Canvas for acrylic painting comes in a range of forms, from expensive stretched linen canvas to cheap canvas pads. In this article I'll tell you about the different types of canvas supports available for use with acrylics, so you can make an informed choice when you're ready to buy.
The versatility of acrylics means that you can choose from a wide range of painting surfaces (such as wood and paper), but canvas is the most popular. For more info on some of the other options, check out my Other Painting Surfaces for Acrylics page.
"Support" is an art term for any surface on which you apply paint or any kind of medium.
Canvas is a traditional support for painting, used for centuries by the masters, and it has endured in modern times as the support of choice. There are 2 main reasons why artists love to paint on canvas: its pleasing receptivity to the brush and its longevity. If you want to create a permanent artwork that will endure for centuries, you can't do any better. Hardwood panels have also been used traditionally to create permanent art, but canvas is much lighter and easier to transport. Canvas is also your best option if you want to create a very large painting.
The downside, of course, is that canvas can be very expensive. I hope to provide you with a clear overview so that you can select the best canvas for acrylic painting that is also gentle on your pocket.
Canvas is generally made from either linen or cotton, natural fibers that are woven together and then stretched over a frame or glued to a panel. Each fiber comes in different textures or weights.
The texture depends on the weave, so a finely woven canvas is smooth and best suited to small, detailed works. A rough texture is preferred by painters who like bold brushstrokes and larger paintings.
The weight is dependent on the thread density and is measured in ounces per yard. The higher the weight, the better the quality. Try to avoid canvases with weights lower than 8-10 oz.
Linen is the best of the best and expensive. If you care about permanence and don't mind paying for it, there is no better option if you want the best canvas for acrylic painting. On the other hand you can save some money by using a high-quality cotton duck canvas, which should weigh between 12-15 oz. It's cheaper than linen, but is still a suitable choice for permanent paintings.
Now, lets take a look at the four main ways you can use canvas as a painting surface: Stretched Canvas, Canvas Rolls, Canvas Panels, and Canvas Pads.
Canvas for acrylic painting is usually stretched over a wooden frame (called stretcher bars) and then primed with a gesso that creates a surface receptive to the paint. Unlike oils, acrylics will adhere to an unprimed canvas, but the colors may be somewhat dull compared to acrylics painted onto a primed canvas. Also, the texture of canvas will be more prominent on an unprimed canvas. You can buy pre-stretched ready-primed canvases in a variety of shapes and sizes for a reasonable price. (Even when you buy pre-primed canvas, I still recommend giving it a coat or two of gesso, for better absorbency.)
Unless you're particularly interested in stretching and priming your own canvas, I recommend that beginners choose the ready-made kind. I find it convenient (which leaves more time for painting) and depending on the quality I need, quite affordable. Just remember to look for canvases primed for acrylics and not oils (though some are primed for both).
Ready-made canvases can be purchased in different thicknesses, usually referred to as deep or traditional. Deep canvases (see photo on the left) have thick stretcher bars (such as 1.5” - 3” thick), while traditional canvases have thinner stretcher bars (such as .75” thick).
The main consideration with regards to thickness is how you (or your customer) want your canvas to look on the wall. If you envision that the finished painting will be framed, you should get a traditional (thinner) canvas. For an unframed painting you can choose any thickness, depending on how far you want the artwork to protrude from the wall. With deep canvases you can create cool effects by painting the sides and edges, resulting in paintings that are intended to be hung on the wall without a frame (which some buyers might see as a perk because they won’t have to shell out more money for a frame, and they won’t have to fret over choosing the right frame to match both the painting and their other home decor).
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