Traditionally, canvas is the surface or support of choice for painters. Since around the 16th Century, it has been preferred by artists who create oil paintings, and was instantly adopted by those who work in acrylics since their invention within the last 70 years. Even more recently, the development of specialist acrylic grounds (primers) has also allowed artists who work in pastel and watercolour to enjoy the benefits of painting on canvas. So what are these benefits, and what should one look for when purchasing the right canvas for your practice? In this overview we will look at varieties of canvas and their differing qualities, the ready-to-use canvas products available, and what Jackson’s Art Supplies offer to help those who would like to make their own supports and have full control over the surface they wish to paint on.
Before you shop for canvas, you need to consider what’s available. There are a lot of choices to be made so think about what it is you are using the canvas for, where will you be painting, what will be practical and what will help you achieve the results you are looking for.
Conventionally, canvases are tightly stretched on to a frame, which creates a spring in the fabric when pressure is applied, i.e. when a paint brush applies paint to it. It is generally considered that the more tightly stretched a canvas, the more enjoyable it is to paint on, as the tension in the surface has an element of vibrancy. The tightness of a canvas must be the same across the whole frame so that the grain of the fabric is square to the edges, with no skewing. Readymade or pre stretched canvases most commonly have a universally primed canvas stretched on to a wooden frame with bevelled edges (so that the edge of the frame does not leave an imprint when the canvas is painted on). This means that the canvas is coated with a white acrylic primer, which sufficiently coats the fabric for both oil and acrylic painting. Most ready-made canvases are triple primed (coated 3 times), and some have even more layers of primer. Lots of thin layers of primer is preferable to one thick layer as it is a more stable priming, which is less susceptible to cracking over time, and will be much more likely to be even across the whole surface. Canvas is fixed to the frame with either tacks on the sides, or staples on the back, or both. Ready made canvases are available in a range of depths, and if this is of importance to you it is vital to check the dimensions. Standard depth canvases are generally considered to look more traditional and are easier to frame, whereas deeper canvases tend to be associated with contemporary or more modern art techniques, although the trends are always changing. This choice is one of pure aesthetic; a standard depth canvas does not perform better or worse than a deep edge or chunky canvas, although thin bars may need to be reinforced with the use of a cross bar for larger sized canvases. Daler Rowney have a range of canvases ideal for landscape painting, due to their long thin dimensions (but of course they are not exclusive to painting landscapes, just as good for abstract or figurative painting too!). Bella Arti, our ‘professional’ grade pre-stretched canvases are made to gallery standard and are also available in extra fine grain linen, medium grain linen, clear primed linen (an extra coat of acrylic medium is required for oil painting) as well as deep edge cotton. Again, all these choices give you the artist the opportunity to select the right surface for the idea you have in mind for your work. Our own brand Jackson’s canvases are available in deep and standard depth cotton universal primed canvas, and we also do canvases by Winsor and Newton, Daler Rowney, Loxley and Pebeo. Take advantage of extra discount by looking out for the permanent special bulk buy art canvas offers we have for canvases by Winsor & Newton, Jackson’s Art Supplies and Bella Arti (trade discounts also available for wholesale customers), as well as occasional limited time period canvas sales we hold; surprisingly cheap canvases of exceptional value and quality for all artists - from beginner to professional.
In addition to ready made canvases, we at Jackson’s Art Supplies offer a variety of other canvas supports. Canvas panels are sheets of compressed card on to which universally primed cotton canvas has been glued. These are ideal for quick sketches, but can also be easily framed as finished paintings, and we sell ranges by both Winsor and Newton and Jackson’s. Canvas boards by Bella Arti are made of acrylic primed cotton duck glued on to MDF with shear edges – slightly sturdier and heavier, and a great rigid support with the grain of a canvas. Daler Board, an entirely unique product range by Daler Rowney, is an affordable and rigid oil primed support ideal for taking out of doors.
Perfect for experimentation and easy to cut to size are the wide range of canvas pads that we sell. Belle Arti and Fredrix offer canvas pads made of sheets of universally acrylic primed canvas, glue bound on one edge, so that you can paint on sheets while they are still in the pad, or you can fix to a board with glue or masking tape for more stability. Oil and acrylic blocks by Clairefontaine and Hahnemuhle as well as pads from the Daler Rowney System 3 and Georgian ranges are made of specially treated papers designed for use with either oil or acrylic paint (please note the acrylic papers are not suitable for use with oils) and all varieties have a fine art linen effect texture. Oil/acrylic blocks are glued on all 4 sides and sheets need to be sliced with a palette knife after the work is complete and dry – this prevents any warping in the sheet during the drying process. Pads are only glue bound on one side, and in all cases, can be presented to gallery standard by reinforcing on to a backing board and framing. Conversely they are also a cheaper option for those buying art supplies for a school or art society that need to be creative within a budget.
