The obvious difference between cotton and linen canvas is in the raw materials, but how does that affect your painting?
Linen is the more traditional option used by artists and its use dates back to the Renaissance. This type of canvas is made from fibers of the flax plant. Advantages to using linen canvas include that it is stronger, thicker, and more durable than cotton. Although specialty art supply stores carry some pre-stretched linen canvas options, it typically comes in rolls to be stretched on a frame by the artist. But keep in mind, since it is very thick, linen can be difficult to stretch if you are inexperienced. Linen canvas can also have an imperfect weave that adds texture to a painting, which may or may not be a feature you desire. Ultimately, a main disadvantage to linen canvas is that it is more expensive. The raw material is not as readily available, as most of the high-quality flax comes from Belgium, but cotton grows almost world-wide. And here’s a fun side note: some oil painters choose linen because the binder in oil paint (typically linseed oil) derives from the flax plant just like linen does, creating a nice harmony between the materials.
Cotton canvas as a painting support is a twentieth-century idea. It is lighter, more cost effective, and has a more consistent weave than linen. It is also stretchier, making it easy to prepare yourself if purchased in rolls or sheets. But one of the advantages of cotton canvas is that it is widely available pre-stretched in many standard sizes, which can save you a lot of time and effort. One downside to the stretchiness of the cotton is that over time paintings can sag on their frame. This is not likely to happen if you use a thick, professional-grade canvas (12 oz and up). Cotton canvas comes in different levels of weight and quality, so check carefully when purchasing. If you are buying a pre-stretched canvas, inspect it for imperfections and make sure the canvas is stretched tight.
So what should you use? Really, it comes down to artist’s preference, but here are some things to consider when choosing your canvas. Weight: How durable do I need my canvas to be? Will I be working with thick layers of paint, or is my technique lighter? Texture: Will canvas texture matter (keeping in mind some of this will be covered and smoothed with primer)? Will it remain visible in the finished work? Finally, Cost: How much can I afford to spend on art materials? Should I spend less or more on pieces I know will be experimental or perhaps shown in a gallery?
Hopefully this guide helps you to understand some of the differences between cotton and linen canvas. Ultimately, both will make excellent painting supports if you choose high-quality materials and prepare and prime them well.
Don’t be intimated by framing art on canvas yourself. Here’s some tips on how to frame paintings on canvas based on the painting’s profile size.
Canvas with a Traditional Profile (thickness of 1 inch or less)
There are two main options for framing a canvas with a traditional profile: a standard frame or floating frame. Standard frames can be purchased prebuilt or if you are framing an odd size you can buy individual pieces and assemble the frame yourself. These options are available for both metal and wood frames. Many artists work with pre-stretched canvases, which means there is a good chance that if the work is a standard size a prebuilt frame can be used. Once you have your frame, pop the painting in from the back and secure with either the packaged hardware (metal frames typically will come with this), or for wood frames you can use offset clips (which are screwed in) or a point driver (which shoots metal points into a wood frame to tightly hold a work in place). The second framing option is to use floating frames, which is my personal preference. I find them to have a more modern look and you can still see a some of the painting’s edge while giving a canvas with a thin profile some bulk. Attach the painting from the back with hardware screwed through the floater frame and into the stretcher bars. Floating frames typically come in smaller, standard sizes, so they can’t be used for all works. But they can really set off a painting, especially small paintings that need a little more body.
Deep Canvas (thickness of 1 inch or more)
If the canvas has a “gallery” or “museum” profile (thick canvas bars that are usually 1.5 or 2.5 inches), it doesn’t necessarily require a frame. These paintings, especially abstract works, are deep enough to stand on their own without a frame. Ideally, the artist has painted the edges solid or allowed the painting to flow over the edge. However, if you are interested there are frames available from online sellers that accommodate deeper profiles.
