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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 duck (the most common), linen (a more expensive choice regarded as superior), or synthetic fiber (uncommon). Find out more about what your choices are when it comes to canvas for painting.
Cotton Duck Canvas
Cotton duck canvas has nothing do to with ducks, but it is the most common and the cheapest painting canvas. It comes in various weights (thicknesses) and weaves (how tight the individual threads are woven). The cheapest cotton canvases are loosely woven, and the fabric can easily distort when stretched if you're not careful. If you're stretching your cotton canvas, you may even find it cheaper in a fabric store than an art supplies store.
You can fill in the indentations in the weave with primer or gesso to create a smoother painting surface (especially if you apply multiple layers, sanding down each time). Or you can use the weave of the canvas as part of the texture of your painting.
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.
Synthetic Fibers for Canvas
Many artists are prejudiced against synthetic fibers, because they're not traditional or because they believe they haven't stood the test of time. Essentially you could use any fabric for a canvas, provided its fibers were strong to support the weight of the primer and paint without distortion or tearing. If longevity is important to you, then know that rigid support such as a wood panel is the best choice as it means the painting won't flex.
Stretched Canvas or Not?
Don't feel you're lazy if you never stretch your canvas. Famous painters generally have an assistant to do it for them or buy it from a canvas supplier. It does, however, have the advantage of getting canvases exactly the shape and size you desire (and isn't tricky if you've someone to help). Sticking to standard, stretched sizes, on the other hand, make it feasible to buy ready-made frames.
Primed or Raw Canvas?
You can buy both stretched and unstretched canvas with or without primer already painted onto it. Most primed canvas is suitable for both oil paints and acrylic, but do check. If you want to prime canvas in a traditional style for oil painting (with rabbit skin glue for size and traditional gesso rather than acrylic gesso), you'll most probably have to do it yourself.
Canvas is primed to protect the fabric from the paint. With acrylics, this isn't much of an issue, but with oil paint, the oils will, with time, cause the fabric to deteriorate and become brittle.
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. At its worse, the canvas is stuck to a cheap card with cheap glue and cut to a size that warps as it gets damp when you paint. Best to try one first to ensure you're getting something that works well.
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).
Canvas Formats & Sizes
Canvas is available in an array of sizes and formats. The standard formats are called landscape or portrait (though of course, you can paint any subject on them!). Canvas can be stapled (or nailed) to the stretcher either on the side or the back (a gallery wrap canvas), or wedged in place without staples (called a spline finish). You even get canvas sewn into books, for art journaling or bookmaking.
Depth of the Edge
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 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.
Roll of Canvas
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.