Linen or Cotton Canvas
It’s one of the most frequently asked questions of those searching for raw canvas: should I choose cotton or linen for my art project?

Whether you’re a professional artist or a hobbyist, there are quite a few different factors to consider. In this post, we’ll explore:

  • how cotton and linen canvas differ,
  • the benefits of linen and professional grade cotton,
  • and how you can choose the right fit for your artwork.

What’s the difference between cotton and linen canvas?

Cotton and linen canvas have a number of key differences:

  • Cotton begins as a soft, fluffy fiber that stretches easily. Linen, on the other hand, is made from flax plant fibers, making it both more durable and rigid.
  • Cotton is mass-produced in Africa, India and across the Americas, while the flax used for linen canvas typically comes from Western Europe (especially Belgium).
  • Cotton has a more consistent weave, while linen has a unique texture prized by many lovers of fine art.
  • Linen is harvested by hand and is therefore more expensive to produce.
  • Linen is stronger and longer lasting than cotton.

How are cotton and linen canvas the same?

example of oil on canvasHem of the Sea, a 60×48 oil on canvas by Markham artist Janet Read.

Both produce better paintings when sized and primed.

If you’re going to use an oil primer, size your canvas with rabbit skin glue to tighten it up, fill in the pores of the fabric, and protect the fibres from the oil paint (which can weaken them over time).

Prime your canvas with a few layers of gesso after it’s stretched to achieve a whiter, smoother surface (or, purchase primed canvas and skip this step). If you don’t prime a cotton canvas, you’re left with a rough surface that can soak up a lot of paint and makes it difficult to add intricate detail. Unprimed natural linen is a tan-gray color, unless you purchase a lighter, bleached product (although that process of bleaching again makes the fibers weaker).

Note: Sizing and priming will cause both cotton and linen to contract and in some cases, can even twist a frame. This is especially true when using rabbit skin glue and linen (it has been known to snap braces). Remember to account for some contraction on the initial stretch and if using rabbit skin glue, call in to make sure the frame can handle it.

Both can be economical choices, depending on how you intend to use your canvas. Linen is more expensive but offers greater longevity, which could save you money on restoration later!

So what’s the better choice: cotton or linen canvas?

Why Linen is more durable

Fine arts supplies manufacturer Daniel Smith recommends practicing your canvas stretching skills on cotton, before graduating to linen.

Ask yourself the following questions to guide your decision:

How comfortable am I stretching my own canvas?

Cotton is by far the easier textile to stretch. If you’re just starting out and aren’t yet comfortable stretching your own canvas, you can purchase ¾” and 1 ¼” gallery wrap stretched cotton canvases here.

How large a canvas do I need?

Linen is the better canvas for large artworks, as its rigidity supports the artwork over time. It’s critical when investing in linen to choose stretcher bars specifically designed for large canvas. See 7 Key Stretcher Bar Design Features for Large Canvas Frames for details.

Primer on linen

See more of Claudia’s work on her website, ClaudiaPettis.com.

What’s my budget for this project?

Your budget concerns are always two-fold:

  1. What can I afford to spend?
  2. Can I afford not to spend more?

What we mean by that is this: the amount you’re comfortable spending needs take into consideration the potential cost of choosing an inferior product.

For example, there are plenty of pre-wrapped economy canvas products on the market, and they’re readily available in craft and art supply stores. However, the loose weave and low thread count of these canvases directly translates to a lower quality finished product that will sag over time. Further, they’re typically stretched over budget frames that warp, bend and weaken.

Where budget allows, linen is widely considered the better option. However, you should still feel comfortable choosing cotton so long as you go for the professional grade.

Which brings us to…

What’s the anticipated longevity of my art project?

Linen is a clear winner when it comes to withstanding the test of time, but if you truly prefer cotton, you have options. To increase longevity, choose a heavier weight, professional grade cotton and make sure it’s primed properly.

This video offers a great step-by-step tutorial on applying gesso to your raw canvas:

Want to learn more about choosing the right canvas?

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