Unstretched Canvas or Paintings on Paper
There are a couple of options for paintings on unstretched canvas. One is to stretch the work on stretcher bars. If you are going to stretch the painted canvas, you might want to ask the artist if they are able to stretch it, take it to a framer, or follow my tutorial here. Once it’s stretched you can frame it as described above. Another option is to mat and frame it like a work on paper (see my blog post on how to do this). You might also choose to mount the painting, in which case I would use PVA glue to adhere the canvas to an archival support such as mat board or a wood panel. If you are matting or mounting within a frame, leave at least several inches around the painting so it has a little breathing room.
Finish It Up
You can now add your hanging hardware (more details in my blog here). I typically use screw eyes and wire. Pro tip: If you want to finish your work like the professionals, glue a sheet of butcher paper to the back edges of the frame and use a razor blade to trim it to the exact size. Then add your hardware. Now your painting is ready to hang.
You’ve poured your heart and soul into a painting. Now what should you do to get it ready to display? If you’ve created a painting on paper, it’s ready to frame. Read about framing options for works on paper in my blog post here. If it is a painting on canvas, there are just a few more things to do to get it ready to hang.
Varnish the Painting
There are different formulas of varnish for oil and acrylic paintings, so choose the right one for your work. There are many brands out there, but I personally like Gamblin for oils and Liquitex for acrylics. Varnishes have different finishes (gloss, matte, satin) to fit your taste. I prefer a gloss or semi-gloss finish, because I like the painting to look like it was just finished and it prevents the painting from looking dull. Make sure your painting is completely dry before varnishing, not just dry to the touch. For an acrylic painting this will probably be a couple of days, and for an oil painting a couple of weeks or even more depending on the thickness of the paint. Always read the instructions on your particular varnish, but the technique is essentially this: using a wide brush, sweep the varnish back and forth quickly on the surface in thin layers. Apply several very thin coats, drying completely between each. You will want to work in a dustless room if possible, as dust will settle into wet varnish and stick.
Add Hanging Hardware
The most user-friendly and cost-effective option is to use screw eyes and wire, available at any craft or hardware store. Screw eyes come in different sizes, so choose one that seems appropriate to the size of the art (smaller screw eyes for smaller projects, larger for larger – you want the screw to grip into the stretcher bar securely). Twist screw eyes directly into the wooden stretcher bars about a quarter of the way down the sides of the painting. Cut the picture hanging wire several inches longer than the width of the art and thread it through the screw eyes. Loop the wire ends around itself to secure. Don’t leave too much “slack” in the wire or the painting will sag on the wall, and never let the wire come up past the top of the painting when pulled taut. You can also frame your painting (read my canvas framing tips here), which I like to do if the canvas has a thin profile (an inch or less).
Sign Your Work
Add the finishing touches to your work by signing and dating your painting. You may also want to title the work and photograph or inventory it for your records, if that’s important to you or if you are selling your art. I prefer to sign the back of the work so my signature doesn’t distract from the art, but that is a personal preference. Now your work is ready to hang. For hanging tips, read my guide here.
Matting and framing art yourself is a great way to save on costs and it’s simple if you know how to choose the right materials. Here are a few expert tips to make this process super easy.
Choosing the Mat Board
Artworks on paper (this includes paintings, drawings, pastels, prints, mixed media, photographs, etc.) are best displayed by matting them within a frame. The colors and textures of mat board are endless, but to get a professional look I suggest using a neutral color (soft white or cream is universally flattering) and a smooth surface that compliments the work. Choosing a colored mat that “matches” the work will actually distract, and doesn’t convey a sense of professionalism. A neutral ground helps the art to stand out, and ultimately, you want to notice the art – not the mat and frame. I love pairing a white mat with a black frame for a simple and high-quality look. This combo works with almost any work of art.
Sizing and Matting
You can cut mats yourself or you can have someone cut them for you (at a framer or even craft stores like Michaels). The easiest option is to purchase a pre-cut mat, which comes in a range of standard sizes. Whether cutting it yourself or buying a pre-cut mat, you will want the mat to slightly cover the edges of the work (about 1/4 inch on each side). Adhere the work on the back with tape (preferably archival tape, but masking tape works too). Use just enough tape to hold the work in place in case it ever needs to be removed from the mat. Keep in mind if you are cutting your own mat to leave plenty of breathing room around the art, at least 2 inches on each side. The larger the art, the wider the mat should be. Never skimp on the mat width. A wide mat has a way of setting off even a small artwork and making it look impressive.
