Stretching canvas


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Mark Lovett of Potomac, MD wrote, “Due to my bad experience recently with trying to stretch some old, brittle, Claessens 13 double primed linen, I decided there must be a better way. I’m thinking of perhaps buying professionally stretched canvases. I’m fussy about how they’re done, particularly the edges. I’ve tried Fredrix Green Label pre-stretched linen canvases with mixed results. I also like linen panels, but I’m concerned that galleries might not want them because of the weight or some other issues. What, in your opinion, works best?”


Mark Lovett

Thanks, Mark. At one time I stretched my own. Like you, I was fussy and wanted the canvas to be done in my particular way. While enjoying the challenge and the respite from painting, the job started to bother me. It got tricky and sometimes exasperating. And, like a lot of compulsive painters, I was using the canvases up faster than I could make them.

I’m now a firm believer in having canvases professionally made. The pros have proper squaring jigs and tensioners that get the canvas pretty near perfection. And with a pro you can specify the quality of canvas you want for different types of work. Many larger cities have custom canvas pros. As you found, old rolled linen can be beyond its shelf-life. Claessens Belgian linen is the tops, but it must be unrolled within a few months after factory oil-priming. With a pro you have a pretty good chance that the material is fresh. As far as I’m concerned, Fredrix products are great. Keep in mind that most canvas people build both down to a price and up to the highest standards that the traffic will bear. Regarding galleries (and many collectors), while panels are certainly acceptable, properly stretched and primed linen or cotton are still the supports of choice.

All this might sound trivial to some idealistic artists, but it’s part of a wider understanding that’s valuable for artists of all stripes. Some aspects of our job are best delegated to someone else. It’s valuable to know when to draw the line on our own capabilities and not to waste potentially creative time. The argument of economy is often heard as well. In the case of canvas stretching, I found that the cost of the raw parts is very nearly the price of the product when put together by pros. Add your own valuable time and the job can break the bank. It’s better to buy milk than keep a cow.

Best regards,


PS: “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.” (Michelangelo)

Esoterica: Some art schools dedicate time to stretching technique. It’s good stuff to know. So are a lot of other ancillary studio activities that require a professional touch — framing, shipping, archiving, bookkeeping, shopping, delivering, banking. It’s amazing what you can learn from the jungle telegraph. “How do you get such beautiful stretch jobs?” is a telephone question no fellow artist can turn down. The source might just turn out to be a nice guy who needs to be your partner in quality. He may even work nearby and be willing to deliver stretched linen on Sunday mornings.


Magic in stretching canvas
by Erika Schultz, Red Deer, AB, Canada


“Flower Mackintosh-Macdonald”
acrylic on canvas, 20 x 24 inches
by Erika Schultz

I must make an argument for stretching one’s own canvases. There’s been a remarkable change in the world of artists — a disturbing trend towards un-knowledge. Many artists are unfamiliar with some of the most basic skills required to be an artist. One of the worst things I hear from artists is, “I never learned how to stretch a canvas.” How is this possible!? Well, as you said, there are many people who can do it for you these days. Or you can pick them up at the local art store. We are loosing our roots, our connection to those great masters we all admire. For me, stretching a canvas is part of the tactile nature, magic and history of making art.



Good ol’ Dick Blick
by Teri Wright, San Antonio, TX, USA

I never stretch canvas. I have shown artists that have beautiful work but their canvas frames are crooked or warped or are basically shabby. I hate to stretch canvas so buy all my canvas from DickBlick online. They have their own brand that is usually very affordable and as well made as any others I have seen. They also have sales going on all the time. I figure the less time I spend stretching canvas, the more time I have to paint. I have used so many of their canvases and all were perfect and if they come in with a flaw, they just send you a new one and you keep the old one. It’s worth the money to me. I just price it into the painting. People appreciate good craftsmanship more than most artists realize.

(RG note) Thanks, Teri. I used to tell myself that I got a kick out of stretching until I identified it as “avoidance activity.”


Canvasman exceeds expectations
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


John Ferrie and his ‘Forward’ exhibit

For once I agree with you. Having canvases custom made is  essential to doing quality work. I have a canvas guy who is excellent and works very well with my work. I can call him on the phone and within minutes he has my order. He can get the size right to the millimeter. It has taken some time to find the right vocabulary with what I want, but that is all part of the process. He is thorough and very good at what he does. He is not cheap and cannot be rushed. He stretches canvas every day, all day. The best thing is his work is museum quality and exemplary for framing. The other thing about custom canvases is it is a good selling feature to a client. I have thrown him some curve balls and ordered five-sided canvases and once a huge 12′ x 20′ job that had to be hinged in half in the middle. He has risen to every challenge and exceeded my expectations.


