Good Quality Linen: You Need To Know This
Updated: Apr 28
Is Belgian Linen really Worth The Price?
This is the very foundation that you will be building your painting on top of. Even before you start painting this is a critical factor when determining whether or not your painting will be a success.
Unfortunately most classical painters don't know how big of a difference material can make because they have never even had access to it. If you're in that group then don't worry, I've got you covered. I'll explain what high quality canvas looks like, why you should be using a high quality canvas, and what types of canvas to avoid.
If you plan to make classical paintings then it is very important to use good quality materials. To really make great paintings takes a lot of time. You need your paintings to not only survive while you're working on them.. but LONG after that!
The Collector's Perspective
If you're making paintings and you want to sell them, the price of good linen is incredibly insignificant compared to the value it provides.
Think about it from the perspective of a collector.
Would you rather..
A. buy a painting from someone whose canvas costed $20 at the local art store and who knows very little about their materials.
B. buy a painting from someone who can explain why their materials are of the highest quality, knows their materials will last for many hundreds of years (as evidenced by the greatest masters), and uses the same materials as the greatest masters.
Rethink Your Cost Equation
What is more more valuable? Saving $50 on the price of your canvas, or having a painting that doesn't crack within 2 years.
If you want to make great paintings you need to restructure the way you view the cost of your materials.
Good Linen Makes Your Paintings MORE VALUABLE
High quality materials that last a long time may cost a little bit more when you buy them, but in the long run they actually ADD value to your painting.
You will be able to sell your paintings for higher prices
The fact is that if you use more valuable materials (not just more expensive, but significantly better quality), your paintings will also be significantly more valuable.
The price really just gets added on to the price of your painting
This is very easy to express to any prospective collectors as well. Any collector will feel more confident in buying from you if you are able to explain to them why your materials are better quality than most that are available.
It's Easier to Sell Your Paintings
Having this added value will give comfort to any prospective collectors. They will see that you know what you are doing and appreciate that you use quality materials.
It Always Comes Back To You
If you try to cheap out on materials upfront then the end result will not be as good. You will not be able to achieve as good of results and you won't have a strong value argument for prospective collectors.
Even worse.. If the cheap materials fail your collectors they will lose faith in you.
Good quality materials will cost slightly more upfront but in the long run they will pay numerous dividends:
You will have better results (it's easier to sell good paintings)
Your materials will likely survive significantly longer
You will have a serious value proposition for collectors
You and your collectors will be happier in the long run
What's The Difference Between Surfaces?
The odds are that you are familiar with cotton canvas. This is the most common type of material.
Does common mean that it is better? Maybe for the companies who are selling it! They're making a killer profit. For a classical painter.. definitely not.
Cotton vs. Linen
The major difference between these two natural fabrics is the fiber thickness. Linen has naturally thicker fibers and is therefore a heavier material. Linen is also a more rare material.
Hence, canvas suppliers love cotton! Why? It's cheaper. For a painter, cheaper certainly doesn't mean better.
What Makes Linen So Much Better?
The thicker fibers of linen make for a heavier material. That means the surface can handle more wear and tear. If you want to paint like the old masters this is a very important factor.
Do you think Rembrandt was painting on material that could tear from a single scrape of a palette knife? No, he used heavy linen, often with oil ground preparation. He built up thick and rough layers and scraped them all the way back down to the surface.
Having the extra weight means that you can practice these methods without tearing through your surface.
As you might expect, heavier fabric lasts longer. The fibers are not as easily damaged which means that your painting will not be as easily damaged.
Linen will maintain a more solid base for your painting. Cotton fibers are far more elastic and even beginning to sag very soon after being stretched.
Linen makes for a rougher surface to paint on. Whether or not you apply primer, this surface can take larger loads of paint. That means you can choose to build up thicker impasto or leave it thin and let the texture of the linen show through.
Having this rougher texture makes it easier to achieve the rough and loose effect found in works of Titian, Rembrandt, and Odd Nerdrum. In the same vein you can build up transparent layers more easily.
4. Dry & Dull vs. Wet & Glossy Finish
Cotton canvases will absorb the paint and oil to a much higher degree. This will leave your painting looking as if it's dry or as if the color have sunken in. This is also bad for the longevity of your painting.
Linen doesn't absorb as much, so it keeps your painting looking wet and fresh.
Sizes and Preparations
Sizing is a sealing layer on the raw surface level of the canvas. It creates a barrier between the raw material and the oil paint. This barrier prevents oxidization from happening between the raw material and oil.
Raw fabric combined with oxidizing oil can cause the canvas (and painting) to rot. Sizing prevents this type of rot from happening.
Many mass produced canvases are only prepared with white acrylic gesso. The gesso mixture contains glue, but the glue by itself is not placed on the surface level. While many companies claim that this is the most stable way to prepare a canvas, I question their motivations.
The most time honored sizing is animal glue. This glue is traditionally made from rabbit collagen. Paintings by Titian, Caravaggio, and Rembrandt still survive in great condition on linen sized with this type of glue.
Traditional Oil Ground Preparation
Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Odd Nerdrum are known for using oil ground preparation. This preparation acts as an additional layer of protection and simultaneously serves as a base layer for the painting.
More weight & durability: The preparation adds even more strength and support to your painting which will protect it for the long run.
Wet finish: The additional sealing effect will keep your painting looking glossy and fresh.
Transparency: This layer adds color to the surface which can be used to create more transparent effects.
Read More: Benefits of Oil Ground Preparation
What's The Best Surface To Work On For A Classical Painter?
What do you want?
Ultimately you need to consider your goals and what you want to achieve to determine what surface is the best for you to paint on.
If you want to paint like the old masters, high quality linen with oil ground preparation is truly the best surface to work on. Without a masterpiece quality surface you won't be able to make a masterpiece quality painting.
Why Try Something New?
We know what type of surface the greatest masters worked on. We even know that glued linen, and oil ground prepared glued linen can survive for 500+ years in good condition. Why try a modern method that was only created within the last few decades?
Want To Learn More About Classical Oil Painting?
Are you passionate about classical oil painting and want to take your skills to the next level? Join our Patreon community at patreon.com/nicthurman to learn more in depth about classical oil painting techniques and the craft of oil painting. With exclusive access to in-depth tutorials, painting philosophy, and personalized feedback, you'll be able to develop your skills and create more lifelike paintings. Don't miss out on this opportunity to master the craft. Join us on Patreon today!