History of Canvas – Early Beginnings to Modern Shapes

History of Canvas – Early Beginnings to Modern Shapes

Posted Jan 06, 2017
Tags: Art History

The modern day artist is really quite spoilt these days regarding their art supplies.  They just go to a shop, pick up what they want, and generally don’t have to pay a king's ransom for it.  But buying art supplies in years gone by hasn’t always been this simple.  This was especially true when it came to purchasing canvas.  In Rembrandt's day the price of a medium-sized canvas was equivalent to the average person’s weekly wage.  If this was the case now, can you imagine forking out up to $1,200 for a canvas?  I don’t think so!

Painters through the ages have painted on a number of different surfaces, most of these governed by what was at hand or accessible.

The first surfaces were hardwood panels namely, oak favoured for its rigidity and stability.  Incidentally, a lot of the paintings created on these surfaces have stood the test of time brilliantly and honestly look like they could have been painted yesterday.  Obviously though a slab of wood had its downfalls, namely the weight and size restrictions.

The next surface that came into vogue amongst artists was cow hide or vellum.  I know what you’re thinking, “What kind of a monster paints on a cow?” and “How did they get it to stay still while they were painting it?”  Nooo...the hide was actually removed from the cow, it was cleaned, bleached and stretched over a wooden frame.  Obviously this surface had certain limitations as well, as it relied on cows, which were extremely expensive in the day, and the process of preparation was a very convoluted and specialised one. 

Around the 16th century canvas created from either flax [linen] or hemp was made accessible, and these became the preferred surfaces to paint on.  These first canvases were very thick and were created from the same material that the sails on ships were made out of.   Venetian Linen canvas was highly sought after and considered the best quality, and hemp the more cost effective alternative.

These canvases reigned supreme until the early 19th century when cotton duck canvas hit the market and became the most preferred canvas for painters. Cotton canvas being much less expensive than linen, easier to stretch, and when properly prepared, was comparable in looks to that of linen canvas.  Technology also helped the artist with the advent of the mechanical loom that made cotton canvas material more economical.  Industry certainly would have felt the pinch as traditional sails were not required as much as the age of steam was now the predominant power source for ships.

It is interesting to note, even though canvas was more affordable, it was still cripplingly expensive for the mainstream artist, to the effect that only professional artists selling their work could justify purchasing it.  Around this time hobbyists and artists shunned the academic society and started to create their work on bed sheets.  Van Gough and his contemporaries were known to employ this surface for studies and finished work.  Unfortunately none of these ‘bed sheet art works’ have lasted due to the oil in the paint rotting the material.         

The cotton duck and linen canvas used today is pretty much the same as the canvas created from the 1900’s, but nowadays there’s not only a vast variety of linen and cotton canvases on the market, there is now an increasing amount of unique shapes and sizes enabling artists to create their works in new and unique ways. Whether you wish to stretch your own canvas with pre-made stretcher bars, along with a choice of cotton or linen canvas off the roll, or choose from a bounty of pre-stretched canvases, these days there are a multitude of varieties in many shapes and sizes that offer a feast of painter’s delights. 


Rectangle & Square Canvas

Rectangle and square canvases are hands down the most common shaped canvas that come in a variety of sizes. 

Shaped Canvas

Some more unique and peculiar shapes of canvases seen appearing in galleries these days are heart, triangular, hexagonal, oblong and the more common oval and circular canvas shapes. Typically these types of canvas are sought out for specific uses.

Canvas Pads & Panels 

These usually come in smaller sizes and are great for small works that can be carried around easily. You can also use these for drafting your ideas before painting the larger version on stretched canvas.

Mini Canvas

Mini canvases that sit on a cute mini easel are commonly used for many special occasion events as name tags and to display miniature artworks.

Triptych Canvas

With triptych canvas you can create an artwork series that sit side by side.

Stretch Your Own Canvas

For the more adventurous artist that needs a specific size and/or just loves the process you can use stretcher bars and your choice of linen or cotton canvas on a roll to stretch your own. See our lesson on How to Build Your Own Canvas


See our vast ranges of canvas here

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