Keep lots of empty canvases around
by Carol Beth Icard, Landrum, SC, USA


Full of Promise
acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12 inches
by Carol Beth Icard

I have been ambivalent about the use of pre-stretched canvases vs. buying stretchers and canvas and doing it myself (with my husband’s help). I have felt somehow that pre-stretched canvases are “less than” doing it myself, but the time and aggravation of getting squared corners and taut surfaces has just about convinced me that I need to spend more time painting and less time building supports. I think some artists feel rich when they have a good supply of paints, or brushes. My treasure trove is always a back log of stretched canvases. Like empty journal books, they are full of promise and anticipation.



Stretcher bars ‘edgy’
by Beth Robinson, Warminster, PA, USA


Arctic Circles
mixed media painting, 6 x 6 inches
by Beth Robinson

I definitely agree with you on the costs adding up, but I have found another reason to stretch my own canvases. My version of mixed media includes sewing elements to the painted and collaged canvas. If I start with a pre-stretched canvas then the stretcher bars get in the way so that I cannot carry the stitched elements all the way to the edge of the image. I did my first experiment this week in creating the piece, then stretching it onto the bars, and it was successful enough to encourage me to continue. However, I foresee much practice ahead of me, especially when I move into larger works.



Addicted To Making Stuff
by Gary A. Duncan, Licking, MO, USA


“Bennett Springs”
oil painting, 12 x 42 inches
by Gary A. Duncan

Years ago, I wanted to experiment with Linen Canvas, but couldn’t  seem to find what I wanted — pre-made — and I usually live in places “Not in the City.” I ordered an 84″ x 18′ roll of 15 oz double-primed Belgian Linen and, after learning the knack of it, was happy with the supports. With a little patience, and the learning curve, I was able to make those unusual sizes and get them as tight as a drum. I think the secret to making this an enjoyable exercise is having adequate work space and using a substantial canvas frame. In the price range of the market that I sell in, Linen supports are probably not an issue and I may be wasting my money, but, to me — I love the toughness and the texture of this heavy Linen support. I just like the feel of it. I discovered years ago that I have ATMS (Addicted To Making Stuff). The Making of the support can become a passion for some. On the other hand, if your work is selling faster than you can paint — by all means source it out.




Make it look professional
by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery), Vancouver, BC, Canada

As a dealer I have had numerous conversations with artists (usually artists just out of art school, though not always) about canvas stretching. I am continually amazed, and too often horrified, at the stretchers and unfinished look of the canvas on the back and around the edges of the stretcher that artists will bring to the gallery. If the work is going to be exhibited in a fine art gallery, and a client is going to spend their money on it, then the work needs to look professional all the way around. Why this isn’t taught at art school is beyond me.


Stretching canvases in odd dimensions
by John Fitzsimmons, Fayetteville, NY, USA


“The Spire Cranes”
oil on panel, 18 x 80 inches
by John Fitzsimmons

Ironically, I was just taking a break from stretching a canvas onto a 48 x 48 inch redwood stretcher that I had stripped of 30 year old painting. I, too, find that standard-sized pre-stretched canvases are hardly more costly than the materials to do it myself. Problem is, I like painting on odd dimensions, particularly long formats. I discovered that hollow core luan “slab” doors are ideal painting surfaces, as long as you like 80 inch long paintings. I also make up panels by cradling 3mm luan plywood. This makes nice flat and lightweight panels, but it takes a surprising amount of time. Someone said that if you are doing the job of someone that you could hire for 8 bucks an hour, then that is all you are paying yourself, but sometimes that is the only way to get it done. Got to get back to work.


Priming department
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


“The Walleyed Dragon”
oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches
by Coulter Watt

There’s a certain joy about stretching my own canvases, at least that’s what I tell myself as I moan about my sore hands, caused by a day of squeezing stretching pliers and a staple gun. Besides, I like painting on squares and there aren’t professional suppliers within a hundred miles of Wattie’s Bog. Stretching one’s own canvases can be learned in a book, but the real choice is the canvas itself. There are acrylic-primed and oil-primed canvases. They behave very differently. Essentially, we’re trying to get layers of paint (finely ground minerals suspended in an adhesion vehicle) to bond to the support (the canvas, board or whatever you’re painting on). This is why one does not paint with oils over acrylics. The acrylic support moves with moisture and temperature changes more than the brittle oil paint which will eventually crack. Also, one has to be careful about the use of turpentine or mineral spirits when thinning paint. You wouldn’t water down glue when putting two objects together, so don’t over dilute paint with turpentine, use oil (the glue of pigments) when building layers of paint. “Lean to Fat” is the rule, referring to the amount of oil in the successive layers of paint. Conversely, it’s okay to paint acrylics over oil. This is why “archival varnish” is an acrylic varnish.


