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Beginner's Guide to Choosing the Best Canvas for Classical Oil Painting

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

Oil Painting Crash Course Part 2

If you’re new to oil painting, don’t worry—I’ve got your back. This guide is designed with beginners in mind. By the end of this series, you’ll have a solid grasp of the basics and be ready to start creating your very own oil paintings.

Understanding Your Canvas Options

When it comes to choosing the best canvas for classical oil painting, there are a few things to consider. In this post, I’ll provide some alternatives for cheap options as well as share my preferred choice as an experienced painter.

The Ideal Canvas for Classical Oil Painting: Oil Ground Prepared Linen

Oil ground preparation next to a prepared canvas

Why Oil Ground Prepared Linen is The Best for Classical Painters

In my view, the absolute ideal surface for oil painting is oil ground prepared linen. Its unique qualities make it a top choice for experienced painters.

The versatility it offers is unmatched, allowing for various techniques including transparency, scraping, and sanding that aren't possible with other surfaces.

The resulting texture is solid yet slick, perfect for achieving transparency in the first layer and building luminosity. Oil ground prepared linen also contributes to the longevity of your paintings, keeping them vibrant and alive for years to come.

oil ground prepared linen with a chalk drawing

oil ground prepared linen with the first layer of oil paint applied

In any case, canvas is superior to rigid surfaces because it offers more versatility.

Want to Learn How to Make Your Own Oil Ground?

The Affordable Option: Cotton Canvas with Gesso Preparation

cotton gesso prepared canvas

Biggest Benefit: Accessibility

For beginners, the cheapest and readily available option is store-bought cotton canvas with gesso preparation. Obviously the greatest benefit here is just that it's cheap and it's ready made. So it’s easily accessible.

many cotton with gesso prepped canvases in a store

Best For Practice

While this choice might not offer the same level of quality as linen, it’s suitable for practicing and learning the basics. You're at least going to be able to figure out some of the foundations that are essential to painting. So it's not the worst thing to be practicing on, but for a long-term solution it is horrible.

Downsides to Cotton Canvas with Gesso

Canvas with "downsides" written on it

1. Longevity

I've known some painters who've experienced cracking in a very short period of time using gesso prepared canvas. Even in as little as 1 - 3 years. If you know anything about painting that's just absurd, that's unacceptable. Paintings can go for hundreds of years without having any problems so that is just terrible.

a cracking oil painting

2. Surface Strength

Unfortunately what you get is what you pay for, and with gesso prepared cotton canvas that is a pretty weak fabric. This is not a big deal if your paintings are purely for practice, but once you start making professional paintings this can be a major issue. Sanding and scraping techniques can easily tear a hole in the canvas.

a painting with a hole torn in it

3. Color

A factor that many people don’t consider is that you want your canvas to have a base color. The lack of color in the foundational layer of the painting will not be a very good support for your painting. If your paint fades and it’s just white underneath then it’s going to be more problematic than if you had a mid tone. This is especially important for large use of transparency.

Making the Most of Cheap Options

How to Improve the Color of Cotton Canvas

If you’re still in your first year of painting and looking to practice without worrying about costs, using white gesso-prepared canvas can be beneficial. To improve its performance, consider applying a base tone like a thin brown wash. This will help you understand colors better and build future layers more effectively.

In short: white canvas will make you tend towards lighter colors. By adding a mid tone or earthy wash you will stay more true to the full value scale.

a painting by Rembrandt with rough blocky brushstrokes

How to Get the Best Practice Out of Cheap Canvas

Another great way to approach painting with cheap surfaces for practice is to use direct painting techniques. This is a good method for learning how to mix and apply colors and particularly beneficial for beginners who tend towards painting in an indirect manner with lots of blending on the surface. This method is not as hard on the surface but serves as great practice for beginners.

Try this: Use as few marks as possible to capture the essence of your subject. Mix a color on your palette and apply it directly to the painting. If it looks bad then scrape it off with your palette knife and adjust accordingly.

The Ideal Surface: The Benefits of Linen with Oil Ground Preparation

oil ground prepared linen canvas

As an experienced painter, I’ve come to greatly value linen with oil ground preparation as my canvas of choice. Here’s why:

1. Texture & Color

It offers a very unique type of texture with a slick solid base so you can use lots of transparency in the first layer. That means you're going to be able to fill in the space extremely quickly. The color is also going to contribute to that, so you can focus on just the highlights and shadows, and not have to worry so much about the mid-tones.

2. Solidity & Longevity

The surface can handle far more brutal techniques without any problems because it is so much stronger. At the same time it will stay much more lively in appearance, so this is far superior for the long term.

It will keep your painting alive because the oil paint actually sits on the surface in a different way. You have an extra barrier between your paint and the fabric that prevents it from "sinking in."

a canvas with sunken in colors

With cotton or gesso prepared canvases your paint is going to sink in right away. It's this effect where it looks dead and opaque.

a painting that looks fresh and wet

Stranded by Odd Nerdrum

Compare that to the oil ground - you can have paint that's very thinly applied and is still going to appear much more wet and fresh for many years.

My Suggestions

For Complete Beginners

If you're still in your first year of painting you're probably still trying to learn the fundamentals of how to even work with oil paint. Therefore it's not necessary to use high quality surfaces. However, you should be taking advantage of the fact that your work is just practice. You should be working as much as possible to learn how to apply paint and use different techniques.

When You Should Use High Quality Canvas

If you want to sell your paintings, make more professional paintings, or try to make a masterpiece, then there's no question that you should be using the highest quality materials possible. In the long run if you're really trying to make something great then having a high quality surface will actually save you a lot of money and trouble. It makes the process significantly easier and leads to much better results.


Choosing the right canvas is a crucial decision for any painter. While beginners can start with affordable options like cotton canvas with gesso preparation, experienced painters often find that the investment in linen with oil ground preparation pays off in terms of quality and longevity.


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