One of the questions I frequently get asked especially by new aspiring artists is what canvas material type do I use for my paintings and which is the best, Cotton or Linen?
Oh dear what a question to put you on the spot and in simplistic terms, linen is my preferred choice. However that doesn’t mean that you should jump straight in and start using linen if you have been using cotton and happy with it! There does seem to be a lot of canvas snobbery around at times and yes people could say that I am a linen snob but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss cotton and do use premium cotton canvases. I would say that today cotton is probably the mostly used canvas material and readily available from your local hobby store as it is cheaper than linen.
Cotton is derived from a fibrous plant boll (protective capsule around the seeds of cotton plants) native to India, Africa and the Americas and is soft and fluffy in nature. The most useful attribute of cotton to an artist other that its affordability is its stretchable characteristics as it stretches easily. There are lots of articles you may have read which say that if you want your painting to last then linen has a much better longevity which is true but a properly prepared canvas and varnished finished painting will last a very long time! I am pretty confident that any of my paintings on cotton would out live me and my children providing they weren’t hung in a sauna. With cotton you will also be able to get a much tighter canvas than linen and a heavier grade cotton can make up for its lack of strength and weight. Weight is indicated by product number or in ounces per square yard. Due to its stretch characteristics as an artist you need to be aware of sagging if painting on large surfaces especially with heavy mediums and lots of heavy body paints. The last thing you want is for your prised art work to be hung pride of place in your living room to find out over time it sags beyond the point where it can’t be tightened with the tensioners! One final thing I want to add about cotton is it is a rougher surface but this can easily be tamed by adding additional coats of gesso and is the preferred choice by some artists for larger abstract and landscape paintings where a weave broken brush stroke is preferred.
In my opinion you need to take a look at your own ability and where you are as an artist. Firstly I would definitely steer clear of the very cheap cotton canvases that can be brought from hobby shops. If you are just starting out and practising and it makes you feel better to paint on a stretched canvas and you are more likely to use your finished work as a coaster or Frisbee then these cheap canvas maybe ok. Personally I would advise steering clear all together of these types of hobby craft type places as they are expensive and use dedicated art shops where possible. I highly recommend Loxely gold canvases if you are just starting out which are great value for money along with Jacksons for a better quality and variety of sizes! I would also invest in some canvas boards where you can practice different techniques then just gesso over the top and start again and finally a descent paint pad. These paint pads are a much cheaper alternative when you are experimenting and if you produce something special you can frame it and admire it. Just be aware that on canvas boards you will not have the same water absorption as you do on a stretched canvas but they are great for playing around using different knife techniques etc.
If you are on your way and want to produce art work to be hung on your wall or sold then I would recommend cotton weights 10-11 oz per square yard and above. It can take quite a few paintings to develop your techniques to even notice a difference between cotton and linen so save yourself some money and concentrate on much more important things like brush types and quality paint. Once you are producing good work you are happy with then buy a couple of linen canvases and give them a try. When you apply brush stroke to linen canvases and you can feel the difference then you have answered the question yourself.
A professional artist should never feel that a cotton canvas is below them and casual artist should never feel compelled to use traditional surfaces if it is not necessary or financially feasible. Good quality cotton canvases are not bad and can produce just as amazing paintings as linen when used correctly.
I hope that has dispelled my canvas snobbery!