How Do I Choose a Canvas for Painting?

Painters most commonly use canvas for their work, even though there are many surfaces available to paint on. Choosing the type of canvas for your work is almost as important as the work itself. Canvases come in different materials, weights and textures, and each has its own characteristics. Some are more durable than others, some are more or less textured, and pricing varies from very cheap to very expensive.

So how does an artist select the type of canvas he or she wants to paint on? It starts with learning about canvases and ends with a decision about what is best for each individual work.


What Is the Difference Between Ready-Made and Hand-Stretched Canvas?

If you have been painting very long, you have probably been to a craft or hobby store and seen an abundance of canvases that are ready for painting. These tend to be a little pricey, unless the store is running a good sale. Most stores do run sales regularly, so the trick is to find out when they have their best sales and stock up.

Use caution, though, and make sure you are getting the right kind of canvas for the type of painting you do. If you are ordering online, you can type in specific keywords to help ensure you get the right product.

For example, canvases that are meant to be used for acrylic painting are not appropriate for oil painting, and oil canvases should not be used for acrylics. They are primed differently and if you use the wrong type of paint on them, it will likely peel off later on.

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Sometimes getting pre-stretched canvases is the easiest and most cost-effective way for a beginner to buy canvas, and sometimes you can even buy small practice canvases in bulk and save a lot of money.

If you plan to do a lot of painting and are getting serious about your work, you may want to consider stretching your own canvases. In this case, you need to know more about the differences in canvas types, supports, and how to stretch the canvas. Doing so may save you a bundle.

Pre-stretched canvas for painting
Pre-stretched canvas for paintingPhotograph By Robin Turner

What Are the Different Types of Canvas for Painting?

Canvas can be divided into categories by weight and material. The weight of the canvas often correlates to the texture of the canvas, but not always. There are canvases made of natural fibers, synthetic canvases, and blends.

Heavy Canvases

The heaviest and most textured canvases are made of cotton and jute twill, flax, or cotton duck. They are heavy and coarse, but cotton duck is not as coarse and is considered to be a better grade of canvas.

Lightweight Canvases

Light, inexpensive cotton canvases are not ideal for masterpieces because they tend to expand and contract more over time, but they are good for practice paintings. Other materials for canvas are linen, cotton-rayon, and Hessian.


Linen is considered to be the finest type of canvas, and is truly a joy to work with. The texture is smooth and mostly free of knots and lumps. It is best for work where you don’t want the texture of the canvas to have much impact on the appearance of the work. It is also more expensive.

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Cotton-rayon is a blend of natural and synthetic fiber and is typically very durable. This type of canvas is the most common and is usually what you get with a pre-primed, stretched canvas. This type of canvas lasts longer, maintains flexibility over time, and tends to resist chemical damages.


Hessian is a coarse, inexpensive canvas that is not very common. It might be more suitable for practice canvases because it usually needs a good bit of priming and also tends to deteriorate after a while. If you are just doing craft painting or work that is not expected to last a long time, this may be a good option.

“Mountain Morning” Acrylic Painting on Canvas By Robin Turner
“Mountain Morning” Acrylic Painting on Canvas By Robin TurnerPhotograph by Robin Turner

How Do I Choose the Right Canvas for My Painting?

Deciding on a canvas can be easy if you know what you want to put onto the canvas. If the work is just for fun, or you are practicing brush strokes, choose inexpensive canvas. Try different textures out to see which one you like best. Look at the difference the texture makes in the way that the finished work looks and makes you feel. When you are painting, you are also conveying feeling, and texture can play a big part in that.

  • Watercolors or Fine Details: If you are painting with watercolors, you may want thin layers of paint to glide smoothly over the canvas with little to no impact from the texture. The same can be true of some acrylic painting. In this case, you would want to use a fine linen canvas, or a fine quality cotton such as cotton duck. You would also want to use a finer canvas if you were producing smaller scale works, because you might not want the heavy texture of a cheap canvas to interfere with your finely detailed brushwork.
  • Bold Brushwork or Strong Textures: If you want to experiment with bold brush strokes, palette-knife painting or strong textures, you will want to choose cotton jute twill, cotton duck or any canvas that is heavier. Heavier canvases are also often appropriate for larger-scale works, but must be stretched correctly.
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All canvases should be carefully stretched using the proper methods. They can expand and contract to some degree even after being stretched once. They also need to be primed appropriately for the type of paint you intend to use.

Self Portrait by Vincent Van Gogh
Self Portrait by Vincent Van GoghPhotograph By Robin Turner

How Does My Choice of Canvas Affect My Painting?

Choosing the right canvas for your painting is an important task. Certain canvases work better with certain kinds of artwork. Canvas materials vary, as do their textures, weights, and level of quality. The things you want to consider when choosing a canvas are the purpose of the work, the appearance you desire for the work, and how long you want the work to last.

Buying pre-stretched, pre-primed canvas is fine but be certain that you are purchasing the quality and texture you need. Stretching your own canvas is fine too but make sure you learn how to correctly stretch the canvas.

Ultimately, you would not want to create a large, complex masterpiece painting on the wrong canvas. Choose the right canvas so that your time and effort are rewarded and the masterpiece you create will stand the test of time.

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