?

There is such a wide variety of canvases available on the market, and for sale everywhere from art stores, to big-box stores to 'dollar' stores. In some cases the pricing is very similar between these options, but the quality certainly isn't.  The better canvases available in some art stores (ours are made in Canada) tend to use heavier canvas that is stretched tighter, and with better quality priming. Typically, a good quality ready-to-use canvas will have two coats of acrylic Gesso which is suitable for painting with acrylics and oils.

Some oil painters prefer to add a few more coats of Gesso to prevent the eventual penetration of oils into the cotton canvas, but many do not bother with this step.  Another reason to add more coats of primer is to achieve a smoother painting surface, which some people prefer.  And while it's important to prime a canvas prior to starting an oil painting, acrylic paint can actually be applied directly onto raw / unprimed canvas without any concern for longevity (the Gesso used is usually acrylic after all). Nonetheless, almost all painters prefer to work on a primed surface as it is easier to paint on; your paint will spread evenly and smoothly, and the canvas wont suck up all of your colour.


1. Stretched Canvas

A stretched canvas is one of the most popular types of support for painting. Made of either cotton or linen stretched over a wooden frame called stretcher bars, a stretched canvas is usually pre-primed with gesso which makes it easy and convenient to get started on your artwork the moment inspiration strikes.

You’ll want to look for a stretched canvas that is sturdy and taut with a slight bounce.  Watch out for loose flimsy canvas or warped frames.

2. Canvas Panels

Canvas panels are usually made from primed cotton canvas glued onto a rigid panel board and they offer a surface very close to that of stretched canvas, thought without the bounce. Ready to use without priming and good for acrylics, oils, paint markers, spray paints and alkyds. Economical, canvas panels are excellent for practicing and are lightweight, compact and easy-to-carry, making them the perfect option for students and beginners, or for painting outdoors.

3. Canvas Pads

Canvas pads is genuine primed, acid-free cotton canvas sheets bound in a pad and they are well-suited to acrylics, oils, water-soluble oils, paint markers, permanent markers, spray paints and alkyds. The sheets from canvas pads can be stretched and they can be easily mounted or framed for display. Ultra-affordable and super portable canvas pads are fantastic for taking to a workshop or plein air painting. Canvas paper is not as long-lasting as stretched canvas or canvas panels but is a great option for novices, studies, classes, or practice.

4. Canvas Rolls

Canvas on the roll is made from linen or cotton and is available in different weights, textures, and widths and can either be primed or unprimed. Rolled canvas is sold as an entire roll (usually 50 yards) or by the foot and can be cut to a custom size before painting.  As with canvas pads, some painters will work on unmounted canvas, but most prefer to stretch the canvas before painting. Primed canvas is ready to go and can be painted up immediately, but unprimed canvas should be prepared with a primer of some type.  It's a little easier to stretch unprimed, and it gives the artist more options in terms of the type and colour of primer. Because of the DIY and time needed to get the canvas ready for painting, this is not a great option for beginner painters, and while there is some savings to be had on the materials, the real value of starting with rolled canvas is in the ability to create a custom size to your own specifications and preferences.

What type of Canvas Should You Choose?

Choosing the right canvas to paint on is just as important as the type of paint you use on it. Here are four things you should consider when choosing a canvas for your artwork:

1. Material

Canvas is available in two materials Cotton Duck and Linen. Both are durable and it’s really a personal preference to use over the other.

Cotton Duck Canvas is most common and is available in different weights (thread density) and textures (the fineness of the weave). It is easy to stretch and stays tight on the stretcher bars but is not as strong as linen. It is more affordable than linen and is the best option if you are a beginner painter.

Linen Canvas is stronger than cotton and has a finer texture which allows for a smoother finish which makes it a good fit for portrait painting. Like cotton, linen is available in different weights and textures, but it is stiffer so it can be difficult to get even tension across the canvas when stretching, although that stiffness makes it better for larger pieces. Linen is more expensive than cotton and is used by professional artists, but if you are creating art for yourself, it might not be worth the additional cost.

2. Shape

We’ve all seen square or rectangle canvases, but did you know that they are now available in a variety of shapes? Circles, Ovals, and Triangle canvases are becoming more common. And if you purchase canvas by the roll or foot you can create whatever custom shape your heart desires.

3. How is it Primed?

Most stretched canvases, canvas boards, and canvas paper are pre-primed and can be used with both oils and acrylics. However, if you buy raw, untreated canvas by the foot or on the roll, you will need to prime it yourself before painting. If you use an acrylic gesso, you will be able to paint with either acrylic or oil paints, however, if you seal the canvas with an oil primer, it will be suitable for painting with oils only.

4. What Size?

There are no rules about the 'right' size of canvas to choose. Often the decision boils down to portability, storage and the artist's comfort level or ambition. The more compact canvas options like pads and panels are available mainly in smaller sizes, not much bigger than about 18" x 24", which is one of the reasons they are popular for practice studies. Pre-stretched canvas are available from tiny (4" x 4") to very large (48" x 60" or larger) and rolled canvas offers an artist the ability to paint as big as their space can handle.

It is common for beginning painters to work small, because of cost, or limits on work space, and sometimes a lack of confidence. We often see customers slowly increasing the size of their canvases over time, and what once felt like a big canvas to them is no longer remarkable, and they love the excitement and freedom of working larger. Regardless of style, subject or level of experience, bigger canvases make a bigger statement, and most rooms can handle much larger pictures than many people think. So dare to go big!

    Now that you’ve learned how to choose the right canvas for painting are you ready to give it a try? What will be your next work on canvas? Tell us in the comments and happy painting!

    Check out our wide assortment of canvases or contact Wyndham Art Supplies today if you have questions!

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