Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hemp Canvas

Artists are constantly presented with choosing from a huge array of different materials in their craft. Among these the use of canvas as a painting surface.

Canvas is commonly made from either linen or cotton. Linen is the best material, it is strong and durable. In comparison, cotton duck canvas is inferior in most ways to linen, but is less expensive.

Historically, another option existed for artists: hemp. Hemp predominated use in artists canvas up until fairly recently. Chances are that any Old Master painting on view in a museum will be made from this material. The word canvas itself even draws its roots from cannabis.

Jokes about smoking hemp aside, what differentiates hemp from linen? Regular linen canvas comes from fibers extracted from the flax plant. In comparison hemp is stronger than linen, and should be less prone to rot. Hemp requires fewer resources to grow, leading to a lower price for the material, and environmental advantages.

The major challenge of using hemp, was finding a weave of canvas suitable for painting on. Being a niche material, there were not a lot of options for suppliers, and information was lacking. I ordered several types of canvas from different companies, to try out. These experiments revealed many of them to be unsuitable. I had issues with the canvasses either not absorbing a size properly, or not tightening properly when size was applied.

There was one product that I used successfully, made by a company called Soho Urban Artist. This products was made specifically for artist use, and was a bit more expensive than other canvasses. It had a characteristic coarse weave, commonly seen in certain works such as those of Velazquez. I love the effect of the coarse texture, so I am pleased to be painting on it myself.
 A comparison of different types of canvas. On the left is the hemp canvas, the right a fine belgian linen. The coarse textured weave is noticeable.
Two types of coarse hemp canvas. The sample on the left failed to stretch properly when sized; it bound up That sample was discarded
The final choice of hemp canvas stretched and sized. It performed exactly as expected, accepting the size and tightening properly.