Understanding the difference between cotton and linen canvas

cotton and linen painting canvas

Painting canvases are made from cotton or linen fibres. There are benefits to each type, and plenty more to consider when you’re planning to use canvas as an artist. We take a look at the key differences between the two surfaces and address your commonly asked questions.

Do cotton and linen canvases have different textures?

Cotton is a soft, fluffy fibre that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants. The plant is native to the Americas, Africa and India, and is most frequently spun into yarn or thread to create a soft, breathable textile. 

Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant; top quality flax is harvested mainly in Western Europe. It has a finer texture than cotton and is regarded as having a more ‘natural’ weaved finish. This makes it better for detailed work – the more obvious texture of cotton can obscure fine lines in a painting. If properly primed and stretched, it offers the smoothest and stiffest painting surface. It’s easier painting on a smoother surface, although some artists prefer canvas with more ‘tooth’, so the texture of the weave shows through the paint. 


Which is more expensive, cotton or linen canvas?  

The advantage of cotton, for many people, is its affordability. Linen is more expensive. Linen’s strength comes from the fact that its threads, known as warp and weft threads, weigh the same. That means they’re less prone to expansion or contraction due to moisture.  


Which is more durable out of cotton and linen?

A properly prepared cotton canvas will last for a good length of time, and it is the most popular surface for oil and acrylic painting, especially among students. However, linen is stronger, and ensures your painting will stand the test of time. Linen retains its natural oils, which helps to preserve the fibres’ flexibility and stops the canvas from becoming brittle. If you want to sell or exhibit your work, a linen canvas is a sound investment. It’s still regarded as the gold standard by classically trained artists. 


Which is easier to use, cotton or linen? 

A key advantage of cotton is that it stretches very easily, whereas linen can be difficult to prime and stretch properly. It’s possible to stretch cotton tighter than linen without straining the wooden support around the canvas, and a heavy-grade cotton can make up for its lack of strength and weight. 

Cotton is considered too flexible for very large paintings, however. And because of its strength, linen holds up to a heavy painting hand and does not become slack as easily as cotton canvas. 


How sustainable are cotton and linen? 

Cotton production involves heavy use of water and pesticides, whereas naturally pest-resistant flax can grow in poor soil and is kinder on the environment.  


What’s the best canvas for oil painting? 

You can paint with oil colour on either cotton or linen canvas. Because of its superior rigidity – which means it’s less likely to warp and crack an inflexible dried oil paint film – linen is the best choice if you can afford to use it. However, cotton should not warp if it’s not exposed to changes in temperature or severe fluctuations in humidity. Cotton canvas is therefore still a good option for oil painting, especially if you are looking for a more economical option or want to practice with oils before committing to a more expensive canvas.   


What’s the best canvas for acrylic paint? 

Again, you can use either cotton or linen, but as acrylic paint remains flexible when it’s dried, the potential for cracking if you choose cotton is not so great as with oils. 


Can I use watercolour on canvas? 

Canvas that’s been primed for oil or acrylic paint isn’t suitable for watercolour because the surface isn’t absorbent. However, you can buy special watercolour canvases that have been prepared so that they absorb the paint, just as watercolour paper does. Or you can make it yourself, by applying a watercolour ground to raw canvas. 


Can you draw on canvas? And what’s the best way to do it? 

Many artists find it helpful to sketch an outline of their planned composition on canvas before starting a painting. You can use pencil, charcoal or transfer paper, and do this on linen or canvas. 

Sketching in pencil, because the lines will be fine, allows you to carry out a detailed drawing. An H-grade pencil is best for this job, as it reduces the likelihood of smudging. If you apply paint quite thinly, however, there is a chance that pencil lines will show through. 

The broader, more fluid lines of charcoal mean that making a sketch on canvas this way – as the Old Masters did – can be better suited to a looser style of painting than pencil. But charcoal is messier, and it may visibly blend into your colour when you come to apply it, especially if you use thin layers. 

If you want to copy a drawing you’ve already done on paper onto your canvas, use graphite transfer paper. Place the sheet of transfer paper, with the graphite facing the canvas, under your drawing, and secure them in place using picture framing tape. They must remain still, or the graphite on your canvas will be smudged. Then trace over your drawing with a pencil, and the graphite pressed on to the canvas will replicate your drawing. 


Can I make cotton canvas smoother? 

All canvas needs to be primed before you start painting, to ensure the paint isn’t absorbed into the surface. The more layers of primer (often referred to as gesso) that you add, the smoother the surface becomes. 

For acrylic paintings, one or two coats of gesso are normally recommended, and for oil colour, two to four coats. If you do apply more than one coat, it’s a good idea to sand the dry gesso in between coats using fine sandpaper, and you should wait at least an hour between coats. Before painting on a gessoed surface, make sure you wait a minimum of 24 hours. You can learn more about priming canvas in this article. 

If you have a pre-primed cotton canvas that you would like to make smoother, you can add more layers of gesso yourself. There are also cotton canvases that are specially designed for fine detail work, such as Winsor & Newton’s Cotton Smooth canvas. It has a very fine weave and an ultra-smooth surface, which is ideal for intricate detail and portrait painting. 


What is a canvas board? 

Canvas boards are made of stretched and primed cotton canvas, glued to a stiff backing. Because they’re portable and more robust than traditional canvases, they’re a great option if you’re painting al fresco. You can use them with oil or acrylic colour. Canvas boards are a good choice for beginners, or if you have more experience but want a surface for studies.

What is a canvas roll? 

If you want to create your own custom-sized canvases, you can buy a roll of canvas and stretch and prime it yourself. Canvas rolls come in cotton and linen, are available primed and unprimed and can be used for both oil and acrylic paintings.  

Using stretcher bars to create a canvas with the right tension requires time, the right tools and experience, however, so canvas rolls are not a good option if you’re a beginner. Winsor & Newton offers ready-stretched and primed canvases on solid wood frames in a wide variety of sizes.  


What is a canvas sheet? 

Canvas sheets are pre-cut pieces of canvas, and can be used in the same way as canvas from a roll. Again, if you’re new to oil or acrylic painting, you’re probably better off choosing a canvas that’s already prepared. 


What is canvas paper? 

Canvas paper is not technically canvas, but paper that’s been embossed to give it a canvas-like texture. It can be used with oil or acrylic paint, and comes in a pad, making it ideal for painting outdoors. It’s also suitable for beginners looking to get used to the feel of canvas before starting work on the real thing.  

Winsor & Newton offers non-absorbent canvas-texture paper designed specifically for use with oil colour, and an acrylic paint version with a slightly shiny surface, for maximum colour brilliance. There’s also a canvas-texture paper that’s suitable for use with both oil and acrylic. None of the papers require any priming or preparation. 


What’s the difference between stretched and unstretched canvas? And can you paint on unstretched canvas?  

It’s best practice – as well as easier, and safer for your artwork – to paint on stretched canvas. Because it’s held taut over a wooden frame, the material will be flat, with no risk of wrinkling or rumpling under your brush. If you paint on unstretched canvas and go on to stretch it later, the paint may crack, or be damaged as you hold the canvas tightly to get it around the stretcher bars.