Stretched vs Unstretched Canvas Differences

When it comes to painting on canvas, you’ve really only got two choices: stretched (canvas already wrapped around a frame) and unstretched, which usually comes rolled up and is literally just a sheet of canvas.

Today, for my fellow artists who have not really experimented with one or the other, I’d like to discuss some of the major differences between the two.

Availibility

Stretched canvas is usually a commonplace staple in most hobbyist craft stores like Michaels or Joann’s, coming in various sizes.

(I tend to find better variety and deals from Michaels).

At the more niche art supply stores like Blick and local vendors, you’ll usually find an even greater variety, albeit at a slightly steeper price.

This is where you’ll probably find the rolled (unstretched) canvas as well.

Most places will sell predefined, already cut rolls, while many of the bigger chains tend to offer cutting for you a specified length from a large roll that they have hanging on the wall.

Of course you can find both online as well.

Much of it can be found on Amazon, although not all of it is worth buying from there, since price and quality varies.

Check a few websites before purchasing to compare. I’ve used Blick and Jerry’s Artarama, and gotten decent prices. Always look for sales and coupons.

Pricing

Stretched canvas can be expensive. Not on sale, one large sized, (36” x 48”) gallery wrapped canvas can be about $80.

That’s steep.

Especially considering that one roll of canvas, precut at Blick, that is 72” by 108” is roughly $100.

(Keep in mind: Prices will vary.)

Of course, the price of a stretched canvas includes its frame, so I really think that’s where the spike comes from.

Another thing: if you DO decide to buy online, keep in mind shipping costs. If you buy large canvases or rolls, your prices will jump if it’s considered oversized, sometimes doubling the final cost.

Generally speaking, rolls are cheaper than stretched pieces of the same size since you’re just paying for the canvas itself.

Preparation

Stretched canvas almost always comes primed with some sort of gesso. In fact, it seems harder to find ones that aren’t – so you can start painting right away.

Rolled tends to come both ways; primed and unprimed.

I think this comes down to personal preference as to which you’d buy, but unprimed (raw) canvas does tend to be slightly cheaper than primed.

Most artists will start painting right on the primer. A small amount apply a thin skim coat first, so that the base is smooth or filled in before getting into the nitty gritty.

One thing to factor in is how cheap the primer feels. If it feels good enough to start laying on paint – great! But if its a cheaper prime, you may want to go ahead and add a quick skim coat before painting fully.

Application

Obviously, with a frame you have a little more flexibility with how you can paint.

On the wall, the ground or on an easel.

With a flat sheet of canvas you’re sort of confined to a flat horizontal surface, or pinned to a wall. (Or some strange angle I haven’t thought of)

However, the advantage that I have found with flat canvas is that it gives you nice even distribution of paint when pressure or weight is applied.

With canvas that is prestretched over a frame, sometimes the weight or your hands or the paint itself will cause the painting to sag towards the middle.

I’ve personally had this happen to me, and it literally ruined my paintings. The paint – too much apparently! – created a huge blob in the center that stood out against the whole piece. It was really noticeable.

Lesson learned.

Finishing

Going the stretched route, you’ll tend to have most – if not all – of your piece on the face (aka the front) of your canvas, since the edges sort of isolate the piece.

What this means is that you’ll have the sides of the painting to deal with.

There are a few options here:

  • You can leave them unpainted. I’ve seen a few professional artists do this. If you’re confident enough to pull this off, I salute you.
  • You can paint them a solid color. More often than not, it’s black. Black tends to give the piece a solidarity, usually separating it from whatever surface it’s up against, since most walls are not black. It’s also not distracting.
  • Lastly, you can use the colors of the piece to give the piece a feeling of continuation from one end to the other. I tend to do this because I like the idea of the whole piece using the same colors.

Now about unstretched canvas.

What’s cool about using flat canvas is the fact that you can do your whole piece on the strip of canvas, then wrap the frame after, and have the painting overlap the sides so that the painting literally goes all the way around the frame. And when you look at the sides, it’s still a contiguous part of what’s on the face.

This is great for abstract. Not sure if it’s as useful for realist type paintings like portraits and landscapes.

Packing and Shipping

When shipping already stretched paintings, you have a few obstacles to worry about:

  • The frame warping or cracking
  • The canvas getting punctured or saggy
  • The painting getting crushed or bent

Not only that, the costs for shipping stretched paintings can be quite high.

How high? To get an idea, read this post about what it cost me to ship to Singapore.

Rolled paintings are awesome to ship or sell.

I’ve seen quite a number of artists these days that sell rolled paintings, so that they don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to ship the piece. They don’t even stretch them. Just paint, roll and ship!

I too do this. My paintings Atlantis and Chasing Sunsets are examples of this.

Shipping these bad boys is as simple as putting them into a cardboard tube and sending them off.

Way cheaper too.

Pricing and Selling

If you’re selling a rolled painting, I’d advise of selling for less, since it’s less work for you and more for the buyer.

They either have to hang this large tapestry like piece OR have it stretched themselves.

I generally sell my unstretched paintings for around half the price as its stretched counterpart.

As for the overall price, the general rule of thumb for newer artists is to charge $00.25 per square inch, but only you can decide that based on your comfort level.

Conclusion

Overall, I’ve been leaning towards using stretched canvas for my medium sized paintings, and unstretched for my larger ones, since I’m willing to put in more work for more money 😉.

One advantage to this route is simply cost. If I mess up a larger painting, it costs less to buy more canvas rolls than actual canvases. And when it comes out good, I can just buy the stretcher bars to fit the painting if need be.

Easy peasy.

Hopefully you found this article to be helpful. If you did, consider sharing it.

If didn’t – go to the doctor.

Just kidding.

All the best and thanks for reading.

Coty

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