Linen Snobbery (Linen Canvas vs. Cotton Canvas)

Linen Snobbery (Linen Canvas vs. Cotton Canvas)

with 44 Comments

I regularly have visitors to my gallery ask why I favor linen canvas over cotton. I’ve been painting on linen with oils for the past several years, but I used cotton exclusively in the early days.

Painting along merrily, I began to notice that many artists I admired were not painting on cotton, but linen. Thinking I’d discovered the secret to better paintings, I bought a linen panel and gave it a try. To my dismay I remember thinking, “What’s the big deal?”

I think it was just too early in my development for me to notice the difference. There are more important things than surface quality to think about during the painting process, right? Subject matter. Design. Drawing accuracy. Value. Color mixing. Which brush should I be using? What color is that shadow? Did anyone just see me spill my mineral spirits all over the floor? Etc. Etc. Etc.

Eventually, after repeating the process on a few hundred more unsuspecting cotton canvases, I got a bit more comfortable with my painting technique and a bit less likely to create a colorful, rectangular frisbee. And I tried linen again.

This time I found that the surface seemed to be sealed better. The paint didn’t soak in as much. I could wipe paint away to an almost white canvas underneath. Plus, the linen had a more unique texture to it. There were imperfections that could be left to show through for extra character. Tighter and looser weaves were available for more or less texture. And it even cost more!

Through some further research I learned that linen canvas (made from flax) is usually primed with an oil-based primer. Cotton canvas (made from, well, cotton) is often primed with acrylic-based gesso. As an oil painter, I decided that it makes sense to paint on an oil-primed surface for better bonding between primer and paint. Plus, I liked how the surface enabled me to better control the paint application.

So I became a linen snob. I most often buy large rolls of double-primed Claessens #15. In the past I stretched it onto stretcher bars of varying sizes. Now I prefer to glue it down on panels. (Click here to read why. And click this next link if you would like to learn how to make your own linen panels.)

Give oil-primed linen a try sometime if you haven’t already. Or if you decide to stick with cotton for awhile, do yourself a favor and keep your distance from the cheap, off-brand canvas panels that are mounted on cardboard. Craft stores sometimes carry some awful ones that will absorb almost as much paint as you throw at them. If you’ve already got a stack of those, brush on a coat of oil primer from an art supply store.

Is anyone else out there a linen snob?

44 Responses

  1. Richard Oversmith
    | Reply

    My name is Richard Oversmith and I am a Linen Snob!

  2. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Haha I thought so, Richard!

  3. Kathy Cousart
    | Reply

    My name is Kathy Cousart and I am a Linen Snob too! Although….I do like the new Innerglow Boards! Have y’all tried those? Love the paint application with those!

  4. Dan
    | Reply

    I use fredrix carlton 134 single oil primed linen. I also then add on a thin- ish layer of fredrix oil primer. The surface at this point is perfect. The weave of the linen is far superior to cotton canvas. I also use windsor newton wide edge pre stretched primed linen suppports as well.

  5. thomas valenti
    | Reply

    I’ve gone one step further and have followed the age old method of beginning with raw linen (Utrecht double weave). First rabbit skin glue followed by 2 – 3 coats lead white primer. Takes it to still a whole other level when doing it all. Haven’t found many who agree with me saying it’s just not worth the effort and that factory primed is just as good. Don’t knock it if you haven’t given it a try. It is after all a centuries old method that worked for all of the masters and it has stood the test of time. Would be great to hear comments on this.

  6. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for the comments, everyone. Thomas, I haven’t tried starting with raw linen and priming from there. I can see how that could enrich the process and more personalize the surface though.

  7. margaret sheldon
    | Reply

    When I did my thesis, many years ago, a few of us chipped in and bought a roll of fine Italian linen. We gessoed, sanded and gessoed again until the linen was transformed into the most beautiful surface ever! Reading this post makes me question why I could “splurge” as a poor art student, but haven’t done so since?
    You’ve inspired me- I’m going to order some fine linen and have a go at it.
    Many thanks!

  8. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Glad to be of help, Margaret. Online art supply companies often have linen rolls on sale — do some searching and see what kind of deals you can find.

  9. Jill Case
    | Reply

    Dan,

    I am finding your blog both informative and fun – great job!
    Curious what type and brand of glue do you use to attach the linen to the panel?

    Jill

  10. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, Jill. The glue I use is called Miracle Muck — see my other post about how I make my canvas panels for more info about it: http://www.danschultzfineart.com/blog/want-to-make-your-own-plein-air-canvas-panels/

  11. Michael Baum
    | Reply

    Hey Dan…I’ve been painting on linen for a number of years now (I think at your encouragement). I agree with everything you said. Once you get past the sticker shock, it’s the best.
    Mike

  12. Susan Harris
    | Reply

    Dan,
    I have a large linen canvas that’s been sittin on a wall easel since I moved into our house a couple of years ago!
    I have no idea what to prime it with or even if it needs priming. Rabbit Skin Glue? Allergies? Oil primer… Allergies? I don’t even know what oil primer is. Help pulease

  13. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Glad to hear it, Mike. Now we need some discount coupons!

