An Artist’s Guide to Choosing the Perfect Canvas for Your Masterpiece

Every artist has his or her own style and tastes. Some artists prefer linen canvas while others save money and use cotton canvas. Francis Bacon is known for his preference to purchase primed linen canvas and then flipping them over to paint on the unfinished side.

Monet was not a man of great wealth, but he liked to get the best possible materials for his nature-based paintings. He would use readily available paints as much as possible. He’d get a pre-primed canvas and then prime it again with an oil-based chalk and lead pigment. 

No matter what you prefer, you need to choose the best supplies and the right canvas for your needs. These are the things you should consider when shopping for painting canvas.

Understanding Your Canvas Options

The surface texture impacts your art as an unprimed material will soak up more paint than a primed canvas. You can prime it yourself or choose the more affordable primed canvas. At Chicago Canvas, your options include:

Colored Canvas: 

Generally, painting on unprimed (raw) canvas causes paint to flake off and some will soak into the fabric and look more like watercolor paintings. Some painters prefer it. Colored canvas is a unique choice and worth testing out if you want to experiment. Use acrylic paints for the best level of success.

You can also use clear primers like Liquitex Acrylic Gesso and have a smoother surface to paint on. That’s our preference.

Color canvas comes in more than 30 colors and weighs 10 ounces per yard. For a dramatic painting, consider whites and pale grays on a royal blue background.

Best Use – Murals where you’re going to prime it with a clear coat or want to tap into creativity and try something new.

Duck Cloth: 

Duck cloth is a favorite artist canvas thanks to the heavy weave. It’s resistant to rips and tears and comes in 11.5 ounce-per-yard,14.75 ounce-per-yard, 18 ounce-per-yard, or 24 ounce-per-yard weights. If you paint a lot, you can purchase it in rolls up to 50 yards long.

Best Use – Murals and backdrops on the heaviest weight available

Economy Canvas:

Seven-ounce economy canvas is inexpensive and lightweight. It requires a five-yard minimum when purchasing it, which means there is a lot of canvas available for your painting projects. 

It’s a popular choice for theaters on a budget or painters who want to get the most for the money they spend. You do have to prime it.

Best Use – General, everyday painting and budget theater backdrops

Extra-Wide Canvas:

For large backdrops, such as in the theater, extra-wide canvas is ideal. You can get it in flame retardant too, which is ideal when it’s near stage lighting. It’s available in white or natural. It’s not primed, so if that’s important, you have to do it yourself. It’s a 9 ounces-per-yard cotton canvas.

Best Use – Stage and theater backdrops

Heavy Natural Cotton Muslin:

Muslin is a natural color, so it’s not stark white, which may be more appealing to some artists. It’s a cotton fabric that’s often used for stage design. It can be a great choice for a lightweight canvas material as it stretches well. It’s 6 ounces per square yard and has a very smooth painting surface.

Best Use – Stage flats and backdrops

Primed Canvas:

Skip the hassle and get a primed canvas. It’s all set to paint and comes in black or weight. It’s an 8 ounces-per-yard fabric, which makes it easy to cut the canvas to your desired size before you stretch it.

Best Use – General paintings where you don’t want to apply Gesso yourself

When choosing the best canvas for your needs, you want to look at the tightness of the weave. A tight weave will provide a smooth painting surface. You also have the thickness or ounces-per-yard measurement to consider. A thicker fabric will be harder to stretch, but it’s going to be a durable choice if you take the time to do it yourself.

When you’re stretching your canvas, the type of stretcher bar also impacts your choice. Is it standard, medium, or heavy-duty? How thick are they? Are the stretcher bars wood or metal? You need to answer all of these questions before you make your final choice.

Types of Primers

Once you’ve chosen your preferred canvas or muslin fabric for painting, you need to determine the best primer for your needs. If the canvas isn’t primed, you need to consider it. While some artists enjoy the way paint appears more like watercolor, any paint that doesn’t soak into the fabric is likely to flake off. 

That’s why a primer is so important. Primer helps the paint adhere to the canvas surface and preserves the longevity of your artwork. Different types of primers help you achieve your goals.

  • Acrylic Gesso – Ideal for painting with oils or acrylics on duck cloth and economy canvas. Comes in three grades: Studio, Artist, or Professional.
  • Clear Gesso – This is a must-have if you’re looking for a clear primer that doesn’t hide the canvas’s color.
  • Oil Primer – Ideal for linen canvas and thicker canvas materials.
  • Universal Gesso – A water-soluble white gesso that is used on canvas and other materials like cardboard and wood.

How to Stretch It

A painting requires a tight surface, so the canvas has to be stretched to form that surface. To do this, you need a stretcher frame. Lay the canvas flat (primed side down) and place the frame over it. Make sure the canvas’s weave runs in the same direction as the stretcher bars.

Fold one side of the canvas over the farm and secure it in the center using a staple. Use pliers to pull the edges as tight as you can get them. Secure that and continue around all edges until the canvas is wrinkle-free. 

Stretching a canvas can be a trial-and-error experience. If it’s not tight enough, pull out the staples securing the tarp and tighten as needed. Eventually, you’ll gain experience and get it right on the first try.

Don’t go too tight if you haven’t primed the canvas yet. When the material is wet, it will shrink as the primer dries. You don’t want it to pull out the staples or bend the stretcher frame. If you purchase your canvas by the roll, you don’t have to worry about running out, on the small chance that you rip your canvas, which isn’t likely.

Chicago Canvas sells canvas and muslin by the yard or in rolls of up to 50 yards. Get 15% off your order when you sign up for the Chicago Canvas newsletter. With a wide range of canvas and muslin fabrics, experiment. You’ll figure out your preference when you explore different primers and fabrics. That’s the key to finding the best canvas for your paintings and murals.