How to Safely Roll Up a Finished Canvas Painting

Paper roll of traditional painting

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Paintings stretched on canvas take up a lot of space. It can be difficult to find enough storage for all of your unsold paintings. When you do sell one, it's considerably cheaper to roll it up for packaging. But is it okay to roll a canvas you've worked so hard on?

This is a common question among artists and it's not easy to answer. In general, you can roll a finished canvas painting, however, there are precautions and considerations that you need to take into account first.

Is It Okay to Ship or Store a Rolled Canvas Painting?

A painting should survive being rolled up and shipped, provided you ensure the paint is completely dry and don't roll it up too tightly. You must realize that the process of rolling has risks associated with it.

The primary concern is the potential for damaging the painting when you take the canvas off its stretchers. It will also need to be restretched and that is another opportunity for damage.

As for storing paintings that have been rolled up, it's not an ideal long-term choice. You may want to consider limiting it to your 'B' grade paintings if you do need additional storage space. Keep your best paintings on the stretchers.

How Dry Should the Paint Be?

The paint needs to be utterly and totally dry, not just touch dry on the surface. Don't be tempted to roll a painting up when it's not completely dry as many problems can arise, particularly with oil paints which can be very wet under the surface.

It does not matter if your buyer can't wait for the painting, the paint needs to dry and you need to explain that to them. You should have the attitude that you'd rather risk losing the sale by telling the person to wait. It is better than having a dissatisfied client in possession of a messed-up painting.

How to Roll Up a Canvas

To minimize the risk of damage, you will want to follow a few simple guidelines: keep the roll loose and the paint on the outside.

Roll up the canvas with the paint on the outside. If you roll it up with the paint on the inside, the paint may wrinkle (especially if it's applied thickly or has a lot of texture).

If you're skeptical about this, do a quick test: bend a finger and pay attention to your skin. On the outer edge, it stretches slightly to cope with the curve, whereas on the inside it folds up and compresses. Paint does the same thing, though it is not as visible.

Don't roll the painting up tightly. You want it to be as loose and as big a roll as possible. If you're putting the painting into a tube for posting, buy a tube with a larger diameter. Ideally, you should buy two tubes: one to roll the canvas around so it can't be squashed accidentally, and another to put the rolled-up painting into.

Whether or not you put something over the painting before rolling is debatable. You want to protect the painting but you don't want something that will stick to it, rub off on it, or chafe it.

  • Something with texture, such as bubble wrap, may 'imprint' itself on the paint (called ferrotyping).
  • Paper may absorb moisture and go moldy, especially thin tissue paper.
  • A plastic that's too thin may adhere to the painting like cling film and be hard to remove.
  • If you use another piece of canvas, make sure it has a fine weave, not a coarse one.

But then again, you also don't want a rolled-up painting to chafe against the inside of the tube, so you do want to put some sort of packaging between it and the tube.

Remember: Resist the temptation to roll the canvas with the painting on the inside to solve this problem.

Your best options are either a stiffish piece of plastic (like the plastic sheet you'd cover the floor with while decorating) or a spare piece of unpainted canvas. In either case, make sure it doesn't have dust on it and is free of wrinkles and creases.

How Long Can You Store a Rolled Painting?

In an ideal world, you would store a rolled painting for as short a period as possible. If feasible, store a rolled canvas vertically rather than horizontal. This puts the weight is on the outer edge of the canvas not on a side of the painting. 

The best case scenario for long-term storage is to store a canvas unrolled and lying flat. Try to find a space to do this, but don't store too many paintings on top of one another as the bottom one will eventually be flattened by the weight.

Very Important: Unroll a painting at room temperature, not when it's cold and the paint is relatively rigid as this may cause cracking.

How to Get a Canvas Painting off Stretchers

To remove a painting from its stretchers, you need to take your time and pay attention through the entire process. This is a risky task and you do not want to risk damaging all of your hard work.

Remove the staples or nails that hold the canvas onto the stretchers. Remember that you don't want to tear or rip the edges of the canvas as they will be needed when it is re-stretched. Be patient as you try to lever out the staples.

If you do not have a suitable woodworking tool (e.g. long-nose pliers), try a flat screwdriver rather than something sharp like a pair of scissors.

Whatever you do, don't cut the canvas off the stretcher! This will leave no excess for re-stretching and you will have to figure out an alternative plan for it to be displayed.

How to Get a Canvas Painting Back on New Stretchers

Stretching a finished painting is the same process you would use for a blank canvas: fold the edges over the stretchers and staple it securely. Just do it far more carefully and gently!

Warn a Buyer to Expect a Rolled Canvas

If you're going roll up paintings for shipping, it is best to warn the buyer up front. Most people expect to be able to hang a painting on their wall immediately and probably have no idea how to restretch a canvas.

In most cases, they will need to take it to an experienced picture framer. Most professional framers should be able to do this.

Be sure to communicate all of these tips to your buyer, particularly that a canvas needs to be unrolled at room temperature if you're shipping in the winter. Send a note in the package to remind them.