The term canvas serves as a generic term for any fabric that's used as a support for painting. The fabric can be a cotton (the most common), linen (a more expensive choice regarded as superior), or paper (uncommon). The type of canvas you choose depends on the medium you are using, whether it be oil, acrylics, or watercolor paints.
Additional factors to look for include size, construction, and whether or not the canvas was stretched. Professional painter Cris Cristofaro stretches his own canvases for his artwork and emphasizes the importance of using high-quality materials. "If I am buying online, I would want to know what the back looks like and if the stretcher is constructed well," he says.
While professionals tend to opt for something of slightly better quality and in turn more costly, beginner painters may opt for something affordable that comes in bulk for practicing different styles and techniques. Fine artist Ben Rizzo lets his process and art style guide his buying decision. "Knowing your process and style will help steer you to the type of canvas you want to buy," he advises.
Here, our top picks for the best painting canvases for all levels and needs.
Best Overall : Sargent Art 16x20 Stretched Canvas
Works with acrylic or oil
Canvas can be a little loose
For a canvas perfect for acrylic or oil paints, look no father than the Sargent Art Stretched Canvases. The stretched cotton comes on a frame of Paulownia wood, which is light, fine-grained, and warp resistant.
These canvases have been pre-treated with double acrylic titanium priming, so they are ready to paint right out of the box. Professionals and beginners alike will love the smooth and taut surface these canvases provide for a variety of projects.
Best Budget : VViViD Double Primed Cotton Canvas Roll
Perfect for beginners
Some users reported receiving warped or stained products
If you want to work on unstretched canvas (which takes up less storage space and is easier to ship) or at dimensions that you can't find as a readymade canvas, then a roll of canvas is ideal. Canvas rolls also offer more surface area for creating at an affordable cost, making them a perfect budget option for beginner acrylic painters.
You can choose the ideal size of your role for maximum usage, and the canvas roll can then be cut to any size you desire. It comes double primed for years of use without yellowing and has multiple purposes besides painting with acrylics: drawing, oil, watercolors, or other home crafts and projects.
Best for Watercolor: Fredrix 12x16-Inch Stretched Watercolor Canvas
Compatible with watercolor
Some found their canvases to look warped
Watercolor canvas is specially made for watercolor paint, and it is indeed different from painting with watercolor on paper. For starters, the paint stays wet longer, and you can abuse the surface more with a coarse brush.
This canvas is already acid-free acrylic titanium-primed and ready to paint. Thanks to its unique surface, you can wipe away any wet mistakes as you work. While designed for watercolor, you can also use acrylic paints on this canvas and see desirable results.
Best for Professionals : Masterpiece The Artist Grid Cotton Canvas
Staple free sides
Grid may be too small for some artists
The gird method has been used for years for artists to create accurate paintings of their subject. This canvas from Masterpiece takes all the hassle of creating your own grid away with a light blue grid printing right on the cotton.
Masterpiece has all of the qualities that professionals want in a canvas including a primed surface, taut sides, and a smooth surface for acrylic or oil paints. The grid adds a special touch that makes it easier to transfer drawings and photographs to the canvas. This would be especially helpful for portrait artists who want an accurate result.
Best for Beginners : Canson XL Series Oil and Acrylic Paper Pad
Sturdy and durable
Not made for framing and displaying finished pieces
Canvas paper is particularly suitable for oil and acrylic painters who are just starting out. It's relatively inexpensive, so you won't mind chucking those first artistic attempts that don't quite rise to the level of masterpieces. Since it's easy to carry, you can use it for sketching exterior scenes (but you can use it for other locales, too).
This pack from Hanson is made for oil and acrylic paints and is designed to be bleed-proof, so no water or paints will ruin other pages in the pack or the surface you are painting on. There is no priming necessary, so artists can get right to creating with 24 sheets.
Best for Oil Paints : Blick Premier Stretched Cotton Canvas
Triple primed surface
Various sizes available
Oil paints require a smooth and tough surface to ensure the highest quality outcome. Blick makes high-quality canvases that are 100% cotton and come in a variety of shapes and sizes for all projects. They also come in different depths, which may come in handy when planning to frame a piece.
Blick canvases are triple primed, making this a great choice for intermediate painters that expect a great tooth in a canvas, which refers to the roughness or smoothness of the surface. The wood frame is warp resistant and stretches tight for a flat working surface.
Best Canvas Board : ARTEZA Canvas Board
Already primed and gessoed
Can buy in bulk
Thin boards may not be suitable for lots of layers of paint
A canvas panel consists of primed fabric stuck onto a board. At its best, the canvas wraps around the edges of the archival or acid-free board and is stuck down with archival glue, providing rigid, textured support for painting. These ones from ARTEZA are made of cotton to make painting with acrylics or oils effortless.
