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The worst part of Painting on Linen

November 20, 2013

Linen canvas has one infuriating drawback. It bounces! In this regard, it's the worst. So, how to deal with it? Discover an easy DIY fix.

Once you're accustomed to painting on linen, it's impossible to contemplate going back to cotton canvas. The pleasures are many.

  • The reassuring 'heft' of a piece of good, strong linen in your hand as you drape it over the stretcher bars.
  • The sensuous contrast between the smooth whiteness of its triple-primed front and the dark, 'hairy' side that reveals its true, organic nature. Then there's the sumptuous richness of its weave, inviting the caress of your paint-laden brush... 
  • What's not to like about linen canvas? Well, as a support for painting, whether in oils or acrylics, linen does have one drawback: the dreaded bounce-back.

Familiarity with it makes a small degree of bounce a welcome part of the process. Anxiety lessens as experience teaches you time will restore the normal tension to a linen canvas that's been under stress. In most cases, I avoid the problem of excessive bounce by planning each new composition, firming it through sketches, scribbled notes and detailed visualisation until I have a clear mental vision of the finished picture. All well and good but -  as every artist knows -  sometimes the best-planned painting will demand some dramatic change.
Just such a change was forced on me by the piece I'm currently making.

  • Over the previous 2 months at work on this 3' x 4' piece, I changed my mind about the sky. This meant re-working both sky and its reflections in the water. It meant scraping down the previous paint layers, putting undue pressure on the linen. Each brush stroke, whether laying on an impasto with a hog hair or detailing with a sable, had me gritting my teeth as I had to wipe out and redo lines sent off course by the bounce. 
  • For the sake of the painting, we artists will put up with many inconveniences. Patience runs thin, however, for a painter living in the tropics at the start of monsoon season. It's too early for turning on the air-conditioner, too moist for opening all windows. A floor fan brings relief to the sweating artist but exacerbates the flapping of an over-stretched canvas.

These multiple aggravations drove me to muttering out loud in a display of crankiness that turned out to be lucky. My partner walked past the studio door and heard my frustrated tone. He came in to discover the cause but by then, I'd reached the point of being ready to bite the head off a wild ferret.  Queries on whether I'd tried this or that solution met with snapped replies of  'Of course! No use! Too risky!' and the like. So, I couldn't fault him for speeding off.

  • A bit later, he was back, carrying a metal tape measure and a large sheet of corrugated cardboard. Absorbed in my tussle with the painting, I took little notice as he went behind the easel, fiddled with the back of the canvas, then sped off to his workshop. When he returned, asking me to move aside while he took the canvas down, I felt a surge of hope. My hope was justified when he settled the re-sized cardboard behind the painting, between the linen and the 'cradle' bar of its stretcher. Now, I can bring the hand-steadying mahl stick back into use. Pressure exerted by its tip meets resistence from the near-rigid cardboard beneath my beloved, no longer bouncy, linen canvas. When the finished painting is varnished and fully dry, the cardboard will be removed.

Many artists, at the beginning of their careers, shy away from using linen. I don't blame them, as I well remember the early struggles I had with painting on linen. It's hard to believe I put up for so long with the worst property of linen – its bounce. If you're struggling with the same problem, I hope the answer my partner provided will resolve it for you, too. ©Dorothy Gauvin

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