Canvas, meaning tightly woven cloth, is a flexible, light-weight support. Cotton, linen or synthetic fabric is sold in rolls or already pre-stretched on stretcher bars. Canvas usually needs to be sized and primed before it is ready for paint. Canvas can be stretched to large sizes without the weight that accompanies panels or it can be rolled for easy transport. Keep in mind that canvas does move and flex with humidity and temperature and can cause cracking in a painting depending on the flexibility of the paint.
Panel is the heaviest but most durable support. It can withstand layers of acrylic or oil paint that would weigh down canvas, yet panels are rigid supports made of wood, fiberboard or a combination. Not all panels are created equal. Wood also expands and changes with temperature and humidity, so it is vital to know what kind of manufacturing process is the most resilient against warping and the best to hold paint. Panels need to be sealed and primed before paint is applied. There are plenty of good panels on the market that are pre-primed and ready for paint.
Paper rarely needs to be primed for painting, however it can be unsuitable for oils due to the acidity of the paint and it can be fragile for heavy bodied acrylics. Paper is incredibly versatile and most easily available usually for working quickly, travel, sketching and mounting on other supports. For more information on choosing the right paper for your medium, check out Strathmore's Paper Media Guide.
In the modern art world, artists can work with glass, aluminum, copper or a myriad of other substrates for their work. Some artists feel that fragility and impermanence suit their concept. However, if art is to last for decades, then certain aspects need to be kept in mind. Three points to keep in mind when choosing a support from Gottsegen's, The Painter's Handbook:
- It should age without becoming so brittle or fragile that it will suffer from exhibition, handling, or proper storage.
- It should be able to withstand the effects of atmospheric changes. Under reasonably variable conditions of relative humidity (RH) and temperature, the support should expand, contract or warp as little as possible.
- It should have enough absorbency and tooth to provide a good key for the kinds of paints and grounds applied to it.
I have barely begun to scratch the surface of modern supports. Take time to research and experiment. Some artists find what works for them breaks all the "rules" and others find that tradition is the best path.
For more brush information, check out the Dynasty Brush website.
Gottsegen, Mark, "The Painter's Handbook: A Complete Reference, Revised and Expanded." Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. p.32