  14. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    I’ll have to take a look at it, Susan. Let’s talk soon….

  15. Rita Cirillo
    | Reply

    More than a snob, I am an addict! I add an extra coat of oil primer to my double oil primed linen to get more of that yummy surface. And when I feel like my brain is not damaged enough, I prime with lead-based white for the most luminous surface going.

  16. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Lol, you are a true linen snob, Rita!

  17. gary bradley
    | Reply

    I use linens as well and have been experiment with the Richard Schmid “Flake White” surface preparation. I really like that and you can wipe right back to pure white.

  18. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Nice, Gary. Thanks for sharing the info about the flake white prep.

  19. Juliana
    | Reply

    Hi Dan. I recently found some linen rolls at an estate sale. It is just stamped from manufacturers on the side: ROLLS 54″ x 6yds S. P. Linen. That’s all it says. They were bought from Utrecht. So if it’s single prime linen should I assume it’s oil primed do you think? The weave is fairly consistent and evident through the primed surface. Biggest question why does anyone want or use single prime over double prime? Just because it’s cheaper or is there a benefit to a single primed surface? Thanks for any input.

  20. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Juliana,

    Sounds like a good find from the estate sale! I would expect your linen to be oil primed, but I suppose it’s possible that it could be primed with acrylic gesso. Either way, you’ll have to test out the surface with some paint to see if the canvas seems to be absorbent or well-sealed. Double-priming just seals the canvas better than single-priming, I think. If you find that the surface seems absorbent (does the paint seem to “soak in” or “stain” the canvas?), you can add a coat of oil primer (available from an art supply store), or acrylic gesso. Hope this helps!

  21. Dan
    | Reply

    I too am a linen snob. Large rolls of Claussens #13 fine. Good stuff!!!!

  22. Kathleen Weber
    | Reply

    I am new to the snobbery of linen.. but I came from a background of fashion design into painting and so I seem to now have a fascination with linen. I actually agree with Thomas and feel that making a painting from every detail of choosing a size, the support material, stretching it, prepping it and then creating on it.. well to me that whole process contributes to the finished piece. If I am going to spend all that time and effort to create a piece, then making every detail makes it truly made by my hand. With that said I have some paintings that I used high quality store bought canvas that I really LOVE and feel very connected to, but those hand made canvases, well there is something just a bit extra special about it and I would say the same for the linen, it has just something a bit more to offer me 🙂

  23. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Thanks for your comments Dan and Kathleen!

  24. Mark
    | Reply

    I have a question about linen weights. I’m looking at purchasing some rolls of raw linen and I’m unsure of the differences in weight and weave. I usually mount my raw linen to panels using Miracle Muck 🙂 , I apply two separate coats of acrylic primer, sand, apply one more coat of primer, and finish with a rubbed-in acrylic ground with a wet rag. I don’t necessarily love the time invested in this process, but I love the consistency and the $$ I save. For my works that are 16×20 and smaller I use a 7oz. portrait texture linen mounted to panel. I inherited a large roll of a heavier/coarser weave raw linen that I use for my > 16×20 sizes. I have no idea what the weight or the weave is, and my largest problem is that I order everything online. So how do I figure out what the larger weave and weight is on my linen? Is there a way to find out? Any help from a linen snob would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  25. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Mark, I unfortunately can’t help you much with linen weights or weaves. When I first began making my own panels I just bought the same kind of linen that the prepared panels I had been purchasing were made with. I’ve always bought pre-primed linen too.

    I think you can purchase linen samples from online suppliers, so that might be a way to find your preferred weight. Or you could always try contacting a company like Claessens to ask how to determine the weight of the raw linen you have.

  26. Mark
    | Reply

    Thanks for the idea Dan. I will try to contact Claessens. Hadn’t thought of that… 🙂

  27. Michelle
    | Reply

    I also prime my linen canvas with white lead paint. I works wonderfully.

  28. marge
    | Reply

    I just found this by putting in url about linen painting. read the info and would like to know more as I have only painted on canvas stretched on boards. so the ones I have I should put on an oil primer before I paint?
    and have heard about the painting on linen, do you paint on it and then stretch it on a frame.? and where would someone buy linen. Thanks.

  29. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Marge, glad you found my blog post. I always paint on canvas that is mounted on boards instead of stretched canvas, but that’s just my preference. (Click the following link for a post about that: http://www.danschultzfineart.com/blog/stretched-canvas-vs-canvas-panels/ )

    Many canvases you buy will already be primed, whether they are cotton or linen canvases. So you only need to prime them if you buy them unprimed. I always buy primed linen so I don’t have to do the priming. Then I mount the linen onto boards with archival glue before painting on them. (Here’s a post about how I make my canvas panels: http://www.danschultzfineart.com/blog/want-to-make-your-own-plein-air-canvas-panels/ )

    I buy most of my linen in large rolls from online art supply retailers like Jerry’s Artarama or Cheap Joe’s or Dick Blick.

