Making the Stretch

February 28, 2012

In 1841 John Rand invented collapsible zinc tubes for oil paints. Suddenly paints were portable, and Winsor & Newton, two London artists, began immediately to market this amazing new product. At the same time, in response to a growing public interest in painting with oils generated by the tubes, Winsor & Newton, along with other enterprising merchants, began selling pre-stretched canvases in popular sizes, smoothly and evenly primed in brilliant white gesso. Artists relished the ease and brilliance that the pre-stretched canvases and portable paints promised. The world of “plein air” painting was born.

Historically, people had been painting on stretched canvas for thousands of years. From antiquity and on through the Middle Ages, archers carried large shields of painted linen, or pavises, stretched on light wooden frames. The popular Miracle Plays, relied on scenery and props made from primed and stretched canvas. However, it was not until the beginning of the fourteen hundreds that Italian artists began using stretched canvas as an alternative to wood panels for their important commissioned works.

Renaissance tastes called for smooth, grainless surfaces on which to lay down the newly popular oil paints, and preparation could take weeks. Artists applied the ground in thin layers (usually a white lead paint mixed with chalk and animal glue), sanding them with fine pumice between each application. When the canvas was primed to their satisfaction, it would be stretched and nailed across a wooden frame.

Fortunately, the process is less onerous today. Opus provides primed pre-stretched canvas in a wide range of sizes. But there options beyond the pre-stretched canvas you see on our shelves. If you’re thinking of stretching your own, here’s a primer on some of the options at hand.

Cotton canvas (also known as cotton duck) is made from 100% cotton and is available in weights from 7 oz to 12 oz. We sell it by the foot off the roll in many widths and weights. Lightweight canvas generally has an open weave and a fine yarn. It is easier to stretch but is more susceptible to fluctuations in tension in either humid or dry conditions. Heavier canvas has a higher thread count, a tighter weave and is generally longer lasting. It will better support heavier paint applications and re-stretching due to its greater tear strength.

For a premium canvas, look to linen, available from Opus off the roll. Woven from flax, the weave can show through many layers of paint. It is strong and very difficult to tear and puncture. Linen retains its natural oils which preserve the fibre’s flexibility and keeps the canvas from becoming brittle. Because of its strength, linen holds up to a heavy painting hand and does not become slack as easily as cotton.

Once you’ve chosen your fabric, the next stage is choosing your stretcher bars. ¾″ deep stretcher bars are available in sizes 8″–48″ and 1⅜″ deep bars are available in sizes 24″–96″. Cross braces and gussets are recommended for larger frames to give them extra support. How-to-handouts on canvas stretching are also available in-store and online at

Between purchasing pre-stretched canvas and stretching your own lies another option – custom stretched canvas. At Opus, you can order the canvas weight of your choice stretched and primed on a stretcher frames sized to your specifications. Alternatively, allow us to build your custom-sized frames and you can stretch the canvas yourself at home.

If you want to prime your own stretched canvases, there are many different grounds and materials to experiment with. Robert Gamblin, who has worked with the conservation department of the Smithsonian for many years, using non-toxic materials to replicate the paints of the Old Masters, has created many grounds specifically for oil paints. Gamblin’s Poly Vinyl Acetate (PVA) size is recommended for its pH neutral properties.

It is not surprising that Winsor & Newton built a thriving business in bespoke canvases. During the time of the Impressionists, it is likely that many of their customers wanted to party as much as they wanted to paint. Why not follow in their footsteps?