10 Things to Know About Canvas Prints

Canvas is a funny thing when it comes to printing. Over the years we have learned a lot about printing on this once hard to print on substrate. I say it was once hard to print on because your typical art supply store canvas is not able to receive inks well so canvas had to be made that could allow for photo quality reproductions. the means of printing on canvas we use today is relatively new. A bit over a decade ago when FinerWorks was started, canvas printing was still in the infancy stages with only a handful of suppliers offering good quality canvas for printing on to directly. Most notably was the major manufacturers such as HP and Epson which were starting to take the visual arts printing industry by storm with their newer and more capable large format printers. Photographers loved it because it made printing their photos on canvas easier and artist loved it because it opened up a new avenue for them to offer prints which looked closer to originals. But during that time there was little support on how to print on this particular media since few people had a whole lot of experience with it. This meant a hefty learning curve when it came to producing a canvas print ready to hang. But generally printing on canvas now days is no different than printing on any fine art media or photo stock. But when precision in printing is important, printing on a more dynamic media like canvas it does not hurt to be aware of how it is also different. Below I am going to share with you 10 points which may provide a better understanding on how to prepare your image and what to expect.

These are partialy taken from one of our site pages on “Canvas Prints: Best Practices” but worth reiterating with some additional emphasis on certain points.

1. Canvas used for printing should be a poly-cotton blend. Early on we made this mistake in assuming a pure cotton canvas would be better. Boy were we wrong and were quick to rectify this by only printing on canvas which is made of a combination of polyester and cotton. Occasionally we have customers who insist on a pure cotton canvas for their work but we found most customers do not really care. In addition we discovered a poly-cotton blends tend to be less affected by environmental conditions (expanding and contracting) and able to handle liquid laminates better. Liquid laminates are the clear coat we use to protect the inks on a canvas print. I am sure there are a few companies that still offer all cotton canvas prints, but it appears to be waning with fewer suppliers offering it.

2. Canvas does shrink after being printed and coated with a liquid laminate. This is true even with the poly-cotton blends today. This is very important to know considering that sometimes artists are looking to position things such as decorative borders and embedded margins very precisely on the print. A classic example is a person orders an image printed as 16×20 inches unmounted canvas print. They get it and discover that one side might be a tiny but smaller than the intended print size by as much as ⅛ of an inch. The point to be aware of is canvas is a fabric and like many fabrics are subject to some shrinking, especially after a water based coating is applied.

3. Canvas has a certain amount of elasticity to it which means it stretches. This makes the point above about the canvas shrinking a non issue if you plan to stretch and mount a canvas. In most cases you can stretch a canvas beyond what was lost from shrinking. Using our 16×20 example from above you 16×20 printed image would probably measure 16 ⅛ by 20 ⅛. inches if you could accurately measure the printed area on the stretcher frame.

4. If you plan to stretch and mount a canvas print yourself, many times the stretcher bars you get from your neighborhood art supply store are a tiny bit smaller than advertised. I am not sure if this is a result of the wood shrinking over time of if they cut it this way. I suspect the latter is true since I have found the it very difficult to insert the mounted canvas within the back of a frame when they are that precise. Because of that we cut our stretcher bars and assemble are frames about ⅛ of an inch smaller than listed on your order as well so no one will have any problems getting their canvas to fit within a ready made frame they purchase elsewhere. This also helps make sure that the sides of the print are not visible when looking at the print face on. I think this must be a standard practice because most canvas prints I see done by other companies will have a tiny amount of the image expand onto the sides. We try to keep it around 1/8 inches but I have seen a lot of other companies do as much as 1/4 inch all the way around as a standard practice. Likewise if the image is going to wrap all the way onto the sides we also try to limit this to about 1/8 inch but other companies you try may do more. Just keep in mind that these are approximate numbers since canvas does not always shrink the same amount when coated plus  canvas stretches to varying degrees when mounted. 

5. Keep your image’s subject matter and other important elements away from the edge. When we stretch and mount a canvas a tiny fraction of the image will appear to wrap around onto the sides if you order a print in which the image does not also wrap (gallery wrap). This is partially a result of the perception due to the edges being rounded and also because the canvas stretches a little. Format your image beforehand so that important elements like signatures and other parts of the composition are not right on the edge of the image. Case in point the other day a customer contacted us asking about the tail of a “y” in their signature creeping under the bottom side of their stretched canvas print. Because the signature was so close to the edge it was unavoidable. Fortunately this print was a proof he ordered for himself so we were able to help him resolve this by showing him how to adjust the cropping of his image before he started his mass production run.

6. Canvas prints need to be coated. One option which is growing in popularity with some canvas printing services are solvent based inks versus the pigmented aqueous inks which are more widely used. The intent behind moving toward these inks is companies offering these printers say the prints don’t need to be coated. From our own tests as we discovered our coated canvas prints still held up better to scuffs and scratch marks. Coating canvas has always been an important part of our workflow. Up until about 5 years ago we used to use a laquer based coating which protected the print very well and allowed for less shrinking but the fumes were horrendous and stayed with the canvas for several weeks. Because of that we eventually opted for a water based acrylic coating which protects the print almost as well but is absent any toxic fumes.

7. Canvas breathes and changes. Also the stretcher bars will expand and shrink with temperature changes. If you see the canvas feeling less right on the mounting frame over time, this is somewhat normal. The canvas we use tends to do this a little less than many of the other brands we see out there, but even within a few months you may notice some loss in the tautness of the print due to the factors above. There are brands of canvas tightening spray artists commonly buy at art supply stores for their paintings but usually a spritzer bottle with a few squirts of water on the back is just as good.

8. You can paint on a canvas print. We are asked about this a lot by artists who work in acrylics and artists working in oils. Overall, from our experiments and feedback we get from people who paint on their prints it does not matter if you are using a gloss or matte canvas. The coating protects the inks enough to prevent them from bleeding into the paints. Some artists paint over the entire print while others apply dabs of paint strategically to simply enhance the print. There are no rules governing this or when to call it an original or mixed media painting or even an enhanced print. Call it whatever you like.

9. Canvas mounted on artboard and other panel like substrates need to have some bleed. This is actually true with any board mounted print regardless if it is on paper or canvas. As you can guess by now the shrinkage does become an issue. When someone orders a canvas print from us in which they also opt for it to be mounted on masonite or artboard we actually enlarge it a tiny bit more than the normal 1/10 of an inch we do with paper prints. Recall point number 5 in which subject matter needs to be away from the edge. Otherwise you risk a small amount getting trimmed away after it is positioned on the mounting board.

10. Canvas prints become brittle and contracts in colder temperatures. Actually to be more precise the primer which coats the canvas and which holds the inks becomes more brittle. So if you are going to do your own stretching and mounting, make sure you do allow your print to assume a comfortable room temperature in the 70s or higher before stretching and mounting it yourself. While the canvas won’t tear or anything to that extreme, you may see the corners and edges more likely to show visible cracking. A good way to test this is to make sure the canvas feels very pliable and loose compared to feeling stiff.

I hope these ten tips will help anyone who reads this post regarldess of who they use to produce their canvas prints. For those math wizards that want to try to come up with a forumla to predict how much to account for canvas shrinking when coated, or the amount it might stretch when mounted, the numbers I quoted about the amount of contracting and expanding seem to be imperfect and unpredictable and will be present to varying degrees with all canvas brands used for canvas prints. So give yourself some breathing room because your canvas needs it as well.

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