Frame Your Matted Work
The next step is to assemble your frame with your matted work. For ease, I recommend buying a readymade frame with hanging hardware. These come with a removable backing that allows you to insert and secure your art. Like with the mat, I suggest choosing neutral colors (black metal or wood that has been painted black or stained). Again, you want the frame to support and show off the work, not distract. You will also want to choose a style of frame that matches the work. A large, floral work might stand a more ornate frame, while a small, minimal work might be best in a thin, simple frame. When in doubt, a plain black frame always looks great. Once your work is in its frame, you can add the hanging hardware that came with it or you may need to add screw eyes and hanging wire, which can be found at any craft or home improvement store. For tips on how to hang your art, read this blog post.
Stretching a canvas is a simple process. You just need raw canvas, stretcher bars, and a staple gun. The biggest thing to remember is to keep the canvas square to the stretcher bars and pull tight. Follow these simple steps to stretch your own canvas.
Choose Your Materials
Begin with raw, unprimed linen or cotton canvas. Linen is the more traditional painting surface, particularly for oils, but cotton is cheaper and more commonly used today. The type of canvas you use really comes down to your personal preference. You will also need to choose your stretcher bars, which will determine the size of your painting. Typically, stretcher bars are purchased in individual lengths by the inch. These will need to be fit together and attached with wood glue and a staple gun at the corners. Keep in mind that you may need cross bars to support your stretcher bar frame if you are creating a very large painting.
Measure and Cut the Canvas
Lay out the canvas under the assembled stretcher bar frame and cut the canvas to the correct size. You want the canvas to be about 2 inches wider than the stretcher bars on each side. Make a small cut with scissors into the canvas and then rip the canvas the rest of the way. Ripping the canvas instead of cutting it prevents future fraying and actually makes a straight line because it follows the fibers of the canvas.
Staple the Canvas
Center the stretcher bar frame over the canvas. On one side, pull the canvas up and over the back of the stretcher bar and secure in the middle with a staple gun. Do the same thing on the opposite side - pull the canvas tight and place one staple through the canvas and into the middle of the stretcher bar. Repeat for the other two sides. Now starting at your first staple, pull the canvas tight and staple about 3 inches to the right of the first staple. Rotate the canvas 90 degrees, pull tight, and staple again about 3 inches from the previous staple. You may want to use canvas pliers to help you get a tighter pull. The canvas should be tight like a drum. Continue this process of rotating, pulling, and stapling. As you work, you will see a diamond shape form in the canvas. This is a sign you are getting the canvas tight. As you work toward the edges, the diamond shape will disappear. When you get to the edges, fold the corners over neatly, and staple several times on the back until secure.
Prime the Canvas
Prime the surface with gesso. (You can read my step-by-step guide on how to do this here.) Gesso primes the surface by making it a uniform color, but it also helps tighten up the canvas even more. I like to use Utrecht acrylic gesso under both oil and acrylic paintings. Once you do this, your canvas is ready to paint.
Additional Tips on Stretching a Pre-Primed or Painted Canvas
To stretch a canvas that has already been primed or to stretch a painted canvas, keep in mind you will need to pull extra tight as the canvas won’t have as much “give” because of the layers of paint. You can also add canvas keys to tighten the stretcher bars if necessary. Canvas keys are oddly-shaped pointed pieces of wood that often come with your canvas or stretcher bars. Carefully hammer them into the inside corners of your stretcher bars to slightly expand the width of the bars and thus pull the canvas tighter. Also, if you are stretching a finished painting, keep checking as you stretch to make sure it remains square on the frame.
