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Canvas is a strong, plain-woven fabric used for making sails, tents and marquees, and as a backing for oil painting as well as other forms of painting, drawing, embroidery or collage.

Historically made from hemp, modern canvas is usually made of cotton, linen or PVC which are more durable. In order to prepare a canvas to make a work of art, it is stretched across a wooden stretcher frame until it becomes a taut backing. The canvas is then painted, or primed, with gesso – a white paint mixture consisting of natural minerals such as chalk and pigment – to prevent the artist’s chosen medium coming into contact with the canvas fibres, preventing them from decaying.

Rebecca Ward
under water, 2021
Acrylic on stitched canvas
162.6 x 121.9 cm (64 x 48 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Peter Blum Gallery, New York / Photo by Jason Wyche

Tariku Shiferaw
High Fashion (Roddy Ricch), 2021
Acrylic on canvas
240 x 101.6 x 40.6 cm (94.5 x 40 x 16 in.)
Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Lelong & Co., New York

When, given its affordability, canvas began to gain popularity in 15th Century European painting, Flemish and Dutch Renaissance Masters would spend months priming their canvases to erase any suggestion of the canvas weave: layering them with lead-white paint, polishing the surface and repeating. However, in Modern and Contemporary painting, the canvas is embraced as a medium and its texture often allowed to be visible through the artist’s brushstrokes.

In addition to being used as a backing for painting and mixed media, in the past 100 years, artists have also explored canvas’ sculptural potential. With the Arte Povera movement in the early 1950s, Italian artist Alberto Burri took to slashing and ripping the centre of his canvases and even creating rounded canvas forms called Gobbi (hunchbacks). In the 1960s, Frank Stella began developing shaped canvases as 2D wall-hung sculptures, and in his recent solo exhibition, Tariku Shiferaw created draping canvas paintings which hung like embellished fabric. Other contemporary artists have opened up the possibilities even further; for example, Thai artist Mit Jai Inn’s installations see a series of canvases suspended above pools of turpentine, dripping paint into the solution as they hang, and changing visibly over the course of their exhibitions.

Related categories



New York School

Landscape Painting



Scenes of Everyday Life

En Plein Air


Color and Form





Oil on Canvas

Acrylic on Canvas

Post-War American Art

Natural Pigment


Watercolor on Canvas

Acrylic Paint

Gentle and Smooth Brushstrokes

Oil Paint

Gouache Paint

Textured Surface

15th Century Art

Art Fair

Op Art

Renaissance Art