If you can’t find the right length, width, depth, canvas grain or priming all wrapped up in one desirable canvas, then you might want to consider ordering one of our bespoke canvases using the ‘Bespoke Canvas Builder’. You may have been commissioned to paint a portrait or landscape that requires very specific dimensions. We are able to construct canvases using our professional grade aluminium reinforced bars from NB Frames as well as our traditional wooden stretcher frames, with a wide variety of different French and Italian cottons and linens.
Many artists would prefer to make their own canvases to their own specifications, and we sell all the tools and accessories an artist would require to make their own canvas. But before you start, time to make some decisions…
First you need to decide your canvas depth i.e. how far it sticks out from the wall. If you’d prefer to have a thinner canvas, but your work is going to be over a metre long or wide, remember to order cross bars to reinforce the structure. Deep edge canvases do not really need cross bars (and aluminium reinforced bars certainly don’t!) but they can be useful for carrying purposes (remember however that they can also add to the weight of the canvas). All the art stretcher bars are already mitre cut at the ends for assembly and have slots for centre bars as well as bevelled edges, but the assembly of the aluminium bars differs from that of the professional wooden stretcher bars so be sure to read the information on their appropriate pages before purchasing.
Cotton duck is a lot cheaper because it is made of shorter threads that have been woven together. The result is that it is weaker than linen (yet still sufficiently durable with the right treatment), and the grain looks different. Cotton tends to be lighter in colour. It is available off the roll primed and unprimed, in a range of grains and weights, and we recommend a heavier weight canvas for larger paintings. The rest of the decision making process is down to you and your aesthetic preferences. Our linens are available in grains ranging from extra fine to rough, as well as varying weights. The French linens have a slightly more irregular grain due to the differing manufacturing process, but this can add a character that may be desirable to how you want your work to appear. To make your own canvas as quickly as possible, purchase a ready primed canvas and you can start painting as soon as it is fixed to the frame – however the downside is that it is much more difficult to get good tension in the fabric in comparison to stretching untreated canvas, and then sizing and priming it. Ultimately the decision is likely to depend on how much time you have and how important the tension in the canvas is to you. If you make canvases regularly you may wish to consider purchasing one of our 10-metre linen rolls to keep you in good supply.
Canvas pliers are vital for achieving a good amount of tension when stretching your canvas. Place your canvas frame in the middle of your piece of canvas and make sure you have enough canvas to wrap around to the back of the frame. Use the pliers to grab enough of the material between the teeth of the pliers, and then use the ridge on the underside of the pliers to gain leverage over the edge of the frame and stretch around to the back of the frame. Always stretch canvas from the middle of the bars moving outwards, and always insert staples opposite the ones you have just put in. A staple gun is the easiest to use and small tacks is the traditional method. Finished pictures or artwork that have been made on un-stretched canvas can be fixed to a frame once dry, and do not need as much tension when being stapled – just make sure they are fixed square to the frame and that you do not lose too much of the image when wrapping the work around to the back.
Tacks can be gently hammered in the edge of the canvas frame before a staple secures the canvas to the back – this does help a little with achieving a good amount of tension, and also adds a traditional look to the finished support. The pressure that a staple gun provides makes it easy to punch in staples to secure the canvas to the back of the canvas frame. Remember to leave enough room at the corners to fold your canvas neatly before punching in the final staples.
Acrylic paint can be painted on to raw canvas, but raw canvas is very absorbent, and usually a straw-like colour. Many artists enjoy painting on an acrylic primed canvas, because the white of the primer allows your pigments to display themselves at their most luminous, and the primer is a lot less absorbent and maximises colour brilliance. Acrylic Gesso replicates the qualities of traditional gesso, a mixture of French chalk or whiting and rabbit skin glue, and is absorbent with a slightly heavier tooth than acrylic primer – the more layers you apply the more absorbent. You can also choose to prime your canvas with a black gesso primer by System 3 if you prefer to work on black (this will have a dramatically different effect on your transparent colours). Acrylic clear primer allows you to work on the natural colour of the canvas without having the absorbency of the raw fabric.
