Today the word ‘canvas’ is synonymous with painting itself. Varieties of stretched cotton canvas – or ‘cotton duck’ are some of the most common supports employed by painters, but it wasn’t always the case.
Canvas was originally made from hemp. In fact, the word ‘canvas’ can be traced to the Latin cannapaceus; meaning made of hemp. Some of the earliest examples of textiles made from hemp date back to China, in 8000 BCE, where cloths woven from hemp have been found. Because of its strength, rope made from hemp was known to be used in Egypt during the construction of pyramids, and forms of hemp cloth have also been found in ancient Pharaoh’s tombs. It will be many years before canvas is made not from hemp – or later linen – but the cotton support now associated with painting.
The first supports used by artists could be said to be site-specific; rock and walls otherwise known as cave painting found in Lascaux, France – Altamira, Spain, and Kimberley in Western Australia. Buddhist murals painted in cave-like rooms carved from the cliffs of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley c. 650 CE, house some of the oldest examples of oil painting. Etruscan and Roman frescos painted on freshly applied lime present some of the oldest supports and modes of display used by artists, but it is the 1st and 3rd century Fayum mummy portraits found Egypt in the Faiyum Basin, which probably constitute some of the oldest examples of works resembling modern-day portable canvasses. Painted on wooden boards in encaustic or tempera in a naturalistic style, they initiate the tradition of panel painting which will eventually flourish through Byzantine art and icon painting, leading onto the Renaissance and Classical era.
From the 14th century, canvas was used in the making of medieval style oblong pavise shields, one might argue could be described as forms of proto-painting avant la lettre, but more familiar famous early examples of the use of canvas include, Paolo Uccello’s, Saint George and the Dragon, 1470 – which can be seen today at the National Gallery, London – and Sandro Botticelli's Birth of Venus, painted in the 1480s, on display at the Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Nevertheless, panel painting remained the prevalent painting support until the 16th century in Italy and even later in the 17th century in Northern Europe, were it not for, high quality Venetian sail canvas becoming readily available and prompting artists to begin using this new support; allowing for lighter and larger format paintings, easier to transport – such as Paolo Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi, painted in 1573, one of the largest canvases of the 16th century, measuring 5.50 × 13 metres (18 x 42 feet), now in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice. This new support also offered the added advantage of being less prone the warping and cracking, characteristic of wooden panels and so a new era began prompted by technologies first found in ships’ sails.
Viking ships were known to have used wool for sailcloth, but in the Venetian Renaissance sail canvas began to be made with linen (flax) in addition to hemp. Cotton would also later become more readily available and popular with artist during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but it’s not until the 20th century when new technologies and processes provided a more economical and reliable cotton, today known as cotton-duck – a word originating from Doek the Dutch word for cloth – which then later evolved into the English word ‘duck’.
Cotton has become synonymous with canvas. Only in rare exceptions is this connection so ubiquitous, such as for example the word Jeans, which originates from the cotton fabric 'Genoa fustian' first used to make workwear – known as 'Jeans', after the city Genoa where the fabric was woven. Canvas has provided unpresented access to lighter, portable, more durable, and affordable painting supports, which in combination with easy to use, water-soluble, archival, high quality acrylic gesso primers – first developed by Liquitex in 1955 – has made it easier than ever for artists to prepare canvasses.
As if this story could not evolve any further, in more recent times in the 21st century, new fabrics have been developed such as Liquitex’s new innovative canvas – a cloth made using 100% recycled plastic bottles. Available unprimed in roll form, or stretched cavasses prepared with a formulation of a highly pigmented Titanium Dioxide gesso primer – it not only presents a support with the archival qualities of existing canvas supports; but a texture and feel developed to hold qualities of traditional surfaces employed by artists, now made from 100% recycled plastic transformed into Canvas.