Article: Canvas or Linen, what’s the difference?
As artists we're confronted with lots of choices. What medium do I paint with? How large should I work? What should my subject be? An equally important question is what surface to choose. When working with watercolour, paper is the obvious substrate (surface) to use. However, if you're working with oil or acrylic you can use paper if it's properly primed or also a variety of different panels or of course the most commonly used support, canvas.
In this article, Resident Artist, Jimmy Leslie discusses the results achieved with these different canvas substrates.
Many artists often think of canvas and linen as being two different surfaces. For our purpose as artists the word canvas means a fabric used as a painting surface. The difference is that some canvas is made from cotton fibres while others are made from linen fibres. Let's take a closer look at the two.
Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fibre that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants. The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. Cotton was independently domesticated in the Old and New Worlds. The fibre most often is spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile, which is the most widely used natural-fibre cloth in clothing today. The English name derives from the Arabic (al) qutn قُطْن, which began to be used circa 1400 AD. 
Linen is a textile made from the fibres of the flax plant. Linen is labour-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. The word "linen" is derived from the Latin word for the flax plant, which is linum, and the earlier Greek linon. This word history has given rise to a number of other terms in English, the most notable of which is the English word "line", derived from the use of a linen (flax) thread to determine a straight line.
These may be the technical differences but what does this mean for artists?
Cotton is desirable because of its affordable price and its ease of stretching. Much less expensive than linen, it has become the most popular support for oil and acrylic painting, especially for students and is classified according to its weight and surface texture. A properly prepared cotton canvas has longevity similar to linen canvas, and is more flexible and easier to stretch properly. However, cotton is considered too flexible for very large paintings.
It is possible to stretch cotton tighter than linen, without straining the wooden support, because cotton fibres stretch more easily than linen fibres. Although not as strong as linen, a heavy grade cotton can make up for its lack of strength with its weight.
For both oil and acrylic painting, an acrylic gesso primer is generally used.
is by far the better-quality because of its strength and resistance to decay. Woven from flax, the weave can show throughout many layers of paint.
Primed with an oil primer this is the classical standard for oil paintings. An acrylic primer which is less expensive than oil primer, can be used with either acrylic or oil paints. Linen is difficult to prime and stretch properly, but it offers the smoothest and stiffest painting surface, one with proven longevity. If an oil primer is to be applied to either cotton or linen canvas the surface must first be sized with rabbit skin glue or PVA (poly vinyl acetate) size. This serves to seal the fibres and act as a barrier between the canvas and the oil primer. If oil is applied to an un-sized canvas the oil will eventually weaken the fibres and thereby undermine the permanence of the image painted on its surface.
It's important to note that if rabbit skin glue or neutral ph PVA size is to be applied to either cotton or linen the canvas must not be stretched too tightly. Because both sizes are very fluid they will cause the fabric to contract to such a degree that the stretcher bars may warp.
Linen, while expensive, is the traditional choice. Some of the qualities linen has that makes it so attractive to painters are:
- Linen is the most durable fabric to put paint on. Linen's warp and weft threads are equal in weight so less susceptible to the expanding/contracting problems created by moisture.
- Linen is very receptive to sizing and priming applications.
- Linen retains its natural oils which preserve the fibre's flexibility and keeps the canvas from becoming brittle.
- Linen has a more "natural" weaved finish than cotton and is available in a variety of textures, weights and smooth or rough finish.
- Because of its strength linen holds up to a heavy painting hand and does not become slack as easily as cotton canvas.
Winsor & Newton offers acrylic primed cotton and linen pre-stretched canvases in both regular depth stretcher bars, (13/16") and deep edge (1 ½"). Cotton canvas is available in 10 oz. and 11 oz. per square yard weight while linen canvas is offered in 12.6 oz. per square yard weight. Sizes range from 4" X 4" to 48" X 60".
Many artists also enjoy using Artist's Canvas Boards (3" x 5" to 24" X 36") for studies and art school projects while artists who choose to stretch their own canvases can purchase Winsor & Newton's rolled cotton canvas in unprimed and primed surfaces.
For more specifics about the canvas offerings from Winsor & Newton, see our Surfaces section>
1. Metcalf, 1999, p. 123.