About canvass

Linen then, what is it? Why do I like it? What should you know about it? Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant. The best linen is made in western Europe, and Belgian linen has been used by artists for a very long time. It isn’t the cheapest support, but in my opinion it is the best. It is stronger than cotton, giving artists a little more support under the brush, which I have found students generally appreciated. It can be bought ready for use on stretch frames, or by the meter, or in rolls of 10m (width: 2m10), unprimed, primed for oil, and universally primed. If you use unprimed canvass you will have to prime it yourself before use. For this you can easily obtain a primer known as “gesso” at your local art shop. Or you can do what many artists do to save money, and prime it with acrylic wall paint. “Universally primed” canvass is primed with gesso. You can then go ahead and paint on it using pretty much any paint sort you like – acrylic, oil, etc. I usually buy canvass primed for oil painting, which is not suitable for any other kind of painting.

When you buy linen in the shop, you will probably look at it and think “this one’s a bit too rough, that one’s a bit too smooth … “, just like I did the first time. That’s fine because in the shop you can choose what you like best. However, if you can’t find a shop within reasonable distance of your studio, you will have to buy on the internet. Then it will be useful to know a little more about linen. The length of the fibres used to spin the linen is described as long or short. Long is by far the best, resulting in strong stable linen. Fibres can be wet- or dry-spun, and again wet-spun is best. A medium fine canvass primed for oil painting of approx. 400gm/m2 has 17 threads per cm by 14 threads / cm (warp & weft).  In contrast, a (primed) portrait canvass would have a much finer structure, with 23 threads /cm warp and weft, and a weight of about 325gm/m2. It would also cost a lot more. Of course, there is a variety of qualities of linen available to artists, and you can usually ask for samples to help decide what you like best. Sometimes the samples turn out to be quite generous too!

When you have bought a couple of meters of linen, you will need to stretch it on a special frame before you can start painting. Sellers of artist’s linen (and cotton) also sell (pretty much without exception) wooden stretcher bars which you put together to make a stretch frame. A stretch frame does what it says; it stretches your canvass (a little) to keep it taut. It should have two little wedges in each corner which you can knock in a little to increase the tension. I will cover this subject more thoroughly HERE.

Cotton canvasses are widely available at fairly reasonable prices, primed with a universal primer, and in many sizes. I don’t like them – I find them too soft. Many people do like them and are happy to use them.  If you want to try them, it is best to buy a reputable brand such as Rowney, Windsor & Newton, or Daler.


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