Problem with Fredrix canvas
by Leslie Doherty, York, ME, USA

A year ago I ordered a couple dozen of Fredrix’s ‘Creative edge’ canvasses of a small size and tinted them. My head was in the clouds and I went and painted on a few of them. They appeared to look odd to me and so in trying to place them in a standard frame I found that they were so out of square that they didn’t come close to fitting. Several more were also way out of square. I felt I couldn’t return them as it had been some time since I had ordered them. ASW (Art Supply Wholesale) not Art Supply Warehouse in N. Carolina, in Massachusetts must have seconds as I have found other larger canvasses with imperfections in them (such as edges not covering the stretcher bar or the fold on the corner short of material, and often very large nubs in the canvas. I don’t order from there anymore, but I would like to find an outlet that was consistent in its products.

(RG note) Thanks, Leslie. This was the only complaint we received about Fredrix. Most praised the company and felt the quality was generally up to it. Betsey Hurd of Kalispell, MT, wrote, “I now use for all my canvasses, and they have been a wonderful company to work with. Very inexpensive, shipped promptly, responsive to any problems and, best of all, no staples!”


Collapsible canvas
by William Widner, Kailua, HI, USA

I am a plein air painter. What I really want is a portable and collapsible canvas support frame that allows me to stretch a canvas quickly in the field, paint (acrylic) — it dries, then I roll up the canvas and put away the frame. Please help me if you know anything about this, then I can backpack more freely and paint.

(RG note) Thanks, William. A useful method is to travel with only a few stretcher bars of favorite lengths. Just lightweight bars when you travel, when you assemble them they need to be well stapled in the corners so they don’t lose square. For long trips, six or eight bars will get you quite a variety of sizes. You need to think ahead to how many you might actually paint and plan realistically. Precut, (but oversized) primed canvas is brought along separately. I like to give them a variety of my currently favorite imprimatura as well. Staple the canvas as needed to the stretcher bars in the regular fashion, not using too many staples — generally about five per side is enough. A little water on the back tightens them if they’re sloppy. Use shallow (short), lightweight staples so the canvas can be shucked off when you finish the painting. Repeat. Incidentally, on several occasions I’ve mailed a roll of travel canvases to dealers and given them the pleasure of stretching.


Popular painting panels
by Mark Lovett, Potomac, MD, USA


“On The Shore Series” – Part 1
oil on linen, 30 x 40 inches
by Mark Lovett

What do you think of RayMar linen panels? What about the weight?

(RG note) Thanks again, Mark. Several hundred painters wrote this morning to ask about canvas mounted on panels. This type of support is definitely growing in popularity and many manufacturers have gone into the business. Located in Phoenix, Arizona, RayMar is one of the top brands—they use Claessens Belgian linen or quality cotton duck mounted on one eighth inch hardboard with a melamine impregnated backing for rigidity. Glues, etc, are all neutral pH. The panels are not that heavy and they’re certainly of archival quality.

Another manufacturer is Wind River Arts. Painter Chuck Rawle and his wife Mary supply 15 different linens on 4 mounting surfaces. Chuck found that artists were frustrated with having to re-stretch canvas after it was painted and shipped to a gallery or show and it sagged because of a change in climate. He writes, “To eliminate this problem and to reduce the weight of larger panels, we started mounting linen to gatorboard. Gatorboard is very light weight and durable — the panels can be dented, but it takes quite a bit of pressure. They are more resistant to denting and tearing damage than stretched canvas. We use a reversible adhesive so the linen can be removed and remounted if it becomes necessary.


“Two Ocean Lake”
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Chuck Rawle

We also offer linen mounted to birch plywood or Dibond panels. Dibond is an aluminum clad panel designed for advertising signs. It is extremely durable and recommended by well known conservators. The gatorboard is our most popular mounting surface because it combines affordability with light weight. All of these panels can be made quite large, up to 4 feet by 8 feet.” Thanks, Chuck. Mounted canvas has come a long way from those cheap canvas boards with glue that bugs like to eat. Panels could now be the future. The only thing I don’t like about canvas panels is they don’t have that characteristic little “spring” of stretched canvas. I know it’s a trifle.