Whether you are working with oils or acrylics, your surface needs to be primed before you begin. This greatly extends the life of your art by ensuring it will adhere to its canvas support and not flake or crack off. In these pictures I’m using unstretched canvas (read how to stretch canvas here), but the process is the same if you are using an unprimed stretched canvas, just be sure to prime the edges too. This technique can also be used to prep thick paper for painting or mixed media work.
You’ll need gesso to prime the surface. Utrecht’s acrylic gesso is my favorite and the only kind I use. I like it because it’s super thick and very opaque, so it coats the surface well and you can use it to add texture if desired. This gesso (as with all acrylic-based gessoes) can be used under either acrylic or oil paintings. There are some gessoes that are made only for oils, but I prefer the acrylic type because of its versatility.
To begin priming your raw canvas, the first few coats of gesso need to be diluted so the canvas fibers can absorb the primer and create a strong, impermeable support for your painting. I dilute my gesso with a ratio of about 1 part water to 2 parts gesso. I like the consistency to be liquid and pourable. Utrecht gesso out of the bucket is so thick, it requires quite a bit of water to make it pourable. If you are using a different type of gesso you may not need to add as much water. Most gessoes available in craft stores are already very thin, so use your best judgment.
Use a large flat brush to apply the gesso to the raw canvas. As you brush the gesso in, follow the fibers of the canvas, working horizontally and then vertically. Apply an even coat, and let each coat completely dry before adding another. Use at least two coats of the diluted gesso. Once these initial coats have dried, add a layer of gesso at full strength. You can either brush this on evenly for little or no texture (ideal for painting things like portraits where you want a smooth surface) or you can intentionally add texture with brushes, palette knives, or any other tools. I personally like the textured look for abstract paintings. I find it helps give dimension to the painting, and I like to use the texture as part of the composition. Again, this thick texture is only achievable with heavy-bodied gessoes like those by Utrecht. Once this final layer of gesso is dry, you can begin your painting.
Hanging art is a pretty simple process, but here are a few expert tips on how to do it like a pro. With these tips, you can transform an ordinary space into your very own art gallery.
Choose the right hardware for the job. Hopefully the hanging hardware on the back of the art has already been properly installed by the artist or a framer. If you are doing it yourself, I recommend picture hanging wire over any other type of hanger, such as sawtooth hangers. I also prefer conventional picture hanger hooks (like those seen above) to regular nails. If you are purchasing wire and hooks yourself, keep in mind there are different options based on the weight of the artwork. You may need to use more than one hook if you have a particularly large work, and you’ll need two people to install it.
Hang your art at the correct height. In a museum or gallery, art is typically hung where the center of the work is 60 inches from the ground. This places the art at about eye level and makes it easy to view. However, in some instances you might need to hang the work higher, for example, if it is very large or if you have very high ceilings. Here’s how to get it exact: Using a tape measure, take the half the height of the work (let’s say that’s 10”) minus the distance from the hanger to the top of the work (let’s say, 2”). Add this difference (which is 8”) to 60”. This is the height (68”) where you should place your nail for the center of the work to be 60” from the ground. If that’s too complicated, you can simply eyeball it. Just keep in mind you want to place the center of the work at eye level. Also note, when hanging art over furniture, leave about 6-8” of space between. And leave at least 2” between works if you are hanging multiple pieces of art together in a group.
Art should never be placed in direct sunlight or where there is a lot of moisture or extreme changes in temperature. Keep in mind where your windows are when hanging art and avoid placing paintings and drawings in rooms with high humidity such as bathrooms. Paintings on canvas should be varnished to help protect them from these elements. If you can, check with the artist to see if the work has been varnished. If you know the work has not been varnished, you may be able to do this yourself. Just be sure you are using the appropriate formula for either oil or acrylic paintings and follow the instructions on the packaging. Seek out an expert’s help if you are unsure. It's best for works on paper to be framed with UV-protective glass and acid-free backing. Paintings that are not under glass should be dusted as needed with a soft, clean brush or rag. A few simple steps can extend the life of your art and help maintain its value.