An oil painting should be done on canvas, right? Wrong. It can be painted on a whole host of supports and the choice can be baffling. What are the differences between types of canvas? What should a beginner use? What do you use?
I quite like experimenting and reading up about various materials and techniques. So I do spend time asking my fellow artists about their materials, read technical forums about the longevity of a primer or the difference between types of canvas. Of course you don’t always need professional materials. For studies and other stuff that won’t end up on a gallery wall there is as much (perhaps even more) choice in supports. Where do you start?
The choice of supports is incredibly large and growing all the time. Which one you choose depends on quite a few things. You might prefer the ‘feel’ of one support over another one. And that might well depend on how you paint. Some might work with big brushes and heavy paint applications. Others, like me, might work very detailed and with small brushes. Some love the bounce of a stretched canvas, others prefer less movement.
Different brands produce differently canvases, not only in quality and weight but also in texture and priming.
Budget is an important factor of course. Professional linen can be hugely expensive. But there is a vast amount of choice in the student range as well as the professional range so it doesn’t have to be costly if you don’t want it to be. Adding a bit of DIY into the mix will also reduce costs dramatically (stretching your own canvas can save you around 20% of costs). If you can prepare your own support you can save yourself a lot of money. However you prefer to work, the choice of supports is endless. I hope you will find this (by no means comprehensive) list useful.
The word canvas usually refers to primed fabric, stretched onto stretcher bars. The stretcher bars are usually made of wood. The quality of the wood is important as nobody wants their stretched canvas to warp, shrink or expand. Aluminium stretchers are available too which has the advantage that it will not react to the environment.
The fabric used for canvas is often cotton or linen, but can also be jute or polyester. Priming and stretching can be done in your studio fairly easily but to save yourself time and hassle you could opt for ready-made primed and stretched canvas from an art materials store.
Many shops not only sell stretched canvas direct from the manufacturer but they also offer a stretching service. I find the stretching services from good professional art materials shops much better than the pre-stretched ready-made ones.
Cotton or Linen
Much has been said in the past about the difference between linen and cotton canvas. For a long time people thought that linen is of a better quality and longer lasting than cotton, but most artists would now agree that this is not true.
Linen and cotton are simply different. Cotton is more widely produced so it is cheaper, but by no means is it of less quality for a canvas. The choice between the two is a matter of personal preference.
Linen canvas has an irregular, natural weave. Cotton has a regular, more bobbly weave. You can buy either in various degrees of coarseness. A coarse or heavy canvas is usually heavier in weight than a fine canvas. A fine canvas has minimal texture and can be almost smooth, while a rough canvas has a very pronounced weave.
The choice of texture in a canvas is partly prescribed by how you paint and which brushes you use. I like to use a lot of very small sable brushes. These brushes are delicate and on a coarse textured canvas they would wear in no time at all. For a coarse canvas you need to use strong brushes.
Linen is more expensive than cotton, but this has little to do with the quality. There is much more cotton canvas on the market than linen, and cheaper student grade canvas is usually cotton. But there is some wonderful, professional quality cotton out there as well.
Cotton is more elastic than linen and so will stretch more beautifully. It is bouncy and will not sag or wave once stretched. Linen, on the other hand, is a bit stiffer and less elastic. It is therefore harder to stretch and if the stretcher or the linen expands or shrinks a tiny bit, the linen will sag or wave and will need re-tightening. Good stretching methods are vital when working with linen.
Some artists prefer the qualities of linen, others prefer cotton. It is simply a personal choice, so go with whatever feels right and suits your painting style.
Most primed canvas comes with a universal primer applied in numerous coats. This primer is an acrylic base which is suitable for painting on in oils and acrylics. It has a varying degree of absorbency which you will notice while painting. Usually it is a little absorbent, which means it will soak up a little bit of the paint, making the paint adhere very well to the support but limiting its ‘spreadability’ (is that even a word?).
Some canvas is available with an oil primer applied, but you can buy oil primers in tins as well, which you can apply over an acrylic universal primer (but not the other way round!) if you like. As the name suggests, oil primers are meant for oil painting only. They create a very smooth and slippery surface to paint on with almost no absorbency whatsoever. This takes some getting used to for some but I personally love it. The paint sits on top of the canvas (while still adhering sufficiently) and it can really bring colours out in their full glory. It is also much easier to move paint around on the canvas on such a smooth surface, which is something that is much harder on an acrylic surface where the canvas is immediately stained by the paint once it is applied. Oil primer or acrylic primer – many brands have their own characteristics and it is a matter of trial and error to find the one you like best.
Alternatively you can buy clear primed canvas – which will show the pale brown canvas through it- black primed canvas or unprimed canvas. Unprimed canvas must be primed before being painted on as the oil in oil paint will eventually rot the canvas fibres away. So the paint and the fabric must be kept separated by a good size and primer if you want your painting to last at all. You can buy acrylic primers and oil primers in pots and tins. I have used Golden Acrylic Gesso ( a confusing name as it isn’t actually gesso but an acrylic primer) and Roberson’s Oil Primer for many of my paintings. I can’t really go into sizing and priming as I tend to opt for the time-saving-but-expensive option of the bespoke and ready-made and I only have experience applying primers to already primed stretched canvas. Perhaps one of my readers can give us some details or links to the topic of sizing and priming.
