If you’re an artist looking for the right canvas to use for painting, then you’ve likely heard of primed and unprimed canvases. But what exactly is the difference between the two, and which one should you choose? In this post, I will take you through the primed canvas vs unprimed canvas and discuss the differences, advantages, and disadvantages of both types of canvases so that you can make an informed decision about which one suits your needs or painting style best.
Based on my nearly 40 years of experience in painting on both primed and unprimed canvas using oil and acrylic paints I will discuss topics like priming, durability, cost-effectiveness, and more.
A primed canvas has been treated with a sealant or undercoat paint to give it added protection against elements such as dirt and dust but mostly to make sure that oil paints or acrylic paints will stick to the canvas.
Unprimed canvas on the other hand is completely untreated – it’s essentially raw material waiting for you to make your mark on it. It is usually unbleached linen or cotton and very absorbent.
So whether you’re looking for something that’s ready to go or something that allows you to customize from scratch, there’s no wrong choice here as it depends on your painting style, art style and other personal preferences that you will determine after trying each.
Let’s dive into all the details so that together we can find out if primed canvas or unprimed canvas is right for you.
Primed Canvas vs Unprimed Canvas Summarized
- Primed canvas has been pre-treated with a protective layer such as paint or varnish and offers protection against dirt, dust, and UV rays.
- Primed canvas can easily be purchase in most art stores and dollar stores.
- Common primers used on primed canvases include acrylic gesso, oil-based primer, alkyd paints and varnishes. You can work on them right away.
- Primed canvas are ready to work with oil and acrylic paints.
- Primed canvas come pre-stretched or in rolls.
- Primed canvas boards and pre-stretched cost more than primed canvas rolls based on a square foot calculation.
- Unprimed canvas rolls are the most cost effective ways to purchase and use canvas for painting.
- Unprimed canvas has not been treated with any sealant or paint, offering more creative freedom for those looking to create something truly unique. You are using raw canvas fibers.
- Unprimed canvas are usually only available by the roll and from specialty art suppliers.
Definitions of Primed and Unprimed Canvas
Primed canvas starts off as a normal unprimed canvas that is then pre-treated with a protective layer of paint, this might include a sealant, paint or varnish or all. This layer helps protect the canvas from dirt, dust, UV rays and increases its longevity by sealing the canvas fibers making a tighter weave.
You can easily spot a primed canvas, it is usually very white on one side and beige on the unprimed side.
Unprimed canvas on the other hand is a blank slate, raw canvas material – it hasn’t been treated with any sealant or undercoat paint and can be used to create artwork exactly as you desire without having to worry about preparation time.
Although unprimed canvases tend to require more maintenance and care, they offer a greater degree of creative freedom for those who are looking for something truly unique especially when it comes to creating a different texture with your paint.
An unprimed canvas is also easy to spot as it will be a shade of beige on both sides.
What types of canvas are there for artists?
There are several different types of canvas available for artists, including stretched canvas, canvas boards, and panels. Stretched canvas is the most common type used by painters and is typically made from cotton or linen. Canvas boards are also made from cotton or linen, but they are mounted on a cardboard backing for added durability.
Panels provide an alternative to stretched canvases and can be made from wood, some metal, or synthetic materials.
What is canvas made of?
Canvas is usually made from either cotton or linen. These are the most common canvas materials used by painters and are typically found in stretched canvases, canvas boards, and panels.
Wood panels provide an alternative to stretched canvases and can be made from a variety of hardwoods including plywood and masonite.
Some of these may have canvas glued to the surface or some are painted directly on the surface. Finally, synthetic materials such as polyester or nylon can also be used for making canvases. Any of these can be glued to cardboard, Masonite, panels and even metal.
I have used all types of painting substrates and actually found Masonite a reliable and cheap alternative to a stretched canvas if you decide to paint on the ‘rough’ side as it can mimic the groove or tooth or canvas.
The same applies to canvas panels which are now so readily and cheaply available at dollar stores that they are a great alternative for studies, temporary paintings, or cheap gifts.
Benefits and drawbacks on canvas materials
These are some of the benefits and drawbacks I have found from painting on primed and unprimed canvas. The benefits and drawbacks for primed canvas vs unprimed canvas list is small as it comes down to personal preference. Neither are deal breakers.
Cotton or Linen:
Benefits – soft and flexible, allows easy application of paint. Proven over hundreds of years.
Drawbacks – prone to stretching and sagging over time.
Wood lined with canvas:
Benefits – strong, rigid surface.
Drawbacks – may be difficult to clean. Can rot over time. Can warp if not backed properly.
Benefits – lightweight, resists water damage.
Drawbacks – may not work well with certain types of paints or temperatures. Some synthetics are polymer based and can react with solvents making them melt or become weak.
Can you paint on an unprimed canvas?
Yes, you can definitely paint on an unprimed canvas, although there can be some drawbacks. Unprimed canvas is more absorbent than primed canvas, which means that the paint will sink into the fibers of the fabric more readily and can take longer to dry and you will also be using a lot more paint pigments and mediums as the paint becomes harder to spread around.
I used to make a lot of paintings using unprimed canvas as I loved the texture (this was during my Francis Bacon phase) but I also hated using up all my paints and mediums. Additionally, bringing out vibrant colors and creating smooth blends may also be more difficult without a primer.