A favorite of mine is Art Boards of Brooklyn, NY. This company makes fine quality boards in everything from natural maple to composition board. Why bother with canvas when you can work on a beautiful chunk of wood. Time honoured and highly permanent, you can even get them cradled. One of my favorites is a type of board that is covered with heat sensitive, reversible glue, so you can re-crop and adhere half-finished canvases and go to work on them again. You only need a brayer and a kitchen oven at 250 degrees. Quick and easy. They’re a bit heavy, but they’re dead straight and strong. Art Boards will cut them any size you want, and their blades are sharp.

Another recommended manufacturer mentioned by some artists was Ampersand. The Ampersand “Gessobord” comes both cradled and uncradled in all the handy sizes.

Just a caution, if you choose to cut up your own and go to work on straight Masonite type products—or any form of hardboard, make sure it’s not one of the “tempered” ones. (These are generally shiny and darker than the untempered boards) The shiny ones are harder and seem nicer to work on, but are loaded with acids that tend to work themselves through practically any gesso over time. It’s insidious because the work can look great for years. I’ve known several painters whose oils darkened, spotted and foxed on tempered hardboard because of this miscalculation. They would have been saved if they had used the hairy untempered ones and primed and sanded a few more times. It’s a good idea to seal untempered boards on the back and edges.


Art terminology
by Be Davison Herrera, Corvallis, OR, USA

As a practicing sculptor for 48 years, I wonder why most of your remarks are directed to painting practice. Your ideas often are applicable to serious workers in other visual media as well as literary and performing arts in my opinion. It is true that Leonardo spoke of painting as Queen of the Arts. It is also true that Michelangelo formed both Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Pieta, but he, I think, would agree with Leonardo’s statement in the Notebooks that one may choose a technique applicable to the subject matter and approach and refer to oneself by the appropriate term, either painter or sculptor (in his time) but one only deserved the term “artist” after all one’s work had been accomplished. It then could be examined by peers (after death) to determine if the word “artist” was deserved, whatever the art practice areas had been during a person’s life. I like this approach since it deconstructs some of the elitist, perhaps pompous mythologies surrounding art practice while encouraging many to take up intrinsically satisfying art practices. My concerns have to do with terminology not to disparage structure. What do you think?

(RG note) Thanks, Be. It’s always been a problem with these letters—using the generic “artist” has always worried me. Others have also pointed out the problem. As you might have guessed we also have writers, sculptors, musicians, dancers, thespians and even collectors as subscribers. If I say “painters” I’m being a bit too specific. If I say creators I aggravate the creationists. If I say art-makers I’m getting close to mind-numbing artspeak. Also, while I’m talking about painting a lot of the time, there’s generally a metaphor there (it’s a bad habit I was born with) and I like to think that the quilters, for example, will make the connection. Also, it’s about lifemanship, I think, but often it’s a bit stretched as to what the heck “stretching canvas” has to do with anything metaphoric, except perhaps being stretched too thin on the great canvas of life. So you see the mess I’m in. And while I agree “artist” is far too wide and is a term of deserved accomplishment rather than an employment label, it seems about the best my stretched brain can come up with at the present time. Does anyone have any other ideas of what I could call us? Mind stretchers?





The Balinese

watercolor painting
by Lidia Colman, San Francisco, CA, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Joe Jahn of Denmark who wrote, “I call it ‘Donkey Work.’ I think artists should stretch their own canvases for a couple of years to start and then go over to prepared canvases. I did it for 15 years and then started to buy ready-mades.”

And also Ann Snyder of Mountain View, AR, USA who wrote, “Thanks for confirming what I thought I knew. My painting hand gave out from arthritis and after having a tendon transplant and 6 months of recovery. I knew I had made the right decision to stop trying to stretch. Since I’m a compulsive painter, I even painted with a cast from my hand to elbow (holding the cast with my left hand).”

And also Doris Osbahr who wrote, “It’s a terrible task for anyone to frame a painting that is not perfectly square! Often the entire painting has to be stretched on a new support before framing it and that means additional time and cost.”

And also Judy Walston of Alexandria, LA, USA who wrote, “It is great to purchase a canvas, and certainly an advantage in just knowing that you can do it. I would love to learn more about how to stretch a large, yet lightweight canvas. Where can I go to find out how?” (RG note) Thanks, Judy. One of the best illustrated demos is on the RexArt website.


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