Product Reviewed: 11oz hemp canvas
Summary: Good for experienced artists creating non-portrait works. About half the price of raw linen.
I am always looking out for new ideas in art materials, and especially ways to save money on what is one of my largest expenses. I was pointed in the direction of hemp canvas by an artist friend who had bought some, but had not yet used it for painting.
Up until some time in the 19th century, it was common for artists to work on hemp canvases. Then, for reasons that I don't fully understand, its use started to decline. But industrial hemp has proven to be a versatile crop and production has undergone a resurgence. It's now possible to purchase hemp canvas online for about half the price of linen.
It's difficult to choose a fabric just by looking at pictures on web sites. Before committing to a large purchase, I bought a few samples of raw hemp canvas from Bulk Hemp Warehouse. After seeing them in person, I selected an 11oz weight fabric.
My first impression was that the hemp canvas has a rougher surface texture than linen of the same weight, but feels less stiff. Otherwise, just by looking at it, you'd have a hard time figuring out which was which.
This hemp linen has a plain weave
I went about preparing the hemp in the same way as I would any other type of canvas. For an overview of my method please see this blog post.
The first drawback I found was that this fabric is slightly more elastic than the linen that I use. It is very easy to over-tighten it on the stretcher bars (before you start priming it) which leads to uneven tension in the threads and visible waves in the weave.
By trial and error, I got the best results by putting the canvas pliers to one side and just using my hands to stretch the canvas gently and evenly.
The second drawback is that it shrinks less than linen does when size is applied.
The canvas required copious priming and it resulted in a heavy primed weight, but the tightening cased by shrinkage wasn't enough to offset the extra weight. When preparing it on a large frame, I had to re-stretch the canvas after applying the first coat of primer; when preparing an individual canvas, I was able to tighten the canvas with stretcher keys.
The hemp linen I prepared has six layers of primer
Despite these challenges, after applying several coats of primer it looked, felt and performed exactly like a medium weight linen—all of which should be no surprise since on a microscopic scale the fibers are extremely difficult to tell apart.
I've done several paintings on my new hemp canvas so far and I'm reasonably happy with it but the surface texture makes it better for medium to large landscapes, say 16x20 and larger, especially ones where a heavy paint application is used. On smaller canvases and portrait work I found the texture to be overwhelming.
Pasture on Picnic Woods Road. 12x24, oil on hemp. 2019.
For the more experienced artist, working on larger canvases, I think this is an acceptable choice. It is an easy way to save money.
Because the heavy weight and reduced-shrinking properties make it difficult to stretch evenly, I don't recommend this hemp for those who are new to preparing their own canvases. I think you will fare better if you first practice with cotton or cheaper grades of linen.
This review was edited and updated March 2020 and September 2020.