Product Profiles: Cotton or Linen?


Ask the Expert: “I have a commission to do a portrait. I’ve used linen in the past, but recently I tried an extra heavy cotton duck which I really liked. The cotton is much heavier than the linen I normally use, and the paintings I’ve done using it have come out really well. I know linen is sort of more traditional, but does it really make that much difference?”

A: It depends on your painting style and the preference of the client. Many collectors consider linen more appropriate for formal portraiture, but not everyone has a preference. The choice of support material is partly ceremonial, but can also be an aesthetic choice. Linen is perceived as a more luxurious material than cotton, and fine Belgian linen used for painting has a lustrous beauty most painters appreciate. Cotton is available in much heavier weights and on wider bolts than linen, however, and is considerably more affordable.

If you plan to make the picture very smooth and detailed, linen would be be a good choice. Portrait linen is smooth in texture, and facilitates suave handling of skin and fabric. Cotton duck can be rendered portrait-smooth by sanding and priming, but doing so obscures the weave. Smooth linen can be thinly primed to reveal a subtle weave pattern, which can enhance the finished work.

The rougher texture of cotton duck is much less noticeable in larger paintings viewed from a distance than in smaller portraits. Some painters working in an impressionistic style favor rougher canvas to break up brush strokes and allow visual mixing of distinct spots of color.

Stiffness and the ability to maintain a flat plane are important factors in promoting durable results with canvas paintings. Heavier fabric is better in this regard- especially for larger works, heavy cotton duck maintains a flat surface better than lightweight linen. A painting on stiff, heavy canvas may be easier for the collector to maintain over time, as opposed to one executed on light fabric which allows movement.

If you really believe you will get better results using heavy cotton for this painting, you may want to discuss it with the client. They may not realize there is more than one type of canvas, but if they are expecting linen, it’s probably better to give them the choice, based on the comparative advantages. You should also show them examples of your work on the canvas you favor, so they can see how the choice of support can influence results.