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.
When it comes to assembling stretcher bars, I like to start with the corners.
Push the notched corner pieces together until the notches disappear, and you'll be left with a perfect 90-degree angle or one corner. Once the two bars are pushed together, the diagonal line of the two bars will sit flush against each other.
Repeat this with your remaining two frame pieces until you have two pieces or two adjacent corners.
Push the remaining notches together until you have a frame. Using your hammer, tap lightly on your corners to make sure your notches are securely attached.
Spread your canvas out on a flat surface and place your newly constructed frame in the center.
Fold one edge of your canvas over your frame until the stretcher is covered. Then, using scissors, carefully cut the canvas adjacent to the side you're folding, leaving enough to cover the stretcher bar you covered initially.
Remember that L-shape you created with two sides of the frame? If you fold along the bottom line of the L, you'll cut into the canvas along the sideline.
Repeat the above step at your opposite corner, and you'll have the excess canvas removed.
Grab your staple gun (carefully, of course).
At this point, you can use a tool called canvas pliers. While not necessary, canvas pliers can help by holding your canvas tightly and evenly to the frame. Whether or not you're using canvas pliers, keep reading to learn how to fold your canvas around your frame.
Pull and fold one side of your canvas over your stretcher bar. Staple your canvas directly to your bar, placing them in increments. Leave space at the corners for later.
Turn your frame to the opposite side and pull your canvas tight. Secure your canvas in place by placing staples at the outside and working your way to the center, leaving space at the corners.
Repeat this process with your unfolded sides. Remember to keep your canvas pulled tightly and fold your corners, securing them with additional staples.
Repeat this all the way around your frame, working to keep your canvas taut. Your canvas should be taut, but not so taut that it doesn't sink inward at your touch.
Now, you're ready for the final optional touch: the primer.
Now that your canvas has been stretched across your frame, you're ready to prime. Primer makes the canvas fibers less absorbent, helps the colors stand out, and helps provide a smoother surface for you to work on. Priming a canvas is easy with gesso and, while it's easy, it's not a vital step. If you want to paint directly on the canvas, go for it! But gesso will help your painting last.
Gesso has a similar consistency to white acrylic paint, but it dries much harder. Depending on what paint you use or want to use, you can buy gesso for acrylic and oil paint.
How to prime your canvas
Pour your gesso onto a sheet of palette paper.
Use your paintbrush to spread an even layer across the canvas. Make sure you apply gesso to the sides of your canvas, too.
Let your gesso dry. Then, use your sandpaper to sand the surface of your canvas in gentle, circular motions. Make sure you sand every part of your canvas but don't worry about making it perfectly smooth.
Repeat this one more time, waiting for the gesso to dry evenly. Once you're done sanding a second time, you're ready to start painting with your homemade canvas!
The final step? Paint and have fun!