Canvas has been used for hundreds of years by artists from all around the world, a surface of choice for acrylic and oil painting. Primed canvas is fabric that has been coated with gesso or sometimes with just a layer of paint base. This surface coating is cured into the fabric which absorbs the paint while protecting the fabric.

There is wide range of canvas types for acrylic painting, each will be used for a different application. The great thing about acrylic paints is it provides for a wide selection in surfaces to work on. Later in the article I will detail the types and how to make an informed choice. If you would like to start with a good class on acrylic painting try  The Fine Arts Wildlife Painting Class .


Quality and type of wood used in the canvas

The woodwork of your canvas has long term implications for its stability. You should stick to Oakwood for the best results. Make sure the canvas you purchase has some kind of indication or verification as to the quality of the wood with the packaging it comes with.  To cut right to the point, when deciding on the type of canvas that you use, we would recommend going with canvas panels for practice and stretched canvas for pieces that are to be hung or sold.

Here are the basic types to consider:

  • Canvas Panels: are made from heavy duty cardboard or wood to which canvas has been glued. They are usually cheaper than stretched canvas and are easier to transport and store. This type is mostly used for study work or classroom projects but not meant for resale or finished framed projects.
  • Canvas Pads: are sheets of primed canvas. These are great for doing studies, experimenting with other media, or just practicing various painting techniques.
  • Cotton Duck Canvas: Cotton duck comes in different weights and weaves. Weave refers to how tightly the fibers are woven together while weight refers to the heaviness of the canvas. Modern canvas is usually made of cotton or linen, although historically it was made from hemp. It differs from other heavy cotton fabrics, such as denim, in being plain weave rather than twill weave. Canvas comes in two basic types: plain and duck. The threads in duck canvas are more tightly woven. The term duck comes from the Dutch word for cloth, doek. In the United States, canvas is classified in two ways: by weight (ounces per square yard) and by a graded number system. The numbers run in reverse of the weight so a number 10 canvas is lighter than number 4.
  • Linen Canvas: Linen is made from fibers of the flax plant and therefore contains natural oils that make it mold and mildew resistant. It is considered the “cream of the crop” of canvases. A Linen surface versus a canvas surface is like the difference between the smooth side of a Masonite board and the rough side. Linen is exceptionally strong, light, and flat compared to canvas. Light canvas is floppy like muslin, light linen is still flat, accepts the glue and gesso sizing, and presents a perfectly smooth and strong yet somewhat flexible (depending on the stretching tension) surface to the brush. Linen has no equal for longevity whereas cotton gets yellow at the back and can absorb moisture and gradually deteriorate over time. Linen offers a much wider variety of weaves and weights than does cotton. In short, linen has a distinct interesting personality, compared to cotton, which is a highly standardized commercial product.
  • Canvas Rolls: You can also buy canvas in rolls so you can make custom sizes for your artwork.

There are times when a canvas is slightly loose to solve this issue here is a great trick.

Shrink It: This will not work well for oil paintings or on linen

  1. The woven material that we call “canvas” is almost always 100% unbleached cotton duck, which shrinks like nobody’s business.
  2. The method works on any cotton canvas although works best on canvas that has not been painted or Gesso coated.
  3. Using a spray bottle, spray extremely hot water over the entire back surface of your canvas. Don’t soak.
  4. Using a flat hand or plastic squeegee, gently rub the moisture into the weave.
  5. Dry the canvas with a hair dryer, immediately.  prop it up near a hot air vent or wood stove.

How to prepare you canvas for a painting

There are five steps to prepare your canvas for a finished project, which will allow for long life of the work as it ages. This is especially important because acrylic paintings are deeply affected by change in temperature or moisture. Knowing how to get your canvas ready for your painting is very important but you need to understand what brushes to use and why. Try this article  Getting Started with Acrylic Brushes

  1. Choose a brush that is wide enough for the size of the canvas you are preparing. For example, using a 4″ brush for a 3ft x 4ft canvas will save you a lot of time
  2. Mix about 10% water with some gesso in the bowl and begin applying it. Don’t rush the application – as you paint the gesso on brush out any visible brush strokes.
  3. Once the layer is dry you can start to paint another layer. Make sure it is totally dry, not damp, or cool to the touch.
  4. After the second layer is dry you can sand down any bumps with fine sandpaper and then proceed to the next layer.
  5. Proceed in this manner with building up layers until you feel you have the surface you want.
  6. I prefer to gesso the edges of my paintings last; some artists leave it raw and other paint the edges a different color.

Gesso is traditionally white, but nowadays you can also buy black, clear gesso and colored gesso readymade. The consistency and texture of gesso will vary from brand to brand. Some are more liquid, and others are thicker. Some apply more smoothly, and others leave a more textured surface. You will have to experiment with different brands to find the one that best meets your needs.

About the Artist John J Catalfamo