5 Key Differences Between A Cotton & Linen Canvas

Canvas overtook wood panel painting as a preferable painting surface in the early 1800s, although it was first believed to have been used in the early 1400s. Its affordability and lightweight nature were advantages to artists who produced many pieces of large wall art throughout this time.

Painting canvas is made from canvas material, made of linen or cotton, stretched out over a wooden frame, stretcher bars, or a pre-made cardboard backing. Historically, canvas was made from hemp; the Anglo-French work ‘canevaz’ is originally derived from the Ancient Greek work ‘cannabis’ which means ‘made of hemp’.

Linen Canvas

Linen is spun from the fibres of the flax plant, which is native to Western Europe. Linen canvas preceded cotton canvas because of linen’s locality to Europe, where painting large wall art on canvas was very popular.

It’s durability and beautiful texture made it the perfect surface to paint on. Although being the more expensive option, it is a painting surface enjoyed by modern artists to this day.

Cotton Canvas

Cotton is spun from cotton plants native to Africa, India and the Americas. Cotton canvas did not become popular until the 20th century, which helped greatly by the formulation of acrylic paint.

It is less expensive than linen, and stretches more easily, making it easier to work with.


Cotton and linen canvas both make for simple, easy canvas paintings, and are favoured by artists for large wall art for their different qualities. Depending on the project you are working on and your experience level, you may prefer one over the other.

Cotton and linen canvas are both available pre-stretched and ready-made, so they’re both great options for beginners. In both cases you can buy the raw fabric unprimed if you want to stretch and prime yourself.

Both fabrics produce better-quality paintings when they are primed, and come in a variety of different textures and weights.


1.      Preparation

If you are planning on stretching and priming your canvas yourself, then there are some key differences between linen and cotton. Linen canvas is much more difficult to stretch and prime, and so is not generally suitable for simple, easy canvas paintings.

On the other hand, stretching and priming cotton canvas is much simpler and requires less practice to get a good result.

Cotton and linen canvas can both be primed with either acrylic or oil primer, depending on which paint you intend to use.

2.      Cost

Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant, which is mainly harvested in Western Europe. In contrast, cotton is spun from the fibres that grow around the seeds of cotton plants, and is harvested in Africa, India and the Americas.

Cotton is mass-produced, whereas linen needs to be harvested by hand, which makes it more expensive. If you’re a beginner and are just starting to experiment with simple, easy canvas paintings and large wall art on canvas, then cotton is the more affordable option.

3.      Durability

Linen canvas is generally stronger and more durable than cotton, although both tend to stand the test of time well. This is because the flax fibres that linen is made from are heavier and stronger than cotton fibres, and this strength is maintained when spun into yarn and then eventually canvas.

4.      Stretch

One big advantage to using cotton canvas is its stretch. Not only does this make it easy to prime, but it also means that it can be stretched tauter than linen, making it firmer to work on.

However, the amazing stretch of cotton canvas can cause it to become loose and sag over time, which linen canvas does not do. Because the shape of a cotton canvas can change throughout the lifetime of a painting, any paint that dries down on it has the potential to crack.

In addition to this, the flexibility of cotton canvas makes it unsuitable for larger paintings and large wall art, so it is generally recommended to opt for a more durable linen canvas in this case.

5.      Finish

The finish of the two canvas materials is slightly different, so which you choose will depend on the desired look of your painting.

The finish of linen canvas is generally considered to be more natural-looking than cotton, which has a consistent texture. Linen’s unique texture can lend itself towards finer detail paintings, and paint adheres well to it because of its slightly uneven texture.

On the other hand, cotton’s more even weave makes it more predictable to use for simple, easy canvas paintings, although fine detail can get lost. Both canvas types are available in different weights, each given slightly different finishes.

Simple, Easy Canvas Paintings

There are many types of paints that are considered suitable for using on canvas for large wall art, although the two most popular are acrylic and oil paint. Other examples such as gouache paint, tempera paint, latex paint and watercolour paint also work well on cotton and linen canvas, although they may not have the same durability as acrylic and oil paint.