    Hope that helps. Happy painting!

  30. Sue Messerly
    | Reply

    Have you ever used single primed oil primed canvas? I was wondering what is the difference betwee single and double primed canvas? Is the single primed canvas a little less slick?

  31. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Sue,
    From what I’ve experienced, double-primed canvas is just sealed better than single-primed. But single-primed can be good too — I have liked Claessens single-primed #66 linen. I wouldn’t say double-primed is slicker necessarily, it just doesn’t allow paint to soak in or stain the canvas if the paint is wiped off to make a correction.

  32. Wendy
    | Reply

    Hi Dan, Thanks for this post! For linen or cotton canvas is there a preferred primer? I generally put 3 coats of Utrecht gesso on pre-primed pre-stretched cotton store bought canvas. Would it be better to use an oil primer?? Can you put an oil primer on top of a pre- gessoed canvas? Can you suggest a brand of oil primer? Lastly…would Flake White Replacement work instead of lead white or flake white paint ala Richard Schmid technique? Thanks!!

  33. Dan Schultz
    | Reply

    Hi Wendy. From what I’ve read, oil primer is a better choice than gesso for painting with oils because the oil paint will bond better with the oil primer since they are of the same chemical makeup. However, I don’t know of any evidence of any problems that have occurred from artists using oil paint on a surface primed with gesso. You can put oil primer over gesso if you so choose, just realize that it will take a few days to dry since it’s oil-based. The brand of oil primer I’ve used is Fredrix. I unfortunately don’t have an answer to your flake white question. Email Scott Gellatly at Gamblin (https://www.gamblincolors.com/contact-gamblin/) — I bet he can advise you on it.

  34. Nicolette
    | Reply

    What primed stretched linen do you all like?
    I’m always interested. Sadly, time makes the purchase of prepared best for me.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Hi Nicolette — as I mention in the article, I buy rolls of double-primed Claessen’s #15 linen. I’m not sure where you would buy it pre-stretched though. You should be able to find stretched linen canvases of some kind at your local art supply store. Or you can probably find them online from Jerry’s Artarama, Dick Blick, etc.

  35. 1LTLos
    | Reply

    Its got nothing to do with snobbery.

  36. Kristen
    | Reply

    What would your opinion be of priming fine-weave cotton with a sizing and oil based ground?
    Would there be much difference between using a fine-weave cotton as opposed to linen besides the difference in texture of the weave?

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      I haven’t done any comparisons like that but I would think your idea of a primed cotton would feel quite similar to linen as long as the cotton is of a good thickness and the primer is applied well. Let us know of your findings if you end up trying it.

  37. Adam
    | Reply

    Phhhtttt, euro-amateur(s)….

    True linen snobbery takes a near thirty year obsession with the material. Many Euro-artists regard European linen as a zenith, not so. Possibly the worlds finest linens may be sourced, or more precisely split and woven by fine tatooed maidens in New Zealand (and offshore islands). It is only a question of time and money. Some say New Zealand flax Phormium tenax (harakeke) and Phormium colensoi (wharariki) is only a starting point for the finer linens of the Chatam islands may have even finer quality due to Moriori developed techniques…

    On a more practical note European mass industrialization permits quality linen at affordable prices. New Zealand linen production is little more than a cottage industry, much more expensive, if it can be sourced.

  38. Adam
    | Reply

    The video in the link is a very sound demonstration of the whole process.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFuj7sXVnIU

  39. Julia
    | Reply

    Hello Dan,

    I’m very curious about using paints other than oils and acrylics. As a lover of linen and a ‘newb’ to painting with watercolors and gouache, I’d love to see if the combo is even plausible. I’d love to pick your brain on that.

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      There isn’t much in my brain to pick about this, Julia. 🙂 I haven’t tried gouache or watercolor on linen, but I would presume it would work. It might be wise to use linen primed with acrylic gesso rather than oil-based primer though. I don’t know for sure if oil-based primer would cause any issues, but since gouache and watercolor are water-based, and acrylic gesso is too….

  40. Carol
    | Reply

    Hi Dan, I have both acrylic gessoed and oil primed linen panels as I work with acrylic or oil mediums at different times. Unfortunately I realized that yesterday I did an acrylic under painting of a commissioned pet portrait on a Centurion oil primed linen panel. It seems well bonded. Should I discard and start over?

    • Dan Schultz
      | Reply

      Hi Carol — I haven’t done any testing with acrylic over an oil ground. But if it seems well bonded I think it will be fine. And since it’s on a panel, there shouldn’t be much, if any, surface movement over time which should limit any tendency for separation of the paint layers.

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