Canvas panels offer nearly the same quality surface as stretched canvas, but they often do not last quite as long. Therefore, canvas panels are great for beginners because they're affordable, can be bought in bulk, and are perfect for practicing different techniques.
Best Deep Edge : Winsor & Newton Classic Cotton Deep Edge Canvas
Comes with wooden key for additional stretching
Paint easily glides over surface
Canvas doesn't sag
Some users reported receiving broken or damaged products
Another consideration when buying a canvas is the depth of the edge, which can be normal (traditional profile) or deep edge (deep profile). There's no standard measurement for these, though as a rule of thumb the cheaper the canvas, the narrower the edge generally is.
Deep edges mean the painting stands out further from the wall, so this can be very effective if you want to continue the painting around the edges or never frame a canvas. It also means the stretchers are thicker, which means you can have a larger format canvas without needing a cross-brace to prevent warping. Winsor & Newton canvases are hand-stretched for the best tension and tailored corners. This model also includes wooden keys for further stretching if desired.
Best Linen: Masterpiece Linen Canvas
No sinking or stretching
Can choose between primed and unprimed
Linen canvas is regarded as superior to cotton canvas because the threads are narrower (finer) and the weave tighter. (And Belgian linen the best of all linens). Once stretched and primed, linen canvas is less likely to stretch or shrink, or threads move or distort. Linen canvas that has not been primed is very obvious as it's a dull brown rather than white. Portrait linen is linen canvas with a very smooth surface, ideal for painting detail.
This linen canvas from Masterpiece uses Belgian linen and is double sized and primed with highly absorbent warm yellowish archival quality oil primer. This kind of canvas is only suited for oil paints. The linen has natural fibers that help prevent disintegration over time for long lasting work.
What to Look for in a Canvas
"Primer gives the canvas a nice surface ready to accept paint," says Rizzo. "It is like weatherproofing a pair of leather shoes. You are protecting the cotton fibers and not allowing the liquid to be absorbed as quickly, if at all," he explains.
You can buy both stretched and unstretched canvases with or without primer already painted onto it. Most primed canvases are suitable for both oil paints and acrylic, but always double check. With acrylics, you won't have to worry as much, but with oil paint, the oils will, with time, cause the fabric to deteriorate and become brittle.
Rizzo also shares that you can prime your own canvas easily with gesso, a white paint mixture. "Use a paint roller and you can be done in half the time," he says. "Make sure the application is even with two coats of gesso, and leave about an hour of dry time in-between. Do not add water."
Stretched or Not?
Buying stretched canvas is definitely a time saver and there are no downsides to it. "It is ready for optimal painting," says Rizzo. Unstretched canvas can still be painted on, but it will give you a rougher finish. "And if you decide to stretch a canvas after you paint, you can run into problems with the cotton stretching out with your paint on it," Rizzo adds.
Items like canvas roll, canvas paper, and canvas boards are not stretched over frames and are flat against their surface. Canvas roll can be stretched over frames for that classic look while the others are meant more for practicing skills than displaying in frames.
Depending on the project you want to create, you will need a particularly-sized canvas. Luckily, canvases come in multiple sizes and shapes for every image imaginable. Most pre-stretched canvases are made to fit in standard frame sizes, but for more unique shapes, opt for canvas roll that can be cut into any size.
Every artist will eventually find the size that they enjoy working on. Rizzo suggests, "Experiment with all and you will find which one is best suited for you. I always tell my students, 'Paint big and be bold and confident,'" he says.
How can you tell if a canvas is of good quality?
Good quality canvases are stretched very tightly so there is no sagging in the middle and no tearing on the edges. This provides a smooth surface to paint on. It also prevents the wood in the frame from warping, which could affect the painting itself. A good canvas should come on a sturdy frame that will not move around or change over time.
Rizzo knows that the price will reflect the quality of the canvas, but he reminds us: "You do not need to get the best quality supplies to be a good artist."
What happens if you paint on unprimed canvas?
"Canvases are meant to repel water, so if I have a piece of canvas on the floor and I pour water on it, it's going to bead up," says Cristofaro. Therefore, water based paints will not stick as well to unprimed surfaces. "If you add a coat of gesso, the paints will adhere and look nice," he continues. Primed canvases ensure that the paints being used slide over the canvas easily and stay put for long periods of time.
What size canvases do professional artists use?
There is no one answer as to what size canvases professional artists use. It depends entirely on the artist's work and preferences. For example, Cristafro works on large canvases up to 80 inches long. "I like working large because I can get into it," he says. "I can actually feel myself entering the canvas itself."
Why Trust the Spruce?
This article was written by Julia Fields, a lifestyle writer for The Spruce covering all things surrounding toys, gifts, and the holidays. She's also covered similar topics in other roles, including toy reviews, product round-ups, expert-focused articles, and more. Expert advice was provided by professional painter Cris Cristofaro and fine artist Ben Rizzo.