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.