5 Things You Should Know Before You Choose a Canvas

By Milan Art Institute on July 11, 2019
5 Things You Should Know Before You Choose a Canvas

Canvas is king in the artist world. It is the main surface artists paint and create on today, as it has been for quite some time. Originating from sailcloth, canvas has become an artform in and of itself. In today’s art world, there is such a wide variety of canvas choices, sizes, surfaces, etc., it can seem like an overwhelming task to choose your starting point. Here we have broken down the process of how to choose the right canvas for your next show-stopping creation. 


But first, what is canvas? 

Usually found wrapped around a wooden frame and hung up on a wall, canvas is a very popular surface artists paint on. But what is it exactly? Canvas material for painting is fabric made up of either cotton threads, or linen, all woven together for either a coarse or smooth texture. Linen is a more expensive, but smoother and higher quality material. 


Why should you use canvas?

Artists all over the world use canvas for many reasons. They are easily accessible, professional, sturdy, easy to hang on the wall, and they come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. Canvases are pretty much the gold standard when it comes to surfaces to paint on. Many craft stores sell canvases, but usually a lower grade canvas. You can get higher grade canvases made specifically for professional artists in designated art supply stores. Because stretched canvases have a wooden structure/skeleton underneath, it makes them very sturdy. Larger canvases usually will have horizontal bars going through the center of the canvas to keep the wood from getting all funky. The wooden frame also makes the canvas very easy to hang. You can choose to hang it directly on the wall or put a wire on the back of the canvas. All you need is a hammer and a nail or two; whereas with paper pieces, you or your collector will need to purchase a frame before you are able to hang up the masterpiece. Recently, I have discovered that some brands even make circle and oval canvases. This is revolutionary for artists everywhere! Instead of only having square and rectangle options, artists now have even more variety to choose from for their art. More choices means more possibilities! Canvases have stood the test of time, again, making them a very desirable option for artists. Because of their archival quality, a gallery would not hesitate to accept a work created on a canvas. 


What makes a great canvas?

All the best canvases share the same qualities; tightly wrapped, a good solid structure, and in general, they are made with high quality materials. A good canvas will be tight, but will not tear in the corners where it’s wrapped. A loosely stretched canvas is the worst! There are some tricks to get a loose canvas pulled tight after purchasing, such as spraying the back with water and letting it dry in the sun, but it’s best to purchase a canvas that is already tight as a drum. A good canvas will also be primed with gesso, allowing the paint to sit on top of the canvas and not immediately soak into the fibers. A canvas will state whether it is primed or not on the label. The frame of the canvas is important, especially for larger pieces. A quality frame will have more structure, especially for larger pieces. If your canvas is 24”x36” or larger, you will want to be sure to get a canvas with a horizontal bar going across the middle of the canvas. Double check the wood on the canvas to make sure it is not warped, and is free of knots and cracks. Usually if you are buying a canvas from a reputable brand, you won’t find any errors in the wood they’ve chosen, but it is still a good idea to look your canvas over before walking out of the store with it.

Another thing to consider when choosing the right canvas to paint on is the depth of the canvas. Typically, you want at least 1.38” of depth in a canvas. This just adds an overall more professional feeling to the painting. It’s definitely better to spend that extra few dollars in order to get a higher quality canvas because the worst thing in the world is creating your favorite painting ever on a low quality canvas and forever regretting your terrible mistake.


Types of canvases

There are actually several different types of canvas that artists can use! The general idea is the same, with a few slight variations. 

Canvas boards

Canvas boards are thin lightweight wood boards with thin canvas wrapped around the front and the edges. These are fantastic for plein air painting sets; you can measure your plein air box to see what canvas board size will fit best for you. 

Unstretched/loose canvas

Loose canvas is simply canvas without the wooden frame. It is extremely convenient to ship, as you can roll it into a tube, saving a ton of money and boxing time. This is okay if you are shipping to a gallery, but typically, you want your paintings to be stretched when you send them to collectors.


Gallery-wrapped canvases are the most common canvas you see, wrapped around the frame with a minimum of a 1.38” edge. There are also thicker edged canvases available. 

The thinner edged canvases are the same, but with sometimes only a quarter inch edge. 


Linen is another painting canvas material. Linen canvases are classic, and have a very smooth finish. The “stitch” is much smaller and closer compared to normal cotton canvas. Linen material is fantastic for oil painting canvases, great for realism and portraits, as the texture of canvas is nearly undetected. 


Selecting your canvas

We’ve talked about several different materials and types of canvases and surfaces you can paint on, but the question you want to ask yourself when you are purchasing a canvas is this: what is its purpose? If you are looking to buy a canvas to experiment on, get wild and crazy, and then put away in the closet later, you’re probably not going to need to spend $60+ on a canvas. However, if you are intending to take your time and create a beautiful painting to sell to a collector, you bet you’re going to want to spend the big bucks on a high quality canvas. 

When it comes to experimentation, it is totally fine to spend only $1-3 on a student canvas, or to get those types of painting canvases you can buy in bulk in your local craft store. Any size will do, you’re having lighthearted fun here. The canvas boards are also a great option, and easy to store. You won’t need to go out of your way to find an art supply store that sells the pro artist-grade, so you will also be saving time there. When it comes to what paint to use on canvas, nearly anything goes. It is also a personal preference, but any canvas can be a canvas for acrylic paints, and oil! For fun experimenting, testing, hobbying, you have options and freedom galore!

Now, that is not to say you cannot sell your experimentation paintings on canvas. If your intention is to sell in a gallery, though, you will want to get a headstart on that, and go all out on a high quality canvas. Investing the time and money to go out and get a pro-grade canvas for the artwork shows dedication and will certainly pay off in the end. Your paintings will always look better with the thicker gallery-wrapped edges, bringing it up a level or two. 



If you have made it this far, you are (un)officially a Junior Canvas Expert. Congratulations! It is now time to get out there with your newfound knowledge and get the best canvas that suits your artsy fartsy needs. Whether that is a 24”x36” gallery-wrapped linen canvas, or a 5”x8” canvas board, you now will have the confidence of a seasoned pro walking down the canvas isle at any art supply store. Happy painting! 

If you enjoyed reading this article or found it helpful in any way at all, you probably will want to check out our other free resources for artists. We have an entire section on our website dedicated to incredible free content that we’ve created to help you take your art to another level. This includes more awesome articles like this one, podcasts, webinars and even entire courses! Click here to check out more amazing free learning materials.

Miranda Gamel

Professional Artist, Mastery Program Coach

Milan Art Institute
Milan Art Institute

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