What to look for when buying a canvas

Canvas is the fabric that you paint on. It’s stretched around a wooden (or aluminium) frame. The frame is made out of stretcher bars. Bigger canvases often have extra crossbars as well, to prevent the main bars from warping.

Canvas with crossbars

Cotton or linen

Cotton and linen are the most common fabrics used for canvases. Cotton threads are shorter than linen threads. Therefore cotton canvases are more elastic than linen.

In general, linen canvases are more durable. The threads are oily, preventing the fabric getting brittle. Cotton gets brittle when aging. Also, cotton canvases shrink and contract more under influence of changing temperatures and humidity levels.

The texture of cotton is more rough, linen is more smooth.

Left: cotton, right: linen

All in all, most of the times linen provides a nicer painting experience, but… it’s way more expensive than cotton as well.

So, if you’re a beginner and/or don’t want to spend too much on canvas, you can buy cotton, they are fine as well.

Some things to look for

Beveled stretcher bars

Make sure that the stretcher bars are beveled at the edges. The beveled edge prevents the canvas from touching the stretcher bars.

Beveled edge

When painting on a canvas with flat stretcher bars, the stretcher bars will leave marks in your painting.

Location of the staples

Preferably buy canvases that are stapled at the backside of the stretcher bars. In the rare case your stretcher bars get damaged or warped, you’ll be able to remove the staples and canvas and stretch it on a new set of stretcher bars.

Whith a canvas that’s stapled at the sides of the stretcher bars, you’re less likely to succeed doing this, because you’ll run out of fabric needed when stretching the canvas.

Left: stapled at the sides, right: stapled at the back side

Wedges or keys to restretch

Most canvases come with a set of wooden (or plastic) keys or wedges.

Wooden wedges

If your canvas gets a little bit too loose, you can use these wedges to restretch.

Put the wedges in the slots in the corners of the stretcher bars. Below you see two methods, it doesn’t matter which one you choose, both methods work fine.

Wooden wedges inserted in slots of stretcher bars

Now carefully hammer the wedges down the slots. The gap between the bar will widen, thereby increasing the tension in the canvas.

Hammering down the wedges increases the gap between the stretcher bars, increasing the tension of the canvas.

Extra layer of gesso

Even though a canvas is pre-primed, I would recommend applying an extra layer of gesso yourself. A lot of times the quality of the layer of gesso on pre-primed canvases is poor. Very often there are even some greasy spots on it and you’ll have a hard time painting your first acrylics layer on it. At some parts the paint doesn’t stick as good as on other parts, making it very unpredictable.

Left: greasy spots and poor adhesion of paint on pre-primed canvas. Right: added an extra layer of gesso myself, saves a lot of paint and frustration!

Also, due to the poor quality of gesso, the canvas still absorbs way too much and you’ll waste a lot of paint. If you put an extra layer of gesso yourself, you’ll save a lot of paint. In this blog you can read more on priming your canvas with gesso.

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