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Painting Reconstruction Historical Materials/Techniques

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Fabric SupportsFabric SupportsWhat is a Fabric Support?The History of Fabric Supports in the WestCommonly Used Fabric SupportsWeave StructuresPreparation of Fabric SupportsAging, Restoration, and Conservation of Fabric SupportsRelated Links and ResourcesReferences<p>​​​A fabric support is a textile used as the surface for the creation of a painting by an artist.  The term “canvas” originally referred to a very heavy plain-weave fabric but may now be used to designate any textile used as a painting support. Because of their flexible nature, fabric supports were generally stretched onto a wooden chassis called a strainer (with fixed corners) or stretcher (with expandable corners) and held in place with tacks, staples, string, or glue to facilitate preparation, painting, and display.</p><p>​The word canvas is derived from the 13th-century Anglo-French <em>canevaz</em> which can be traced back to the Greek word  κάνναβις (cannabis) or hemp.  Most fabric supports for Western easel paintings are textiles made from hemp, flax (linen), and cotton. The use of fabric supports dates to Greek and Roman times, and Western paintings have been executed on textiles throughout the history of painting. Wood was, however, the dominant support for easel paintings in the West until the early 16th century. Most earlier paintings on fabric were probably meant to be more affordable and possibly more temporary commodities. The common use of fabric supports can be traced to 16th-century Venice where the high humidity made the use of wood panel supports more problematic. The lighter weight of fabrics also allowed for the creation of very large paintings which could be moved with relative ease and rolled up for transport, as necessary. Finally, the texture of primed fabric supports permitted textural effects not possible on a smooth wooden support. Hemp and linen fabrics were the most common textiles used in Western painting until the later 19th century when cotton became more prominent, probably due to its availability and lower cost.</p><p><em>Hemp</em> - Hemp has been used throughout history as a textile fiber. It is a bast fiber like flax or linen. Bast fibers are collected from the inner bark surrounding the stem of the plant. Hemp produces a heavy, strong but very coarse fabric. </p><p><em>Linen</em> - Linen is fabric woven from flax bast fibers. Its long fibers produce a very strong fabric, but unlike hemp it can be woven very fine and tightly, making it a superior painting support.</p><p><em>Jute</em> - Jute or Hessian is a bast fiber that produces very coarse fabrics such as burlap, which is the most common jute textile. It becomes very weak and brittle with age and is a poor painting substrate.</p><p><em>Cotton</em> - Cotton is a fiber that is grows around the seed of the cotton plant. Cotton fibers are much shorter than bast fibers and the resultant yarns and fabrics are weaker and more prone to deformation than linen or hemp. The smooth fine fibers of cotton allow for the production of very fine and smooth fabrics. Cotton was uncommon as a painting support until the late 19th century.</p><p>​The weave of canvas goes in two directions. All woven fabrics are made by weaving longitudinal (warp) yarns, those running the length of the canvas, and one set of transverse (weft) yarns, those running across the width of the canvas. Canvas strength is determined by fiber choice and quality, yarn thickness, and the tightness of the fabric construction. The most common weave structure is called "plain" or "tabby" weave. In these fabrics the weft thread goes over and under each successive warp thread. One-over-and-one under was most common, but warp-faced “rep” weaves might occasionally be used. Twill is a general term for fabrics in which a warp or weft yarn extends over two or more yarns in the structure. Other weave forms include basket, diamond, herringbone, and damask, etc.</p><p>​Until the late 18th and early 19th century, all fabrics were woven on hand looms. This limited the width of the textile to an expanse easily managed by hand. Depending on location and purpose, the standard widths ran from 34" to 55" although larger sizes were manufactured, and broad looms were capable of producing textiles over 78" in width. To create larger canvases, artists needed to stitch together multiple pieces of narrower fabrics [seams are typically visible on large Venetian paintings by artists such as Tintoretto].For most easel painting techniques, due to the absorbency and color of textile supports, they had to be coated with  addition materials before the artist could begin the process of painting. After stretching, the canvas was generally coated with one or more layers of an animal glue size to reduce the absorbency. The size was then usually covered with one or more layers of plain or tinted grounds to provide an even color and surface upon which to paint.</p><p>All common Western fabric painting supports are composed of cellulose. Cellulose is subject to weakening and embrittlement with age and light exposure. This makes fabric supports susceptible to tears as well as to deformation due to impact. Natural fibers absorb and release moisture during changes in relative humidity causing them to shrink or become slack. As a result of the uneven nature of most weave structures (the warp threads are straight while the weft threads travel over and under the warp), fabric supports respond unevenly to changes in relative humidity. This movement can cause major damage to the ground and paint layers.</p><p>The conservation of fabric supports has evolved especially over the last quarter of the 20th century. Earlier methods were more invasive and generally involved the routine lining (adhering the canvas to a supplementary fabric for additional support) of paintings. Common practice in the profession now involves lining only when considered absolutely necessary: for instance when the original canvas has little or no structural security. Modern methods often involve reweaving the tears, lining only the tacking edges, using a padded backing board or other less intrusive techniques.</p><p><a href="http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic20-01-001.html">A Study of French Painting Canvases - JAIC Article</a></p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotton_fiber">Cotton Fibers - Wikipedia</a></p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax">Flax Fibers - Wikipedia</a></p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemp#Fiber">Hemp Fibers - Wikipedia</a></p><p><a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jute">Jute Fibers - Wikipedia</a></p><p><a href="http://www.dianablake.net/ArtHistoryArticles/Canvas.htm">Stretched Canvas. A Recent Innovation in Painting</a></p><p>Dunkerton, Jill, Susan Foister, Dillian Gordon, and Nicholas Penny. "Techniques." In <em>Giotto to Dürer: Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery: </em>161-164 New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.</p><p>Dunkerton, Jill, Susan Foister, and Nicholas Penny. "Original Developments" In <em>Dürer to Veronese: Sixteenth-Century Painting in the National Gallery</em>. 265-271. Yale University Press and National Gallery Publications.1999.</p><p>Kirsh, Andrea and Rustin S. Levenson. "Supports," In <em>Seeing through Paintings</em>: Physical Examination in Art Historical Studies. 5-68 Yale University Press, 2000.</p><p>Young, Christina. "History of Fabric Supports." In <em>The Conservation of Easel Paintings</em>. 116-147 Abingdon, Oxon England: Routledge, 2012.​</p>A brief history of fabric supports used in western easel painting. Topics covered include the types of fabric used, weave structures, the preparation of fabric supports, and the aging/restoration of fabric supports.

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