Why would an artist use an unprimed canvas for painting?
Unprimed canvas is a great choice for artists looking to create works with a unique texture and look. The untreated surface provides ample opportunity to experiment with different painting techniques like layering, blending, and scratching into the canvas to create interesting and personalized effects.
Additionally, the unprimed canvas gives the artist complete freedom when choosing what type of paint they would like to use since there are no pre-existing layers that could affect the desired outcome.
Will an unprimed canvas last as long as a primed canvas?
Unprimed canvases generally last shorter than primed canvases due to their lack of protective coating of paint that separates oil paints and acrylic paints and solvents from the canvas fibers. Without a sealant like paint or varnish, the canvas can be more susceptible to damage from factors such as dirt, dust, UV rays and sharp objects.
However, if it is properly stored away from direct sunlight and other sources of damage, an unprimed canvas can often last just as long as its primed counterpart.
Can you make an unprimed canvas last as long as a primed one without using primer?
Making an unprimed canvas can last as long as a primed one without using primer requires more care and maintenance from the artist. To prevent damage to the canvas, it should be kept away from direct sunlight, stored in a cool and dry place, and covered with acid-free paper or cloth when not in use.
If these sound ok to you and not a deal breaker then maybe you should buy an unprimed canvas roll. Actually, I think it is nearly impossible to buy unprimed canvas boards or unprimed stretched canvas. This means you will need to buy unprimed canvas in a roll.
Benefits of buying an unprimed canvas roll
There are several benefits to buying an unprimed canvas roll. One advantage is that it is usually more affordable than pre-primed canvases, making it a good option for those on a budget.
Also, the texture of the fabric can still be felt when painting on an unprimed canvas, providing an interesting and unique effect to your work.
Using an unprimed canvas will give you the opportunity to experiment with different types of primers and explore how they affect your painting.
If you feel that a primed canvas better suits your needs then did you know you can purchase primed canvas rolls?
Benefits of buying a primed canvas roll
Buying a primed canvas roll has a few advantages over an unprimed one. Primers can help to protect the fabric from fading and discoloration over time, as well as provide an added layer of durability.
Additionally, paints may dry more quickly and blend more smoothly on a primed canvas, making it easier to achieve vibrant colors or consistent tones.
Finally, primers can help to ensure that the paint does not soak into the fabric of the canvas, which can be especially helpful for fine details or blending.
What types of primers are used in primed canvas?
Common types of primers used to treat canvases include acrylic gesso, oil-based primer, alkyd paints, and varnishes.
- Acrylic gesso is a white primer that is mainly used for acrylic painting as it helps promote adhesion between the canvas and the paint.
- Oil-based primers are typically used for oil paintings as they provide a smoother surface with fewer imperfections.
- Lastly, alkyd paints and varnishes are often used to seal and protect the canvas from weathering, making them ideal for outdoor pieces.
Do I need to gesso a primed canvas?
Generally, it is not necessary to gesso a primed canvas. Priming the canvas should provide a sufficient layer between your painting and the fabric of the canvas.
But there may be a few scenarios in which gessoing a primed canvas roll is beneficial. For example, if you are working with oils and plan to layer several coats of paint, adding an additional layer of gesso can help to ensure that the paint does not begin to crack.
Plus, applying multiple layers of gesso can add texture or dimension to your work.
Can you leave part of a canvas unpainted?
Yes, it is possible to leave part of a canvas unpainted and I have done this a lot of times. This can be done for a variety of reasons, such as creating a border around your painting or highlighting certain features or details.
When leaving areas unpainted, make sure to use a medium that will prevent the paint from bleeding into the surrounding canvas fabric. You could try using masking tape or liquid frisket to protect the area you are leaving unpainted.
You could also apply an additional layer of gesso over the desired area to create a protective barrier between your painting and the fabric of the canvas.
Primed Canvas vs Unprimed Canvas – Wrap up!
Primed canvas vs unprimed canvases, as you have seen both have their own unique set of benefits depending on the situation. Unprimed canvas is often preferred by experienced painters because it allows for more control over the painting process, while primed canvases are great for a more uniform finish and easier cleanup not to mention that you can get straight into painting instead of having to use up some of your valuable time preparing a canvas for painting.
Ultimately, primed and unprimed canvases both offer amazing differences and benefits, so the choice of which one to use depends on the individual artist’s preferences. Consider what your ultimate goal is for painting, and choose the canvas that best fits those needs. Let me know what you prefer and what other benefits you have found that we should all know about and i’ll update this post.
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Joseph Colella is a frustrated artist with over 40 years experience making art (who moonlights as a certified Business Analyst with over 20 years of experience in tech). While he holds a Diploma in Information Technology, in true wasted talent style he spent years trying to get into various Art degrees from the Accademia di Belle Arti (Napoli), and failed to get into the Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the University of Western Sydney. His goal is to attend the Julian Ashton School of Art at The Rocks Sydney when he retires from full time work. In his spare time, he writes for the this blog, WastedTalentInc, where he shares practical advice on art, making art, and art materials. Joseph’s art has been sold to collectors all over the world from the USA, Europe and Australasia. He is a trusted source for reliable art and copyright/fair use advice and is committed to helping his readers make informed decisions about making them a better artist.
He also loves all things watches (ok it’s an addiction) so show him some love and visit his other website https://expertdivewatch.com