To avoid oil paint cracking over time it would help if the painting is painted on a rigid surface. Common sense tells us that this goes withouth saying: an oil painting on stretched canvas will undoubtedly move somewhat, either by the slight bounce that a stretched fabric gives, or else by the potential expanding and shrinking of the materials in various circumstances. If we paint on a rigid surface that will not move or react we can remove a very large risk of cracked paint in works of art. Rigid surfaces like alumium or wood therefore are much preferred if longevity is important to you.
Many artists love MDF. It is cheap, lightweight, easy to cut and smooth. And generally it is fine to work on primed MDF. Something to keep in mind is the chemical formaldehyde which is present in the resin that keeps the wood fibre together. This chemical is damaging to health and art. However, EU regulations specify that only a very small amount of it is allowed in wood products. From December 2018 the US is also introducing tighter rules on the use of formaldehyde in wood products. Since artists are only using small panels to work on, contrary to being surrounded by the stuff, I do not think we have an awful lot to worry about. Many art shops sell canvas MDF panels ready to paint on.
Many art shops supply wood panels, often made of plywood or hardwood. Some are unprimed, others are primed with an acrylic primer. Of course you can make your own easily, but brands like Belle Arti and Ampersand sell wonderful boards with a high quality primer that makes them a pleasure to work on. The gesso boards by Belle Arti are made from poplar panels with a gesso primer. They are very absorbent, but have a decent thickness and are beautifully smooth. Ampersand does gesso boards, made from hardboard with their own special coating. It has a hint of a texture but is pretty smooth. The absorbency is medium and I have only recently discovered this wonderful material. Ampersand claims the boards are completely archival (meaning they will stand the test of time) but the high price might put many artists off.
The latest kid on the block in the world of oil painting supports is aluminium. Many artists have found a particular sandwiched panel of aluminium, which is generally used for road signs, to be particularly good for painting on. Dibond is a brand name that makes these panels in huge sheets. They are easily cut to size, fairly lightweight, thin and rigid. To be able to use them as an oil painting support you need to sand the surface with a fine sandpaper, clean it and prime it. I have tested painting on the surface directly, with an oil primer, and with an acrylic primer, and the acrylic primer was by far the best choice. Other artists have found the same results. The adherence is incredibly good.
Another metal that has been used by painters for centuries is copper. It is a beautiful surface to work on and requires next to no preparation as you can paint on it without priming it first (although you may choose to do this, but you will lose the beautiful colour and shine of the material). Copper is quite soft so your panel might need some rigid backing first. All the surface needs is a bit of sanding to create some tooth, a clean and you are ready to go.
If you want to use a rigid support you can opt for primed wood or aluminium. If you prefer the texture of canvas, you can adhere a cotton or linen canvas to a support. This way you can benefit from the rigidity that the support offers as well as enjoy the weave, feel and look of canvas. To apply canvas to a wooden panel always use an archival PVA glue or gel, smear it out with a spatula or brush so that every inch is covered, and place your canvas on it, smoothing out any remaining air bubbles. Turn it upside down and put some heavy books on top and let it dry. When dry, trim the sides of the canvas off with a knife.
Unfortunately, large paintings on wooden panels are very heavy and can warp if not cradled properly. Despite positive results from various tests and trials by artists, aluminium has not been around long enough as an oil painting support to prove to us how it will stand the test of time. So stretched canvas remains the only lightweight option for large paintings that has shown us how it will behave in the future. It might not be ideal, but at least we know what will happen to it. Many artists and collectors also still prefer the traditional texture of canvas, despite its drawbacks.
Most of my paintings are on stretched linen. I do not really like cotton because of its incredibly regular and fairly coarse texture. I do like cottons’ elasticity as stretched cotton rarely sags or waves, a problem that happens with stretched linen much more often. I prefer a very fine, almost smooth-but-not-quite, linen texture. It must be fine enough for me to paint extremely small details, but I prefer it to have enough texture to give the painting some life and character. I must admit I missed this when I worked on aluminium where every brushstroke from the priming to the final stroke remains visible on the super smooth surface.
I like the wooden panels made by Ampersand a lot. They are very smooth but do have a very slight texture to it and the absorbency is not too bad. I love oil primed linen as the paint just dances around on top of the canvas, in all its full-colour glory. But I have found oil primed stretched linen to be stiff and have a tendency to sag over time. So I have now settled on an acrylic primed extra fine French linen which I enjoy working on very much. For smaller pieces I use Ampersand Gessobord or linen on MDF/hardboard.
I hope this overview of supports that are generally available here in the UK can be useful to you. Do let me know if you can add anything to the list, if you have experience with a particular support or just want to add some pleasant comment. I look forward to hear about your experiences in the world of painting supports!