Oil painters must coat or ‘size’ their canvas prior to painting in order to prevent the oils of the paint seeping into the fibres and causing them to rot. Traditionally artists use a layer of rabbit skin glue to size their canvases. Rabbit skin glue usually comes in bags of dried granules, which are best melted in a bain marie (double boiler). The idea is to use a relatively soft haired brush to apply this very fluid, warm (and smelly!) substance to the canvas, working it into the grain and allowing the glue to laminate the threads. It should not be applied so thickly that a layer of the glue is noticeable. Rabbit skin glue is also available as a jelly like substance which thins out on heating. As well as forming a barrier between the oil and natural fibre of the canvas the glue will also cause the canvas to shrink slightly, thus tightening the canvas to the frame and increasing the tension or ‘spring’. Research has proven that rabbit skin glue is slightly hygroscopic - this means it does absorb water in humid conditions and when it does this it will swell. Repeated swelling and contracting caused by the natural changes of humidity in the air will, over time, cause a finished painting to crack. A number of non-hygroscopic acrylic mediums (AV, Jackson’s, Golden) have been developed and many artists prefer to size their canvases with these alternatives because they believe their work will not deteriorate over time – however because these are recent developments, acrylic mediums have not had the test of time to prove that they are wholly suited to the purpose of sizing canvas.
Once canvas has been sized it can be primed with oil primer. Oil primer generally allows the paint to glide around the surface more easily, and is less absorbent. Oil primer tends to be a little more off- white than acrylic primer, however both acrylic and oil primer can be tinted with colour prior to application. If you like working on unprimed canvas this is also a possibility, but we cannot stress enough the importance of sufficiently sizing your canvas prior to applying oil on canvas.
Use a synthetic or relatively soft hog hair brush that is clean and dry. Load with primer and apply evenly by brushing the paint on in random, varied directions. If the paint is not gliding on easily dilute it (with water if it is acrylic or solvent if it is oil). I find that by dipping my brush into a pot of solvent or water before dipping into undiluted primer, I am able to achieve just the right consistency of primer for application. Keep the layer of primer as thin as possible and leave to dry – at least 3-4 hours for acrylic primer and overnight for oil primer. Then apply a new layer if necessary. The more layers of primer the less absorbent the canvas will feel, and the brighter your colours will appear. Most artists tend to apply 2-3 layers before considering a canvas ready for working on. If you like a particularly smooth surface on which to work, gently rub a fine piece of glass or sandpaper over the canvas to remove any lumps that may have appeared in the primer. Now you have your blank canvas and the possibilities of what you paint on it are limitless. Might I just add here that if you have a photograph or drawing that you are keen to transpose on to canvas, we sell a range of projectors (including the digital art projector which you can plug straight into your pc or mac) that are designed solely for the purpose of easily doing this otherwise time consuming task.
If you wish to work on canvas with watercolour paint, you can with the use of Golden acrylic absorbent ground, which allows the canvas to behave a little more like watercolor paper. If you wish to paint on canvas with pastels why not try priming with Art Spectrum Colourfix primer for pastels or Golden’s specially formulated Golden pastel ground, both of which dry with a coarse tooth perfect for pastel painting. If you have photos saved in a digital file that you wish to turn into large canvas prints, we have a selection of specially conditioned canvases for digital canvas printing. If you intend to have a go at high quality printing on canvas you must consider the lightfastness of the end result as well as whether there is sufficient bonding of the inks to the surface, these special digital canvases have been developed to do just that. Golden also offer a range of ‘Digital Grounds’ so that you can prepare your own supports for canvas prints and imitate the current trend for giclee. Or, why not make like Andy Warhol and turn a favourite photo into a cool, original piece of pop art on your computer before you transfer the image to canvas, printing to create a personalized, special gift to hang on a loved one’s wall.
You have your finished artwork on canvas, and now you want to think about how you wish to present it in its best possible light. Don’t forget Jackson’s framing – we have a huge range of moulding styles to accommodate every depth of canvas available at our shop, some of which are unfinished and can be stained, varnished or painted to perfectly match the work it is framing.
To view the Jackson's Art Supplies Canvas Playlist on our YouTube Channel please visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=brmMIXtMs1Q&list=PLi86B3jOHkDbOk2PTeVxerYjBg7gtUIDL