Friday, February 6, 2009


I have been experimenting with different sorts of canvas lately. For many years I used an oil primed linen from Belgium. It was very nice to paint on, but I ran into a problem with it. I would sometimes go to a gallery to pick up an unsold painting from perhaps a year or so before.The painting would be sagging or puckered on the stretchers because of the susceptibility of the linen to changes in humidity. I have also had a collector ask me on occasion to tighten up a painting they owned. I will never know how many potential clients walked away from one of my canvasses because it was wrinkled.
I never had this problem years ago when I worked on cotton, it didn't seem to come and go as much. I have been experimenting with cotton for several years now and here is what I have found.
Other artists have said to me that linen is more archival, and perhaps it is, but all that expanding and contracting can't be good for the paint film. I know many painters who will only paint on linen and nothing is better under the brush than the feel of a good oil primed linen, but all that loosening and tightening was a real headache.
I have seen many paintings from the first part of the twentieth century that were painted on cotton and were in a good state of preservation. After a hundred years if my paintings need to be relined that's not such a big deal anyway , old paintings are routinely relined.
I am of course referring to quality cotton canvas and not the thin stuff on the prestretched canvases available in the art supply stores.
Fredrix is an American company makeing a number of grades of cotton canvas but the one I have been using lately is called Scarlett O'Hara. They name many of their canvas varieties after things from Gone with the Wind, for instance they also make a canvas called Tara. The unusual thing about this Scarlett O'Hara canvas is that it is oil primed. I don't know of any other oil primed cotton canvas. Oil priming is a nice thing, most of the canvas out there is acrylic primed, manufacturers like to make acrylic primed canvas because when they prime it their drying times are quicker than with oil. When you buy a canvas that says universal or all media, or good for oil or acrylic, that means that the product is acrylic primed . Acrylic priming is okay but oil priming is preferable. I think the paint stands up and looks better on oil priming and it usually feels better under the brush. The other nice thing about Scarlett O'Haras is that it is reasonably priced compared to linen. It is an expensive cotton for sure, but its cost is half that of linen. It is a little bit scratchy under the brush like a lot of cotton, so before I start to paint on it I give it a shot of my medium and wipe that into the surface with a paper towel or brush.
The other interesting thing about this particular canvas is that it is lead primed . Lead priming is a good thing. No European canvas is still lead primed so far as I know, although the good ones used to be. Lets say you are laying a painting in with burnt sienna and you make a mistake, you can wipe it out with your rag better than if you are working on an acrylic ground. Lead grounds tend not to stain as much as acrylic.
Scarlett O'Hara by Fredrix is available though Jerrys and other mail order firms as well. If you have a problem with the price of that, or possibly its lead priming the next couple of posts will present some other alternative supports for painting.


Mary Bullock said...

Very good explanation of the pros and cons of different kinds of canvas, Stape. I am guilty as charged again, for using the prestretched thin art store canvases. My daughter, however, stretches her own canvases - She is much smarter than me. But I don't know what kind of canvas she uses. Mary

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mary ; I have a couple more posts on canvas and then I think we are about through with the materials. I will throw something else in there for a variation.......Stape

1A said...

I didn't know about linen stretching--yikes. Have you heard of or tried Nestchen? I know it's sold here: It's supposed to never stretch. According to the manufacturer, of course. Well, I've never tried it, and it's way beyond my budget now, but I wonder if it would be better than fancy double-primed Belgian linen?