For the past two years I've been painting on linen that I prepare myself, at a fraction of the cost of buying rolls of linen or ready-made canvases.
The learning curve is not very steep and it's something I think every artist should try for themselves. All you need is space, time, and patience. I've written this post to document my own experiences and hopefully give you all the information you need to try this for yourself.
Of the several types of canvas that can be used as a painting support, linen and cotton are the most popular. Linen generally has a different appearance to cotton duck, even though they have the same plain weave; cotton duck is heavier and more tightly woven. While linen makes for a better painting surface (in my opinion), the tighter weave of cotton duck makes it easier to prepare. In the example shown here I'm using linen, but the same process can be used for cotton canvases or those made from any other type of natural fiber.
Let's start by looking at some linen.
Raw portrait grade linen
The portrait grade linen shown above costs about $30 per yard for a 54" wide piece. This is Dick Blick portrait medium (8.85oz). You can see that it has a tight weave and there are no holes visible between the threads. There's some random variation in the texture which is part of the attraction of using this as a painting surface.
Cheap linen from the fabric store
The other linen shown here is manufactured in China and was bought at a local fabric store for $11 per yard (it is 53" wide). You can see holes between the threads. It had a lower thread count than the Belgian linen and the weave is less tight; it's also a lighter weight. There's also a pattern to the variation in thickness of the threads which gives it a slightly mechanical look when it's finished.
The linen is prepared on a frame made from 2x4's with some cross bracing. The detachable legs make it easier to store.
Before starting I make sure the linen is not creased or wrinkled, and I will iron it if needed. The linen is then attached to a large frame with staples using a heavy duty stapler. It's important that the fabric is very slack at this point (the linen is going to tighten up considerably when the size is applied), and the threads are lined up so they are parallel to and perpendicular to the edges of the frame.
I use a large frame here because it's more efficient. The frame is made from 2x4's and has some cross bracing - everything is bolted together - and it has some detachable legs that screw into brackets on the underside. It measures about 4 ft wide by 7 ft long. On the large frame, I find that the first inch or so around the outer edge of the prepared linen can sometimes contain flaws such as wrinkles that no amount of stretching will remove. If you're preparing linen for a large painting make sure to bear this in mind.
If you don't have either the space for a frame or the tools to make one yourself you can also prepare your canvases individually on regular stretcher bars. If you do this make sure to use medium to heavy duty bars - they need to be strong enough to withstand the tightening of the linen.
As you can see, I'm preparing this linen in the garage. When I'm working I'll have the garage door open for ventilation. If you're doing this inside you'll need to do it in a room with plenty of cross ventilation and, ideally, a door that can be opened to the outside. This is much easier to do in the spring, summer and fall when the weather is warmer!
Linen with two applications of PVA size. The water in the size has caused the canvas to tighten up.
All natural canvas used as a painting surface must be sized. Size is the term for a diluted adhesive that penetrates the fibers of the canvas, makes it less absorbent, and provides a buffer against oil paint. If you use acrylic gesso as the primer, sizing the canvas will also prevent something called support induced discoloration (SID).
I recommend using polyvinyl acetate (PVA) size which is a mix of approximately 30% pH-neutral PVA adhesive and 70% water (you can buy it premixed, but that works out to be about five or six times more expensive than making your own). This is a modern alternative to rabbit skin glue (RSG).The main benefit of PVA is that it is more stable and doesn't undergo expansion and contraction cycles to the same extent that RSG does; it's also much easier to prepare. A note of caution: Elmer's white glue is not pH neutral and is not suitable for use as a size - use a brand like Lineco instead.
I apply two layers of PVA size with a 2" house paint brush, carefully working the size into the weave of the linen so it is well absorbed and doesn't pool on the surface. The water in the size causes the linen to tighten up after five minutes or so. The linen is allowed to dry between applications.
It is almost impossible to fill all the holes of the linen using PVA size alone. Also, putting too much size on the surface of the canvas can limit the adhesion of subsequent layers of gesso or primer. Yet, if you don't seal the holes in the linen, the primer that's subsequently applied is likely to bleed through to the back side of the linen. This is a bit unsightly but not a concern for the long-term survival of the linen (because it's buffered by the size layers). Trying to prevent bleed through by applying too much size can be a problem as the adhesion of the grounds can be compromised. To remedy this, I apply a sealing layer.
After the final layer of size is dry, the linen is gently sanded, then brushed free of dust. A thin layer of clear acrylic gesso is then applied, brushing it carefully into the weave of the linen with a large brush (I use the same 2" house paint brush that I use for the size). The clear acrylic gesso is prepared by mixing: 1 part acrylic matte medium, 1 part marble dust and 2 parts water.
I've found by experimentation that it's OK, and perhaps better, to wait to re-stretch the linen until after this layer of sealer is applied. If it looks very creased or wrinkled then go ahead and re-stretch it gently.
Once the gesso is dry the staples holding the linen on the frame are removed and the linen is re-attached to the frame, stretching firmly with canvas pliers. Staples are required every 3 inches or so. The stretching technique is identical to that used to attach canvas to stretcher bars, but on a larger scale. This part takes a little bit of strength, as well as some technique and practice.
With the linen now sized and sealed, it's time to get busy with the primer. Before going further, lightly sand down the linen and brush off any dust.
The next steps come down to personal preference: you could simply apply another coat of the clear acrylic gesso if you prefer a natural linen look; for a traditional white canvas you can apply layers of white acrylic gesso; for an oil primed linen I would recommend starting with a layer of white acrylic gesso before adding a layer of oil primer because it's makes the oil primer much easier to apply.
The first layer of gesso always looks a little patchy.
The white acrylic gesso should be applied thinly. Adding a little water makes it easier to apply.
Adding more layers of primer will fill in more of the weave and make the canvas even smoother. If you prefer to work on an acrylic ground, then all you need to do is add more layers of gesso until you have a surface texture that appeals to you.
I prefer to paint on an oil-based ground so I apply at least one layer of oil-based primer over the top of the layer of white gesso. I've found that a medium texture linen is acceptable for painting with up to four layers of primer in total (the clear sealer, one acrylic, two oil). Since smoother grades of linen have less weave to fill in, they require fewer layers of primer if you still want to keep some canvas texture. In this case you might want to go straight from the clear acrylic sealer to a layer of oil primer.
I apply oil ground with a 1" bristle brush (one with fairly stiff bristles) as oil-base primer is too thick to apply with the same large brush used for the acrylic gesso. You may find it difficult to work with at first, but it's all in the technique. This short video explains how to get good coverage with the primer.
Once the oil ground is tack dry I hang the linen up to finish drying. It saves a lot of space this way. The drying time of the oil-based primer depends greatly on the manufacturer and the temperature - anything from two days (Winsor and Newton) to eight days (Gamblin) is typical in summer. When the canvas is fully dry it can easily be cut to size with scissors or a knife then stretched on your favorite stretcher bars or mounted on panels.
The oil primed linen cut to size and mounted on a panel. This is the cheap linen - not bad!