Art Term Tuesday: Canvas

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

Canvas is a ubiquitous fabric in our daily lives: you might be carrying a canvas tote bag, wearing canvas shoes, or have a painted canvas from a Painting with a Twist paint and sip studio. Not just for sailors, canvas is the foundation for many artworks, both historic and contemporary. When looking at a painting, for example, we focus on the surface: the subject(s), the colors, and the brushstrokes. But what lies beneath that? Today, let’s canvass the canvas, a popular painting surface for artists.

Canvas, when free from a wooden frame, looks a lot like burlap or muslin. FWMoA Director of Children’s Education Alyssa Dumire’s dog, Addy, provides her paw to show size. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

Historically made from hemp, canvas is a durable plain-woven fabric made today from either cotton or linen, that, when utilized by artists, is typically stretched across a wooden frame. It comes in either standard sizes or is custom made in three supports: un-stretched, stretched, and boards. The quality of canvas is not determined by weight (light, medium, or heavy), but by weave. If you are creating a detailed painting, such as a portrait that requires thin applications of paint, you would select a canvas with a tighter weave whereas an artist that wants to show the texture of the canvas in their landscape or abstract painting may reach for a coarser weave. Canvas can be purchased primed or raw. A primed canvas means you are ready to start painting because the surface is already prepared to accept the paint. Stretched across a wooden frame, the canvas is primed using gesso, similar to a thin white acrylic paint, providing a layer between the paint and the canvas fibers. This helps prevent decay and the white background makes the colors in the painting brighter. A raw canvas, however, means either you are priming the surface or leaving it unprimed, which gives the artist more flexibility into how the paint reacts to the canvas—whether it stays on the surface (primed) or soaks into the weave of the fabric (unprimed). These preparatory layers hide the texture of the canvas, which was preferred by Renaissance Masters. Later artists like Jackson Pollock, Helen Frankenthaler, and Francis Bacon painted on unprimed canvas because they wanted the ground, or surface material, to be part of the work.

First championed by the Venetians because it is easier to use in a humid environment than frescoes, which dried poorly, or wood panels, which absorbed the moisture and warped; canvas was a cheap and readily available commodity thanks to their naval fleet. In fact, one of the largest oil paintings on canvas is on display in Venice, Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso. This larger format than wood panels is lightweight, easily portable through rolling, and less prone to warping and cracking. The Spanish took up canvas painting next, which is best seen in Diego Velzquez’s Las Meninas, as the painting is dominated by a large canvas on the left hand side, at which the court painter stands. Fit for royalty, it made its way throughout northern Europe in the 17th century and today is used for oil, acrylics, embroidery, and photo prints. Not only does it accept multiple mediums but also multiple layers from revisions. Using black light, conservators have found previous complete paintings or details later scrubbed, whether because the artist was unhappy with them, a collector fell through and canvas was expensive, or because of a political change, many artists painted over their canvas, leaving us goodies to unearth later and informing our knowledge of their style and practice.

Recently, in a new fad hilariously called “process porn”, museums are opening the curtain to reveal the wizards that conserve artworks by having them work in public in the galleries. In museums from St. Louis to Los Angeles, conservators are showing the front and back of famous paintings. When we consider conserving artwork, we may imagine a conservator with a tiny paintbrush filling in cracks and dusting off dirt and grime. Or maybe our mind goes to the badly conserved works that hit the news, like the infilling of Elias Garcia Martinez’s Ecce Homo in 2012 that resulted in a Saturday Night Live sketch. What is often overlooked is the structural conservation of the painting. If the canvas, the literal backbone of the painting, is in danger, then it doesn’t matter if the conservator fills in some missing paint and cleans off the dirt. As opposed to painting on board, cracked paint on a canvas can inform the conservator that it was rolled up and transported, perhaps once or multiple times, throughout its life. In the past, conservators would re-line or line a canvas by attaching a second canvas to reinforce the weakened original. Today, this process is being questioned as new discoveries have shown that a lining canvas is only one of several components that hold a canvas painting together. Interestingly, despite the digital technologies that aid conservators in matching paint or using black light to see what lies beneath, the process remains analog. Conservators work by hand, removing varnish, mending tears and patching holes, retouching paint, and then re-sealing with varnish and moving on to the canvas and frames. More of a visual learner? Watch this process undertaken by Julian Baumgartner, an art conservator with 20 years of experience on his YouTube channel Baumgartner Restoration.

This stapled canvas was stretched across a wooden frame and primed with gesso. Conservators have discussed the merits of staples versus nails. Photo by Alyssa Dumire.

As a contemporary art museum, we don’t conserve our paintings on canvas in the same way as a museum with older, historical works. We stress preventive measures through the way we handle, transport, frame, display, and store our artworks. Despite the number of phone calls we field asking, we don’t conserve artworks. Many museums do not conserve artworks from private collectors either, instead sending inquiries to private restorers like Julian Baumgartner. A conservator and their client must decide how much to restore, whether the client wants the painting completely restored to its former glory or if they like the historic nature of the darker colors and minor holes.

The next time you visit FWMoA, or any other art museum or gallery, inspect that canvas painting or print a little closer. Can you see the weave of the canvas coming through the paint? Why would the artist want a flat or a textured surface? How brilliant is the paint? Has it soaked the canvas or does it lay thinly or thickly atop the surface? Each artist chooses their surface and tools to best share their message with us, whether the face of their king or an abstracted reality, and understanding these basics helps us enjoy their work on another level.

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