For starters, there are two main types of fiber used to make a canvas: cotton and linen. While you can find specialty canvases made from hemp or jute, cotton and linen are economical choices without sacrificing quality.
For the sake of simplicity, we'll focus on these more mainstream options.
Cotton is easier to stretch, but stretch too tightly and you run the risk of your canvas tearing once it's fixed to your frame (though it is not easy to tear). Linen, on the other hand, is hard to stretch, which means it will be harder to tear once attached to your frame.
Here are a few things to keep in mind about the two.
- Easy to stretch.
- Cheaper than linen.
- Heavier than linene.
- Highly textured.
- Potential to stretch over time.
- Hard to stretch.
- More expensive than cotton.
- More traditional than cotton (linen predates cotton for canvases by a few centuries).
- Smooth texture.
If you're unsure which option will work best for you, start with cotton, the cheaper option, before moving to linen. I promise you you'll feel the pain of wasted linen more so than cotton.
When you purchase or order your canvas, you'll buy by length and weave regardless of canvas type.
You should always buy more canvas than you need.
Weaves, however, are a little more complicated, but not by much.
Canvases come in different weaves.
The higher the number of weaves, the heavier and more textured your canvases will be. Heavier weaves are also used by artists who use a lot of paint, or many layers, in their work. The opposite is true of lighter-handed artists.
Canvases with higher weaves have higher texture, which is particularly true of cotton. Linen is a finer material by nature. How texture translates into your painting is that your brush will skip over small bumps on the canvas, bringing dimension to paintings with fewer colors.
Buying canvases: the bottom line
Like many things in painting, buying the perfect canvas boils down to personal preference. To learn more about what canvases you're partial to, start by experimenting with the lower-cost canvas.
Now that you have your canvas figured out, it's time to assemble your frame.