We get this question a lot. “Which canvas is best for Bill’s method of oil painting?”
It can be quite confusing when you walk into the art supply store. We are always surprised at the high prices these stores charge for canvas. You could stretch your own canvas, but watching the videos is enough to exhaust us. It’s worth it to pay a higher price and let someone else stretch your canvas.
You can control how much you pay for a canvas, though.
The reason for the wide variety in price has to do with the material, the grade, and weave of the canvas.
There are two main fabrics used to make canvas: cotton and linen. Linen is the more expensive of the two. We find linen the choice of fine artists. Linen has a tighter weave giving it a smoother surface.
Cotton is the other type of fabric used to make canvas. Cotton is less expensive but, untreated is weaker than linen when wet. It will also not resist attack from bacteria. As we’ll explain in a bit, there is a way to fix that.
The kind of canvas we’re looking for is a medium grade cotton canvas. It is a less expensive type of canvas that is particularly suited for Bill’s style of painting. The weave is wide enough to accept and hold the paint. We call that holding power “tooth.” It’s what makes that beautiful “paint break” when Bill highlights his mountains.
We mentioned that there is a way to make your canvases last longer. You do that by treating your canvas before you paint on it.
Most canvases come pretreated with two or three coats of acrylic primer. Unfortunately, even three coats of primer are not enough.
If you hold a primed canvas up to a light source, you can see the light passing through the canvas. Even if you hold a finished painting up to a light source, you can see the light passing through the canvas. This extra light means your painting will appear dull and lifeless — even if lit. By the way, you never want to “light” a painting. Never!
You can not paint on an unprimed canvas. The oil in the paint will soak into the canvas. Bacteria will form in the fabric, and the canvas will deteriorate over time.
When the Old Masters primed their canvases they first “sized” their canvas. The “sizing” sealed the canvas so that oil would not affect it. But they didn’t stop there. They applied layers of paint mixed with marble dust on top of the sizing. They sanded each layer until it was as smooth as glass.
We don’t have to do what the Old Masters did today. There is an inexpensive alternative that works just as well. It is ordinary interior flat latex house paint.
One more thought.
As a beginning painter, we’d also suggest you give some thought to a canvas pad. Usually, a pad contains ten sheets of canvas bound at the top. You tear off a sheet and tape it to a piece of masonite or plywood. It’s much less expensive than stretched canvas. You also can use both sides of it for practice. When you feel more confident, you can move to stretched canvas.
We have a lot more information about canvas and tips and techniques of the Old Masters in our membership.